Smaller stores benefit from big toy recalls

Many customers turn to shops to avoid mass-market brands

August 15, 2007|By Hanah Cho and Stephanie Newton | Hanah Cho and Stephanie Newton,Sun reporters

Shopping at Barstons Child's Play in North Baltimore yesterday, Elizabeth Carhuapoma had safety on her mind as she heard news of the latest toy recall by Mattel.

"Certain brands I trust more, so it's disappointing when Mattel and Fisher-Price drop the ball," said Carhuapoma, 34, of Baltimore, who bought a Webkinz doll for her 6-year-old son Ethan. "So we got into more specialty stores to get higher-quality toys even though we pay more."

While big toy retailers and discounters scrambled yesterday to pull millions of toys from stores across the country, independent shops like Child's Play say a wave of recalls of Chinese imports is bringing in customers worried about lead paint and other hazards.

Specialty stores typically carry a wider selection of items made in Europe and devote less shelf space to mass-market brands.

"Customers are a little more conscious about where things are from and the safety of toys now," said Vivien Weiner, who co-manages Child's Play in the Village of Cross Keys.

Mattel, the world's largest toy retailer, recalled 19 million Chinese-made toys yesterday, including die-cast Sarge cars, Polly Pocket play sets, Barbie dolls and Batman action figures, because of lead paint or tiny magnets that could be swallowed.

Two weeks ago, Mattel's Fisher-Price recalled plastic characters from Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer that are popular with pre-schoolers.

In June, RC2 recalled 1.5 million Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway toys because of lead in surface paint.

Since the beginning of the year, there have been 44 toy recalls, all involving imports from China, according to Arlene Flecha, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Wal-Mart said in a statement yesterday that it was working to remove recalled items from its shelves.

Toys "R" Us, which was notified of Mattel's recall Monday afternoon, cleared out all affected products before its 586 stores opened yesterday morning, said spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh. She did not know how much of the chain's inventory was affected.

Issues magnified

"There has been several high-profile recalls on very beloved brands. That in combination with the focus on recalls on other industries coming out of China has sort of magnified the issue," she said.

"But as a retailer, our responsibility is to make sure the products that we have available for sales on our shelves are safe. It's something we take very seriously."

Independent retailers in the Baltimore area say the recalls involve little of what they sell.

Child's Play's Weiner pulled one Barbie Doll and Tanner item, which was on the recall list, from its shelves yesterday.

Barbara Fineblum, co-owner of Child's Play, said the Cross Keys store as well as outlets in Rockville and Washington carry limited Mattel toys. Fineblum said she pinpointed 36 recalled pieces, 24 of which were still at the warehouse.

Jack in the Box Toys, with stores in Edgewater in Anne Arundel County and Dunkirk in Calvert County and a third in Pikesville under the Toy Chest name, does not carry Mattel products.

Ken Chamberlain, the store's president, said educating concerned parents is key when news of lead paint in children's toys hits the public. Chamberlain spoke with the company's advertising agency yesterday to discuss a strategy for communicating what his stores sell.

"We don't carry mass market toys," he said. "We don't order products like Wal-Mart or Target. ... We're all concerned. I'm a parent myself."

The recalls can give the specialty stores an edge at a time when withering competition from mass merchandisers has put many independent retailers out of business, analysts said.

"Specialty has always been known for having wholesome, high-quality kinds of products," said Gerrick Johnson, a toy analyst with BMO Capital Markets.

Employees at specialty retailers may also be more knowledgeable than counterparts at the big chains, he said.

But Johnson said it's hard for even specialty stores to avoid all toys made in China because they account for 80 percent of the total toy market.

Ed Williams, co-owner of Mumbles & Squeaks Toy Gallery in Ellicott City, said the 16-year-old store also does not sell Mattel products. The store, however, did pull 60 Thomas the Tank Engine pieces from its shelves in May.

"We check in with our manufacturers periodically," said Frank DiPietro, Williams' partner. "When a lot of children's jewelry was being recalled in the wintertime, I did some double-checking with our manufacturers."

DiPietro said their business has a solid footing in the community. "There's no need for us to capitalize on a toy recall," he said.

At the Target in Glen Burnie yesterday, in between the Barbie Pom Pom Divas and the Barbie Baby Photographer was a small gap. The sign shows that where the Barbie Doll and Tanner play set was stocked - at least until yesterday's recall.

Elena Boggs said that's what she expected. All of the recalled toys would be pulled from shelves before she got there.

`We love toys'

"We love toys," said Boggs, while shopping with her 5-year-old daughter Hanna, who had just picked out a pink Monster Maniac.

"I pay a lot of money for toys and I expect the stores to do their jobs and make sure there isn't anything we're not supposed to buy on the shelves."

Melissa Robbins, shopping at the Toys "R" Us near the Target, said she's been poring over every toy owned by her 3-year-old daughter, Victoria, for recalled lots. And she and her mother, Nancy, were wary of recalled brands yesterday. "I've really been paying attention," she said.

hanah.cho@baltsun.com stephanie.newton@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Andrea Walker and Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

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