Toy Recalls May Boost Smaller Stores
With visions of lead paint dancing in their heads, parents are turning to small toy stores to find higher quality products and better customer service.
Tree Top Kids, which has nine stores in the Washington area and one in Chicago, posts a mission statement on its Web site, touting its quest to "provide products and services that far exceed expectations of its customers."
That's a problem when manufacturers' products are being recalled for dangerous chemicals or faulty production on a regular basis.
"Probably about 70 percent of our toys come from China," said Catherine Porterfield, vice president of marketing with Tree Top, who added that only 18 of its 25,000 products throughout its stores were recalled by their makers. Porterfield partly attributes this to the firm's concentration on educational, specialized toys that distinguish it from larger retail chains.
To stay on top of the situation, someone at Tree Top constantly monitors the news. For example, when Porterfield was recently watching the 10 o'clock news, she saw a spot on more toy recalls. She stayed up to follow the story and then worked with the company's management to call the toy buyers at 11 p.m. to ensure that Tree Top was not affected.
The next day, she sent an e-mail to customers notifying them that the stores didn't carry the latest recalled products and "if we did sell the products, we'd take them all back."
It's not easy to be in an industry where the seller only has partial control over the product. "It affects us in that we can have holes in our shelves and of course there's the reputation factor," said Porterfield.
"We don't make the toys ourselves, and we're at the mercy of the manufacturers," she said. "But we're happy that they are beginning to enforce stricter policies and regulations."
Everyone in the toy industry is thinking about finding toys to sell from countries other than China, she said. Customers are also beginning to ask which lines of toys are not made in China. That's unprecedented for the local chain, Porterfield said.
Sunni Carver, the store manager at Doodlehopper 4 Kids in Falls Church, Va., says it's a familiar refrain for her store too. "I now have people come in and the first thing out of their mouth is 'what do you have that's not made in China?'"
Since the majority of her store's products are designed for infants and preschoolers, her customers are particularly concerned because very young children tend to put toys into their mouths. "Customers now don't want even clothes that are made in China because they think the material will have some sort of dangerous chemical on them."
Similar to Tree Top Kids, Carver said about 80 percent of her store's products also come from China, but the recalls haven't greatly affected the store. "We did have a few Thomas the Tank Engine items that were recalled [due to lead paint], but as a small store we try and offer more specialized toys."
Doodlehopper, which has one other store in Springfield, Va., is now looking for more European products and toys made in the United States. But Carver said it's difficult to find those manufacturers and distributors and the cost of those toys can be higher than those from China.
"The recalls are not really hurting us, but they have changed who we are buying from," said Carver. "We want to find more vendors that highlight that their products are high quality."
Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts, a family-owned and run store in Frederick, Md., primarily stocks products from Europe, the United States, Canada and Thailand. Owner Tom England says Dancing Bear, which only sells toys without batteries, has seen a boom in business since the first major recalls were announced this year.
"Customers are a lot more confident with a toy maker that's not a Fisher-Price or a Mattel because they have a lot more confidence that oversight of production is much more strict." He cites brisk sales of toys made by Schylling, based in the United States, although its factories are in China. The head of Schylling often visits the factories the firm works with in China to oversee operations, according to England.
But even Schylling has gotten caught up in the toy recall debacle. The Rowley, Mass., firm last month announced it had to recall 66,000 spinning tops and about 4,700 pails due to excessive lead paint applied in its China factory.
Mattel last week said it would recall more than 800,000 toys globally that contain high levels of lead -- marking the third recall by the industry giant.
England adds that when the massive toy recalls began, his vendors started calling him and outlining their testing procedures to assure him of their quality. One company, Plan Toys in Thailand went so far as to send its laboratory results.
"When consumers take the extra time to find quality toys, they are going to be very surprised that specialty toy retailers are not expensive and sometimes less expensive than big box stores," said England. "You're ending up with a safer product, a better product -- instead of something pumped out of petroleum-based plastic."
Tree Top believes it can stay ahead of the pall cast across the industry by focusing on customer care. "Every one of our employees is trained," notes Porterfield. If a customer walks in and says "I'm going to a birthday party for a five-year-old boy who likes blue," an employee has been educated to list at least five toys, products or books that would be appropriate. There is also a resident pediatric occupational therapist on staff to assist customers inquiring about gifts for a special needs child.
"It will be interesting for us during the holiday season to see what parents are buying," said Carver. "But what can you do, kids like toys."
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