Monday, December 12, 2005

Where are you, Ello? Too smart for your own good?

Well doesn't it just figure that if a toy company came up with something cool and neat that actually required a child to think and use their imagination, it would be given up on in the market after only two years? Simply pushed aside, even if in those two years, the product "just flew off the shelves" and won just about every award out there from parent and child educational and development journals and websites?

Stella and I went to Toys R Us to get a gift for her friend's birthday, and Stella already knew what she wanted to get her friend. "An Ello set," she said. Stella loves Ello: a "creation system" -as toymaker Mattel calls it- and that description isn't just PR. It's accurate. It includes a variety of pieces, balls, sticks, panels and "people" parts so that a child can build a house, people in that house, jewelry for themselves, or whatever. It was the most open-ended imagination toy I'd ever seen marketed for girls. I've yet to meet a parent who didn't love it, and every kid I know who has it (and Stella has seen to it that any friend who invites her to a party gets a set) loves it too. As a parent, there's a certain smug joy out of seeing your kid holed up for hours in her room, putting together her "Ello city" and coming up with new ways to put these parts together, rather than zombie out in front of the TV or some stupid video game. It's getting her to think outside the box.

Stella was disappointed, not only because she had to get further out of that box and think up something else to get her friend, but that seemingly her favorite toy was nowhere. We asked a tired holiday-time employee at the Toys R Us front desk where they moved Ello, and she said "If we even still have it, its would be [where we'd already looked]." We found a manager-type person and complained, and the manager said "Yeah, we're not getting these anymore. It’s a shame too, I really liked it. I used to love doing product demos, but it just didn't catch on."

Not catch on?

The story behind Ello's creation is a meta-story of encouragement of creativity in and of itself. Mattel's then-Senior VP of Worldwide Girls Design, Ivy Ross (who has since been snapped up by the Gap and is working for Old Navy) was profiled in the November 2002 issue of Fast Company, where she discussed the program that developed Ello. According the the Fast Company story, Ross assembled a cross-disciplinary team of designers, child development specialists and others, dubbed it Project Platypus, (aptly after that hybrid mammal that looks like an birdlike amphibian) and gave them the task (and the freedom) to come up with something new for girls. The team emerged with Ello, and it was a hit, even in pre-release focus groups. Ross gushed to Kidscreen.com in March of 2003 about the beta market testing: "The response was excellent. People couldn't find it and they were writing letters and e-mails wanting to know where they could get it...If we do the dollars that we're expected to do, and early indications are positive, then this will be an extremely profitable line...People are amazed at what we got done in three months. We basically delivered a brand that had all the research done, the merchandising was thought-out, and the product was ready to be manufactured." A great story: a toy that fostered creativity for girls, delivered by a business management style that fostered creativity.

According to the Fast Company piece, it was test marketed at FAO Schwartz, where it "flew off the shelves." Later, apparently, the numbers delivered. According to Mattel's 2003 Annual Report, Ello was one of the company's feature sellers, leading its "Other Girls Brands" division: "Increases in gross sales of Other Girls Brands was driven by solid performances by Polly Pocket™ and ello™." The 2004 report says much the same: In the domestic segment, "..lower sales of Barbie™, Diva Starz™, What's Her Face!™, Wheels and Harry Potter™ products were partially offset by gains in Polly Pocket™ and ello™." It was a triumph not only for young girls, who finally had a construction set marketed to them, but for the power of thinking outside the box in a business environment. At Today'sParent.Com, it made the Top Toy list with a telling comment from a 6-year-old-girl named Rebecca: "You can look through the idea booklet, but they don’t tell you exactly what to do, so you have to use your imagination.”

So what happened in 2005? Stella hit some birthday parties earlier this year and there was still plenty of Ello to be had. Now, there's only a few "Shopopolis" sets left on Amazon, Toys R Us has given up on it, and this mom and her daughter walked to another department disgusted, as we mused to the Toys R Us manager-type person: "Oh, figures. This toy forced kids to think and use their imaginations. We can't have that, can we? Everything's got to be force-fed video games." The manager-type person sadly agreed. One of the few negative reviewers of Ello on Amazon.com probably sums this effect up succinctly and sadly: "My daughter likes polly pockets so I thought should would like this but it was just a bunch of junk with lots of pieces." (sic) That's right lady, this is a product that requires a bit of thought, to actually put the pieces together and create something. This concept is probably, sadly, beyond many parents/kids today, who are wowed by Amazing Amanda and her ability to urinate on cue, or by those --as another Amazon reviewer who gave Ello 5 stars said-- "sleazy Bratz dolls" and their tacky pimpmobile.

Mattel's customer service department says they haven't stopped making Ello. "As far as I know," the friendly girl who answered my call said, "We haven't discontinued them." I heard her tap out a database, as she assured me that the People Places and Things, the Starter Set and a "Design A Watch With Ellos" set is still being made. But she couldn't say much about availability. Is it that you're just relaxing for this season, and perhaps come back next year stronger?" I asked. "That's a possibility," she said, but didn't seem to know more. In the meantime, you can still get Shopopolis from places with names like "Mastermind toys" --and other places that appeal to parents who want to subversively encourage their kids to exercise their brains while playing (god forbid the kids ever find out a toy has our approval because its good for them!).

Stay tuned.

2 comments:

Emily said...

Interesting.... Ello is great.

Lego came out with a - sort of - counterpart called Clickits, but not as versatile. Clickits (and I think Lily got some for Stella) are well made and super great for jewelry and also have some predefined things they let you do (frames, boxes, etc.), but are NOT as open-ended as Ello. We got the Clickits as I recall, because I could not find Ello @ Target (and I also knew Stella had quite a bit of Ello already so I was not sure what to get).

Is there some Lego / shelf space conspiracy going on here??? Vendor pressuring the retailer type of deal?

Could be....

Em said...

When I was a kid (around ten, I suppose), Ello was my favourite toy, followed by Polly Pocket and Lego (and K'Nex, to a lesser extent). I loved that the pieces were a lot stronger than Lego blocks (I only ever had one Ello piece that broke, but that was because of negligence on my part, but plenty of broken Lego pieces), and it allowed you to build differently than Lego (and Lego is so bloody expensive). It's too bad they stopped producing it. But I'm so glad I never sold my Ello kits when I quit playing with them (unlike my Polly Pocket dolls). If I have daughters, I want them to be able to play with this wonderful toy!

Around this time, I began noticing that there weren't many basic, gender-neutral Lego sets being made, and at my age then, I lacked the character to "rebel," so I felt more comfortable playing with my "girly" Ello sets than my more "boyish" Lego sets (or my brother's Lego sets, which were even more "boyish"). I'm sure most girls at that age would feel the same way, and this was what was great about Ello: it gave me (and other girls) a fun construction toy to appeal to our inner engineer, without the societal shame brought on by playing with a "masculine" toy, like Lego. It also didn't help that none of my friends played with Lego. I mean, I shouldn't have felt bad about building houses, but I did. Good thing my parents were supportive!

Now, we can argue about the morality of the gender binary for children's toys, but I think since that will take a long time to fix (and it's more profitable to market toys this way; parents end up buying twice as many of them!), in the meantime, it is more useful to market separate construction toys for girls, and to a lesser extent, gender-neutral toys. At that age, children are highly conformist and sensitive to perceived roles, so most girls aren't going to feel comfortable playing with a construction toy "meant for" boys, no matter how much they actually want to. I feel the people complaining about Goldie Blox are missing this important point. Though I do agree with them that the gender gap in STEM should not be blamed on girls/women, I also think construction toys for girls certainly help. Based on my childhood, I firmly believe the best construction toy that existed for girls is Ello, and it is a shame it has been discontinued.

I am a software engineering student. I believe that playing with all these construction toys helped me to be the strong math student I am, and I hope that other girls are not denied these opportunities because of the lack of good construction toys available for them.