Sunday, August 19, 2007

Opportunity for Europe's toymakers - Parents with safety fears seek higher quality

Opportunity for Europe's toymakers - Parents with safety fears seek higher quality
Copyright by The Chicago Sun-Times and The Associated Press
August 19, 2007

BAD RODACH, Germany -- Saws clatter on the workshop floor, where craftsmen stamp out the rounded sides of what will become a red toy pushcar and slice dozens of dragon figures out of a 2-foot-long dowel.
One building over, large drums rumble, shaking hundreds of wooden grasping rings beneath a steady drip of water-based lacquer. The process, which takes 10 hours -- and another eight if the wood is colored -- renders the rings smooth, shiny and safe for curious young mouths.

With about 80 percent of all toys sold in the United States made in China, German toy maker Haba knows it supplies a tiny market from its base in Bavaria. But the recall of millions of Chinese-made toys tainted with lead-laced paint has brought more attention to smaller European toymakers that stress natural and safe materials -- if parents are willing to pay the price.

Mattel Inc., America's largest toy maker, announced a worldwide recall last week of almost 19 million items such as dolls, vehicles and action figures because of lead paint or tiny magnets that children could swallow.

That followed the company's recall of 1.5 million Chinese-made Fisher-Price toys because of possible lead-paint hazards, and came after other issues with Chinese-made products.

Confidence in Mattel shaken

''It's scary. First cat food and dog food, and now the kids' toys,'' said Whitney Settle, of Petroleum, W.Va. ''I have a 2-year-old boy who chews on everything. I doubt I am going to buy [Mattel] anymore -- or it's going to make me look twice.''
Toy experts say European makers adhere to higher safety standards than in the United States, and many of the companies -- ranging from Lego in Denmark, Brio AB in Sweden and Haba or Selecta in Germany -- stress that their in-house safety standards exceed the industry norms.

Customers have become noticeably more careful, said Thomas Brautigam, chief executive of Brio, which is known for its wooden toys.

''Since the end of June, we've noted a much larger awareness among our customers,'' he said. ''There are a lot of questions, and they are seeking out safe and quality products to a much larger extent.''

While Brio maintains some of its toy production in Europe, Brautigam said most of its production lines are -- like other companies -- in southern China, where costs are demonstrably lower.

That's a move that Haba, a division of the family-run Habermass GmbH, said it won't consider.

Won't supply Target
The company -- best known for its brightly colored wood infant rings and grasping toys, as well as colorful board games such as ''Animal upon Animal,'' or ''Tier auf Tier,'' that have become increasingly popular in the United States -- reported sales of $321 million in 2006. That compares with $5.65 billion for Mattel.
Although Haba is in talks with Babies-R-Us about the possibility of having the retailer carry some of its infant toys, the company decided last year against a deal to supply discount retailer Target Corp., which has about 1,500 U.S. stores.

''We are not interested in the mass market,'' said Christian Vollmer, who is responsible for Haba sales to the U.S. market. ''That is not our clientele.'


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