The other day, Terry Starr dredged up a suppressed memory, like a patient on an analyst's couch: the time she tried to build the deluxe SpongeBob Bikini Bottom Adventures Lego kit that her son received for his 7th birthday.
"I remember hundreds and hundreds of pieces," she recalled. No, forget hundreds. "It must have been a thousand pieces," she said. (For the record, it was 579 pieces.)
For hours she worked cross-legged on the floor of her suburban New Jersey living room. She had pages of directions, an impatient child and no help. (In her marriage, she is the toy builder because she has the better dexterity and spatial sense.)
At last, she was getting close.
Then . . .
"I could not find one piece," she said.
One minuscule and absolutely necessary piece was missing. She and her son looked everywhere. He became so upset that he started breaking the pieces apart. She wept in frustration.
As another holiday shopping season gets under way, new toys will soon begin entering households in critical mass. To the consternation of countless parents like Starr, a startling number will need to be built.
For a variety of reasons, toys are coming in more compressed packaging these days and with more dreaded assembly required. And many adults feel less and less up to the task.
"I think it's true that toys do have more parts today," said Simmie Kerman, a co-owner of four toy stores in the Washington-Baltimore area. Manufacturers save on shipping and labor costs by packaging toys flat and unassembled. "It's the Ikea model."
Consumers pay less as a result, but they bear a bigger burden when they open the box.
Tim Walsh, author of Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them, pointed to Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, a hot toy of the 1960s that was reintroduced several years ago to the delight — then the dismay — of baby boomers.
The original Rock 'Em Sock 'Ems could be lifted assembled out of the box and used immediately. Today's version must be put together, and the robots are considerably smaller than their predecessors. Walsh speculated that the change is partly a response to retailers' desire to cram as much merchandise as possible onto their coveted shelf space.
Then there's the ever-growing popularity of so-called construction toys, like Legos; for them, building is supposed to be part of the fun. Many such kits are no longer designed for open-ended, creative building, but rather to construct a precise model based on a licensed movie theme, like Star Wars or Transformers. If a child can't re-create the spaceship or warrior by following pages of directions, it is up to the parents.
Toy industry observers say that the category of construction toys has experienced phenomenal growth over the last year, perhaps as adults seek to counter children's interest in all things electronic.
Sales of construction sets grew 21 percent between August 2008 and August 2009, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm — far faster than any other category. Lego, the granddaddy of construction toy companies, has had two record years, even in the face of the current recession.
Michael McNally, brand relations director for Lego, sheds some light on the process. Each Lego product, he said, goes through an extensive development process involving a "model team." The teams start with an end product and a price in mind — say, a dinosaur for $29. Then they go back to the 7,500 pieces in the company's stockpile and use them to build several different dinosaurs. And as they build, many team members wear gardening gloves, "to replicate the motor skills of a 6- or 7-year-old," McNally said.
Then child testers build the products, and the team breaks down the building into steps and writes the directions.
This all works beautifully for children like Tobey Bill, an 8-year-old third-grader in Weston, Conn., who will study the directions for an hour, then build the Darth Vader Starship piece by piece with no parental help.
"He has way more patience and focus than I ever could have," said his mother, Laura Davidson.
For the others, there's the customer service hotline, which many toy companies have beefed up in recent years.
Indeed, if Starr had called the Lego customer service hotline, she would have been able to order that missing part. But her SpongeBob story didn't end with total defeat.
It turns out her son had received two SpongeBob Bikini Bottom kits for his birthday. Starr had intended to return the second and exchange it for another toy. But much to her dismay, her son opened the second box and wanted to build it.
So, she said, "We started over — a month later, once my frustration had subsided.
"It was faster the second time."