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Hype Journo: the Case of Tag X Mario

I've been on a somewhat extended break from posting here because I'm working on two in-depth projects and some regular contributions to another, awesome, outlet. However, recent coverage of the TAG Heuer x Super Mario Limited Edition smartwatch release this week convinced me I needed to post some thoughts. The TLDR on this is that some folks writing about the watch industry need to be way more careful and precise in their writing.

Preliminaries and full disclosure: I was initially excited about this watch but disappointed in its execution.
Photo credit Pixabay
I grew up playing countless hours of Mario and hoped the watch might be a neat commemoration for me and all the folks who enjoyed this game. However, I'm really not into smartwatches generally (I bought a Pebble years ago and it just wasn't worth the hassle of charging) and 45 mm is pretty big for a timepiece. Also, the price on this watch ($US 2,150 at retail) is just not competitive. If others love this watch and are climbing all over each other to get it, that is totally fine by me and I hope they have a great experience.

In any event, the watch is not the point of this post. My main concern here is the approach taken in the article linked above about the Mario launch. It displays a shallow and innaccurate discussion of what happened with this launch. There are a lot of critics of watch media. Some of it is just whinging. However, I do believe that parroting of marketing spin from a brand is really a bad practice with a lot of potential to mislead collectors. With a reasonable amount of critical thinking, understanding of the industry, and research, that kind of coverage really should not happen.

So, what is the problem? The article above makes two claims: 1) the Tag X Mario sold out in 10 minutes and 2) buyers are so desperate to get the watch that they're paying as much as $6,000 for it. The first of these is possibly true but not in the way a reader would think. It is an example of a fact which doesn't mean what a reader would think it means. The second is almost certainly not true or backed up by any citable data from the secondary market, from what I can tell.

Let's start with the first. For most brands, retail buyers aren't their main customer. Most of their sales go through authorized dealers (ADs). Contracts with ADs often require them to buy a new release.
Probably not an authorized dealer. Photo credit Pixabay
So when a brand says "we sold out!" that may be completely true. They sold all their watches to their dealers. That isn't an accomplishment, though. The contracts they hold guarantee that they will sell out to ADs. Now, a brand might hold back 100 or so watches at a launch which they sell directly to consumers. This also gives them a bit of marketing spin to bandy about, because they "sell out" the 100 directly to consumers and then can turn the "buy" button on their web page to "waitlist." Then, they deliver the remaining 1,900 watches (or whatever) to ADs and the real market test begins. Once the hype train of launch has moved down the track, those watches can languish in stores until ADs realize they have a dog and dump it on Joma. At that point, nobody is really paying atttention anymore.

If you won't ask probing questions or dig even a little beneath the surface of what a brand tells you, then there is a real risk your coverage is going to fall for the spin. I haven't personally called Tag ADs to find out if they have the Mario available. But I did read a post on Instagram from an account claiming that they did see the Mario for sale in an AD at the same time media were reporting it was sold out. This was ... concerning.

Let's now turn to the second claim in the article linked above: collectors are paying as much as $6,000 for the Mario. There is a dismaying (to an economist) tendency to equate asking price to sold price. The two are completely different. I can wipe my mouth with a napkin and post it on eBay for $3,000. Folks that don't differentiate between asking price and sold price would then run out shouting "people are paying $3,000 for dirty napkins on eBay"! Of course that isn't true. The reality is that some economist posted a ridiculous asking price which he will never receive for the napkin.

The same goes for the Mario watch. Are there people asking for $6,000 or $8,000 or $10,000 for that watch on Chrono24 or eBay? There could be. Does that mean people are buying at that price? We actually don't know.

eBay probably gives the only reliable, publicly available, evidence on realized secondary market sale prices for the Mario watch because you can filter for sold watches. As I write this, 17 Tag Marios were sold on eBay with an average price of $US 3,667. This is about 40% less than the price reported in the hype article above (the reality is that the price is probably lower than $3.7k since a few sellers accepted best offers below $3,500 or so, we just can't observe what they accepted).

Are people paying above retail for the Mario?
An eBay sale close to launch for $3,000.
Yes. Is it $6,000? Almost certainly not. In fact, those paying more on eBay may actually be the victims of manipulated perceptions of what happened with this launch. I don't know for certain, but it is entirely plausible (perhaps likely) that Tag only sold a small portion of its production directly to consumers on the launch day. Enthusiasts saw the button on the launch web page turn to "wait list" and they ran to eBay to buy on launch. They certainly paid more than retail, but not more than double (as reported). Unfortunately, there is a real possibility that these buyers could have easily found this watch at their AD and bought at the retail price if they'd just waited a little while.

The hype train is a tempting ride. It is very important, though, that journalists and commentators avoid temptation. Otherwise, they risk contributing to baseless hype and complicating choices for collectors.

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