Child's Play

The success of Lottie and Howard Hirsch's online toy business in Owings Mills seems to have taken them by surprise.

Inspirations: Home

December 11, 2005|By KATE SHATZKIN | KATE SHATZKIN,SUN REPORTER

It was 1988, and Lottie Hirsch faced a familiar dilemma - she couldn't find the right care for her newborn daughter after maternity leave. So she decided to quit her job and sell a few children's videos and other odds and ends out of her Reisterstown home.

A few years later, her husband, Howard Hirsch, thought he'd help out by listing some items on a fledgling network called the World Wide Web.

So began Liveandlearn.com, which bills itself as one of the longest-running Internet toy stores. After the rise and fall of several larger online toy retailers, Live and Learn has persisted with a skeleton, mostly-family crew and an Owings Mills warehouse stocked with about 3,000 toys.

This is not the place for the latest "hot toy." The Internet visitor will find classics - vanilla-scented Corolle dolls, Bristle Blocks, the detective game CLUE, Mad Libs, pounding pegs, wooden puzzles, dress-up games and a large, eclectic selection of toys inspired by the Madeline storybooks.

Still, from October through Christmas, the Hirschs - helped by a couple of employees and their two daughters - work 10 to 13 hours a day, seven days a week, taking off only for a family Halloween party and Thanksgiving. They'll make 40 percent of their yearly sales during that time.

When they formally launched a Web site in 1995, the Hirschs planned to keep running the business out of their house. But shoppers from every state - and, eventually, from around the globe - were finding them.

"All of a sudden, the phone was ringing off the hook," Howard Hirsch said. "That's when we really saw we had something here."

Marketing is largely word-of-mouth.

Several years ago, for example, a parent linked the Live and Learn site to a message board for people who had adopted children from China. Orders skyrocketed, and now Asian Corolle dolls are a specialty.

When Dr. Phil devoted a segment of his show to getting children out of diapers, customers clamored for a doll that could use the potty.

Live and Learn isn't giant - sales are expected to be just shy of $500,000 this year, compared with the net $366 million Toysrus.com recorded in 2004 - and probably will never be. Though their business is strictly e-tail, the Hirschs try to add a personal touch.

They might spend many minutes on the phone with a customer who wants to know whether a doll's eyes are teal or turquoise, and whether the length and color of her hair will match her new owner's. They'll arrange a time for local customers to pick up their toys and avoid a shipping charge.

While Live and Learn toys aren't trendy, some items get hot on their own. A set for playing school and a play shaving kit have been selling briskly this season. Howard Hirsch thinks it's because of his product write-ups, in which he tells stories of how he or his children experienced a certain toy. He and his father used a similar kit so they could "shave" together when Hirsch was a boy.

"It was our special time together," Hirsch writes on the site.

"And now, your little boy can also have the same lasting memories thanks to our pretend Shave And Play Kit!"

kate.shatzkin@baltsun.com

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