Reading Work Sample Final Project
No Tie-Ins. No Touch Screens. No Apps.
By: Matt Richtel
ESTHER BERNSTEIN, 6 years old with long blond hair, pulled on a pair of blue slippers with a gray tassel over the toe. She grinned.
“Look, Mom! I like these princess slippers!”
“Would you wear them to play dress-up?” her mother asked.
Esther’s 9-year-old sister, Sydelle, grimaced and freely offered that she would not.
“Well, Sydelle, you’re too old for this toy,” her mother said. “You’re not the target market.”
It was a Sunday night, after dinner, at the informal in-home testing lab of Melissa and Doug Bernstein, better known as Melissa & Doug, the toy company and the signature that adorns all their products. This August, their company will turn 25, celebrating a quarter-century of anachronism. In a time when major corporations dominate the industry, making toys with all manner of batteries, digital gimmicks or movie tie-ins, the Bernsteins keep making money in wooden puzzles, coloring pads, blocks, trains and simple costumes (the police officer, the princess, the pirate). They hatch many of their ideas by watching children at play — often among their own brood of six.They do little public relations and don’t advertise in magazines, or on radio and television. They don’t put coupons in Sunday newspaper inserts. They don’t rely on big hits, industry analysts say, just a steady stream of variations on classic toys mostly for children up to the age of 5. Nonetheless, their business has grown by double digits every year, to an estimated $325 million in revenue this year from $100 million in 2008 (and to 650 employees from 200), according to a toy company executive familiar with the company’s operations. Such figures make theirs a midsize toy business, of which analysts say there are fewer and fewer these days. In this industry, three huge players — Mattel, Hasbro and Lego — account for around $14 billion in sales, or about a third of global toy company revenue.
The Bernsteins have come a long way from the days when they drove a Chevrolet Malibu, owned by Mr. Bernstein’s father, to deliver products. Growing up in Westport, Conn., an affluent community, Mr. Bernstein, now 50, thought himself the poorest kid, living in a 900-square-foot house. Now their home is 36,000 square feet, one of the biggest in the same township, with hand-chiseled stone and antique ceiling beams — not to mention a bowling alley, an indoor full-court gym and a video arcade.
But they are, as Mrs. Bernstein, 47, puts it, restless, very restless — and challenges are upon them in an industry that, like so many others, is being rewritten in the technology age. Overall toy sales have slumped. Some specialty retailers have closed. Low-cost manufacturing has commoditized many items. But Internet sales have soared, meaning that the Bernsteins are having to adapt to online sales and marketing after years of building relationships with specialty stores.
Crucially, the rise of high-tech entertainment has changed how children play. Apps and video games have soared in popularity; on Amazon, you can even buy an iPod stand to accompany a potty trainer. The phenomenon can provoke conflicting feelings in parents. Should they give in to children’s yearnings for a phone app or video game? Or limit the screen time and offer up something simpler and more nostalgic, reminiscent of a childhood real or imagined?
The topic of traditional versus high-technology toys is one that particularly piques Mrs. Bernstein. “When you’re using a computer or an app, it’s giving you all the information you need,” she said. “It’s a completely reactive experience.” But she thinks she knows why that is so appealing. “Parents are so scared of having their kids say, ‘I’m bored.’ It’s synonymous with, ‘I’m a bad parent,’ and so they never allow kids to feel boredom, which equals frustration, and so kids don’t get to the point where they have to dig deeper and figure out what to do.”
Plenty of toy companies have joined Melissa & Doug in this niche, competitors whose simple offerings aim to entertain — but not too much. Companies like Haba, which makes blocks and wooden toys from sustainable woods, or Alex, which makes arts and crafts for “active fun.” But few companies can reach the size of the Melissa & Doug operation without facing a tough decision: Do you keep trying to expand on your own, pushing into larger retailers, or do you sell to a major toy maker?A few years ago, the Bernsteins sold a majority stake to a private investment group to help them grow. They have long sold their goods in Toys “R” Us but are expanding their presence in other big retailers like Barnes & Noble. Some vendors complain that the company now can behave more like a mass-market vendor, not like a mom-and-pop operation.
Maintaining the ambience of a responsive, small company is one challenge. Another is how to satisfy their ambitions to expand lines of old-fashioned toys in a world filling with touch screens and interactive entertainment.
ONE day in May, the Bernsteins conducted a tour of their home. On the back steps, overlooking an expansive backyard — a tennis court, a pool, a clubhouse for the children — Mr. Bernstein noted an inlaid stone compass that they had asked the contractor to dig up and reinstall twice, first because the directions were off and next because the stones didn’t line up. The pair suffer from acute perfectionism, Mr. Bernstein conceded, talking cheerfully in his usual unbroken clip.
Mrs. Bernstein walked a step behind — arms crossed, brow furrowed, mostly silent. Then we entered the toy room, and her mood suddenly changed. The room, which included a play kitchen, was filled with Melissa & Doug products. Earlier, when she stocked that kitchen with bins of pretend fruits and vegetables, as well as sturdy wooden pots and pans, she saw that there weren’t any good pretend cereal boxes or canned goods.So she set about making some, and the company recently came out with Melissa & Doug Grocery Cans, with labels like “tomato sauce” and “peas & carrots.” “One of our hottest items is a set of cans,” she exclaimed, her eyes lighting up, worry creases dissolving. “We really nailed that one.”
Her mood lighter, she acknowledged that the tour had made her anxious. The couple have never given a long interview, and Mrs. Bernstein said she worried that the opulence of their house would make them seem greedy or driven by money. More fundamentally, Mrs. Bernstein said she was prone to anxiety and did not like to feel out of control.
As a child, first in Boulder, Colo., then in Westport, she was miserable, she said, the “loneliness too much to bear.” She described herself as a “creative misfit,” anxious and not eating, becoming anorexic in seventh grade. In college, she said, she stopped eating again and dropped to 82 pounds.
To comfort herself, she wrote poetry, sewed clothes for her dolls, worked on arts and crafts and played and wrote music. Creating things “took me out of what could have been,” she said. “I should, by all accounts, be on serious drugs. I could be very depressed.” She added: “When I create it makes me so happy. I’m able to soothe myself.”
Mr. Bernstein was much more cheerful but equally intense. As a child, he did his playing outside — tag and whiffle ball — dawn to dusk. The son of a principal and a guidance counselor, he was a class clown and his high school’s graduation speaker.
Always hard-working and competitive, he campaigned for a student position on the board of the University of Connecticut bookstore — not even the student council — by walking around the dorms handing out fliers and giving stump speeches. Mr. Bernstein said he never so much as tasted alcohol, wanting his wits about him and worrying that he might relish it with the intensity he relished everything else. “It’s hard for me not to overdo things,” he said.
They were set up by their parents when Mr. Bernstein was 22, a recent graduate working at a marketing firm, and Melissa Landau was 20, still a student at Duke. They hit it off immediately.
Ms. Landau became an analyst at Morgan Stanley after college, but she hated it. In June 1988, she and Mr. Bernstein decided during a trip to the Berkshires to start a company. “We said, ‘This is it,’ ” Mr. Bernstein remembered. “We do our own thing or perish and die.”
Richtel, M. (2013, June 8). No Tie-Ins. No Touch Screens. No Apps. . The New York times.
1. What did you observe from this reading?
2. What would happen if they sold electronic toys?
1. Discuss the pros and cons of just selling non battery operated toys.
2. How would you explain this article to a child?
1. What is your opinion of this article?
2. What is the most important idea of this section?
1. I observed that these people worked hard to get we're they're at now, and there were many struggles along the way.
2. If they sold electronic toys they would be giving into the peer pressure of having to have battery operated things, instead of keeping all classic toys in there shop.
1. The pro would be that you would be showing little kids how to use there imagination instead of electronics. The con would be that you don't have as big of selling numbers because nowadays people was new high-tech flashy items.
2. I would say, this article was about a man and his wife who met when they were young, they fell in love and decided to make there own toy company that started small but has made it's way up and is now a pretty good size.
1. My opinion of this article is that it was a touching piece that told a story about a couples success in life.
2. To me the most important idea of this story would have to be when Mrs. Bernstein was telling all about her struggle when she was young.