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If there is even the slightest trace of a geeky bone in your body then this review will almost certainly be manna from heaven. For fans of cult films, television shows, books, comics and toys Forbidden Planet really is the only place to go.
About Forbidden Planet
Forbidden Planet lists itself as the world’s largest and best known science fiction and cult entertainment retailer, but the retail chain actually only has outlets in the UK. It is certainly relatively well known outside the UK; celebrity visits are not uncommon and the press recently covered a shopping trip by Johnny Depp and Tim Burton to the London Megastore. It’s definitely the biggest retail chain of its sort in the UK. Their largest competitor was the Travelling Man chain, but I’m unsure if they are still trading as the only store I visited (in Bristol) has closed down.
The Forbidden Planet (FP) chain currently has nine stores in the UK. Confusingly, there is a second chain called Forbidden Planet International (FPI) that also trades in the UK and has more stores (including one in New York). My experience of the FPI stores is that they don’t have anywhere near the range of items that the FP stores do – and the store in Shaftesbury Avenue is by far the best of any of the FP or FPI stores.
Getting There and Getting Around
Shaftesbury Avenue is located at the eastern end of Oxford Street, past Tottenham Court Road and into Theatreland. It’s a busy route, well served by lots of different buses, but it’s really the sort of location you could happily get to by foot if you were already shopping in Oxford Street or Covent Garden. Shaftesbury Avenue is a busy road and, if driving, there are a number of large NCP car parks nearby (although they are expensive too.) Monday to Friday, 07:00 to 18:00, this area is part of the London Congestion Charge Zone, which could add another £8 to your shopping trip. The nearest Tube station is Tottenham Court Road, which is no more than a five-minute walk away. If you’re in no hurry (or waiting for others in the area) there’s a pretty, but tiny little park just behind the store; a perfect place to enjoy a coffee and inspect your new purchases!
The store is located across multiple units and on two floors. It’s theoretically fully accessible to wheelchair users and has a lift between the two floors so that you can access all the delights the store has to offer. In reality, it’s very cramped and whilst transporting between floors isn’t an issue, moving around the floors isn’t quite so easy. The floor space is limited and there are countless things to knock off shelves or get caught up on if you really do try and navigate a wheelchair round the store. This is compounded by the fact that the store attracts ‘tourism shoppers’ who have no real intention of buying anything, and just want to wander round (and get in everyone’s way) rather like Harrods (albeit on a much smaller scale).
It’s great that they’re open seven days, particularly with the later finish on a Sunday, but I’d really prefer it if they standardised the midweek opening hours to finish at the same time.
Forbidden Planet specialises in comic books and cult film/TV related merchandise. The store carries a staggering range of items and if you are buying presents for anyone into science fiction and cult TV, you’ll find endless ideas in here.
The first floor (at ground level) houses all the TV and film merchandise. Here you will find a wide selection of toys and character figures for popular films like Star Wars and The Simpsons, alongside far less mainstream titles like Buffy, Chucky and Alien. The store seems to hold certain ranges permanently in stock (there always seems to be a large range of Star
Wars figures for sale) and then carries more time bound toys to tie in with the release of major new films. So for example, at the moment, there is a new range of (fantastic) toys and figures to tie in with the release of the DVD of Where The Wild Things Are in the UK. The toys and figures stocked here are normally more collectable than those you would find in mainstream toy stores. When the GI Joe film was released last year, for example, Forbidden Planet carried a small range of action figures, but the likes of Toys R Us stocked many more. The Where The Wild Things Are figures, however, are unlikely to be sold elsewhere. They’re much more expensive, for starters.
The store always has an excellent range of collectible designer vinyl toys, including things like Qee Bears, Gloomy Bears, Munny, Miffy and Hello Kitty. An exhibition of 8” Simpson themed Qee bears was shown here for a while (as well as in other stores around the UK) and the store stocks all sizes, from the original small keychain collectibles, right up to the limited edition enormous Qee bears. There are literally hundreds of different ranges here, some displayed quite well (particularly the more collectible ones that sit within locked glass cabinets) but others tend to be poked away on dusty shelves. I particularly like the creatures and monsters designed by David Horvath (Bossy Bear for example) and these always seem to be tucked away on the bottom shelf in a corner. This is compounded by the fact that they may be displayed three deep, with different characters at the front and back and you have to have a good root around to find the ones you want.
There are some quite incredible figurines and models for sale here, albeit at incredible prices. They frequently have enormous scale models of creatures and characters from films at crazy prices. Some of them are quite cool (they had a great Darth Vader in her once that was around £800) and some of them are just grotesque (a huge scale model of the ‘face hugger’ monster from Alien was priced nearer £1000). Needless to say, these things will only ever really appeal to a very specialist audience, particularly things from films like Lord of the Rings or The Nightmare Before Christmas, but they make a fantastic window display and I can see the appeal of coming here just to ‘have a look’.
There are some very curious novelty items here, which, although often massively over-priced for what they are, are still quite funny or curious. I particularly liked the TV show key rings that I saw at Christmas that had a series of buttons, each of which played a certain tune or sound from the show. The 24 one, for example, had the option to play the ‘tick tock’ tone from the show, or the phone ring that we associate with CTU. I rather liked the Saw one myself, which told anyone that I played it to that I was going to ‘play a game’ (in Jigsaw’s voice, of course.) You’ll find Ewok cushions, Jabba the Hutt pencil tops. Ben 10 costumes, remote-controlled Chucky dolls and countless other bizarre things if you spend long enough looking.
Curious visitors means curious hands and, unfortunately, some of the items upstairs suffer somewhat by being handled so many times. Collectors will all relate to the comment that these things should be kept in pretty pristine condition and sometimes it can be rather disheartening to find something you’ve been after for ages, only to notice that the box is damaged or that the item is marked itself. Many items are sealed, of course, and there are signs asking people not to take things out of boxes, but that still doesn’t stop them.
Any store of this nature, selling any kind of volume of this stock will still have availability issues and whilst you stand a good chance of finding a rarer item here, it’s still not that likely you will go away with what you want. Being well publicised and located in London means that collectors swoop on the place and strip it of the most sought after items unless you’re very quick. Some items can be ordered in for you and they have a desk manned to help out with just this kind of thing, but I find their whole attitude a little bit ‘take it or leave it’.
The sheer volume of visitors can, at times, make this hard work too. The main glass cabinet can be accessed on two sides but as one of these is the key thoroughfare in and out of the store, you can only really stand and look on one side and you need to be prepared to get elbowed out of the way by over eager film geeks. It’s also a bit of a faff actually buying something from the cabinets (not a myth, some of us do ACTUALLY have the budget to buy these things) by the time you have found a member of staff with keys and a willing attitude.
The lower floor is home to the books, comics and graphic novels and has the largest range of such items that I have ever seen in a store in the UK. The graphic novel section alone is bigger than some small branches of WH Smith that I’ve been into and it’s an absolute Aladdin’s cave of goodies.
By having the space to stock such a large amount of graphic novels, FP ensures that you stand the best chance of finding what you want. Many stores really only stock current or very recently published graphic novels, but FP seems to stock complete back catalogues of certain titles. I’m a big buyer of Marvel Comics graphic novels, for example, and whereas the likes of Waterstones probably only carry the latest 20 or so titles, there are hundreds, if not thousands of Marvel titles here. Despite the enormous rows of shelves, they’re actually quite easy to find too, as they’re arranged alphabetically by title, rather than by publisher. Certain sections are themed seasonally, so if there’s a particularly popular or big ‘event’ running through a title then it may well be grouped separately. New releases are always grouped together in one section (probably going back 1 or 2 months) and unlike most other stores; they sell a good range of both hardback and paperback editions.
The section for comics is pretty huge too, although, notably, they only sell new/relatively new releases and no longer sell back issues, unlike some of the FPI stores that still do this. Again arranged in alphabetical order, it can take a little while to find what you want, given only that there are so many shelves, but they carry a large quantity of copies of most titles, so as long as you get there reasonably quickly, you shouldn’t have a problem getting hold of new releases. Again, they suffer (or rather you do) from their popularity, so if particular titles are hyped or covered in the press then everyone will flock here. A special edition of The Amazing Spiderman featured a story with President Obama just after he was made elected and the place was stripped of copies on a regular basis, as reprint after reprint sold out. A similar incident occurred when a 9/11 story was featured in the same title.
Comic buyers tend to be relatively respectful of the merchandise in here and don’t treat the place like a library. It’s fine to have a flick through, but more often than not, most people will pick up the comics they want and then take them home to read them – this is NOT like WH Smith. I do find that comic book buyers are singularly very rude to shop alongside, however, and you really do have to get used to being barged out of the way by an X Men fan desperate to find the latest issues. Upstairs, they display some of the more collectible titles (limited edition covers or signed editions) but you have to ask a member of staff to buy them.
The book range is equally exhaustive, covering a wide range of both fiction and non-fiction titles, including some sumptuous gift/collectible editions of artwork that are a complete treat. For many of the more popular books, there is usually a display copy to try and prevent too many copies getting damaged, and the more expensive books tend to
Pictures of Forbidden Planet Megastore, London
So many books!
be shrink-wrapped. This is also true of the ‘adult’ section, which is not pornographic, but does feature some books that contain strong sexual content or a lot of nudity. There are some real ‘talking point’ books downstairs, particularly for fans of anime, tattoos or body piercing. They’re not cheap though. Many of these items are imported and can set you back more than £100.The range of DVDs is specialised, but equally exhaustive, particularly for fans of niche titles like anime and world cinema. They also carry good ranges of popular titles like Doctor Who and major films, but you’d come here for availability not price.
Downstairs suffers from some different problems to upstairs. The circular layout can be a little confusing and unless you decide to make a point of walking round and round, you can often miss whole sections. That can make it hard to find particular things and whilst the staff members will help if pressed, they tend to prefer to carry on chatting about geeky things.
It’s very secure from FP’s perspective, in that there are security cameras everywhere but from your own perspective, I’d advise keeping a close eye on bags down here. It’s a paradise for thieves, as the distraction of all those books, plus the limited floor space makes it easy for wandering hands to take things they didn’t ought to.
The range has its limits too. I’ve been in here to get a few things and run out of luck, only to get the item on www.amazon.co.uk without issue. This is probably the store’s greatest threat overall, but no more so than in the book section where Amazon will often beat them on both price and availability. But their clearance bargains can be quite good.
Staff and Service
I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the staff members in FP – I love to show how much I hate them, at every opportunity. They’re consistently rude, unhelpful and self-obsessed and don’t seem to really conform to any standard that you might expect from customer-facing staff. Try and clarify the return policy, with them, for example and you might be out of like. On a recent visit I asked the same question of four staff to be told by one that I could get a full refund within 14 days if I kept the receipt, that I could ‘probably’ have an exchange if I kept the receipt, that I couldn’t refund or exchange by another and finally (the best response) that it depended what I bought – without further explanation. I did get a refund on a toy that didn’t work once, but I was rather made to feel as though I was a fraudster.
As most of the staff members are obvious enthusiasts of the store and what it sells, you’d expect them to share this with their customers, but this doesn’t really figure. They do like a good natter with some of their regulars, but given that they’re very often doing this whilst they’re serving you, you can’t help getting the hump. I can’t help thinking that if I tried to converse in Klingon they might have more time for me but there you go. You can pay by cash or credit/debit card.
Their Greatest Enemy
Whilst FP will almost certainly enjoy a strong presence in London, it’s most notably under attack from the Internet. Sites like www.ebay.co.uk are a hot bed for collectors and you can quite easily find a lot of the stuff they sell online for less than the store – sometimes at a significantly reduced price. The bonus of ordering online is also that you are protected by the distance-selling directive, and with FP’s weak returns policy, this is well worth considering. Amazon’s range of graphic novels could certainly rival that of FP, and other sites carry some stock at quite discounted rates. The same goes for the DVD selection – a market that is now dominated by the eTailers.
I think the main thing that could differentiate FP (and help it survive) would be outstanding service and, frankly, they’re miles away from this. In all my years using this store (and other around the UK) the same depressing mentality seems to exist, whereby the store sees itself as THE dominant player in the market and the customer therefore seems to come second place. For stores outside London, I think this might be their undoing, but in the capital, I can’t really see it hurting them so collectors will probably just have to grin and bear it.
I've not been to the Megastore in a while but usually just look around since they're a bit pricey. Can find a lot of the things I want online for less so only buy stuff if I just can't wait. Thought they'd have more than 9 stores around the country. There's a tiny one in Croydon. Great review.
KarenUK 24.03.2010 11:01
The last time we went to one, we were looking at Dr Who stuff, but next time, I will be on the hunt for Hammer & Universal Monsters memorabilia!
anonymili 22.03.2010 20:17
A thoroughly well written and informative review. I know several people who could set up home in this store LOL!