This year casual complaints about stores getting new products "early" have become incredibly commonplace. What does "early" really mean, though, and does what happens in the retail chain warrant the term?
From what I've seen, people speaking on this topic use the word "early" as a shortened form of "before they were supposed to." This often stems from the contractual embargos that manufacturers sometimes pass down to individual stores, prohibiting them from selling certain items before a specified date. From what I've seen, different stores handle this in slightly different ways, but there's always something clearly written to communicate the information to the people in charge of unpacking crates of products in the back room and placing them on shelves on the sales floor. I'm going to cover some examples I've personally witnessed surrounding the release of LEGO products in the United States.
When there's a contractual embargo date, individual Target stores receive the big cases of sets with very large & scary "DO NOT SELL BEFORE" stickers, and at least in some cases, the dates are also entered into the store's inventory management computer system. I've seen the stickers on cased that were mistakenly brought out to the floor for stocking, and I've seen those cases taken straight back to the stockroom. I've come back to the same store daily, and I've seen the products appear on shelves only on or after the dates on the big, scary stickers. I've also seen cases of products as they were opened on the sales floor and placed on shelves weeks before the oft-referenced "coming soon on" date listed at shop.LEGO.com. If itself LEGO distributes products to retailers and doesn't tell them not to sell the sets, stores are going to sell the sets.
At Toys R Us stores, I've seen a similar (if not identical) embargo date sticker system. They also place these dates into their inventory system, which passes the same dates on to the checkout registers. Additionally, I've also seen many of them circulating highlighted, printed spreadsheets of LEGO sets and their "don't sell before" dates, listed by set number and name. I've picked up products off shelves, taken them to checkout, and had them red-flagged for "no sale" when they were attempted to be rung up. People doing the stocking sometimes mess up, and that's why checks & balances exist. However, on these exact same occasions, I've had other new LEGO sets from the same theme and with the same expected release date not be stopped during checkout and not show up on the printed spreadsheets. How this odd situation comes about, I do not know.
What about physical LEGO stores? LEGO is an extremely strict company and does its best to run a tight ship. Occasionally sleazy, greedy, or just apathetic store managers have, in the past, poked holes in the system by selling products to themselves or to other employees before the written, contractual embargo dates. To minimize this, LEGO now doesn't even send embargoed sets out to its own stores until the night or even the morning before the store opens on the first allowed sale date. At least, this is what I've heard from store managers in my area. At these very stores, however, I've purchased whole stacks of sets to weeks before people thought they were "supposed" to be released, because LEGO sent the products to stores, with no embargo dates, to be sold to the public.
Ultimately, the dates at shop.LEGO.com mean nothing to anyone who isn't forced (or forcing themselves) to buy stuff specifically from shop.LEGO.com. In fact, in even the recent spring 2015 release season, products showed up for public purchase on shop.LEGO.com, before they were "supposed" to!
Now for the ultimate kicker. The officially planned release dates of products isn't identical worldwide. Almost every single season, LEGO splits their releases into two different strategies, one for Europe & Asia, another for the Americas. Many products show up in both super-regions at more or less the same time. Others are staggered by anywhere from one to three months across oceans, by design, for reasons far beyond the scope of this post. Within specific countries, even, the physical realities of transportation & distribution often cause products to appear in one sub-region before all of the rest. In the United States, for example, the east coast and also southern California seem to very frequently get new sets before everywhere else. Ultimately, that comes down to where the major seaports are, how quickly the ships get there, and how long inland transportation takes after that.
I'd go so far as to say most occurrences of so-called "early" releases are not "early" at all, but rather on-schedule and according to plan. A lot of the exclamations I've seen online have suggested that appearances of products on the market prior to manufacturers' own published release dates always represent some form of either regional or vendor favoritism or intentional violation of embargo dates by individual stores. While the latter does occur in some cases, "early" usually isn't truly early, it's simply earlier than expected.