Couple bet on math board game

Raleigh clothing retailer's daughter tries a different venture

Staff WriterJanuary 7, 2010 

Lou Serotta has been selling women's fine clothing and furs in the Triangle for 57 years.

Now his oldest daughter, Diane Hill, is stretching her own entrepreneurial legs with a retail venture.

Hill and her husband, Kyle, are the inventors of Baffle!, an educational board game that is designed to teach reasoning and math.

Baffle! can be played eight different ways and by one person or many people. The board game has five rows of five spaces and 25 colored pieces that come in five different shapes. In the most basic, one-player version of the game, the idea is to get one piece of each color and shape in each row and each column.

The Hills live in Cincinnati, where Diane Hill invented the game during her 30-year career as a teacher, using it in her math classes. After she retired in 1996, the idea to mass produce the game nagged at her.

"She had cut the pieces out of felt and put them on a felt game board and kind of rolled it up and put it away with her teaching stuff," said Kyle Hill, a former television anchor and former spokesman for the Bell telephone company. "Finally, she said, 'Let's do it and see what happens.'"

Their timing is good. Sales of board games totaled $1.1 billion in the 12 months ending in November, according to research firm the NPD Group. And board game sales are increasing despite the cutback in consumer spending. From November 2008 to November 2009, they rose 1 percent.

But breaking into the board game business can be tough.

"The size of the prize is what attracts a lot of folks into this area," said NPD analyst Anita Frazier. "It is very difficult for an independent newcomer to the industry to get shelf space at retail, which is why many toy inventors try to secure deals with established toy manufacturers to help with the sales, marketing and distribution."

Because such companies typically offer the game inventor only a small percentage of sales, the Hills have chosen to go it alone.

"They would give us about 6 to 8 percent on net sales, which would mean in some cases it's dollars on a game," Kyle Hill said. "So in order to make anything, you have to sell a ton of them."

But Hill didn't entirely rule out a partnership with a big game company.

"If we got a good deal, we would do it," he said.

So far, the Hills have invested a "six-figure sum" in the game. They are hoping the first run of 2,500 copies will sell. They've sold about 500 since they began actively marketing the game in May.

Baffle! sells for $29.99 both online at www.bafflegame.com and in stores in five states. Locally, Baffle! can be found in a number of stores, including The Play House in Durham, Science Safari in Cary and the Marbles Kids Museum in downtown Raleigh.

Learning the toy business was not easy, and the Hills faced additional dilemmas because they wanted to manufacture the game in the U.S. and maintain control over the product.

"I know we talked to 100 companies," Kyle Hill said. "We just spent weeks and weeks. We traveled to every manufacturer in the Cincinnati area that we knew about."

Eventually, the Hills ended up splitting up the manufacturing operations. The acrylic pieces are made in Fort Wayne, Ind., and the board, box and cards are produced in Battle Creek, Mich.

"We found a lot of junk out there," Kyle Hill said. "We were just determined we were going to make it in the United States, and we looked until we found a manufacturer who could do it."

The effort appears to have paid off.

Stores sell out

"We've been selling it since late summer, and we've been selling out," said Donna Frederick, owner of The Play House.

For Christmas, her store had a waiting list of half a dozen people.

"I suspect that in the coming year, more people will hear about it," Frederick said. "That's how Bananagrams started. That started out really small, and now they have four or five versions of that."

As for Lou Serotta, he said he's proud of all three of his girls, two of whom work with him. Serotta said that watching him may have helped Hill learn a bit about business and hard work.

"I think she has learned a few things over the years from me, but the invention of the game is 100 percent hers," he said. "All I've done is give her some business tips. I told her to treat people fairly and not to promise people anything where she had any doubts about whether she could keep her word."

But like any father, Serotta is also trying to help his daughter succeed: He's selling Baffle! at his own stores.

"We've been selling a lot of them," he said. "That's one thing about retail. If people don't reorder, then you know it's a dud. But everybody seems crazy about it."

sue.stock@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4649

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