By Associated Press
HOUSTON (AP) -- After scouring the Internet to fill her house with only the best toys for her infant twin sons, Lori Pope hated to watch the clutter build as the boys lost interest.
If you can rent movies, video games and even handbags online, she thought, why not toys?
That's the idea behind Baby Plays, a Web-based company Pope launched in October that allows parents to receive four or six toys in the mail every month, assembled and ready for playtime.
Call it Netflix for the toddler set.
Baby Plays subscribers visit the company's Web site to browse among nearly 200 toys for newborns through preschoolers. Customers build a wish list of toys they'd like to rent, and Pope's staff ships them to their door.
''It's going to take a load off of moms,'' Pope said.
The program has been great for Heidi Borden, a financial analyst from the Houston suburb of Katy who used to dread shopping for toys with her now 11-month-old daughter and 2-year-old son.
''She wants to get on the floor and he's running down the aisle and I'm just stressed to pick out something really good really quick, get in and out,'' said Borden, 39. ''It's just a lot nicer to be able to do this online and not worry about if it's something that they don't like.''
As the co-owner of an oilfield supply business, Pope also didn't have a lot of time to shop. To save time, money and space, she searched the Internet for a toy rental company. When she couldn't find one, she decided to start her own.
Pope started with 10 customers, shipping toys out of spare office space in her business. Now she's got about 200 customers nationwide, including about 40 grandparents, and is preparing to move into a 3,000-square-foot warehouse next door.
She has spent $250,000 of the money she's made from her other business to get the company off the ground, from buying toys and hiring employees to subletting the office and storage space. She still pours about $12,000 a month into the company but hopes to begin turning a profit by this fall.
Customers pay $28.99 a month to get four toys a month for three months and $35.99 a month to get six toys a month for three months. Families willing to sign a yearlong contract can get six toys a month for $31.99.
Baby Plays' inventory includes popular toys by brands such as VTech, LeapFrog and Playskool as well as more obscure European manufacturers. Pope keeps at least seven of each kind of toy in stock so she can fulfill almost every request. She plans to double her inventory over the next two months.
Pope mainly stocks sturdy, easy-to-clean toys with few parts or parts that are easily replaced. She searches Web sites and catalogs for popular toys that are appropriate for small children and meet all European and American safety standards.
Once a new toy comes in, Pope invites Houston-area customers and their children to her office for some hands-on testing. If the kids love them, she'll order more. If they ignore the toy or lose interest just a few minutes, it's cut.
The toys are sanitized with Clorox wipes and loaded with fresh batteries before being shrink wrapped and boxed for shipment. The few toys that are too big to be shipped fully assembled are boxed with a screwdriver and instructions.
Families generally keep the toys for one month and then send them back in the box they came in, using a postage-paid return label the company includes with each shipment. Most parents know that's long enough for little kids to exhaust their interest.
But it's no big deal if the little one wants to hang on to a couple of toys for several months, Pope said. Parents can just exchange the toys they don't want, and new toys are shipped out as the old ones are returned.
Pope also keeps a close eye on the merchandise, yanking toys that are broken or more than ''gently worn'' and donating them to needy families nominated by her customers.
''If it has a little scratch on it, we're not going to take it out of the program,'' she said. But, ''we're not going to ever send anybody anything that they're going to feel like is junk.''
Each type of toy is also tested for lead paint when a new shipment arrives from the wholesaler, Pope said. She also avoids toys with small pieces that a child could break off and choke on.
The lead testing was a big selling point for Regina Rubin Cody, a Cleveland mother of 8-month-old twin girls.