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Living in Toyland: Blain's buyer has seen it all

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Catherine W. Idzerda
October 19, 2007

Bob Glaser’s memory is full of toys.


Elmos, Barbies, Easy-Bake Ovens, army guys, stacks upon stacks of board games and millions of toy trucks and cars.


All are packed into his cluttered and overfull hippocampus, the part of the brain devoted to memory.


So it’s not surprising that Glaser has a hard time naming the standouts from his 33 years as toy buyer for Blain’s Farm & Fleet. How would you choose from such a storehouse of treasures?


“Um, Evil Knievel was strong, I remember that,” said Glaser, who also is vice president of store operations. “And the Cabbage Patch dolls—that craze was phenomenal.”


This Saturday, Blain’s Toyland will open for the season, a tribute to the work of Glaser and fellow toy buyer Vickie Larson.


It’s a tradition that started in 1957, when employees put toys on the shelves the day after Thanksgiving, explained Renee Tarnutzer, communications coordinator for Blain’s.


In 1979, Toyland became what it is today. When the green tarps come down and Toyland is revealed, people know that the Christmas shopping season has begun.


Isn’t October a little early for Christmas toys?


“We start seeing ads in from our competitors in mid-September,” Glaser said.


And speaking of early, Glaser and Larson started planning for this year’s Toyland last November.


Here’s how it works:


Throughout November, Glaser and Larson visit toy manufacturers, and manufacturers come to them.


They spend at least three days at Hasbro in Massachusetts. Hasbro makes a variety of popular toy lines, including Playskool, Milton Bradley, Play-doh, GI Joe, Baby Alive, My Little Pony, Easy-Bake and Nerf.


In February, Glaser and Larson go to New York City to attend the International Toy Fair, the largest toy trade show in the western hemisphere. More than 1,500 manufacturers from 30 countries showcase their toy lines.


Toys are ordered in February.


What are Blain’s buyers looking for?


Good play value, safety and variety.


“Play value” describes how long a child will engage with a toy and how often the child will return to it.


And speaking of returns, in the case of recalls, toys are simply removed from the shelves and replaced with others, Tarnutzer said. There’s always plenty to go around.


“The new licensed products—Hannah Montana, High School Musical—will be big this year,” Glaser said. “And the new Elmo, too.”


The new Elmo won’t be released until November, and even Glaser doesn’t know what it will be.


“It’s a new way of doing business,” Glaser said with a smile in his voice. “Just buy it, trust us.”


This year, hobby and craft toys, remote control toys and board games are “trending up,” Glaser said.


What will he buy for his grandchildren?


“I buy toys that make a lot of noise; it upsets my sons,” Glaser said with a chuckle.


A tractor just like Dad’s

Tickle Me Elmos may come and go, but farm toys are forever.


Every year, Blain’s Farm & Fleet carries a significant number of Ertl farm and construction toys.


The Iowa-based company was started in 1945 by Fred Ertl Sr., who started making toys in the basement of his home, said Bill Walters, managing director for Ertl farm products.


And although the number of farms and farmers has declined, the toys remain popular.


“This isn’t a feast or famine kind of a business,” Walters said. “We’re selling them to collectors who grew up on a farm, to farm kids and to the grandchildren of farmers.”


That sets Ertl apart from other farm toys: You’ll find them on shelves in the den and in the sandbox.


“They’re meant to be used outside,” Walters said. “Kids like to play with what they see in real life.”


Right now, the best-selling Ertl toys are tractors from the 1950s and 1960s, such as the John Deere 4020.


Those are the tractors that many of today’s farmers or former farmers grew up with, Walter notes.


“Farming is a way of life,” Walters noted. “They can get pretty attached to the equipment they’ve used.”


—Catherine W. Idzerda



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