Nov 19, 2023

What Happened to Bright Starts Beaming Buggie Take


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The life cycle of a magical baby-soothing toy.

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By Kashmir Hill

I don't remember who gave me the hard plastic bug with the mesmerizing light-up wings and the only infant-toy melody I’ve never gotten sick of. But I do remember how they described it: Like a drug for babies.

I was given it six years ago when I became a parent. The Bright Starts Beaming Buggie Take-Along Toy, its formal name, became the magic weapon against my daughter's most intense crying fits, when her little face turned crimson, her breathing barely able to keep up with her screams, expressing a despair that seemed impossibly deep for a person so new to the world. I would turn on the hand-size Buggie and the sweet lullaby combined with the shimmering wings would reliably quiet her sobs as she took in the musical light show. Once she was asleep, I could switch the noise to the sound of ocean waves. Best of all, the Buggie had a clip to attach to the car seat, keeping it hanging and humming right in the center of my daughter's view, so I could drive without the distracting sound of her misery.

I think of this bug whenever it is time to buy gifts for new parents. No other method worked so well to calm my own child, so I have given it out dozens of times as a present. "It worked magnificently during a diaper change just now — amazing; we are in your debt," said one new father in a typical message of gratitude. I saw another mother on YouTube who tracked how long "the magic bee" took to stop her baby's tears: 43 seconds.

But earlier this year, when a colleague was expecting, I went to buy the Beaming Buggie and discovered it was out of stock on Amazon, Target and Walmart, the places it typically sold for around $12.99. I thought it was a pandemic supply chain issue and waited a few months, but it remained unstocked. I found it selling on eBay for around $100, but couldn't bring myself to spend that much.

As the babies kept coming, and the Beaming Buggie remained unavailable, I began to worry. When one of my closest friends gave birth this summer, I packaged up my daughter's original bug, so well used that I had to make a handwritten guide to the buttons because their markings had worn away. "Thank you for the magic baby soother," my friend messaged me soon after.

Each season has its own It toy. (My daughter, now in elementary school, is clamoring for L.O.L. Surprise dolls, a thing we did not know existed last Christmas.) I am generally aware of trends, but had not comprehended that a toy for babies, a demographic I think of as rather static, would go out of style. When it dawned on me that this beloved and seemingly essential toy was no longer being made, I tracked down the company behind it to find out why.

The Bright Starts brand is made by Atlanta-based Kids 2, a family-owned company that targets the newborn-to-2 market. Kids 2 also owns Baby Einstein, a brand I recognized from a ubiquitous colorful boom box that plays classical melodies, songs that I tired of far more quickly than my beloved Buggie's melody.

Kids 2 does not sell its toys directly to consumers, instead distributing through retailers. Each of its brands has a philosophy, said Jill Waller, the company's head of global product and innovation. Bright Starts is about inspiring joy and Baby Einstein is about encouraging curiosity.

Ms. Waller officially broke the news to me: The Bright Starts Beaming Buggie line was dead. Introduced in 2015, it had been retired in 2020, "which is a pretty good run for a toy," she said. "Most toys last about two or three years."

It was not, however, as good a run as the Baby Einstein Take-along Tunes; that classical boom box has been on sale since 2010 and remains a top seller today, Ms. Waller said. Oddly, I was affronted that the masses had bestowed this honor on a different toy.

Like many parents, I am oddly attached to the gear that has worked for me, becoming an evangelist for a particular brand of stroller and a specific line of changing pads that were easy to clean. Much like a sports fanatic, I could not understand how others failed to love my favorite player.

"There are classic toys — wooden toys and games like Monopoly," said Roberta Golinkoff, a developmental psychologist and professor at the University of Delaware who studies playful learning. "But toy companies are like any other business. They want people to buy stuff so they come up with a better version to get parents to spend their dollars."

Ms. Waller could not say exactly why the Buggie was retired, but suggested that it had to do with baby product industry trends and a move toward softer, more huggable toys that are more "character driven." Like a favorite sneaker discontinued by an athletic brand, a retired toy will usually have a successor in the same line, Ms. Waller said. For the Beaming Buggie, it is the Hugabye Elephant or the Huggin’ Lights, which debuts in the new year. The company sent me a sample of the latter, a softer, more squeezable musical toy, which comes in elephant and lion forms. It did not charm me the way the Buggie did, though it fared reasonably well in a test with its target audience. During a fussy session, a colleague's 7-month-old baby was intrigued if not obsessed by it. (A generally cheerful baby, she usually enjoys baby maracas and toys featuring crinkly paper.) The lion's light show was not as spectacular as the Buggie's, which was the company's first foray into edge lighting, nor was its melody as soothing. The Buggie's tune was created by a Scottish video game music composer.

I sent my colleague a video of the original Buggie. "Wow the OG looks magical," she replied. "Why would they stop making it!!!!!"

"I don't think there's any kind of anti-bug movement," Ms. Waller said. "The lightning bug is super cute …" — until that moment, I had thought it was a bee or butterfly — " … but yeah, just getting more aligned with the trends in nursery."

The consumer is not ultimately the baby, explained Ms. Waller and her colleague Rochelle Wainer, a child and developmental psychologist. It's the parents who do the buying, so the company analyzes what the current generation of child-rearers wants.

"Millennial parents care about how things look in their homes," Ms. Wainer said. The nursery must be Instagrammable with wooden toys in neutral colors or a whimsical play tent in an inoffensive gray shade. Gen Z, meanwhile, seems more interested in toys that will go viral on TikTok, such as Squishmallows, round pillow-like stuffies that come in an assortment of characters.

I asked if it was the hard yellow plastic frame that did my preferred toy in. Ms. Waller said plastics were still popular despite consumers’ expressed desire for sustainable materials, such as wood and fabric. "I will tell you that the plastic toy industry is not going anywhere," Ms. Waller said. "That is not how they’re buying."

(Dr. Golinkoff, the professor who studies child play, confirmed that American parents "love anything with a battery.")

Kids 2 runs surveys and panels to help decide what new toys it should design, and subscribes to trend forecasting agencies such as WGSN and Trend Bible to figure out what colors, patterns and themes are going to appeal. Plant patterns are big right now, Ms. Waller said. "Aloe plants and cacti," she said. "There's just something kind of homey and cozy about houseplants."

As a parent, I’ve noticed this: all of a sudden a surprising animal will suddenly be everywhere in the kid section. In recent years, it has been the flamingo, the sloth, the llama and, of course, the longstanding unicorn.

"There was a narwhal moment," Ms. Waller said, and my mind flashed to the many stuffed narwhals around my home, many in rainbow hues, my children's desires shaped, ultimately, by what toy companies choose to sell.

Disappointingly, I could not get Ms. Waller to explain precisely why Kids 2 had smushed the Bug. Reading between the lines of our conversation, though, it was clear that my many purchases for newborns had not been enough to lift its sales numbers to the point where retailers insisted the company continue to supply it.

Seven-month-old Mira contributed reporting.

Kashmir Hill is a tech reporter based in New York. She writes about the unexpected and sometimes ominous ways technology is changing our lives, particularly when it comes to our privacy. @kashhill


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