Recently I was invited by the company called Pley to review their LEGO rental service. I have heard about Pley.com before (formally known as Pleygo), and read reviews on the service with interest. Pley basically works like Netflix, except instead of renting movies for a monthly subscription fee, you rent LEGO sets. So let’s take a look at how this service works. (UPDATE: this website is no longer active, but I will keep the review up for future reference).
➡ THE STORY OF PLEY: The concept of Pley came from founders Ranan Lachman and Elina Furman, parents themselves, who felt that a LEGO rental service would help out parents to engage their kids in creative play, without having to buy more and more new LEGO sets. Thus they took action and started a rental company for LEGO sets. Please note that Pley is not related to or have affiliation with the LEGO company.
➡ HOW DOES PLEY WORK: You sign up at Pley.com, select the monthly subscription plan you want, make a list of the sets your child would like to try out (this is called your Pleylist), then sit back and wait until the first set arrives. You family can build and play with the set as long as you like, and when you are done, you send it back, and get a new one from your list. Shipping both ways is part of your subscription so there is no extra fee. Pley includes in the box a handy prepaid return shipping label, so when you are done playing with the set, all you have to do is hand the package to your mail carrier or drop it off at the post office.
➡ PLEY PLANS & PRICING: In the two years Pley has been around they have been experimenting with various subscription and pricing models, so if you read other reviews on their services you might find different information. At the time of writing this article, Pley offers two subscriptions; the Builder Plan for $20 a month, and the Master Plan for $50 a month. There is also a one month free trial that will roll into the Builder Plan, unless you cancel your subscription. In the Builder Plan you can select from about 150 small to medium size LEGO sets (about 100-300 pieces per set). In the Master plan you can select from over 300 LEGO sets, including some very large LEGO exclusives with several thousand pieces, like the LEGO Star Wars Ultimate Collector Series sets and the LEGO Creator Modular Buildings. However I have never read a review of anybody receiving the largest sets, as they are in very high demand. In fact the website itself marks these sets as rare, to make sure subscribers understand that they most likely won’t get these sets any time soon – or ever – even if it is on their Pleylist. What you will most likely get under this subscription plan is some nice 500-1000 piece sets – still great, but not the ultimate best.
➡ PLEY PACKAGING & PRESENTATION: Pley’s packaging is tasteful, cheerful and practical. They repackage LEGO sets into red mesh bags with a zipper opening, which makes the sets easy to store and clean. The mesh bag – along with the instructions, a brick-separator a welcome message – is stored in a bright-blue box. The box is big enough and sturdy enough to store all the pieces for a medium size set, in fact you can comfortably spread out the pieces inside the box to make sure you don’t loose any of them. The system is obviously well thought out and kid-friendly.
➡ PLEY TARGET AUDIENCE: Pley markets itself to families who either have too much LEGO already but the kids still want to try out new LEGO sets, or those who are new to the LEGO hobby and the parents just want to see if their kids would be interested in the hobby. Either way, it’s a concept that definitely resonates with parents, as Pley has been talked about on practically every mommy blog and forum. The most cited reason parents are interested in Pley is the enormous amount of clutter their kids already have (including LEGO sets that are just collecting dust), and giving their children something new to play with on a regular basis without having to spend a fortune. Personally I think this is quite sad. The fact that these kids are already drowning in LEGO but lack the imagination to build their own thing seems to be a sign of failure both on the part of parents to engage their kids in meaningful creative play, and on the part of LEGO to inspire children to build new things with their LEGO sets. But this could be a topic of a whole other discussion. The point is that the idea of renting LEGO sets instead of buying them is definitely something parents are interested in, even if many adult LEGO fans think that the whole concept is strange.
➡ THE PLEY EXPERIENCE: Unfortunately it seems like after the initial enthusiasm, a lot of Pley customers unsubscribe from the service after just a few months. The number one reason is missing pieces from the shipped LEGO sets. When a family rents a LEGO set through Pley, they suppose to keep all the pieces in the box, build the set, play with it some, then take it apart, and put everything back in the box. In reality this means that some pieces are not going to make it back in the box. This is especially true for the larger sets with hundreds or even thousands of pieces. If you have ever sorted LEGO, you know how mind-numbing the experience can be, and how easy is to make a mistake. To expect a child to do this where even adults fail is just a recipe for disaster. And parents may or may not have the time to help.
Which of course means that the next family that receives the set won’t be able to build it because pieces are missing. If they luck out, the missing pieces could be just some accessories that are not essential to the model, but even if just one wheel is missing from a vehicle, well, that’s a problem that can end in huge disappointment for both parent and child. Pley’s response to this is to suggest that you substitute the missing pieces from your own LEGO collection (meaning that you either have to donate them, or keep track of the pieces you added and remove them before you send the set back). Pley also has a reporting system on their website called Pley Detective where you can report which pieces are missing. This means that instead of being able to build and play with the set, you (and/or your child) will have to tediously count and sort all the pieces to see which ones are missing before sending the box back. Basically working free for the company, or more accurately; paying a subscription fee to work for the company. Very few people would find this fun, and it also means that now you are getting less buildable sets per month.
➡ PLEY SHIPPING TIME: Another issue people mention for canceling the service is the shipping turnaround time. When you send a set back, you supposed to get a new one sent to you right away. However most of the time there is a week between sending back the set ad getting the new one. Which means that the most LEGO sets you are likely able to try out is going to be two or maybe three per month. Depending on which LEGO sets you receive and the subscription level, this may or may not make sense financially. In addition, if they don’t have in stock any of the LEGO sets you have on your Pleylist, it can take weeks, even months, before you would receive the next set. And at that point the whole concept of renting LEGO sets no longer seems like such a good idea.
➡ PLEY CLEANLINESS & TIDINESS: If you have been around kids, you know they can have some pretty disgusting habits and they can also be sick often. Pley strongly emphasizes that they clean all returned LEGO sets with commercial grade high temperature washers using Eco-friendly and kid-friendly solutions to clean inside the bricks and its studs. They state on their website that their proven cleaning and sanitation process ensures that 99% of residuals, germs, and bacteria have been killed and removed from the bricks. It is in the company’s best interest to keep the sets super clean, otherwise they could get themselves in some serious trouble really fast, so I trust they are doing their job in this regard. One thing is an issue though is that the family who played with the set previously may not break it down completely. This will make the cleaning less effective, and it also means that you will first have to take apart those sections before you can build the set – again, working for the company for free.
➡ A WORD ABOUT PLEYWORLD: Pley recently expanded into another direction called PleyWord.com. PleyWorld operates pretty much the same way as LEGO Ideas. LEGO fans can submit their own models, and if 5000 people vote for it (instead of the required 10,000 on LEGO Ideas), PLEY will add the model to their rental service, so you can rent out these fan-created models by adding them to your Pleylist.
➡ ADULT LEGO FANS & PLEY: Interestingly, there are also some older LEGO fans who are attracted to the idea of renting LEGO. These people already have a great collection of LEGO sets, but they like the idea of trying out sets they won’t necessarily want to buy for themselves, but still would like to experience building. Lack of space can be a big problem for LEGO fans of all ages, and to have the ability to build models without accumulating an unmanageable amount of LEGO, is attractive to some people. They are not the core audience of Pley, but I have heard from several adult LEGO fans who use the service for themselves, or have thought about trying it.
➡ RENTING OR BUYING THROUGH PLEY: Pley’s primary business model is to rent LEGO sets, however if your family really like a set and don’t want to send it back, you can keep it. Pley charges the standard LEGO price for the set so there is no surcharge, however keep in mind that you won’t be getting the original box, and the pieces are not in new condition. Still, this could be a convenient way of getting a set that you really want to keep, especially if it is already retired.
➡ PLEY FINAL THOUGHTS: When Pley first announced itself, the majority of the AFOL community couldn’t relate to it at all. People said it was an unmanageable business plan and a bad idea all around. After all who would want to rent LEGO sets when you can just buy them and keep them? On the other hand the response from parents of LEGO-crazed kids was overwhelmingly positive. So there is obviously a need that Pley recognized and is attempting to fill. In the two years Pley has been operating, they have served 100,000 families and shared 12,000 LEGO sets. If managed carefully that’s a clientele they can build a business on and also have room to expand. Pley operates an attractive and easy to navigate website, and for the most part they have worked out the packaging, the cleaning, and the shipping.
However while all of these aspects of Pley are working fine, there is a very serious weak link that – unless dealt with swiftly – can and will undermine the entire operation of this business. And that weak link is missing pieces. Experiencing one or two non-essential missing pieces every once in a while may be acceptable. However to have important and/or large number of pieces missing regularly is simply unacceptable. Unfortunately, based on reviews I have read, this seems to be the norm. If it happens two or three times in a row there is no question that the family will unsubscribe. And why shouldn’t they? Why put kids through such a disappointing experience from a premium service? People could just spend the same amount of money every month to buy a set directly from LEGO – and we know LEGO prides itself on accuracy. You will rarely, if ever, experience having a missing piece in a new LEGO set. (I would add here that in the set I got for review all pieces were present, except for a helmet which a previous user must have mixed up – see below.)
The biggest issue is that Pley relies on it’s customers to keep count of hundreds of tiny pieces. This is just not going to happen. The set I got for writing this review is a 560-piece Star Wars set. I solemnly vow that I will keep the pieces in the box and try not to loose them while building the set. I also promise that I will take apart the set once I’m finished playing with it, and put the pieces back in the mesh-bag. Will I count all 560 pieces individually to make sure they are there? Absolutely not. It’s not like I intentionally want to loose pieces, or want to steal them. I just don’t have the time or patience to meticulously go through every single piece. And I’m saying this as an adult who is reasonably careful with LEGO. Imagine a couple of six-year-olds playing with the set. No matter how careful they are, kids are kids; they will drop some pieces while building, knock the box over a few times… these things are expected. It is one thing to put a rented video back in the box, and it is an entirely different thing to do the same with hundreds of tiny pieces.
So while there is obviously enough demand for a LEGO rental service, it may in fact not be possible to build a business around the concept in a practical and sustainable way. Unless Pley hires an army of minions who would check and double check that each set leaving the warehouse is complete, there is going to be a growing number of dissatisfied customers. The same group of raving moms who loved the idea of renting LEGO, signed up for the service right away, and recommended it to all their friends, will voice their displeasure and disappointment with the same passion through mommy blogs and social media sites, and they can definitely kill a company like this. In fact it is already happening. Just check any review on Pley, and even if the review itself is glowingly positive, scroll down to the comment section to see what paying subscribers are experiencing.
So would I recommend renting LEGO sets through Pley? I definitely believe that the concept can work. Whether the idea makes sense to me or not, myself and most other AFOLs are not the target audience for this service. There are both kids and adults who like the idea of renting LEGO instead of buying, for whatever reason, so there is no point of arguing over the existence of such a business. However unless Pley takes the issue of missing pieces a lot more seriously and take control of it internally, I don’t see how they could succeed on the long term. They can’t just rely on a bunch of kids and their busy parents to take care of such a crucial aspect of the operation.
My recommendation would be to wait until more positive user reviews come around and/or Pley makes a definite announcement that they have changed their policies in regards to missing pieces. Pley is still a young company and they keep tweaking and making changes to their service, so I wouldn’t give up on them just yet. If you feel adventurous, you can try them out yourself through the one month free subscription, and see if you get a better experience. The worse that can happen is that you don’t like it and have to unsubscribe. Also, if you are a current or previous Pley subscriber, feel free to share your own review in the comment section below. I’m sure other readers who are curious about the service would appreciate it. 😉