By Ylan Q. Mui and Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 24, 2007
Wal-Mart officials said yesterday they were asking toy suppliers to submit recent safety documentation or re-test their products in response to the wave of recalled merchandise from China that has cast a shadow over the upcoming holiday shopping season.
The efforts are part of a five-step plan to improve safety that the company is calling the Toy Safety Net Program. It has promised to work with the Toy Industry Association, a trade group, on new safety standards later this month and help Chinese leaders who are implementing new testing procedures.
"We know this is an issue at the top of mind with our customers, and we know we can play a role to reassure them that we have great, safe toys in our stores," said Laura Phillips, Wal-Mart's merchandise manager overseeing toys.
About 80 percent of the toys sold in the United States are made in China. Phillips said the majority of toys on Wal-Mart's shelves are manufactured there but declined to give a specific figure. The Bentonville, Ark., retailer controls roughly one-third of the U.S. toy market, according to Eric Johnson, a management professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.
"They have an obviously huge stake in this thing as a retailer, making sure that consumers feel that toys are safe," he said. "They are exceedingly powerful in the toy industry."
Under the new program, Wal-Mart's suppliers must provide evidence that their toys have been tested for safety by a third party within the past three months. Typically, toys are inspected during preproduction, production and in the store, said Kyle Holifield, director of product compliance and product safety for Wal-Mart. Suppliers that do not meet the three-month standard must undergo additional inspection.
Wal-Mart has hired three firms to help retailers test their products: Bureau Veritas of Belgium, Intertek Group of London and Consumer Testing Laboratories of Bentonville. Chuck Rogers, who oversees quality in global procurement for Wal-Mart, said he expected the number of toys tested by the company to rise to an average of 200 per day, a 15 to 20 percent jump over normal levels.
Wal-Mart's move comes after two major recalls by Mattel this month encompassing more than 10 million toys, including such popular lines as Barbie, Batman action figures and Thomas the Tank Engine, all made in China.
Wal-Mart Watch, a frequent critic of the company financed by the Service Employees International Union, said the retailer's efforts to improve product safety do not go far enough. "Wal-Mart's not addressing the larger problem of why Chinese toy suppliers are cutting corners with lead paint and melamine," spokesman Nu Wexler said, referring to a harmful additive found in pet food made in China. "It's because they're under enormous pressure from buyers like Wal-Mart, and they're sacrificing child safety to keep costs low."