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Springbok jigsaw puzzles stay in fashion at Toy Fair

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“The jigsaw puzzle business is like the fashion industry,” said Steven Pack last week at Toy Fair.

The president of Allied Products Crop., parent company of venerable Springbok Puzzles, explained that Springbok must constantly come up with new puzzles for its 25,000-consumer customer base, which includes both retail and website buyers.

“We have over 120 active images, with an average life expectancy of three years, though some are going on seven, eight, 10 years,” said Pack. “But we typically phase out a quarter of our catalog every year and add another quarter.”

Most “puzzlers,” he noted, prefer 500-1,000 piece puzzles, though “avid puzzlers” go for those in the 1,500-2,000 piece range. They also average four new puzzles or more a year, some buying as many as 12-18 at retail.

So Springbok works with “puzzle consultants” in coming up with new product--up to 40 titles annually—and even puts potential images online for anxious consumers to vote on.

“I think we’ll increase the frequency [of new releases],” Pack said, holding up a new puzzle picturing a sculptural map of the U.S. made out of license plates. “We’re always looking for interesting and challenging images.”

At 51 years, Springbok is the oldest U.S. jigsaw puzzle brand.

“It was bought by Hallmark in the mid-‘60s and restricted to Hallmark stores, but when we acquired it in 2002, we were no longer restricted,” said Pack. He distinguished Springbok product by the unique shape of each Springbok puzzle piece.

“No two pieces are the same shape,” he said. “Most companies have a serial die of five different shapes or a random die of five-to-10 different shapes. But every piece in a Springbok puzzle is unique, so you can’t find a pattern. This makes them more challenging.”

You can even lift up a finished Springbok puzzle vertically, and it would hold together, its pieces are “cut so tight,” added Pack.

Otherwise, most of the company’s puzzle business remains in the traditional realm, heavy on Coca-Cola designs for collectors of iconic Coke imagery, and seasonal holiday puzzles, since the fourth quarter accounts for as much as one-third of retail sales. Travel and food image themes are also consistently popular.

One noteworthy puzzle variant is the “family puzzle,” featuring pieces in three different sizes: The biggest go around the edges, and are made for the smallest children. The two other sizes get smaller as you proceed toward the middle, and make for a family activity, said Pack, who showed a few new items at Toy Fair.

“In the ‘60s, Hallmark made Thingies—a small round puzzle—after the owner saw an art student friend’s doodles. They sold 100,000 of them, and we’ve reintroduced the line.”

The Thingies express sentiments with messages penned in script, like “I am a limited edition.”

Springbok is also transferring its puzzle imagery to playing cards and Bridge scorecards. And it’s expanding its remarkable Puzzles to Remember puzzle line.

“It started as a dialog with a 13-year-old boy from Boston—Max Wallack--who called me and asked if I’d give him some puzzles for his Bar Mitzvah, that his grandmother was in a home and had dementia, and he wanted to bring them to her.”

“About a year later, he realized that people with dementia get frustrated with the big 500-1,000 piece puzzles and the small pieces,” continued Pack. “So in 2008 we created a line of 36-piece puzzles called Puzzles to Remember. They have the same size as our 500-piece puzzles, but have extra-large pieces that are easy to grip, and cheery themes that prompt happy memories.”

And for every one sold by Springbok, the company donates one to Wallack, who’s now a junior at Boston University.

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