Imports not bringing much holiday cheer to Toy District

This should be the time of year when Santa’s wholesale elves in the downtown L.A. Toy District are busy moving cheap, Chinese-made playthings to consumers and retailers throughout Southern California and beyond.

But area merchants say sales this year are terrible -- down about 40% in many cases from a year earlier -- and they know all too well why that is.

“A lot of people are afraid of toys that come from China,” said Justino Bello, 28, a salesman at one of the Toy District’s numerous hole-in-the-wall outlets. “Toys just aren’t big this year.”

So are the safety concerns justified?


Bello smiled sheepishly. “No comment on that,” he said.

Since the 1970s, the 12-block Toy District has been the city’s central bazaar for imported toy cars, action figures and other knick-knacks. Its wholesale outlets funnel goods to stores near and far.

Yet in a year that has seen millions of toys recalled for lead paint and other potentially dangerous defects, the Toy District highlights the difficulty, if not impossibility, of preventing unsafe goods from reaching kids under our current system of relying on overseas manufacturers to meet U.S. safety standards.

If anything, the Toy District speaks to a need for U.S. authorities to be more aggressive in inspecting the goods arriving on our shores -- through increased random checks, if no other way -- and for U.S. manufacturers and importers to be held accountable for any safety violations.


This would only benefit merchants and consumers.

“People see in the news that the toys are not safe,” said Jimmy Hernandez, 40, who runs a small shop in the area. “People are scared.”

Indeed, he told me he wouldn’t give the toys he sells to his own kids. “Not now,” Hernandez said.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, roughly 25 million toys have been recalled in the United States this year. Nearly all involved lead paint or choking hazards. Most of the toys were manufactured in China.


High-profile toy companies like El Segundo-based Mattel Inc. apologized to customers and pledged to crack down on shoddy manufacturing abroad.

But for every Mattel that steps up and takes responsibility for unsafe imported goods entering the U.S. market, thousands of smaller businesses continue operating unchanged, maintaining a steady pipeline of largely uninspected products to store shelves.

“The global marketplace presents a challenge to product safety and regulation,” said Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the commission.

I spent a day roaming the warrens and back alleys of the Toy District, chatting with shop owners, employees and customers. Many area denizens speak only Chinese or Korean (or profess no skill in English when a reporter starts asking questions). Some people I spoke with refused to give their names.


But what I ultimately picked up from my wanderings was that most Toy District wholesalers have no clue as to where and how a particular item was manufactured, or what procedures were in place, if any, to ensure compliance with U.S. safety standards.

Many shops rely on middlemen to do the importing, and know nothing about the toys they sell beyond what’s on the shipping invoice. Others do their own importing, obtaining goods directly from Chinese factories.

It was at one such shop that I found the “Luxury Doctor” toy medical set, which contains a plastic stethoscope, a pair of plastic scalpels and a small vial marked “Drug” that was just about the right size to lodge in a child’s throat.

Tammy Shin, 35, the shop’s owner, acknowledged that safety concerns have been hampering her sales. But this is mitigated by the fact that the Luxury Doctor set and most of her other toys aren’t sold widely in the United States. They mainly go to Mexico.


Shin said Mexican retailers routinely travel across the border to the Toy District to find cheap playthings they can load onto trucks and sell in Mexico City and elsewhere.

“Many times, they don’t know the importers,” Shin said. “That’s why they come here.”

I asked about product safety.

“For locals, safety is an issue,” Shin said. “But for the people from Mexico, no.”


The Luxury Doctor set has a notice at the bottom that says, “Warning, Choking Hazard -- small parts, not suitable for children under 6 years.”

As the father of a 6-year-old, I can say with complete confidence that no self-respecting child that age would have the inclination to play with a cheap plastic stethoscope and some plastic scalpels, except to judge their merit as projectiles.

Something like this would be of greatest interest to a 3- or 4-year-old. In any case, the warning on the package is in English, not Spanish.

Vance Baugham, president of L.A.-Long Beach World Trade Center Assn., a subsidiary of the L.A. County Economic Development Corp., said it’s hard to prevent unsafe goods from getting to store shelves.


“Due to the high volume, a lot slips through the cracks,” he said.

Baugham said it was primarily up to U.S. importers to uphold safety standards for goods they bring into the country, and for parents to be careful about the toys they give their kids.

“Imagine how slow it would be for consumer products to get into the United States if we had to inspect everything for lead or other safety considerations,” Baugham said. “We wouldn’t have Christmas presents until the summer.”

At one Toy District shop, I found a small plastic car with easily removed, choking-hazard-sized wheels. I asked the shop’s owner, Woosung Lim, 50, if the car had been tested for safety.


“I don’t know,” he said. “I get it from an importer. That’s all I know.”

Christmas in July is looking better every day.


Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays.


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