c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

The challenge to find the most popular toys for this holiday season started on a steamy July morning at the Good Housekeeping Research Institute in Hearst’s headquarters in New York. Dozens of children gathered in testing rooms usually reserved for reviewing washing machines and vacuum cleaners. In a surprisingly quiet space, except for the buzz of toy planes and the occasional chirps of children’s voices, the testers bent over tea sets and sprawled out on their bellies to play with cars as Good Housekeeping employees in white lab coats scribbled notes on manila folders.

“The question is not ‘Will a toy break?’” said Rachel Rothman, technical director for the Good Housekeeping institute, as she studied the children around her. “It’s how it will break.”

For 113 years, Good Housekeeping has been testing and awarding its seal of approval to all kinds of consumer products, from skin creams to dishwashers. For the past six years, that testing has expanded to include toys. The magazine spends all year finding and reviewing toys for children. Then in the December issue, it bestows awards on about two dozen toys and board games that shoppers can buy just in time for the holidays.

The process is integral to Good Housekeeping’s overall business strategy. Like most magazines, Good Housekeeping, part of Hearst Magazines, has been under more pressure than ever to find new sources of revenue. According to data tracked by magazine analyst John Harrington, Good Housekeeping’s combined revenue from magazine sales and advertising was $530 million in 2012, compared with $572 million in 2011 and $606 million in 2008. Over the past year, the magazine has undergone a redesign and recently replaced its editor-in-chief.

Now it is returning to its core testing business and focusing heavily on toys to help attract readers and drive revenue.

Simply put, toys equal traffic — on the Web. Mimi Crume Sterling, a spokeswoman for Good Housekeeping, said that last November and December, after the awards were featured on NBC’s “Today” show, on Yahoo’s shopping section and across social media, the toy section received the most visits to the website, surpassing categories like household items and cookware.

David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines, said the digital desirability of toy reviews far outweighed the costs of conducting the tests.

“It was among the most consumed in terms of page views when it ran last year,” he said. “These things lead very long lives in our digital product.”

(Roughly half the testers are children of people affiliated with Hearst, proving that in the magazine business, even if you are a preschooler, it helps to know someone).

Good Housekeeping is also trying to derive more revenue from toy testing by licensing its brand to manufacturers. Starting with this year’s awards, they can pay a licensing fee of $5,000 to $7,000 to feature the magazine’s emblem on their products. Lisa Guili, general manager of Educational Insights, a toy company based in Los Angeles, said it might place the emblem on the game Shelby’s Snack Shack, which made this year’s list.

“Some seals don’t add value,” Guili said. “But their seal definitely adds value.”

Toy manufacturers, especially smaller brands with limited advertising budgets, also say the reviews help make sales.

Andrea Barthello, co-founder of ThinkFun, said that when its Yackety Smack toy appeared on the list in 2012, sales doubled. After the company learned it had made the list again this year, for its Laser Maze toy, it arranged to have more items in stock because of what Barthello called the magazine’s “halo effect.”

“It influences customer buying decisions,” Barthello said.

That’s partly why Good Housekeeping has been working to refine the toy-testing process. Since the awards began six years ago, the magazine has increased the number of children it uses, to 120 this year from 43 in 2008. Age groups range from 3 to 8 and older. The testing process now includes some unconventional measurements, like screening for toys that perpetuate gender stereotypes.

Good Housekeeping has discovered that children can find the flaws in toys that other sophisticated testing methods cannot. One year, they figured out how to break into the heating element of a crayon-making machine, and Good Housekeeping was able to give the manufacturer feedback on its redesign.

The monitors have also learned what draws children to some toys over others.

Michael Ferber, 21, a Hearst intern and Columbia student, found himself playing sous chef to Eleanor Downey, then 5, who was testing a dining set called Let’s Dish. As Ferber, in a white lab coat, took notes about Downey’s playing habits, she persuaded him to fetch her water so that they could play “cooking chicken for dinner” together and she could pour fresh water into her toy teapot.

Ferber noted that the dining set attracted attention because “they like these colors.”

Eleanor’s mother, Amy Downey, who is executive director for Hearst’s dining services, said the testing day definitely influenced her daughter’s gift list. Afterward, she said, her daughter wanted the Hasbro Play-Doh Perfect Twist Ice Cream set, which even lets children make sprinkles out of Play-Doh.

Perhaps the greatest sign of a successful toy is how long it takes for children to fight over it. When a tester presented two brothers, ages 8 and 5, with the Iron Man Ping-Pong ball, they attacked the toy with vigor. But the toy quickly became an instrument of destruction.

“You’re not a good button presser,” the older brother said. His sibling ignored him, and within seconds, they whacked each other with the Ping-Pong set.

And so another holiday toy hit was born.