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Last Updated: Monday, 30 July 2007, 09:07 GMT 10:07 UK
Faith-based toys to hit US stores
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News, Washington

Goliath and Sampson action figures (image courtesy of One2believe)
The Bible-based action figures include Goliath and Samson
Instead of Spiderman or Bratz dolls, children in the US could soon be clutching a talking Jesus toy, a bearded Moses or a muscle-bound figure of Goliath.

From the middle of August, Wal-Mart, the biggest toy retailer in the US, will for the first time stock a full line of faith-based toys.

The Bible-based action figures will initially be given two feet of shelf space in 425 of the company's 3,300 stores nationwide.

There, the Tales of Glory dolls will take on what their makers are calling "the battle for the toy box" with some of the nation's most popular action figures.

The market is notoriously hard to crack, with every child wanting what their friends at school have and high-profile brands like Transformers and Spiderman dominating marketing.

So will the 12in (30cm) Jesus doll quoting scripture or the 3in (8cm) figure of Daniel in the lion's den open up children's imaginations - and their parents' wallets?

'Spiritual journey'

David Socha, founder of One2believe, the company which makes the dolls, is confident the demand is there for "God-honouring" toys which reflect Christian teachings and morality.

If you go in a toy aisle in any major retailer, you will see toys and dolls that promote and glorify evil, destruction, lying, cheating
David Socha

"We get a lot of people, even people who are not of faith, don't go to church, saying 'I've got a four and a six-year-old and I don't know what to get them any more'," he said.

"If you go in a toy aisle in any major retailer, you will see toys and dolls that promote and glorify evil, destruction, lying, cheating.

"In the girls' aisle where the dolls would be, you see dolls that are promoting promiscuity to very young girls. Dolls will have very revealing clothes on, G-string underwear."

What his company offers instead is "something faith-based that is not only fun to play with but also is solidifying a person's spiritual wherewithal and their spiritual journey", he said.

Retail boom

In offering a faith-based alternative to the commercial mainstream, Mr Socha is tapping into a broader nationwide trend.

The Passion of the Christ
The Passion of the Christ raised the profile of faith-based entertainment

Sales of so-called Christian products, including books, music, clothes and gifts, have climbed steadily from $4bn (2bn) in 2000 to $4.63bn last year, according to the Association for Christian Retail.

Accounting for part of that growth is a boom in Christian fantasy fiction, some of it written in response to some Christians' unease over the use of magic in the Harry Potter books.

According to the Book Industry Study Group, sales of religious books went up by 5.6% in 2006. Another survey suggests Christian book-buyers spend half as much again on books as the average American.

Nearly 12% of Americans spend more than $50 a month on religious products and another 11% spend $25-29 a month, according to a Baylor University study, with one in three Americans surveyed making at least one purchase a year in a Christian bookshop.

Daniel and the lion (image courtesy of One2believe)
The dolls' makers say parents want to give toys with a moral message

Nancy Guthrie, of the Association for Christian Retail, said: "Over the past decade there has been a significant openness in the broader market place for Christian products.

"All kinds of retailers have recognised that there are a lot of people out there who want books and music and gifts that reflect their faith."

The fact that two Christian books topped US best-seller lists in 2001, one of which was the fantasy novel Desecration, helped raise awareness of the availability of such products, she said.

Following on from that, Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of the Christ "awoke people to the interest and market for Christian media and entertainment", Ms Guthrie added.

'Wholesome things'

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Melissa O'Brien said it made sense for the retail giant - which has carried religious items before but never a full line of faith-based toys - to try to reach that audience too.

The stores chosen for the initial sales of the Tales of Glory dolls are those where other religion-based products such as Bibles and gospel music have sold very well, she said.

Moses (image courtesy of One2believe)
Sales of faith-based products have been climbing steadily in the US
Most are in Wal-Mart's heartlands in America's South and Mid West, although a few stores in California and north-east Pennsylvania will also stock the figures, which are aimed at three- to 12-year-olds and all come with a book telling their story.

"It's really a test to see how consumers will respond," she said. "We anticipate there may be parents and teachers who would find these toys beneficial in teaching biblical stories."

Laurie Schacht, president of industry publication The Toy Book, believes faith-based toys could sell well in the right market place, although they will not be to everyone's taste.

"I think there are parents who want the hottest things that are out there and I think there are parents who want to give their children more wholesome things," she said.

"I think it's going to be a parent purchase much more than what the child wants. I think there's a market and I think Wal-Mart sees that and has given shelf space for it."

Ms Schacht points out that there have been faith-based toys, such as the Precious Moments range, in specialist Christian stores for years but that this will be the first time a mass retail outlet has jumped into the market.

As for their appeal to children? "Like everything else, if the toys have 'play value' and you put them in front of a child, they will do well," she said.

Mr Socha says making the figures attractive to young people has been at the heart of the project - and they have been tried and tested on Sunday school and church groups.

"If the kids aren't engaged and having fun, then we might as well not do it," he said.

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