Supporting Your Local Toy Store

While the big guys like Walmart, Toys R Us, and Target are having an all out price war, don’t forget your local mom & pop toy stores.  It’s true that  none of these stores can compete on price for mass market products–but that’s only part of the story.  Small toy stores tend to offer toys that are available only to the specialty market.  Some of our favorite toy companies have made the decision to stick with the independent toy stores rather than compete for shelf space in a big box store.  So there are toys here that you won’t find elsewhere.  The other major reason to shop in a small store is service.

When Joanne and I are going through toy fair, we always marvel at the toy buyers who not only have to look at all the new toys (which sounds fun, but gets physically draining after a day or two) –but they have to put their money on the line.  Most aren’t part of big chains but individual store owners that have come to know what works and what doesn’t.  They tend to really know their product line and since they want to build a relationship with their customers, will not push something just to move it out. That kind of relationship at retail is becoming a rare commodity.

So with that in mind, this Saturday ASTRA (the American Specialty Toy Retailers Association) is holding a nationwide Neighborhood Toy Store Day.  You can check on their website to see what special events your local toy store is hosting.  Sounds like fun.

Pick of the Day: Jenga Max

jengamaxpicI used to play Jenga all the time. It’s my kind of game–you have to be decisive and you’ll know within moments if you win or lose.  So I was pretty psyched when I saw the new Jenga Max (Parker Brothers/Hasbro)  at Toy Fair…it looked great.  I then stopped thinking about it.  My mind was quickly full of Barbie Nail Printers and toys that read your brain waves.  Then about two weeks ago–I realized that we hadn’t received Jenga Max.  Oh no!    So we just got to try it out.  Read our review and you can watch our demo.

Need to sit down? Check out the Elia Mini Chair

2chairsAt toy fair this year there was a booth that caught my attention…while most booths are chockful of game/ dolls/toys/electronics/candy…this booth had a chair.  I was at the very end of toy fair–I’m pretty “toyed” out by then, but I stopped.

The cardboard chair from had a very modern appeal.  It comes undecorated (left) with big bold stickers (a la Marimekko)…that also looked like fun (and something a parent wouldn’t mind having around).  Our testers really enjoyed working on the chair….the directions were easy to follow and one of our testers was delighted that the chair is reversible giving her more options about decorating!  She and her mom are thinking about decoupage.  Their site has lots of creative ideas for decorating. The chair holds up to 200 lbs. – impressive.  Michael Gross, the President (and an architect/engineer), also points out that the chair is completely recyclable. Michael’s background is evident in the construction and design of the chair.  We’ve seen many cardboard products in the past – many with extensive pre-printing on them – making them more like 3D coloring books.  What I really liked about this chair besides the design–was the open-endedness of the project.   The chair retails for $34.99.  The site also indicates that a table is in the works.  eliaminichair1

An interview with Jim Becker of Becker&Mayer! (SmartLab)

little-jim As you know the time frame for the new safety regulations under the CPSIA have been extended by a year. We asked Jim Becker, the co-partner of becker & mayer! some questions about the regs and the new direction of their science/activity kits under the SmartLab brand.

How has the last year of changing safety regulations affected your business?

Because we’ve been selling a lot of products to major retailers over the last few years, we’ve been in the thick of safety regulations for a while now. So we are ahead of the curve, so to speak. I would guess the effects on us are probably less than for other companies.

There are certain kits that we just won’t be able to sell anymore. For others, it’s an added extra expense. And for new products, we really have to design around the safety regulations.

Do you think the extra year before the enforcement of the new CPSIA was necessary?

Yes, because manufacturers need time to redesign their products to meet the regulations.

What was the goal of new redesign [rebrand] of your kits?
While we love the SmartLab dog, as do all of our loyal customers, we decided to rebrand in a way that showcases the components. Our goal was to retain the fun of the dog but focus on the excitement of the product.

What is your favorite kit in the new line?
You-Build-It RoboXplorer…We really created something entirely new that allows kids to build a robotic mechanism that is not only fun to play with, but also teaches kids the fundamentals of robotics. One of the greatest features is kids get to experiment and change things learning through trial and error—the best way to learn!

(SEO: we haven’t tested this one yet.)

What was your favorite toy as a kid?
Legos…I loved to endlessly build things. As a teenager, I graduated to building simple electronics, so my other favorite “toy” was a soldering iron. And, I still have it!

Pick of the Day: Kid Galaxy's Movin' Motors

51vnk4gtgll_sl500_aa280_ We loved the concept of these new vehicles from Kid Galaxy when we first saw them at Toy Fair.  Happily, they work really well.  The figure in the middle (left)  has a built-in motor.  Once you place it in the vehicle the truck will move forward and you can see the pistons moving–also cool.  It’s fun that the motor is also a character that can be used for spinning stories.  Our testers really liked the Dump Truck and the Pick’n’ Plow.  The mechanism on the Lift ‘n’ Load wasn’t as sturdy as the others.  These are interesting and engaging vehicles for preschoolers.  We’re giving Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal Awards to both the Dump and Pick ‘n’ Plow Truck.

When Starbucks costs too much….Step2's Cafe Barista may help

cafe-baristaWith everyone cutting back on their expensive coffee habits, you can enjoy a pretend cafe latte or cappuccino with this new pretend setting from Step 2.  The Cafe Barista looks like fun–we really liked the “steamed milk” sound effect.  Looking forward to testing this one.  Will be available later this year. Be on the look out for more and more toys that focus on food…both real and plastic.

Top Trends from ToyFair 2009: Jakks Pacific Star Wars 3D Kites

I have to confess–we’re huge Star Wars fans here so we were really psyched to see Jakks Pacific’s new line of 3D kites that feature Luke’s X-Wing, Darth Vader’s Tie Fighter and Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon.  So cool!  We can’t wait to test them–each include a 15′ tail.   Suggested retail wil be $24.00.  And if you can think warm weather (the temp is dropping rapidly here in nyc)…there also promises to be Star Wars inflatables for the pool. If you’re a SW fan, these will have great appeal ($39.99).  Jakks Pacific also has a new line of collectable marbles (they’re making a come back…apparently)…they look neat. They come with little stands–at $3.99 each, not sure how these will appeal to parents.  They may find a great audience in the SW’s collectors – of course they’ll never never take them out their packaging.