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Aaron’s ‘Crazy’ Idea: Retooling from Play Putty to Hand Sanitizer

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Editor’s note: The series “Resilience and Reinvention” shines the light on the innovations of organizations in industries decimated by the pandemic. These adaptive organizations have retooled their business model and redirected their workforce to keep their doors open and workers employed.

On the surface, the toy industry seems to have been pandemic proof. With millions of families in lockdown and children needing distractions, the demand for puzzles, teddy bears, Lego sets and more has actually spiked.

According to the NPD Group, for example, U.S. sales for puzzles and games jumped 32% in 2020 compared to 2019, and sales of outdoor and sports toys went up by more than 28%.

“We’ve had members that have been thriving since the start [of the pandemic] because they were selling the right products to retailers that were open,” said Jennifer Lynch, the Toy Association’s content developer.

But the lockdown has taken a toll on the industry as well. For example, COVID has badly damaged the supply chain, with many smaller brick-and-mortar retailers shutting down, Lynch said. And customers closing in other sectors — theme and amusement parks, and children’s schools, for example — have left some members with no one to sell to, she added.

With movie theaters shuttered, for instance, big-ticket superhero fare grabbed less attention, and so, in turn, did the movies’ tie-in toys. The NPD Group’s “action figures and accessories” category dipped 3% from 2019 to 2020.

Punch Line Turns Product Line

One of the manufacturers that felt the effects of the small toy retailers’ downturn is Crazy Aaron’s, a Norristown, Pennsylvania-based company that specializes in making colorful play putty for kids. In early March 2020, a statewide shutdown order compelled the company to close its doors, prompting CEO Aaron Muderick to contemplate months of staff furloughs and canceled orders.

But then he thought about something he said to colleagues as the pandemic began to expand across the United States. “I had joked internally with our supply-chain team that we could make hand sanitizer,” he said. “But the Monday after the governor’s order, I came in with the idea that we are going to make hand sanitizer. I’d read all the regulations, and if we were making emergency materials we could stay open. And from a moral standpoint, we wanted to be part of our community.”

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Within 72 hours, the company had received the necessary approvals to become an essential business. Within a week, it was shipping then-scarce hand sanitizer across Pennsylvania. Partnering with a local distillery, Crazy Aaron’s began manufacturing 1,500 gallons of hand sanitizer daily, targeting frontline and essential workers.

“Our staff’s jobs changed significantly. They went from being an engineer to literally mixing the materials,” Muderick said. “But we were able to keep a core group of people working.”

By May, larger manufacturers were able to address the shortage of hand sanitizer, though Crazy Aaron’s kept making its “emergency” brand of sanitizer until the fall. Now as the company works to bring its putty manufacturing work back online, the process has given it one more product line.

Making Hand Washing Fun

Using what it’s already known about color chemistry from making putty and what it learned from manufacturing hand sanitizer, Crazy Aaron’s developed a line of soaps and sanitizers called Clean With Color, focused on making the clean-up process for kids a little less grudging.

“We were asking, ‘How do we reinvent hand soap and give kids an activity to encourage them to actually wash their hands rather than leaving them under the water and then running out of the room?’” Muderick said.

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Crazy Aaron’s isn’t alone in making this type of pivot. The Toy Association’s Lynch says that, in 2021, many of its members have been expanding into the kinds of categories that have proven more resilient in the past year. That means more puzzles and games.

But it also means more products designed to improve children’s well-being. “There’s a big focus on the social and emotional health of kids, and there are a lot of products coming out throughout 2021 that put an emphasis on that,” she said.

Muderick considers himself lucky that he was in that line of work all along.

“We call it ‘thinking putty’ for a reason — it does help kids focus by eating up all their fidgety-ness so they can pay attention,” he said. “We’ve added lines that are calming and have a soothing texture. Sales of that have increased during the pandemic as we connect with more customers who are looking for that kind of experience.”

About the Author

Mark Athitakis Bio Image

Mark Athitakis is a contributing writer to WorldatWork.


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