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How I became a ‘Pop’ icon: Testing Funko’s new personalized figurine-building experience

Move over Captain America, Hulk, Princess Leia, Russell Wilson and every other pop culture icon in Funko’s world of Pop! figurines. There’s a new hero in town. It’s me!

And it could be you, or anyone else you want to piece together.

The Everett, Wash.-based makers of toys and collectibles is rolling out a new experience Friday called “Pop! People” in which plastic parts of all sorts can be used to create the closest thing to someone you know — or someone you want to be.

For the uninitiated, Pop! figurines are the best-known product from the 22-year-old company, which holds licenses to create characters from franchises and professional sports leagues such as Star Wars, Marvel, “Harry Potter,” “Game of Thrones,” the NBA, NFL and more.

GeekWire tested out Pop! People this week at the Funko flagship store in Everett (it’s also coming to the company’s Hollywood, Calif., store location). The idea isn’t entirely new — geeks of all ages had been allowed to build Pop! Monsters as a previous build-it-yourself experience. But COVID-19 has created a new reality, and now the assembly is done by Funko workers in the stores.

“With Pop! People, we don’t expect do-it-yourself for quite some time given the state of the world,” said Jessica Piha-Grafstein, Funko’s communications director. “Safety, controlling the demand and ensuring customers have a delightful experience is paramount.”

The experience is still very delightful. In fact, I don’t think I’ve chuckled at myself or smiled so much under a face mask since the pandemic started.

Pop! People starts at kiosks near a “factory” of sorts located in one corner of the Everett store. Hundreds of Pop! parts are visible in bins — behind a rope line — and it looks a lot like an equally colorful LEGO store if you’ve ever assembled one of those mini-figures on your own. But these toys go together feeling more like 4-inch-tall Mr. Potato Heads, with head, hair, facial hair, glasses, torso, legs and hand-held accessories snapping into place.

“You can choose from black hair, brown hair, red hair, blonde hair, gray hair, pink hair, and blue hair. And I have one purple hair option,” said retail manager Liz Lawson, as she explained how customers will go from the assorted kiosks and choose their parts, writing each part number on a postcard that is then handed to an assembly worker.

The assembly process only takes about two minutes to execute. It’s choosing a pant-and-shoe combination, T-shirt or hoodie, game controller or cell phone, and so on that really takes time. There are 540 possible parts to choose from — which was important to Funko as it considered a personalized Pop! experience for fans who have become diehard about the figurines.

“We knew Pop! People would require hundreds upon hundreds of parts/variations,” Piha-Grafstein said. “Our goal was to make sure the selection was representative of everyone, so we took our time to get it right.”

There are four or five skin-tone variations and there are hair “textures” and lengths of all kinds. But there are no rules.

“Yeah! You can look like that,” an assembly worker said to me when it became clear that I had “mistakenly” chosen “lady legs” for my likeness because I liked the grey jeans with my black T-shirt better than all the cargo shorts and flip flops they had for “guy legs.”

I put sunglasses on my Pop!, too, because they made him look a little cooler. As for the hand-held accessory, each assembly allows for two, and I really wanted a camera, but no such luck. But I take plenty of pictures with my phone, so I went that direction. Everyone said my Pop! grey hair isn’t really a match, but Funko didn’t have a salt-and-pepper option, and the style is pretty close.

At the end of assembly, the Pop! People is put in a special box, carrying a printed-on-the-spot name, Instagram handle or whatever moniker the buyer chooses. It looks like it’s ready for the store shelf. The price is $25, which is double what a normal Pop! of a well-known character costs just feet away in the store. Super geeks who like their stuff to remain pristine in the box can purchase a plastic Pop! protector that slides over the box for $5 more (they’re usually $8).

It hasn’t all been entirely fun for Funko, as the pandemic forced the company to make tough cuts and improvise quickly, like many other businesses.

CEO Brian Mariotti spoke with Yahoo Finance this week about the impact of COVID on Funko. The pandemic didn’t just alter plans for how to go about putting personalized figurines in people’s hands. Funko, which went public in 2017, announced in June that it was cutting about 250 employees — about 25% of its global workforce — in an effort to reduce costs and preserve liquidity.

Those layoffs were completed by the end of summer and the company is now back to hiring, primarily for positions related to its now thriving direct-to-consumer business. Funko, which sold primarily on Amazon and at Target, Walmart and GameStop, went from 200 products on its website at the end of June to over 2,000 now to meet the demand of more pandemic-driven online shopping.

Funko is also diversifying offerings outside of Pop! with the company’s first toy line, called Snapsies, as well as Funko Games and its accessories line, called Loungefly.

As for building a product yourself, if you’re nowhere near a store, fear not. Mariotti also said the Pop! People experience — which he likened to Build-a-Bear meets Funko Pop! — will be accessible online, probably by the tail end of next year, and the figurines will ship anywhere in the world.

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