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Toy retailer reflects on sales, safety

Toys R Us CEO Gerald L. Storch says holiday numbers have been erratic.

NEW YORK - Concerns about toy safety since the summer's recalls plus worries about the economy have made shoppers more cautious this holiday season, resulting in generally sluggish toy sales.

No retailer has as much at stake as Toys R Us Inc., the nation's largest specialty toy seller. In an interview, chairman and chief executive officer Gerald L. Storch discussed toy recalls and detailed what his company and the industry were doing to make toys safer.

Question: How has holiday business fared so far at Toys R Us?

Answer: It started off very strong, but it has been relatively erratic since then. . . . We know we are not going to be immune from [economic challenges], but we do know that, in good times and bad, parents want to buy toys for their children, and it is the last thing they are going to cut.

Q: How have the toy recalls affected consumer behavior?

A: We are not seeing a lot of difference in toy-buying patterns this year vs. prior years. I believe that it's because with all . . . the scrutiny that toys have received, the consumers that we talk to believe the toys on the shelf now are safe.

Q: What measures have you taken to ensure toy safety?

A: We have been very aggressive. We have terminated two vendors already this year for failure to meet standards, and we have had some tough conversations with many others. We have raised our safety standards to make sure that toys cannot pass through that didn't meet those standards.

Q: You have been working very closely with lawmakers in supporting legislation that would make toys safer. What do those bills entail?

A: The bills that are out there now will increase funding [for] the Consumer Product Safety Commission. . . . We believe that it is the single most important step in not only improving the safety of toys but all consumer products. Additionally, the bills set prescribed limits for contaminants in toys, such as lead.

Q: How can recalls run more smoothly?

A: Because in the past, the toys have not been batch-stamped or date-stamped, it had been impossible to know when a toy was manufactured. That's why you saw millions of toys recalled when in some cases, a small percentage of toys was actually contaminated. . . . We are starting to require it going forward. It will make it much easier for both parents and retailers to identify which product is covered by a recall to make sure it is pulled from the shelves and from people's homes.

Q: You and other industry executives say this is the safest toy season yet because of increased testing. How do you explain the recall just a few weeks ago of a holiday toy called Aqua Dots because it was tainted with a [substance that, when ingested, converts into the] date-rape drug?

A: No product made by man is perfect, whether it is toys, medical instruments, medicines . . . but products can always be made safer. And we are going to work aggressively and relentlessly to continue to increase toy safety.