Monday, November 19, 2007

Smart Kids Deserve an Education, Too

Deborah Robson and Judy Fort Brenneman, co-authors of High IQ Kids, will be signing copies of the book and answering questions at Boulder's PlayFair Toys on Friday, November 23rd, from 5-6:30 PM. This landmark book is the first ever collection of information and stories on profoundly gifted children. These children often struggle getting help in school, and they challenge both their educators and their parents. PlayFair Toys is located at the west gateway of Boulder's 29th Street center, at the corner of 28th and Canyon. Information is also available at

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Buying American Made Toys is About More Than Safety

Yesterday, November 9, we started what is definitely a big project for a small company - listing all the toys we can find that are Made in the USA. We carry toys made all over the world, and I am certain that there are excellent toys made in every country. But the movement of more and more toy factories to China has always pained me deeply and personally. 80% of the toys sold in the US are now made in China. There is so much more to this story than toy safety. It's time to talk about it.

The recent toy recalls have had little direct impact on us (the total toys from our shelves was less than a dozen pieces, and I am not talking 12 different types of toys I mean less than 12 total, all various Thomas Train pieces), but they have had an indirect impact in terms of customer confidence. Although our best customers know they can count on us for great information, those who have not shopped with us before may be afraid to even walk in the door of a toy store these days. When the first recalls were announced, an article in our local paper quoted a consumer saying that they were going to cruise the toy aisles at Target, turning over boxes at one at a time. What's wrong with this picture?

The move toward the current dominance of Chinese-made toys in American stores has been driven by big box stores such as Target, Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, and others that have touted the values of everyone having more cheap stuff - lots and lots of stuff. Although Target has positioned itself as being an "upscale" discount store by being a cut or two above Wal-Mart, and although they do apparently manage to pay a living wage to their employees, in the end they fundamentally have the same business model - buy stuff made as cheaply as possible and encourage people to buy mass quantities of it.

The layers of issues that exist with this situation are many. First, there is the mass marketing of toys that are basically offensive. Barbie, for heaven's sake, is quite the role model for young girls! (I hope you can recognize the sarcasm in that last comment.) But that's a personal opinion, and not a hard fact. Barbie is a very thin crust on what has been happening to the toy industry for a while.

Toys are a huge industry - US industry sales in 2006 were $22.3 billion. If that number sounds large consider this - the US population is currently 300 million people - that is only $74/person, or $270 per person age 19 and younger. It's a big country, and it's a big industry, with $1.3 billion spent on television advertising aimed at children. Who is spending that $1.3 billion? You can bet that it's not small US toy manufacturers with 10-100 employees.

I have watched many companies that prided themselves on being purely US or European made move some or all of their production to China, because without doing so they felt that they simply could not compete in this somewhat brutal marketplace. And I know that all of these companies, many of whom I know personally, all of whom I have spoken with, are maintaining a high degree of control over the manufacturing process there. However they will now be hurt by the practices of larger companies that have not maintained such good controls.

The debates going on are extraordinarily confusing for the consumer, and even so for me, a toy store owner. It seems that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon with an opinion, informed or otherwise. The Democrats (and for the record, I am a strong Democratic supporter) are having a political heyday with this one. I have heard two very disturbing and alarmist comments from leading Democratic politicians about toy safety. Moving away from the sound bites that they are forced to live within, what is the real story here?

The leader of the drive toward lots of cheap toys is definitely Wal-Mart, who is now the number one toy seller in the country. More than one out of very $4 spent on toys is spent at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart works hard to influence and control its suppliers, and the bigger they get, the more clout they have. But it is somewhat ironic that really, Wal-Mart just does what other mass marketers do, only better - seek to dominate marketplaces by using deep pockets to undercut competition.

Maybe it's time to ask ourselves what we are really paying for these less expensive toys. It costs more to produce goods in the US than in China for a multitude of reasons. Labor costs are higher here because we have legislation that guarantees workers at least a very minimal wage (I will not go so far as to call it a living wage). Other protections that US workers have include limiting the maximum number of hours someone can be required to work at a particular job. Why are we supporting an economy that does not insist upon these same rights? Where do the materials come from that are in these toys?

There is much more here than toy safety. There are human rights issue, environmental issues, and macroeconomic issues around balance of trade and our own economic well being. An extensive and well written discussion of the truth about Chinese-made toys was written by one of our suppliers, Vermont-based Maple Landmark. I highly recommend this article to anyone interested in this issue.

Another issue is the cost of transport - not from a purely economic standpoint (clearly these toys can be transported across the globe and still sold cheaply), but from an energy and CO2 emissions standpoint. We are running out of fossil fuels. They will not last forever. Should we be using the precious resources left to move toys across the globe, when the exact same toys could be manufactured locally? Have we figured out the real costs to this lifestyle?

There are no easy answers to living in this day and age. PlayFair Toys does sell toys made in China. Although we have not assessed it on a percentage basis, my guess is that when we do, we'll learn that most of the toys we carry are made in China. PlayFair Toys does not carry Mattel or Fisher Price products, the manufacturers associated with the largest recalls.

I care deeply about the safety of your children. I know that you do, too. I encourage you to ask questions and to look at the overall picture. There have always been toy recalls, thanks to stringest legislation intended to protect US consumers. US-made toys have been recalled in the past, for all sorts of reasons. But nothing has ever happened on this scale before. And therefore this really is a different sort of recall.

There is never any guarantee of the absolute safety of every product in every product in every situation. However buying American-made toys is about more than safety, and that's why we are working to get this information to you in a timely fashion. We hope that you have a wonderful, safe, happy holiday season. We are your partners in helping you select toys.