Untold tales from Kay Bee Toys - The Final Fantasy VII fiasco

Untold tales from Kay Bee Toys - The Final Fantasy VII fiasco

Written by Eric Hauter on 9/14/2018 for
More On: Final Fantasy VII

I was a store manager for Kay Bee Toys from 1994 to 2000. I had stumbled into the job after relocating to Columbus, Ohio, and I found that the fast pace and high pressure of toy store management suited me. While the summers could be languid and peaceful - filled with water gun fights and long, slow days – the holiday seasons were psychotically busy and overwhelming. I loved the ebb and flow of the toy business, and the way it gave my life structure and responsibility. As a guy in my 20’s, working at the toy store had a lot of perks, but the biggest was the proximity and availability of video games.

When I first started at Kay Bee, we were selling Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis games, but before long, rumblings of something new started vibrating through the grapevine. That “something new” turned out to be the Sony PlayStation. The release of the PlayStation was momentous, and each new game that was released for it was the subject of major scrutiny and excitement from the gamers working at the store. My staff was made up of about 50% young men in their late teens and early 20’s, and we were all super excited about the PlayStation. As store employees, we were empowered to crack open the new games and toss them into the demo system we kept in the store. As a result, I played almost every early title released for PS1, spending the quiet summer afternoons happily perched at the demo station and learning new tricks in Twisted Metal or Ridge Racer.

The internet was young then, and consumers didn’t pay a lot of attention to release dates the way they do now. Sure, the hardcore fans knew when games were expected to arrive, but the general public would discover new titles by wandering in and checking out what was on display. Games were typically drop-shipped to the store via UPS the day before release, arriving in non-descript cardboard boxes. Games just drifted in and we put them on the shelves whenever they showed up, with no real urgency to make sure that a title was on time. Due to limited shelf space, we would just pop new games onto the shelf in front of old games, which were quickly forgotten.

This was not the case with Final Fantasy VII.

The hype for Final Fantasy was real, and it was intense. FF VII was advertised on television, in every magazine, with trailers at movie theaters. People everywhere were excited for Final Fantasy VII. I recall that the N64 had come out within the last couple of months and had dramatically undersold, with most hardcore gamers claiming “it won’t have Final Fantasy, I don’t need it”.

So Kay Bee Toys made the decision to presell Final Fantasy VII. This was unheard of for a video game. We had never pre-sold anything before that I recall, not the PlayStation itself, not the N64 (though maybe…maybe we presold Mario 64). Final Fantasy VII has such an amazing buzz that the company decided to go for it. Every day for weeks before the game’s launch, people would wander into the store all day, asking “Is it here yet? Is it here yet?” And we would happily sign them up for the presale with a $10 dollar deposit. For their $10, customers would receive a small poster and a guarantee that on launch day they would absolutely, positively have a copy of the game available to them.

There was a contest to see which store in our local district could presell the most copies of FF VII, and my store easily won. My team of gamers had pre-sold over 60 copies. We were normally lazy and unmotivated when it came to participating in contests and such, but just like everyone else, we were excited for the game.

In my excitement, I made certain that I was scheduled to work at the store the morning before release. I had plans to absolutely break street date and take the game home early to get started defeating The Shinra Corporation before any of my friends. Games usually were delivered before 3:00, so when 5:00 rolled around and the game had still not appeared, panicked calls between stores and our bosses began. No one knew where the games were, and why they hadn’t arrived. Even worse, we hadn’t gathered telephone numbers for our pre-order customers at the time of purchase, so we had no way to contact folks and tell them not to come. It was clear that we were going to have to just show up the next morning and bear the wrath of hordes of angry JRPG fans.

As a toy store manager, I was somewhat accustomed to dealing with angry mobs. The previous holiday season – just a month prior - my staff and I had endured the psychotic national obsession with Tickle Me Elmo and the annual onslaught from the Holiday Barbie harpies. (We had no way of knowing that in 1998 we would be plunged into the firestorm of madness that was the release of “Furby”, which would cause actual riots in my store, necessitating the presence of police, firemen, and ambulance personnel). We were accustomed to people showing up and being angry at being too late to get a toy that was in limited quantities. But this was the first time that we had promised people something that we could not deliver. It was decreed by the higher-ups (who clearly did not understand the passion of gamers) that store managers should be present to open the store on release day to help calm people down.

The next morning, I arrived to work a half-hour early to find a group of maybe 15 people waiting for me outside the gate. Some were gamers, some were friends and family. I smiled at them and didn’t say anything until I was safely in the store with the gate closed behind me. Then I broke the news.

Approaching the small crowd on the other side of the  gate with a clipboard and a pen, I said “Sorry, folks, Final Fantasy VII has not arrived yet. We aren’t sure, but we are hoping that it comes today. If you can give me your phone number, I can call you when it comes so you can come get it.”

A twelve-year-old boy immediately burst into wailing tears. A look of stormy anger came over his mother’s face.

“What the hell do you mean, it hasn’t arrived yet?” she demanded.

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “It just didn’t come. We aren’t sure where it is, but it should be here today.”

“You aren’t sure?” said a man, in a dangerously soft voice. “How can you not be sure?”

“They were sent from the distribution center, but somewhere along the way, they got lost by UPS.”

“LOST?”, yelled another man. “You mean YOU DON’T KNOW if they are coming or not?”

“Well,” I said, “I know that things usually only go one day extra when they are late, but no, I don’t know where they are.”

“We gave you ten dollars!” yelled the red-faced mother. “What kind of customer service is this?”

“Yeah, man,” said one of the men. “You SUCK!”

I had nothing to say in response. It was getting closer to opening time, and more people were arriving to pick up the game. News quickly spread through the growing crowd that Final Fantasy VII had not arrived. The rumbling grew louder as more people began to voice their displeasure at my terrible customer service skills and lack of ability to magically produce the game from thin air.

“You are a garbage human being!” someone yelled at me. “A trash person!” The crowd roared its approval.

“You have ruined my son’s entire Christmas!” the furious mom shrieked. Her son, now clutched up against her, wailed as though he was being stabbed with hot pokers. His mother pulled him closer, to protect him against the evils of the world. Despite Christmas having passed over a month earlier, the crowd was totally on board the fact that I had purposely ruined the holidays for the screaming family.

“RACIST!” one guy offered. The crowd took a beat to consider this, then decided that sure, that was reasonable. An angry cry of agreement rippled through the assembly.

Opening time was fast approaching, and soon I was going to have to open the gate. At the back of the crowd, I spotted my 16-year-old part timer, who had arrived for the start of her shift. She was hanging back, unsure of what was going on, and whether she should approach the gate.

“Hey,” I said to the people in the crowd. “Can you let her through? She’s just trying to come to work.”

“Does she have Final Fantasy?” some jerk yelled. “Because no one else has Final Fantasy around here!”

The crowd turned towards her, and she took a step backward, clearly thinking that the now 60-deep gathering might surge forward and eat her.

I had had enough. This wasn’t the first time I had to deal with this sort of toy store rabble.

“HEY!” I yelled. “That is god-damned enough!” Shocked at my profanity, the crowd quieted down and turned back to face me. “That is a 16-year-old girl, and she is afraid of you. Let her through, or I’m going to rip up this preorder list, keep your $10, and you can go find Final Fantasy SOMEWHERE ELSE!”

That shut them up.

I went to the candy counter and grabbed a sucker. I thrust it through the gate at the angry mom. “Here,” I said. “Give that kid a sucker.”

“Now,” I continued, “I’m going to open this gate to let her in, and not one of you are going to set foot in this store, or I am calling the police. I will come out and take your phone numbers, and when the game arrives, I will call you to come get it.”

And that’s exactly what we did. Once the air had been let out of the mob, they just became regular people again. Red faces receded, angry looks faded away. One by one, they politely gave me their phone numbers, and I politely promised to call them as soon as Final Fantasy VII appeared. After I opened the store, a few people asked if they could come in and browse the action figures. No hard feelings.

The worst was over, but the Final Fantasy VII saga went on for most of the week.

All day long, people were called looking for the game. Not just the pre-order people, but the people that hadn't pre-ordered too. The game never showed up that day. The game didn't show up the next day, which was a Saturday. By that point, we knew that the game would not arrive until at least Monday, as there was no UPS delivery on the weekend. By the tone of the phone calls and visits, I thought that people were going to conspire to murder me and burn the store down. By now, reviews had appeared in magazines, telling everyone that the game was the greatest game ever made.

Finally on Tuesday, the fourth day after release, Final Fantasy VII showed up. When I called people to come get the game, many of them told me that they had already picked it up at Toys R Us or Electronics Boutique. This was fine with me, as I didn’t want to see some them again for while, until the memory of the Final Fantasy uprising had faded a bit. And other customers were more than happy to buy the leftover copies of FF VII.

Kay Bee Toys ended up printing checks to every single pre-order customer for 10 bucks to compensate them for the delay. By the time the checks arrived, all of the outstanding issues were resolved, so I threw them in the store safe where they remained until I left the company. These checks, added up, must have amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars. According to this recent article on Polygon, Kay Bee sold over 99,000 copies of Final Fantasy VII in the weeks after launch. That’s a lot of $10 checks.

Of course, I immediately snagged a copy and played Final Fantasy VII all the way through, and loved every moment of it. Chocobo races, emerald weapons, flippin Cait Sith, I was enamored with the entire experience. I remember endless nights spent running in circles, grinding monsters and leveling my entire team up to 99. Playing Final Fantasy VII remains to this day one of the best gaming experiences I have ever had. 

The release of Final Fantasy VII also remains in the top 50 worst retail experiences I’ve ever had.

Retail is pretty rough, friends.

Untold tales from Kay Bee Toys - The Final Fantasy VII fiasco Untold tales from Kay Bee Toys - The Final Fantasy VII fiasco Untold tales from Kay Bee Toys - The Final Fantasy VII fiasco Untold tales from Kay Bee Toys - The Final Fantasy VII fiasco Untold tales from Kay Bee Toys - The Final Fantasy VII fiasco Untold tales from Kay Bee Toys - The Final Fantasy VII fiasco

About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a 45-year-old dad with four kids, ranging in age from 1 through 17.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs).  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on PS4, PSVR, PS Vita, 3DS, Wii U and a janky PC.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect.

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