Making a play for toy buyers

July 18, 2008|By Cox News Service

Come this holiday season, Whole Foods shoppers might notice something new amid the bins of organic bananas and locally grown berries: toys.

African safari play sets with hand-painted animals and a toddler's cutting board with wooden vegetables are among the toys dubbed as "Earth-friendly" from ImagiPlay of Boulder, Colo., that are headed for the Austin, Texas-based grocer's markets nationwide.

The new partnership is a departure for Whole Foods Market Inc., which has sold a smattering of toys before but typically has made those sales choices on a regional basis, said Justin Miloro, who finds potential products for the chain's Whole Body departments.

"This is one of the first times we've nationally said, 'We're going to work with this company,' " Miloro said. ImagiPlay and Whole Foods have shared values, he said.

Those values are at the heart of a larger trend, as "green" toys promoted as extra-safe and environmentally conscious grow in popularity.

Millions of toys were recalled last year because of worries about lead and other hazards. This year, big toy sellers have embraced stricter safety standards.

Some have gone further. Promoting "good green fun," Toys "R" Us announced in March a line of "eco-friendly" toys, such as dolls made with organic cotton and an unpainted, battery-free wooden fire engine.

"When you see green toys at a place like Toys 'R' Us, you know it's mainstream," said Wendy Smolen, editorial director of Toy Wishes magazine.

Big toy companies are catching up with small ones such as ImagiPlay, where business has surged since the lead-paint scare.

"We've been making Earth-friendly toys for 10 years, and really nobody cared until a year and a half, two years ago," ImagiPlay founder Barbera Aimes said. "There's a whole market now for products with values, particularly pertaining to the environment. Before, that was the kiss of death."

Aimes said her "little bitty" five-person company sells about 150 items, including wooden puzzles, rolling yellow ducks, bookends and coat hooks.

ImagiPlay says its products are rigorously tested for safety, come from factories checked for good working conditions and use recycled or sustainable materials such as compressed sawdust and rubberwood from Southeast Asia.

The toys are also made close to the source of the raw materials to avoid shipping that burns fuel and emits carbon dioxide.

Whole Foods stores will carry 13 of the toys starting in October, Aimes said. Markets can choose to carry up to 40 more items. Some are in stores, she said.

The toys going to all stores include a wooden Christmas tree-shaped puzzle, a rain forest play set and several wheeled push toys that are animal-shaped except for one called Hybrid Car. Prices range from $12 to $37.

The $24, 18-piece Veggie Cutting Set comes with segmented wooden vegetables held together by Velcro for simulated chopping.

Working with ImagiPlay is a good match for Whole Foods, Smolen said.

"People who shop in Whole Foods really care about organics, the environment, what kinds of chemicals they are putting in their bodies and their children's bodies," she said. "They're going to be much more open to looking at toys that have this kind of sensibility."

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