November 21, 2007

After recalls, toy-buying season uncertain time for parents, retailers

By James Baetke

As a mother of a 6-year-old daughter, Michelle Lawson said it’s hard to avoid Chinese-made toys.

This mother left a Toys “R” Us store recently with a board game, “The Game of Life,” for a family function.

“I buy Barbie dolls at least every Christmas, plus all the accessories, and I’m not sure what’s safe and what’s not,” Lawson, 30, said.

She hopes the latest recalls will wake up toy makers, but her shopping trip was on the very day of a voluntary recall of Aqua Dots, a toy with small beads that contain a chemical commonly known as the date-rape drug, that can cause respiratory problems or seizures if children swallow them.

The approaching holiday season brings as much uncertainty for retailers and manufacturers as it does for moms, as they try to woo back consumer confidence in a year of record-setting recalls, many stemming from lead-tainted toys from China.

Twenty-five million Chinese-made toys were recalled this summer, including Elmo dolls, Thomas the Train and Dora the Explorer.

Some consumers are purposely avoiding Chinese-made toys - others find that impossible, considering that 80 percent of toys sold in the United States are made in China.

Nancy Nord, chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, told a House subcommittee hearing on Nov. 6 that recent recalls have not “skyrocketed” but are a direct result of increased inspections by her agency, even as its budget shrank.

Congress is debating legislation that would funnel more resources to the CPSC, the sole agency in charge of inspecting all toys sold in the country. (See separate story below.)

Shopping profits during November and December are precious jewel boxes for toy companies, bringing in about 45 percent of total annual sales, according to the Toy Industry Association.

Retailers have promised to keep prices competitive and toys safe. Toy manufacturer Mattel, along with retailers Wal-Mart and Toys “R” Us, have stepped up their own independent lead testing. Toys “R” Us is strengthening certification of its overseas vendors and has developed a Web site proclaiming its safety assurance standards.

“Most of the toys that are going to be on the shelves this holiday season are already in the pipeline, so if the manufacturers haven’t tested them to make sure they meet safety standards, it’s going to be a bit of a problem,” said Donald Mays, director for product safety planning for Consumer Reports, a Consumers Union publication based in Yonkers, N.Y. “Therefore, I think the responsibility has to shift to the retailer.”

Carter Keithley, TIA president, said, “Toy companies are taking product out of the distribution centers and sending it into laboratories for retesting to be sure that the testing process that they originally went through in China don’t have any problems and the toys here in the United States are perfectly safe for the holiday season.”

But are these stepped-up efforts enough to save Barbie and friends?

Lew Tipograph, 54, owner of Washington’s Kid’s Closet, an independent toy and clothing store, said his sales are on track for a successful holiday season. Some customers have come in specifically to buy American or European-made toys, such as Legos.

“A few people will come in and ask for toys not made in China,” Tipograph said. “Much of the things we have are made in China.”

Jaime Corda, 41, a stay-at-home mom from Bethesda, Md., and pregnant with her second child, was exploring Kid’s Closet on a recent day. She bought a winter sweater made in Indonesia for her daughter, 6.

“I know Christmas toys can be unsafe with all the recalls, but what’s one to do when there isn’t much of an alternative?” Corda asked.

Although agencies differ on what is classified as a toy, leading to differing numbers, the U.S. Department of Commerce says Chinese toy imports have risen from nearly $6 billion in 1996 to $14.5 billion in 2006, a hefty portion of the $22 billion U.S. toy business.

Mattel says on its Web site that it has spent more than 50,000 hours investigating Chinese toy vendors and their subcontractors. The com-pany’s independent testing found an additional 11 toys that contained lead paint, since recalled. Mattel blamed careless work and, in some cases, deliberate acts of avoiding safety protocols.

Toys “R” Us chief executive officer Jerry Storch said the retailer is increasing tests of products directly off store shelves, a practice that will become permanent.

“We will not tolerate products that do not meet our rigorous safety standards,” Storch said in a written statement. “Recent events have catalyzed increased scrutiny in manufacturing, tighter controls and substantially more and more product testing.”

Reports have found that parents are raiding toy chests and getting rid of toys produced in China.

“We do hear people raising a lot of concerns, but I do not know if that will, in fact, affect sales this holiday season,” Mays said.

In an effort to help restore consumer confidence, the TIA, which represents 80 percent of all U.S. toy companies, launched a three-point program for toy testing and inspection in September.

The program calls for more specific rules for testing for lead paint, uniform criteria for test labs to show they are independently qualified and an endorsement of the existing federal ban on lead in toys.

“We are going to do everything we can to ensure consumers that toys on the shelves are safe,” Keithley said.

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