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Toy recalls abroad spike local business

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SARAH ROSCOE WORKS on wooden airplane toys at Maple Landmark in Middlebury last Thursday morning. The local toy company has been the unexpected beneficiary of a surge in business as consumers respond to recent recalls of toys manufactured in China.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell



November 12, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — A recent spate of toy recalls has turned many consumers away from major manufacturers and foreign markets and prompted them to seek out smaller, more environmentally friendly companies — like Middlebury-based Maple Landmark Woodcraft.

“We’re seeing a huge increase in the demand,” said Michael Rainville, founder and president of Maple Landmark. “We are the beneficiaries of the problem that has been going on. And there are not too many U.S. manufacturers (of wooden toys).”

Rainville said that incoming orders in early October were about 70 percent ahead of where they were at the same time last year. Shipments last month were up 37 percent.

“Almost all of this change we’re seeing is related to people being afraid of what they’re buying,” Rainville said. “There is a segment of people that is not willing to trust anything that says ‘Made in China’ on the back right now. So they are coming to us.”

That sentiment has come through loud and clear through client input Maple Landmark has received through its Web site.

“They’ll write all sorts of things in the comment box, like ‘We threw out all our toys and we’re starting over,’” Rainville said. “Some dealers are realizing they have too many ‘Made in China’ toys on their shelves and are looking for a better balance.”

They are looking to Maple Landmark to help achieve that balance, and orders for the company’s more than 1,000 different products have been flying in.

“Our backlog is almost unmanageable,” Rainville added. “We stopped taking new accounts around four weeks ago, and put limits on other business as well, just to try to be fair to everybody.”

Maple Landmark officials noticed the sales surge in August, after one of the country’s largest toy manufacturers — Mattel Inc. — recalled around 250,000 “Sarge” die-cast cars. The toy cars, made in China, had been coated with paint containing lead levels that exceeded federal standards. Mattel has also this year had to recall around 345,00 Batman action figures; 50 different kinds of “Polly Pocket” play sets; and 90,000 locomotive toys, due to concerns over magnets or other small pieces that could be injested by small children.

Last Thursday, authorities issued a warning about a popular “Aqua Dot” toy that contains beads laced with a date-rape drug.

All of this has been bad news for China and some major toy makers, but has created a wave of sales for Maple Landmark. Rainville said the company has had to go into holiday gift making overdrive around seven weeks earlier than usual.

Maple Landmark as of Thursday was employing 42 workers, an all-time high. Some of them have been working 50 to 60 hours per week during this unprecedented boom. The company had around 30 workers at this time last year.

“A lot of our part-timers have stepped up to a full-time schedule, and last week we had people put in (a combined total of) 250 hours of overtime, so that’s the equivalent of another six people,” Rainville said. “Effectively, we’re running 16 hours a day, in some capacity, in some areas of the shop.”

Rainville said his company’s bevy of new customers has been gravitating toward a specific category of toys.

“People know us for the ‘name trains,’” he said, referring to the popular wooden letters, mounted on small wheels, that can be interconnected behind toy locomotives. “But those sales are just about where they normally are. But it is things for the younger kids — rattles, building blocks, ABC blocks, toddler toys. Those sales have almost tripled.”

Maple Landmark is selling as many units of some items in one month as it has during an entire year in the past.

“Clearly, the concern is with products children would be putting in their mouths,” Rainville said. “People are thinking about that very seriously.”

Most of Maple Landmark’s business is done through wholesalers, though it has seen a spike in direct-to-consumer sales, off the company Web site and through its showroom.

Meanwhile, the “Made in China” mark has not hurt all toy makers. Vergennes-based WowToyz has not seen a drop in sales in spite of the fact that its products are manufactured and assembled in China.

“We’ve had a very good year; we’ve grown a lot,” said Frank Berk, vice president of WowToyz, which has developed more than 500 toys sold in all 50 states — primarily to a high-end market that includes museum stores and educational facilities.

Berk said all of the company’s toys are double-tested before they hit the marketplace.

“We have not seen any negative impact in sales,” Berk said.

Rainville isn’t sure how long Maple Landmark’s sales boom will last. He knows the current recall controversy will likely die down, but he believes his company has gained a wider audience that will only grow. CBS news is scheduled to interview Rainville about Maple Landmark and the toy industry later this month.

“We obviously don’t think this is something permanent,” Rainville said. “Right now our plans are to get through until Christmas, then maybe get some sleep and then see where we stand. We’re all very exhausted and it’s been hard — in a good way. We believe there will certainly be some residual (sales). We don’t know what that will be. When you have scares like this, there is a certain amount of the market that shifts and doesn’t shift back.”

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