In 1942, Gary Murphy received a wood wagon for his birthday. Not only did the toy last throughout his childhood, it was passed down to his children and grandchildren.
Now 72, Murphy wanted others to enjoy a durable toy, too. So he started building and selling wooden wagons from his North Carolina home.
Last year, Murphy heard that Meijer, Grand Rapids, Mich., was hosting a contest to find “the best undiscovered American-made toys for your children.”
Confident his wagon was a fit, Murphy entered — and was chosen one of two winners.
Murphy, owner of CircaToys, Franklin, N.C., won in the 1- to 3-year old category for his “Wagon of Blocks”; and Peters’ Group, Goshen, Ind., won in the 4- to 8-year-old category for its “Stack & Stick Cozy Cabin.” Both products have been sold on Meijer.com since November 2012.
Meijer’s “Next Great Toymaker” contest was an opportunity for small toy companies and entrepreneurs in the United States with 50 employees or less to feature products on Meijer.com along with 8,000 other toys. The winners were determined by a panel of Meijer judges and scored on uniqueness, educational relevance, creativity and quality.
“We believe the U.S. heritage of these toys along with their classic style and quality craftsmanship will be a winning combination for our Meijer.com shoppers,” Liwanag Ojala, vice president of e-commerce for Meijer, said in a statement. Meijer was unavailable for further comment.
Meijer plans to run another contest this year, according to its website.
“We were delighted by the number and quality of the entries and look forward to the 2013 contest,” Meijer writes on its website. “Do you have a toy to sell? You could be the Next Great Toymaker to delight Meijer customers and their children by winning exclusive distribution of your toy on Meijer.com in 2013.”
Murphy got into the toy business several years ago. After retiring in 2007, he moved from Birmingham, Ala., to Franklin, N.C. While looking for toys to buy his grandchildren, he became dissatisfied with what he felt was the poor quality of toys on the market.
“Everything was plastic and made in China,” he said.
Remembering the enduring appeal of his childhood wagon, Murphy decided to build his own version of it. The “Wagon of Blocks” was the first product his new company, CircaToys, created.
Approved for children ages 6 months and up, the Wagon of Blocks is varnished in 100% canola oil. It includes 40 building blocks of varying shapes and sizes, plus a wooden wagon with removable wheels and axles. It currently sells for $49.99, down from its original $69.99.
“I hope our toy will bring fun and creativity to generation after generation of Meijer customers’ families the way it did for mine,” Murphy says in a profile published on the Meijer website.
The other contest winner is Andrew Peters, president of Peters’ Group. Peters found out about the contest from a coworker who thought Peters’ patented brand of Stack & Stick toys would be a perfect fit.
Intended for kids ages 5 and up, Stack & Stick blocks are designed to hold snugly in place.
“Our blocks are uniquely different because they’re patented, and when two blocks are put together, they stay together until taken apart,” he said.
The Stack & Stick Cozy Cabin set comes with 40 building blocks plus a wooden base. Blocks lock into place with downward pressure to form a log cabin or other type of home. The set comes with four different block sizes, two gable ends, eight roof slats, a chimney block, and a wood base. It currently sells for $14.99, down from its original $44.99.
Along with being American-made, Stack & Stick toys are green in that they are made from all-natural hard maple left over from the manufacture of furniture, said Peters.
Noting that Meijer just ordered several more Stack & Stick building sets, Murphy said winning the Meijer Next Great Toymaker Contest has allowed Peters to bring his toy to a whole new audience.
“The contest is such a great idea,” he said. “I wish Walmart would do something like this.”
Indeed, the contest is an innovative way for Meijer to engage shoppers, said Adrienne Appell, spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association, New York.
“There’s an excitement factor in toys,” she said. “Toys evoke a happy, warm feeling and get people thinking about their childhood.”
The contest comes at a time when food retailers are expanding their toy assortment to appeal to consumers in search of one-stop shopping. To compete with mass merchandisers like Walmart and Target, supermarkets are broadening their toy selection so that shoppers who come in for food can get birthday presents and other toys while in the store.
An increased number of food retailers are even attending the association’s annual Toy Fair toy, game and entertainment trade show. They include A&P, Kroger, Save-A-Lot and Ahold, according to Appell. The next Toy Fair will take place Feb. 16-19, 2014.
Meijer is unique in that it joins large chains like Walmart and Target that sell toys online, said Danny Silverman, director of online sales strategy and support at Etailing Solutions, Westport, Conn., an e-commerce consulting firm that is a sister agency to CatapultRPM and part of the Epsilon family of firms.
E-commerce not only lets retailers offer a greater variety of toys without clogging up store shelves, but also enables expanded product information. Meijer.com features biographies on the winning toymakers, plus in-depth details about their toys.
“E-commerce sites accompanied by online content increases the likelihood that the consumer will be interested in the product,” Silverman said.
Meijer’s Toymaker contest is an innovative way for Meijer to differentiate itself in e-commerce toy sales. While it’s tough for Meijer to beat e-commerce giant Amazon.com in terms of price, the contest gives it a new way to compete.
“It creates a strong relationship with the shopper,” Silverman said.
Sidebar: Toy Trends
NEW YORK — Vintage brands from the 1980s, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Fraggle Rock, are making a comeback in the toy industry.
Retro toys evoke feelings of nostalgia in parents, who in turn want to share their favorite childhood memories with their children, according to the Toy Industry Association, New York, a trade group.
Also hot this year are toys that have retro features with old-school touches, finishes and coloring. While the product may be brand new, the design gives it the appearance of something from the early- to mid-20th century.
Among other toy trends:
• Pop Culture Influence — Reality shows that celebrate the creativity, talent and skills of contestants have inspired toys that encourage kids to build skills in cooking, fashion, design and performance arts, according to the TIA. “Reality shows have had a trickle down effect on toys,” said Adrienne Appell, spokeswoman for the TIA.
Examples include food-themed toys that allow kids to make actual food or engage in creative role play, and craft, design and sewing toys that build on the success of Project Runway, The Rachel Zoe Project and Fashion Star.
• Portability — Compact toys that allow kids to enjoy play time in the car or at family functions. “Portability is key, with toys that can be closed and taken on-the-go to entertain kids in the car or doctor’s office,” said Appell.
• Construction — Sales of building sets grew about 20% in 2012. Sales are expected to continue to rise as manufacturers diversify their existing building lines (LEGO Friends, MegaBrands Barbie, etc.). Companies that have not previously specialized in building toys are also creating construction sets.
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