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Worried your kids will tire of their toys too soon? Rent them instead

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BabyPlays.com allows parents to rent toys instead of buying them, an Earth-friendly way to cut down on clutter. (Photo by Danielle Gaines)

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BabyPlays.com allows parents to rent toys instead of buying them, an Earth-friendly way to cut down on clutter. (Photo by Danielle Gaines)

In many American homes there is a toy cemetery: A box or closet full of colorful blocks, dolls and whirligigs that no longer capture the short attention span of their young owners.

Lori Pope’s Texas home was no different. When her twin boys were just 6 months old, Pope would rush home from work every night to spend quality playtime with them, only to notice they were no longer interested in the vast majority of toys cluttering her home

If only there were a way to have age-appropriate toys delivered to her home that she could send back when they lost interest, she thought. She searched the Internet, coming up with nothing. So she decided to create the business herself. Launched last October, BabyPlays.com offers kid-tested, stimulating toys through a Netflix-style subscription service, with a “wish list” and all.

The site is part of a larger trend in recent years that has grown to include rent-and-return movies, handbags and even pets. Part economic worry, part eco-mindedness, some consumers are jumping at the idea to rent just about anything over buying it.

Reinier Evers is the founder of trendwatching.com, an online trend firm. The site recently posted a report about “transumerism,” the purchase of rented or transferable goods from companies like Baby Plays.

“The money saving aspect of transumerism and rental concepts is something that will appeal to uncertain consumers who still want to experience as much as they can,” Evers said about the declining economy.

Evidence of the overall trend toward transumerism is not hard to find: Netflix sends out 1.6 million DVDs a day; nearly 200,000 consumers and businesses have signed up for ZipCars, a car-sharing service in North America and London since 2000; and women can get glammed up for a night out by renting designer purses, red carpet jewelry and even gorgeous gowns online, from companies like “Bag Borrow and Steal” and “One Night Stand.”

If the track record of the $24 billion U.S. toy industry is any indication of demand, Pope’s business is also destined for success. Toy industry analysts said Pope’s business will probably take off and could flourish during market downturns. “I see no reason why it wouldn’t be successful,” said Chris White, a research analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities. “We love our kids and if we can make them happy, we always try to--that includes buying toys.”

Over 1,000 families have already purchased memberships to Baby Plays, with more than 50 percent of them coming from New York and California.

Manhattan mom Kira Ryan joined the program early this year and rents toys for her 20-month-old daughter Emilia that are big, loud and that mom would get tired of in a month. “We are always looking for ways to ensure that our small apartment doesn’t become a playground,” she said.

Emilia is normally a girly-girl, so Ryan recently ordered a batch of vehicle-type toys to make sure she wasn’t missing out on anything. When the toy fire truck sirens got to be too much, Ryan sent that toy back.

Geared toward families with children 5 years and younger, monthly plans range from $36.99 to $64.99 with either a three- or 10-month commitment. Families log on to the Web site, browse toys by age or category and add them to their wish list, receiving a new batch when the old toys are returned. There are no late fees, so if a child develops an attachment to a particular toy, it can be kept for longer or even purchased at a discounted rate.

Emilia’s recent favorite toy is the “zoom around garage,” that makes zooming noises as she pushes cars around the ramps, slides and gas station pumps. It is the first rental that Ryan kept for longer than a month primarily because Emilia’s friends also love the toy when they come to visit.

The Ryans will also be purchasing their first toy from the company soon: a shiny pink bouncy ball. “This one my daughter loves,” Ryan said. “So I think we will buy it and keep it forever.”

Some toy store owners, however, are not buying in to the trend. Miles Altman, who has owned and operated King Arthur’s Toys in Cincinnati for 27 years, says nothing can replace the traditional toy store, and he argues that parents won’t want to rent toys that may have been contaminated with germs from other children.

“We have been successful in the past weathering all types of competition and we are just looking forward to another good year,” he said.

Pope agrees that the thought of germy, rented toys can send shivers up the parental spine. But she says health and safety are of utmost importance. All Baby Plays toys are tested for lead and phthalates, hand washed with an organic cleaner and shrink-wrapped before being shipped.

“I say they are definitely cleaner than the toys you get from the store; those have been handled by a worker overseas and then shoved into a cargo container that has been fumigated, then they are unpacked by store personnel. It is so unsanitary,” she said.

Once a child loses interest in a toy, it also loses value with parents. Through retail alternatives, parents can reduce the waste associated with this phenomenon.

“Emotionally, we need to retrain our children and try to move them away from a possession-minded society,” she said.

Evers said children as transumers is “not a bad thing, it’s merely a different attitude towards what constitutes value and status. In fact, in some ways, it could lead to a healthier understanding of how possessions can or can not make one happier.”

Of course, those who think renting toys will solve their clutter problems, may be in for a disappointment. MomFinds.com, a product trend blog for working moms, recently reviewed Baby Plays.

“Really, it’s a no-brainer. I’ve got a tubs full of old toys in basement,” wrote Kristyn Spangler. “If I’d belonged to a toy rental program, I could use that storage space for something important--like my collection of 8-track tapes.”

E-mail: dg2410@columbia.edu