U.S. toymakers dream of a red, white and blue holiday

Santa's sleigh may be sporting American plates this year as new rules governing toy safety continue to provide a boon for U.S. toy makers. When more than 21 million toys made in China were recalled in 2008 due to unsafe levels of lead, American toy manufacturers were gifted with a wide open market and a lot of jingle in the till.

For 2009, U.S. toy companies continue to report a strong holiday season, but this year the game is not as straight forward.

Dean Helfer, Jr. has been working at the business of fun and games for more than 25 years. He was a student at West Virginia University in 1983 when he started selling hand-crafted boomerangs out of the back of his 1972 Ford step van. Helfer made $6,500 dollars the first year. By the time he graduated in 1985 his business was earning $65,000. Today, his company, Channel Craft, is based -- in a building, not a van -- in North Charleroi, Pa, and sells a lot more than boomerangs. However, it is not just the product line that has changed.

"I learn something new every day," said Helfer in an interview with WalletPop, "It's like a game of chess, there's a whole new way of doing business." Helfer explained that after last year's lead debacle new rules on testing were instituted by Congress for the entire toy industry. As a result, every toy produced must pass a test for acceptable levels of lead and phthalates as set forth by the Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). Each test cost several thousand dollars per product. There goes that extra jingle.

"Some products we had to stop producing," said Helfer, "because we didn't want to spend the money for the test." Similarly, new product ideas must be evaluated. Helfer explained that the price of testing is calculated into the cost of creating a new toy and if it doesn't result in a "realistic retail price" that toy will not be made. "Even the toys coming from China are going to be more expensive," said Helfer. "It's a narrowing of the products."

Still, Helfer said, "our domestic products have a little more chance this year." A lot of that has to do with delivery. Simply put, American products are making it to the shelves while imports aren't. "Retailers have found that they can depend on us for the delivery of the product." Imported products have been delayed by the new testing or failed to pass or simply gone belly up.

Helfer does not mean US products and Channel Craft could not compete otherwise. In an interview in The Valley Independent, Helfer said, "[Channel Craft toys] have high play value and they're the kind of things people feel good about giving...it feels good giving things that come from the heart and the memory." He also contends that quality craftsmanship can't be beat. Most of Channel Craft's products - such as classics like pick up sticks, marble games, tiddly-winks, 3-D puzzles, wooden train whistles, wilderness adventure games, cards, coloring books and balsa-wood planes -- are priced from$10 to $20 and are created for "edutainment" that can be shared.

Although he has had several offers to move his operations overseas, Helfer said he has always resisted. "I'm so glad we didn't." Helfer said he's aware of US companies who had a well-made wooden or crafted toy and outsourced production internationally, but it hasn't always worked out. Some have gone out of business. "They lost their heart about it," said Helfer. "I love to sell quality toys, but I also love manufacturing them...it's not just about sales."

Channel Craft is not alone in their effort to remain stateside: Louisville Slugger bats are still made in Louisville, Ky, Sports Doctor makes baseball gloves in the Bronx, and the Slinky, as American as apple pie, is wound up tight in Plymouth, Mich., In fact, by searching sites such as StillmadeinUSA.com, USmadetoys.com , and Toysmadeinamerica.com it's easy to come up with a pretty interesting list of playthings born in the USA. Although several of the websites compiling the lists are sort of cheesy looking, a little perseverance will reward the curious with interesting finds. I didn't know Woolly Willy (the old-fashioned face you can add "hair" to with a magnetic wand) is from Smethport Toys in Smethport, Pa. Big Wheels are made in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Shrinky Dinks in North Lake, Wis, Foosball tables from Ludington, Mich., and we can thank some people in Port Richey, Fla., for Kazoobie Kazoos (or not). What parent of a preschooler doesn't own at least one item, or perhaps a living room-full, of Little Tikes products out of Hudson, Ohio, The "Flying Turtle" from Mason Corp, in Brentwood, Tenn., looks kinda fun too.

In addition to listings and links for individual US toy makers, there are also catalogs, brick-and-mortar stores, and online retailers that tout red, white and blue merchandise. Fat Brain Toys (Fatbraintoys.com) is a cool site that shows little flags indicating the country of origin next to each item - and there are a lot of stars and stripes if that's what you're looking for. Back to Basics Toys directs consumers to type "USA" in the search box to find American made products, which I did with great results -- love the Labyrinth Game Balance Board, Original Vinyl Colorforms and Gyroscope Twin Pack! Santa are you listening?

However, Original Colorforms and Bobo punching bags aside, Jeff Gearhart, research director for the Ecology Center's Healthy Toys Project, said in an interview with Startribune.com, Minneapolis, Minn., that about 80 % of the 3 billion toys sold in the US each year come from China. Well, times they may be a changing, but will they really change that much?

Channel Craft founder and president, Dean Helfer said what he would like to tell parents as they decide which gifts to buy this year is, "Find a product that you think is going to give you and your children many hours of quality crafted fun. If you're going to spend your hard-earned money it should be on something that's going to last... maybe something you'd like your grandchildren to enjoy someday."

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