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Homegrown specialty market jumps on recall fallout

IN the wake of the Chinese manufacturing mess that led to a string of high-profile toy recalls this summer, the phones have been ringing off the hook at indie manufacturers and retailers that deal in North American- and European-made toys. 'Our orders increased by about 300% in August, which is usually a pretty slow month,' says Milanie Cleere, owner of online toy retailer Oompa Toys in San Francisco. 'And we're getting customers that wouldn't have shopped with us before.'
October 1, 2007

In the wake of the Chinese manufacturing mess that led to a string of high-profile toy recalls this summer, the phones have been ringing off the hook at indie manufacturers and retailers that deal in North American- and European-made toys. ‘Our orders increased by about 300% in August, which is usually a pretty slow month,’ says Milanie Cleere, owner of online toy retailer Oompa Toys in San Francisco. ‘And we’re getting customers that wouldn’t have shopped with us before.’

Attuned to the issue by unavoidable media coverage, a groundswell of consumers are paying attention to where toys are made and what materials they contain for perhaps the first time in their lives. And this is creating an opportunity for specialty players to grab a piece of the mainstream market action. Most have wasted no time in securing sponsored ‘made in the USA’ links for Google searches or posting prominent website landmarks flagging their products’ homegrown status.

Oompa has a new feature on its site listing where all of its toys are manufactured, as well as a separate list for consumers looking specifically for toys made in Europe. Dan Sullivan, co-owner of Wisconsin-based Smart Monkey Toys, which produces building blocks entirely in the US, paid for a sponsored link on Google after noticing from his own searches that it was difficult to find American-made toys. ‘Before this year, people didn’t generally turn over the box to look for that information,’ says Sullivan. As the recall story has played out in the news, he’s fielded calls from consumers asking where to find his products, as well as from retailers inquiring about carrying the blocks and wanting confirmation that they are produced domestically.

Camden Rose owner Jason Gold is also dealing with a higher-than-usual volume of phone inquiries. His Ann Arbor, Michigan-based company makes all-natural wood and cloth toys, and Gold is elated that consumers are researching American-made products and taking a more active interest in the toys they are purchasing for their kids. Most small toycos lack the marketing budgets to get into the headlines, so this has been a great PR opportunity to build profile for his lines. ‘The only thing I fear is that when the media drops it and moves on to another story, people will go back,’ says Gold.

In the meantime, using parent blogs to communicate a safety message that touches on the products being made in the US, but that also highlights features like the wooden toys’ all-natural beeswax polish and vegetable food coloring is proving to be an effective word-of-mouth strategy.

For Bridgett Brown, CEO of Seattle, Washington-based boutique Planet Happy Toys, the rush on her limited summer stock – especially baby products like teethers and rattles, which sold out completely – has been a bit overwhelming. Looking to expand her three-year-old store, Brown just brought on several new toy suppliers and says finding a wide range of US-made toys can be a challenge because, for the most part, they tend to be very traditional. She points to European-made toys as a better example of products that abide by strict safety requirements, but that are much more aesthetically interesting. ‘We are trying to find products that are bright and fun, more stylish and maybe a little more hip,’ says Brown, adding that this gap in the US market represents a big opportunity just waiting to be capitalized on.

Both specialty retailers and small toycos are bracing themselves for the upcoming holiday season. Sullivan at Smart Monkey Toys says he’s not sure how big the spike will be, but because he controls the entire process and isn’t dependent on shipping times or sub-contracted manufacturers, his company can react quickly to product demand. Small businesses aren’t the only ones preparing for an increase in domestic and Euro-made toy sales. Toys ‘R’ Us recently put the word out in mainstream news outlets that it will increase its inventory of American-made toys.

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