WALLINGFORD — Chris Cirri never thought an invention he created a couple years ago to help his son send letters to Santa would turn into a Christmas toy sold in stores around the world.
Cirri, a Wallingford resident, invented a toy mailbox that lets children place letters to Santa inside, but unlike other decorative Christmas mailboxes, Cirri’s invention makes the letter “magically disappear to the North Pole” after the child closes the mailbox and raises the flag.
“Kids just love seeing their letter disappear,” Cirri said.
Cirri’s toy invention, branded as “Santa’s Enchanted Mailbox,” will be mass-produced by Mr. Christmas Inc. and sold in retail stores in America, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom for Christmas 2018. About 150,000 units have already been preordered by stores, Cirri said, and QVC will feature the product next year during its annual “Christmas in July” shopping event.
“It’s kind of crazy and amazing. I don’t think any of us thought we would get this far,” said Stephen Signore, Cirris’ brother-in-law and business partner.
Cirri said he came up with the idea a couple years ago when he gave his son a cardboard mailbox to put letters to Santa inside. He began to wonder whether someone invented a mailbox that could make the letter disappear on its own.
“I’d be bored sitting on my phone and I’d research it and wonder how did someone not come up with a little creative way to make it disappear?” Cirri said. “You could buy decorative mailboxes anywhere, but none of them did anything, they didn’t have any kind of functionality.”
Cirri approached his stepfather-in-law, Dave Seales, who had just retired from a career in engineering, about creating a prototype for his idea. When Cirri showed the prototype to his son Dominic, 5 at the time, he “went crazy over it, he loved it,” Cirri said.
“I was lucky enough to have an engineer in the family,” Cirri said, adding he would have otherwise had to pay an engineer upward of $10,000 to $15,000 to create a prototype.
Chris Cirri and his wife, Elisa, have lived in Wallingford since 2006 and have three boys: Dominic, 6, Mason, 4, and Christian, 4 months. Chris Cirri works at Capital One as the vice president of business development in Connecticut and Elisa Cirri owns Imagine Hair Studio in town.
Cirri didn’t want to describe the product’s mechanism for making letters disappear because the patent is still pending. The mechanism, Cirri said, can also be “reversed” so that kids receive a letter back from Santa by putting the flag up and opening the mailbox.
Last year, Cirri, Seales and Signore took the concept to a patent lawyer, who conducted a “worldwide patent search” for the mechanism and did not find anything like it.
“We’re sitting in this beautiful conference room overlooking the Long Island Sound and I’m thinking, ‘What are we doing here?’” Cirri said about the meeting with patent lawyers.
The three partners trademarked their product’s name and signed a two-year licensing deal with Mr. Christmas, a company that designs and markets holiday-themed products, to manufacture the toy. Under the agreement, Cirri and his partners receive royalty payments from toy sales. The mailbox will be sold for $29.99 next Christmas in retail stores like Target, Lowe’s, Michaels, and Bed Bath & Beyond.
“In the beginning, I didn't really have a lot of hope that it would go anywhere but it's grown into something I never would have expected,” Seales said.
Cirri said his product builds off the popular Elf on the Shelf toy, which parents move to a different location in their home each night to make it appear as if the doll has flown to the North Pole and returned by morning.
“The whole idea behind Elf on a Shelf is that you can’t see the magic happen in front of you, it’s all left to the imagination,” Cirri said. “So I was like, ‘What if you have a product where the child actually sees the magic — like, wow, it actually just happened, you don’t have to go to sleep and think it happened.’”
Cirri’s product will be accompanied by a story that was written by one of the family’s friends, Nancy Harrington, who lives in Wallingford and teaches at Dag Hammarskjold Middle School.
Cirri said the mechanism that makes letters to Santa disappear in the mailbox can be used for other products as well. He and his partners intend to create an “Enchanted” series of toys that will make objects disappear after a child inserts an object, including an “Enchanted Fairy Cottage” in which children insert a loose tooth. The tooth disappears and then money appears the next time the cottage door is opened.
“We’re trying to corner the market on using this patent and corner the market on these kinds of toys,” Cirri said.
Cirri has already begun marketing his product on social media and said all the feedback he has received has been positive.
Cirri, whose family has partaken in the Elf on the Shelf tradition in recent years, said that his invention will “never replace that empire, but we can give it a little something else.”
“There’s a lot of room in the marketplace for fun, new family traditions,” Cirri said. He pointed out that Santa’s Enchanted Mailbox is “a lot less work for the parents.”
“We’re pretty confident that with the first year sales alone ... we’re going to get our initial investment back,” Cirri said. “Whether or not it takes off to be the next big thing, that would be great. And if it doesn’t, then we tried something fun.”