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‘Squid Game,’ Shopping, and Netflix’s Ongoing Expansion into Everything Else

The Netflix Hub on Walmart.com
(Image credit: Walmart)

That didn’t take long. Seemingly hours after Squid Game became one of the biggest Netflix shows ever (and an uncomfortable metaphor for the lives of too many), the streaming company and Walmart announced a digital storefront featuring merchandise, some of it exclusive, from the horror/satire series and other big shows

“From chart-topping music and fashion to the hottest toys, digital platforms and streaming sites are now the pulse behind emerging trends,” Walmart executive VP of entertainment, toys and seasonal, Jeff Evans, wrote in a blog post announcing the deal. “At Walmart, we recognize the importance of bringing those trends directly to our customers and fast.”

Also read: 'Squid Game,' Netflix's Latest Inexplicable Hit (Review)

The new site’s offerings include a Funko Pop! doll of Henry Cavill’s imposing title character from The Witcher, as grim and non-doll-like a figure as one can imagine, but e-commerce wants what e-commerce wants. 

Other goodies among the 20 or so SKUs will include T-shirts from several shows, baking kits from food competition Nailed It,  a “Glow & go notebook” from girl power animated show Ada Twist, Scientist, and (confusingly for us veteran tech writers sensitive to distribution formats), a Walmart-exclusive “Bluetooth cassette player” branded with 1980s-set sci-fi hit Stranger Things. 

In a nice twist on interactive e-commerce, the site also includes a Netflix Fan Select tool, which allows site visitors to vote on which merchandise from which shows they’d like to see next. 

I sure know what I’d like to see: talking plush dolls of the zombie Elvis (and zombie tiger!) from Army of the Dead, a Joel Kinaman personality download disc for Takeshi Kovacs from Altered Carbon, and of course, dummy prop guns like the ones the Indian government required for crucial scenes in Extraction. 

Netflix isn’t anticipating making oodles of cash from its e-commerce ventures, any more than it says it will from its initial forays into video games (the company just bought its first game developer; and so that foray truly begins) or even virtual reality, like a traveling Army of the Dead immersive experience featuring that zombie tiger that debuted in four U.S. cities in September.

“The reason we’re doing them is to help the subscription service grow and be more important in people’s lives,” Netflix Co-CEO Reed Hastings told analysts on a recent call.

It’s not just Walmart jumping on the Netflix merch-wagon, of course. Other retailers are already selling various Netflix-related goodies, but cutting a deal with the world’s biggest brick-and-mortar retailer, including with some exclusive offerings, is probably a really good Idea. 

Other media companies have long been in the merch business. Disney, of course, has been milking the cross-promotional possibilities of its movies and TV shows since Walt held up his famous “washing machine” graphic back in the late 1950s, showing the intricate connections between his company’s many ventures. 

And just last week, NBC News and CNBC merged their two online stores, which should make it easier to track down that Jim Cramer hooded sweatshirt you’ve always jonesed for. 

Even more intriguingly, reports have surfaced in the days since Squid Game took off that clothing and gear from the movie, like those slip-on white sneakers, have become some of the hottest selling items in China, even though Netflix doesn’t legally distribute any programming there. Guess that Great Internet Wall isn’t quite as impregnable as Chinese authorities may believe. 

As for Squid Game itself, what are we to make of it? Hundreds of people in desperate financial straits agree to take part in a string of simple children’s games for money. Downside (and ever-so-slight spoiler)—if you lose, you’re dead. 

Some thumb-sucking columns have already taken to using the show’s brutal subject matter as a metaphor for the ferocious downsides of the winner-take-all capitalist/COVID-19 economy in many parts of the world far beyond the show’s home market of South Korea. 

Given that another South Korean product, Parasite, already won multiple Oscars and became a global hit for a somewhat similar class-struggle theme, I’m beginning to see a trend here. 

Of course, the real metaphor here isn’t so much the desperate economic straits faced by too many people around the world. To my mind, the series could more properly be a metaphor for all the shows on Netflix itself (not to mention its own employees, who face up-or-out reviews quarterly). 

Just imagine some hopeful if slightly desperate producer/writer/director/model/etc has a show they want to get made, seen worldwide, and paid for. They get a large financial offer they feel they must take, from a shadowy organization with little public accountability (at least from trans people) with global reach and relationships. 

In an homage to Faust (not a Netflix series, yet) and Robert Johnson’s visit with the devil down at the crossroads, the producer agrees to take a large-ish guaranteed upfront payment while forgoing any hope of syndication, international sales or true wealth if a show proves successful. Then the show itself arrives on Netflix and faces…well, either a quick death or global hit status. 

Fortunately, the outcome for Netflix producers isn’t quite at the level of The Player yet. But if all the big streaming companies get even more hungry for new shows, maybe Squid Game: The Producers will soon be on its way, with a merch store replete with logo directors chairs, show props, signed scripts, elevator pitches, and more. Quick! Call my agent!

David Bloom

David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.