Published reports claim that leading toy icon FAO Schwartz might not have enough "liquidity" to make it through this holiday season. And Toys R Us has announced it will close 182 stores because of "stagnant sales." This has made me wonder about the current state of toyland.
I always thought that, with endless generations of children, the toy industry had a constantly renewable source of revenue, much like with babies always fueling the diaper business. My curiosity led me to gather a focus group of my 10-year-old son's friends. Here's the way I remember it.
"So," I said, "what do you guys think about toys?"
There were a couple of chuckles and nearly a guffaw, and then a thoughtful quiet.
"Toys," one boy said, a mist in his eyes. "Those were the days."
"Man, I remember when I used to play with them the way you were supposed to play with them," another said.
"You mean like the picture on the box?" a third boy asked. "Naw, that was never for me. The fun was just figuring out how to play with them."
"The fun," a fourth lad said, "was watching your dad figure out how to put them together." Laughter all around.
"So, what happened? Have toys lost their appeal?" I asked.
"I don't know about the rest of you guys, but I just don't have time anymore to even think about playing with a toy," the first boy answered. "You see, my mom's a soccer mom, and she has made it very clear to me that she intends to stay a soccer mom. "
All the boys nodded. "I actually quit soccer once," one boy confessed, "but the soccer ball decal on the back of our minivan left an ugly sticky mark, so I had to join again."
Then I asked about video games.
"I thought we were talking about toys," a boy snickered. "Video games are something different entirely."
One of the boys leaned in close to me and spoke slowly. "You see, video games aren't really toys. They're more of a habit, you know."
"They can really hook you," another boy added. "I'm up to two or three games a day, but my mom's trying to make me cut back."
"How about baby toys?" I ventured. "My son seems to really enjoy playing with his 2-year-old brother's toys."
All the boys laughed and then nodded. "Sure," a boy said. "Like you have an excuse to be a kid again."
"But it doesn't last long," another said. "And you can do it only when you're sure you're not going to have any unexpected visitors."
"I understand," I said. "What about girls' toys?"
There was an awkward silence before one of the boys cleared his throat. "Let's just say, you know, that once in a while, on really rainy days with absolutely nothing on TV, I may have participated in a Barbie playhouse production. But it's too much work. We might as well be doing schoolwork. I mean, the scenarios these girls come up with for their dolls have plots more complicated than Harry Potter."
"So, that's it? The end of toys as we know them?" I asked as the boys stood to leave, having already overextended their attention spans. "What about all those toy store Tickle Me Elmo or Beanie Babies crushes, where people get trampled trying to buy one?"
One of the boys patted me on the back. "In mint condition with their original packaging, they may be worth something someday."