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Saturday, November 27, 2004 - Page updated at 04:19 P.M.

Toy ratings a bunch of fluff? Parents should be wary

By Stephanie Dunnewind
Seattle Times staff reporter

Parents should be wary of toy ratings this holiday season.
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How groups judge toys

Nearly every parenting magazine and daytime talk show recommends a list of toys this season. They're joined by a host of nonprofit organizations rating toys. This year there's even an entire show, "The Ultimate Toy Awards," set to air next Saturday.

The goal is to help parents navigate the some 6,000 new toys this year, but with so many "best" claims, parents are left more jaded than enlightened.

While awards and "hot" lists can alert consumers to new products, some reviewers warn parents to be wary.

"Most toy awards are informative as lists of ideas," said Marianne Szymanski, president of Toy Tips, which researches toys and child products. "But they're not in any way an indication that one toy is better than another. The 'hot' toy is no more than the most advertised toy of the year."

Parents may not realize some award programs, such as Parent's Choice, the National Parenting Center and Dr. Toy, don't consider all toys, just those for which manufacturers pay submission fees. While all insist their awards are independent, their entry-forsaking competitors are skeptical.

Toy Tips and the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, for example, publish books and make media appearances but don't accept toy-company advertisements or submission fees, arguing that this best positions them for unbiased reviews.

"That way, we're free to say what we like and don't like," said Toy Portfolio co-founder Stephanie Oppenheim. "And we often don't like things."

A magazine or TV show might show the finished model of a building set but neglect to mention the instructions are too difficult for the suggested age range, Oppenheim said. "It looks like a 'wowie' gift," she noted. "But if the reality is your child walks away because he's frustrated and can't figure it out, it's not a good gift."

Some awards are "nothing more than a financial handshake," contends Szymanski, co-author of "Toy Tips: A Parent's Essential Guide to Smart Toy Choices" (Jossey-Bass, 2004). "And some stickers are all about what one person thinks."

Are parents really influenced by awards anyway? Retailers say so.
"Yeah, putting stickers on boxes helps sell products," said Jeff Snipes, owner of Tree Top Toys in Lake Forest Park. "There are a lot of customers who look for awards, or if they're choosing between toy A or B, the award will push that product."

Awards have some influence on Snipes' selection, "to a point," he said. "If I'm going through a catalog and I see, say, a Parent's Choice award on a piece of merchandise, I'll look at it harder," he explained. "But if I think it's still junk, I won't buy it. But it makes you look at it twice."

Especially for grandparents or people less experienced with children's literature, "an award makes all the difference in the world," said Chauni Haslet, owner of All For Kids Books & Music. "Because it has a sticker on it, it must be the best."

Tricia Schroth, a Kirkland mom of two preschoolers, says she's most familiar with the Parent's Choice awards. "If it says Parent's Choice, I definitely think it's a good one," said Schroth, who also checks out Family Fun magazine's recommendations. "If toys have an award, it's a plus, but it doesn't drive my decision."

Schroth, a choosy toy shopper who prefers independent stores, uses awards to winnow down the selection. "I assume that if it's been rated and tested, then whoever is giving the award looked at the array of choices," she said. "I don't want to go to 10 stores and look at every train model. I assume they've filtered it down."

For companies, it makes sense to gain quick attention. In 2003, toys introduced since 2000 accounted for more than two-thirds of dollar sales of toys, according to NPD.

Last year, toy retail sales dropped 3 percent, but it's still a nearly $21 billion market, the New York-based NPD found. Video games add an additional $10 billion.

On the positive side, many awards highlight educational products that might otherwise get lost in the holiday frenzy. And trusted awards can help parents avoid toys that won't hold up. Toy Tips looked at 418 new toys, and 170 didn't pass its basic standards, Szymanski said. "A lot of the stuff you see is such junk," she said.

Even when financial ties aren't an issue — such as with children's literature's most prestigious awards, the Newbery and Caldecott medals — parents can't assume an award means "the best."

"Awards have their place," Haslet said. "We all need help deciding among the thousands and thousands of books. But it's important for parents to realize that even if a book doesn't have a seal or sticker, it's value may be just as great for an individual buyer."

Some parents are unaware that the American Library Association only considers U.S. authors for the Newbery and Caldecott (so popular foreign authors such as Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling were never in the running). Others don't know the Caldecott award goes to artists for illustrations, and doesn't necessarily reflect on the picture book's writing.

Children's music recordings also rely heavily on awards to gain notice. One local musician added a sticker that notes "Great nighttime listening;" it doesn't actually cite an award. Nonetheless, Haslet says, "because it has a seal, that's what people reach for."

Stephanie Dunnewind: or 206-464-2091.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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