Want to Buy American-Made Toys? Good Luck

Looking to buy some American-made toys? Good luck.

As more safety problems surface with recalled Chinese-made toys, some parents today are seeking to buy only products made in the United States.

But there is a big gap between intentions and reality: Roughly 80 percent of the toys sold in America are manufactured in China, according to the Toy Industry Association, a trade group for toymakers and importers.

The remaining 20 percent is carved up between toymakers in Europe, the United States and elsewhere.

"Very little is manufactured in the U.S. except for specialty niche stuff, like handmade wooden toys," said M. Eric Johnson, a professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. "You would be hard pressed to go to Wal-Mart to find anything in terms of toys that didn't come from southeast Asia."

Price is the main reason.

Those specialty toys often cost more than mass produced products. But specialty manufacturers say they offer consumers a better product made by a small company that focuses on quality.

"They're going to be more expensive than the Chinese product, but there's a lot more value to them," said Dean J. Helfer Jr., founder and president of Channel Craft, a specialty toymaker. "We're not dealing in commodities here. We're dealing with gift products and toy products."

Paying More for Toys

For 25 years, Channel Craft has been manufacturing classic American games such as marbles, jacks, pick-up sticks, whistles and spinning tops. All the products are made here with domestic raw materials, Helfer said.

But are consumers willing to pay more for high-quality goods?

"If it's being wrapped and given with your name on it, you bet," he said.

That might be true for some specialty products. But for the most part, toy purchases come from large chain stores, which buy a majority of their toys from China. And this isn't just a few dolls and action figures for sale. The U.S. toy industry generated more than $8 billion in the first half of 2007, according to the research firm NPD Group.

Kathleen McHugh, executive director of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, cautioned that while there are problems with some toys from China, not all toys from there have problems.

The nation now depends so much on Chinese-made toys that McHugh said, "I don't know how we'll ever go back."

Pete Bultman is president of Lindenwood, a company that makes and sells toys under the name Uncle Goose Toys. His father founded the Grand Rapids, Mich., company in 1983.

Uncle Goose makes and sells 10,000 to 15,000 wooden block sets -- with letters in 14 different languages -- each year. His blocks are not just made in America, but are made almost entirely with raw materials from Michigan.

To compete with Chinese imports, Bultman said, "We keep our prices artificially low."

But now with several recalls of imports, he said, there are "plenty of calls each day from people who say I have just thrown out all my toys and want to start buying American."

'Seeing the Light'

"It's kind of odd that it had to take an event like this for Americans to finally see the light," Bultman added. "There are a lot of good companies in China … but with the speed at which they are growing, they just can't contain all these little mishaps."

Jamie Seeley Kreisman, president of Beka, a St. Paul, Minn. toymaker, said that there are still American toymakers, but "fewer of us than there were 10 years ago."

"We're paying a completive, domestic wage," he said. "We're paying for a high-quality domestic product … people pay a premium for our product but they are getting a premium product."

Kate Tanner, owner of Kidstop Toys & Books, an independent specialty toy store in Arizona, said that concern among her customers about toy safety is rising.

"We don't carry a lot of those toys that were recalled. That's why they shop here. They want the reinforcement," she said.

Small stores, she said, not only know the customers but many of the manufacturers.

"We know these toys, Tanner said. "We've taken them out of the box and played with them."