Wooden Toys Bridge Generations
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August 2003 | Vol. II - No. 8

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Wooden Toys Bridge Generations

Hand carved or lathe produced, the work involved in creating wooden cars, trucks and blocks is often equated with the amount of love they create. For this reason, perhaps, industry observers say sales of wooden toys are making a comeback.

"In the last three to four years, you've seen a whole resurgence of the [wood] product," said Donna Nash, marketing manager for Brio (ToyDirectory). "With the growth of video games, a lot of consumers are trying to look back, to bring back the simplicity of play.”

For their part, Brio alone produces enough wooden train tracks in a year to stretch from New York to Chicago and more wooden cars and trucks than the big three automakers combined. That doesn’t mean producers of wooden toys aren't facing some significant challenges.

"Our market is driven by price," said Nash. "In Europe, there is more of a tradition of wooden toys and less concern for price. In America you are competing with price and plastic. People in America are not as loyal."

Educational Concepts

More than entertaining, wooden blocks are an excellent learning tool, according to George Worsh, owner of Educational Concepts, makers of Old Fashioned Unit Building Blocks. It's one of the reasons he believes wooden toys are popular with child educators.

"What the child learns just by playing is, ‘Two of these equals one of those,’" said Worsh. "It challenges the child's creativity. They do it. They make a boat out of it. They make a castle out of it."

High quality wooden blocks, like those Worsh sells in specialty stores and through his website, are made of hardwood, usually maple, an ingredient that makes them more expensive but which also enhances the play experience, Worsh believes.

"Maple is very heavy,” he explained. “When you stack them up, they tend to stay in place. If you use lighter material, they don't do that. They are so light that a young person with undeveloped fine motor skills has difficulty stacking them."

Among Worsh's best customers are older people, grandparents purchasing toys they remember from their youth for new grandchildren.

That's a trend Nash has seen as well.

"I do think grandparents are playing a role," she confirmed. "I think they are trying to get back to the simplicity of play, and they are also from the era where they are not familiar with the video games."

Johnny Girson, past president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA) (ToyDirectory), says wooden toys are an important part of the inventory for a specialty toy store.

"It's something that makes our store [The Learning Tree] unique," he said. "These are the toys of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents."

While wooden toys often carry higher price points than regular mass-produced products, Girson says they more than make up for it in other areas.

"Yes, the price is more than other toys, but the underlying value certainly compensates for the higher cost," Girson said, a sentiment which Worsh shares.

"The plus side of that is the durability and heirloom quality is much easier to achieve," Worsh said.

Another trend that has emerged over the last few years is the merging of the high-tech marketing potential of the Internet with the traditional nature of wood. Worsh says the Web allows him to cut past much of the competition offered by other product lines on store shelves.

"It's a lot easier to reach people now," he explained. "In a retail store, wooden toys are surrounded by a lot of other toys. I'm only getting partial attention. When I'm selling over the Web, it's all about how that toy is going to help that child."


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