'Netflix of Legos' Aims to Save Parents Money (and Their Feet)

For every parent who has spent hundreds of dollars on Lego sets and then stepped on the scattered pieces in the middle of the night, only to have their kid not play with them a month later, a company called Pley has a solution: Rent Legos.

You'll not only save money -- a survey by the company found that by the time a child reaches age 12, her parents will have spent $5,182 on toys that weren't played with for long -- but having Lego sets that must be returned to Pley before a new set gets mailed out can encourage kids to neatly put them away.

Share Your Toys

In a roundabout way, Pley also teaches kids about sharing because they'll have to part with their Legos, knowing that another child will soon get to play with them -- after they're cleaned and counted at the company's headquarters in Santa Clara, California. "The only way this service works is to build a set, take it apart and return it," says Ranan Lahman, Pley CEO and founder.

Billing itself as the "Netflix for Legos," Pley was launched in May 2013. It's a clever addition to the rapidly growing sharing economy, where for a fraction of the cost of ownership, people can use something either once or repeatedly for a fee. The expanding rental economy also reflects the parallel growth of the minimalism movement -- people choosing to own less, and either working less or spending their money on something other than acquiring stuff.

How It Works, and Why You Won't Get Filthy Legos

But what about renting Legos, which may have been put in the mouths of children or dogs, stepped on by dirty little feet, or played with on someone else's grubby floors? Who would want to do that? And what about the Lego pieces that are invariably lost? Pley has answers for these concerns. Here's a quick rundown of how the service works along with answers to some common concerns:

After adding one of more than 300 sets to your queue, it's mailed to you, with free shipping both ways. Your children play with it as long as they like, though the sooner they return it, the sooner they'll get another Lego set.

$399 for a Destroyer or $39 to Rent It for a Month?

The cost is $15 a month for a small set, $25 a month for a medium set and $39 a month for a large set (such as the $399 Star Wars Super Star Destroyer). "Legos are a very expensive piece of plastic," says Lachman, 40, who spent $3,000 on Legos in a year for his sons before he started Pley.

If your child loses some pieces, don't worry. Pley allows up to 10 grams of loss. That equates to seven to 15 Lego pieces, though most people only lose three pieces, Lachman says. (Pley's computers weigh and scan sets to determine which pieces are missing and need to be replaced.) If more than 10 grams are lost from a set, the customer is charged 40 percent of the cost of the set. If a Lego set arrives at your house with pieces missing, mail it back and a new set will be sent to you.

Every set is sanitized in an eco- and kid-friendly cleaning solution that meets the same standards the Food and Drug Administration sets for restaurants. It kills 99.99 percent of germs and bacteria on the sets, the company says.

A Similar Concept Failed Before

Many businesses want to be the "next Netflix" of something , though the "Netflix for books" that many book-sharing businesses claim to be sounds more like homework than entertainment. Toygaroo, which called itself the "Netflix for toys," got startup funding from the TV show "Shark Tank," but still went out of business. Its domain name is for sale for $1,560.

What differentiates Pley, Lachman says, is that it's focusing on one type of toy and that its computers can efficiently process an order in 2.5 minutes from getting a Lego set to weighing, cleaning and replacing missing pieces.

The average Lego set sells for $80 to $150, and usage differs from the Legos that Lachman played with as a child: big collections with a variety of bricks, intended to be used to form whatever new creations a child's imagination could conjure. For many children today, Legos are a kit with a set of instructions to make one item, such as a car or spaceship, with a theme and story behind them.

For kids who want to use pieces from different sets to create something new, Pley rents a bag of 500 Lego pieces that aren't part of a set. Or they can follow a list of 20 ideas that Pley includes with the set of random pieces.

All is not perfect on Pley's Facebook page, though. Some people complained about missing pieces and slow delivery. Those may just be signs of the company's growing pains, but they're still frustrating.

Wrote Christine Whitlock: "My son really enjoys this service, but it is hit and miss (no pun intended) with missing pieces. This has gotten worse over time. And it can take quite a long time between sets. I had thought they were going to a faster service but this has not happened yet." Pley responded that missing pieces was its top priority and that it has its best people working on the problem.

Cheaper Fun

Getting a new toy in the mail every few weeks -- even if they're used rental toys -- can be more fun for a child than getting and keeping a huge Lego set that they'll play with a few times and then put their completed piece on a shelf. And it can be a lot less expensive.

A study commissioned by Pley found that families spend an average of $7,620 on toys by the time their kids reach age 12, and $5,182 is wasted on toys that are rarely used. Only 32 percent of toys are used, the study found, and 69 percent play regularly with fewer than 20 toys. "Some of the new toys are very cool. But they're cool for five minutes," Lachman says.

Renting a set of Legos, with the option to buy it at a discount if your kid wants to keep it forever, is a way to try before you buy. For the price of buying a large Lego set, a parent could pay for a year's worth of rentals.

And, if you really want your kid to be a part of the sharing economy in the most frugal way, Pley does something that the toy store at the mall won't do: Buy your old Legos. Have your children gather up all of the spare Legos in the house and send them to Pley -- which will clean them and keep them as spare parts -- and you'll get three months of Pley services for free. Your bare feet will thank you.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the Bay Area who specializes in writing about personal finance topics. Follow him on Twitter @AaronCrowe.

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'Netflix of Legos' Aims to Save Parents Money (and Their Feet)
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