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Toys are us: A swap system for children rises on Web

ORLAND PARK, Ill. -- Jacob Maxia, who is 8 years old, may know more about monster models than business models, but he knows what he likes. And a new online toy exchange that brings him giant mutant toys for his unwanted playthings seems pretty awesome.

''You get rid of things you don't play with anymore, and you can get new stuff, like Godzillas and Dragon Ball Z," he said of Toyswap. ''Especially Godzillas."

The fact that his mother is the founder and chief toy-swapping executive doesn't hurt.

Launched in October, in time for the holidays, the fledgling business operates through a website that lets shoppers swap, buy, and sell used or unwanted toys or donate them to a needy organization.

The swappers can register at www.toyswap.com to post information and photos of their toys or view others, then mail them to one another using PayPal transfers for payment.

While other sites exist for reselling toys, Michelle Maxia said she developed hers after she learned that none dealt with toys exclusively.

Such a site, the mother of two said, was ''long overdue in a society that is overflowing with toys. If you have children, you know."

The 42-year-old Maxia, who has been a stay-at-home mother since Jacob and his 5-year-old sister, Makena, were born, tripped across the idea for Toyswap almost by accident, the way she might trip over the buckets of unused toys in her house in the southwestern Chicago suburbs.

A veteran bargain hunter and online seller, she drew her inspiration from a mixture of sources: eBay, a need to return to work, and all those excess toys. But it took a visit to a doctor's office to produce her ''Aha!" moment.

While waiting to see her chiropractor, Maxia struck up a conversation with a boy who was playing with Lego Bionicles.

Her son had three of those at home, but had never played with them, she told him; what he really wanted was Godzilla.

Match made: The boy had an unwanted Godzilla, so the two mothers arranged a swap.

''I brought the Godzilla home and my son lit up like a Christmas tree," she said. ''I traded his Bionicles and he said, 'What else can we trade?' All of a sudden, it came into my head: 'Toyswap dot-com.' I clearly heard those words in my head."

Finding the domain name unclaimed, she and her husband, Michael, who works as a food distributor, bought it. A few months later, with help from friends who developed the website and designed a logo, she was in business in a job worlds away from her previous one as a Cook County sheriff's police officer.

Maxia, who gets a fee of $1 per swapper for each transaction, said Toyswap had a few more than 1,000 registered members. About 270 toys were displayed on a recent day, from Barbies to Bob the Builder to, yes, Godzillas, their dollar values set by those putting them up for sale or exchange.

The numbers were fast growing as the holidays approached, but Toyswap had yet to turn profitable, in keeping with the tradition of startup dot-coms. There were 500,000 hits but just 80 swaps in the first two months.

Still, she remained optimistic the business will flourish after the holidays, at spring-cleaning time and for kids' birthdays.

''A couple of weeks after Christmas, I'm going to be looking at the toys that my children had to have and they'll be sitting in the corner," she said. ''Kids will grow bored of their toys. That's going to open up the door."

The potential is high, if for no other reason than how much parents and grandparents love to spend on their kids -- the US toy industry racks up more than $20 billion in sales annually.

Raman Chadha, executive director of the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center at DePaul University, looked over Toyswap.com and said it should help that not only registering but also posting items there is free, unlike eBay, which charges a fee for each listing. He also liked that toys can be viewed by category, such as action figures, puzzles, radio control and special needs, although he found the website a bit ''homespun."

''I think the idea has some merit, but like many ideas it's in the execution that will determine whether it's successful or not," said Chadha, who also teaches entrepreneurship at the school based in Chicago.

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