Time for a Toy Buyer's Bill of Rights

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I gave blood this weekend. But this wasn't a noble act. I was just trying to open some toy packaging.

Now that Christmas is over, I can't help but think that maybe I should have just stuck with buying books and clothes for my daughters, who are 4 and 7 and, naturally, asked Santa for just about every toy imaginable. I tried to oblige and bought what I could, but now I'm rather glad I didn't buy more. There are already toys that I can tell are going to be part of the backdrop of their bedrooms, like untouched props on a movie set: they help create an environment but little else and of all their gifts, their favorite seems to be a computer game that their grandparents bought them.

Anyway, I'd just like to vent and offer some unsolicited advice to toy manufacturers out there. If toy companies actually took some of this advice, I honestly think they'd have a better year in 2009 than they apparently did in 2008, where toy sales were expected to fall by five percent.
1) Keep your pledge to improve your packaging. Before this latest holiday season, Amazon.com launched a program to make products available without the plastic hard shell. They have a gallery of "wrap rage" page with videos of people opening (and not opening) gifts, and they have a page with gift items that have easy to open packaging. That there are only 19 gifts on this page, at my last count, shows just how much of a problem this is.

2) Don't insult your consumer's intelligence by offering really cheap products. You know who you are. I spent $70 (instead of the $99 that I believe was the original price) on a doll house that I know, sooner or later, will break. The walls, ceiling, floor--it's all made of relatively thin plastic, which I gathered from looking at the photo on the box. That said, I knew my 4-year-old daughter badly wanted this doll house, and I succumbed. But the entire time I assembled the doll house, I kept feeling like a chump. After all, I was doing much of the work for the company by putting together this doll house, and I could see that this wasn't the sturdiest of toy structures.

When I finished putting the doll house together, my thought was, "This should last awhile--as long as nobody plays with it."

This particular company got my money this time; I know I'll be more cautious next holiday season. I sympathize with the toy companies to some extent; it's probably tempting to cut corners and put out a cheaper product, but honestly, I think I'd pony up more money if it told me on the packaging that this particular toy was designed to withstand something like kids playing with it.

And that sentiment about being willing to pay more money for a toy brings me to my next hope for consumers in 2009.

3) Keep testing toys for dangerous chemicals. Whether things are safer than they used to be or not, the reputation of toys is not exactly stellar these days, and I'm betting most parents would pay more for toys, if they knew that their money was going toward keeping their kids' playthings safe. On Christmas day, when my mother gave my girls a plastic, toy tea set, a few minutes later she looked at the box and said: "You know, this was made in China. They probably shouldn't drink out of the cups."

Just what every parent dreams of hearing.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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