Toy Box Battle

It's a David vs. Goliath prospect for faith-based companies to even get the chance to compete in the big retail markets. Here's the story of how one Catholic David conquered his Goliath ... Wal-Mart.

LINDENHURST, N.Y. — Parents will have more wholesome toy options available to them beginning this month. Wal-Mart plans to start carrying a faith-based line of toys in time for back-to-school shopping. It’s a first for the mass-market retail industry as a whole.

Catholic mother of seven Mary Ellen Barrett knows how difficult it can be to find children’s toys in line with the virtues she teaches her children.

“It’s hard because they don’t promote the right values,” said Barrett. “Girls’ toys are trashy, and boys’ toys seem to be really dark.”

She might prefer Wal-Mart’s Tales of Glory faith-based dolls and figurine sets as a test.

Barrett’s 10-year-old daughter Katie received a Bratz doll from a school friend on her birthday three years ago. It’s not the kind of toy her mother would purchase.

“It was such a sardonic, snotty looking doll,” said Barrett. “I don’t want my children giving me that look.”

Eventually, Katie lost interest in the doll. When it ended up in a box of doll clothing, her mother threw it out.

Bratz are available at many toy chains — including Walmart. One2Believe, the maker of the Tales of Glory dolls, found it tougher to get their toys on store shelves. The company approached every major retailer seeking a place to sell their products.

“These kinds of toys have traditionally been available in specialty stores, but not mass market,” said Tom Bartsch, editor of Toy Shop magazine. “This is the first time that religious items have been available on mass market.”

Wal-Mart plans to carry One2Believe’s “Tales of Glory” faith-based dolls as a test. Four hundred twenty five of the chain’s more than 4,000 retail units. The store is devoting two feet of shelf space for the line.

According to the company, the stores where the products will be sold were chosen based on market research.

“They will be carried predominantly in the Midwest and the South,” said Jami Arms, Wal-Mart spokeswoman. “It’s a community strategy tailored by where we see a larger concentration of churches and the popularity of faith-based products.”

“Wal-Mart was the first one to take a shot at it,” said David Socha, founder of One2Believe.

Wal-Mart worked with the company to develop the product and packaging.

Socha said that his faith journey from Catholic to Baptist and back again played a role in his desire to produce faith-based toys.

“I wanted to find a way to use our company’s talents to try to impact for God through children,” said Socha. “There are so many bad influences in toys these days.”

From Battlefield to Bible

Don Levine knows a thing or two about toys. He spent 47 years in the toy business –— 18 as the senior vice president of Hasbro. A Korean War veteran, in 1963 he created one of America’s most popular and lasting toys, G.I. Joe. Last year, his company, Family Values LLC, launched Almighty Heroes — a line of Old Testament action hero and heroine figures, complete with Bible stories.

What started with eight products has grown to 50. The company’s products — including a 30-foot high inflatable ark — were the hit at the recent International Christian Retailers trade show in Atlanta.

“I’ve lived long enough to say we need heroes that don’t look like monsters,” said Levine, who is Jewish. “The stuff now is so dark.”

Levine has taken a different approach to distribution. He’s marketing and distributing his products strictly to Christian retailers.

“We’re not interested in this testing business of what Wal-Mart is doing,” said Levine. “The Christian market is a big niche market. We’re approaching 200,000 stores, including large Christian chains like LifeWay and Parable.”

Levine met with rabbis, pastors and priests in developing his product line.

“These toys offer the Christian market an alternative for children to learn the faith and the Bible,” said Levine.

Filling a Hole

At least one Catholic psychiatrist feels the field of children’s toys needs improvement.

“I expect it matters [what toys children play with], but don’t know how to provide any evidence for that. It’s too new of a development. There isn’t a lot of research on it,” said Dr. Paul Vitz, professor of psychology at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences.  “Parents would be wise to follow their instincts. The name Bratz already tells you something about it. Who would want a child to model and take after a brat? I would expect it’s a bad model that has negative effects.”

“Whatever toys you buy should be consistent with your moral values and goals,” said psychologist Dr. Ray Guarendi. He provided the advice, “Don’t follow the fads. If you follow the fads, you’re just buying moral junk.”

Today’s parents complain that they’re unable to find similar toys to those that they grew up with. G.I. Joe, Tinker Toys and baby dolls have been replaced by Hellboy action figures, LEGO witches and Bratz dolls.

“I grew up with Barbie dolls,” said Laura Brestovansky, a mother from Dryden, Mich. “I was floored a few years ago when I saw among the outfits available many Victoria’s Secret-type negligees.”

Yet, not all retailers feel the way Wal-Mart does. Steve King, co-founder of Noah’s Pals — a line of 40 handcrafted animal pairs, Noah and the Ark — told a story about his conversation with one major retail chain.

“They didn’t want to put in toys like ours because they said that they didn’t want to offend their customers because not all of them are believers,” said King.

When King told them that a subset of their customers were believers, he was told that the retailer didn’t carry “fictional products.”

“Stores will carry violent characters, but not wholesome toys because they’re afraid of offending customers,” said King. “It’s a double standard they use with religious toy-makers.”

King sees Wal-Mart’s decision as a positive sign.

“Seeing Wal-Mart embrace such toys is a great positive signal to retailers to not be afraid of faith-based products,” said King.

Toy Shop magazine’s Bartsch agreed.

“Everything has gone to extremes — it’s either flashy superheroes or inappropriate for children,” he said. “This is new. It’s good. There is definitely a hole that needs to be filled.”

“If there’s a time to introduce a line like this, the time is now,” said Bartsch. “People are looking for something with meaning and value.”

Who will win the battle for the toy box remains to be seen.

Socha said, “We don’t think we’ll take over the toy box, but we want to have some influence on children and drive them towards the faith.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.