Kids are the same the world over, especially when it comes to how they play and have fun.
That might be why Streetsboro, Ohio-based Step2 Co. LLC is finding new export opportunities for its line of rotational molded toys in China and the Middle East.
Yes, even the giant Asian nation that stocks the shelves of retailers ranging from Wal-Mart to Toys ``R'' Us wants the brightly colored plastic slides, sandboxes and playhouses made largely by hand at Step2's plants in Ohio and Georgia.
``Generally, you see most toys being exported into this country, especially from the Pacific Rim,'' said Brian McDonald, Step2 vice president of sales. ``We're happy to say we're an exporter.''
That's no mean trick for a firm that barely advertises, even in the United States. But the brand loyalty that Step2 enjoys in America is building overseas, with the assistance of some new pricing advantages.
``It's definitely accelerating,'' McDonald said. ``Right now, you have the weaker U.S. dollar, so our product is less expensive in overseas markets.''
The company also has been aided by troubles at some of its competitors in Italy and France that have either dropped similar product lines or declared bankruptcy, McDonald said.
But parents in the overseas markets are not necessarily getting the same toys as parents in the U.S. While the construction is the same, McDonald said consumers overseas generally don't want the drab browns, greens and other neutral colors designed to blend into American backyards like signs from the park service.
``The international market likes colors with more punch,'' such as bright pinks and yellows, he said. That's in part because many people in other countries don't have backyards. In Japan, for instance, McDonald said some consumers arrange their entire small living quarters around their children's Step2 play kitchen.
Privately held Step2 does not release sales or export figures, but McDonald said exports now make up about 25 percent of total sales up from just 5 percent about 10 years ago, he added.
Plastics News estimates Step2 posted rotomolding-related sales of $122 million last year, putting Step2 at the No. 2 spot among North American rotomolders.
Other toy makers are enjoying similar global success. Mattel, which reported profit of $11.8 million for the quarter ended June 30, said its 11 percent increase in sales was due largely to success overseas. Mattel's domestic sales were up only 3 percent, while international sales increased by 15 percent.
Step2's greatest challenge in increasing exports is shipping logistics and costs. With fuel costs up, fewer container ships are available to carry the company's light but bulky products overseas.
``In the past, we could receive an order on Monday and could ship it on the following Sunday,'' McDonald said. ``Now we have to line that up a month in advance.''
To deal with that issue, he said Step2 has opened a warehouse in England to serve the United Kingdom market and is considering new warehouses in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.