Deal Yourself In

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Have you ever flipped through the cable sports channels during the World Series or the Super Bowl just to see what they're broadcasting. It's usually something like the NCAA Spirit Squad Semis or a replay of last year's Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, which features superstar eaters vying for gastronomic glory in front of, oh, maybe a couple of hundred live spectators and a couple of thousand more at home. The cable networks know there's no point in competing with broadcasts that pull such huge audiences, but they have to fill their air time with something. That's the type of profile televised poker used to have. You'd see a few fat guys playing cards and realize, "Oh my god! I almost forgot to watch the Fiesta Bowl!"

Well, all that changed about a year ago, when ESPN's coverage of the World Series of Poker began luring viewers away from more-traditional forms of televised competition. Soon, other cable networks followed suit. The Travel Channel now has the World Poker Tour and Bravo has Celebrity Poker Showdown, which pits the likes of Macaulay Culkin, Kevin Nealon and Ricki Lake against one another for a $250,000 pot, which the winner donates to a favorite charity.

The poker-on-TV thing has gotten so big that ESPN recently announced it will debut a scripted poker drama in January. That's right. Even fake poker has a place on television.

"It's a very popular thing at the moment with all the exposure," says Pierre Deveaux, president of Elephant Balls Ltd., a manufacturer of billiards and gaming equipment in Worthington, Ohio. "And that trickles to the retail side. And that trickle has exploded in the last 12 months."

Linda Parolini, general manager of Benson's, says the coverage has helped lure younger customers and their parents to the game and to her Madison, Wis., store, which features three mid- to high-range tables from California House on the showroom floor.

"The TV coverage especially helps with the poker chips and things like that," she says. "A lot of parents are buying them as gifts for their kids now, whereas before when it wasn't really a gift idea at all for kids."

Kids aren't the target demographic, however. For the most part, poker remains a "guy thing," according to Parolini. "They get to finish off and do whatever they want to their basements. Not that the women aren't involved, but . . ."

Advantage: Dealer

Spa and pool retailers have long carried billiards tables and equipment as a way to counter the seasonality of their main product lines, and manufacturers like Elephant Balls and others say poker tables and accessories fill that same role. And like billiards buyers, poker table customers fit roughly the same profile as hot tub buyers. They're willing to spend money on at-home entertainment.

"There's a continuing trend in North America where homes are getting larger and larger, so as the square footage increases, there's demand to fill up that space," says Patrick Conners, director of sales and marketing for AMF Billiards & Games, Bland, Mo. "And a lot of builders are creating game and/or media rooms."

There may be similarities between billiards and poker table buyers, but according to one manufacturer and retailer, they aren't one in the same. "Poker tables are attracting a buyer for a whole different reason than the billiards buyer," says Roger Blank, west region sales manager for Connelly Billiards, which sells the tables in it's retail stores but doesn't manufacture them. "We're finding there's a whole other target out there, which is people who are creating a rec room that has nothing to do with billiards. They may not have the room for a billiards table.

"We had a guy with a 12-by-14-foot room, and we ended up selling him a three-in-one table, foosball, air hockey and bar seating. That's not an uncommon theme."

To attract game table buyers, Benson's runs a fall game sale and sends direct-mail pieces to certain customers.

"A person who's come in looking for a pool table will get a post card with a poker table on it," says Parolini. "We market everything to everyone in the game area, because somebody who's looking for a pool table will possibly be looking for a poker table, and vice versa."

Sometimes a flyer isn't even necessary. "A few months ago I had a guy that came in to get chemicals for his hot tub," says Kim Steffenhagen, Benson's showroom manager. "He went back to use the restroom and I went into the back to grab something for him. When I came out he was sitting at a poker table, so I sat down and asked, 'You want us to wrap that up for you.' and he said, 'Yeah, let's do it!' They're not always that easy, but that was a fun one."

More often, it takes a little salesmanship to sell game tables, but Blank says spa and hot tub dealers are more than capable of selling them, especially when compared with billiards-only dealers. "A spa dealer that picks up billiards and gaming tables understands how to promote themselves and their products, much more than a billiards dealer," he explains. "They're true sales organizations."

Bruce Rothschild, president of HotSpring Spas of Brevard and Indian River, only had to mention in a radio ad that he'd soon be carrying game tables. To his surprise, he received calls from impatient customers asking when they'd be in. "Thank goodness for the World Poker Tour!" he says.

Penny-Ante Or High-Stakes?

Dealers interested in carrying poker tables have a wide selection of styles and price points to choose from. Their best bet, manufacturers say, is to offer something people aren't going to find at Target or Wal-Mart. That's the approach Benson's takes.

"We carry the higher-end," says Steffenhagen. "We have a vendor that sells the lower-end stuff, but it's marketed over the Internet so we don't put too much emphasis on it.

"That whole philosophy .ows the same way with everything we do, whether it's the spas or the patio or anything else. It's all in that mid- to high-end price range we're trying to hit. You don't find that at Wal-Mart."

Instead, Benson's concentrates on custom products. When a shopper finds a poker table he or she likes, the salesperson will show them the many options available, including wood species and stain, the cloth on the table and even the upholstery on the chairs, which can be sold separately or as part of a set.

Others suggest a slightly less-expensive price point. "The industry runs the gamut from super-cheap tables to the ones from Beach," says Zach DiMotta, sales executive for Imperial International, Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. "We're kind of in the middle, for someone who wants to spend a little money but not too much.

"We have a folding table that sells for $399 and a full set that goes for a little over $2,000. We can't keep the set in stock, it just flies. Everyone's gone poker-crazy.

"A year or two ago it was an additional sale along with a billiards table. But now people are hunting them down. People are looking in the paper for companies advertising Texas hold 'em tables."

No matter which price point you target, there are plenty of types to choose from. Many manufacturers offer three-in-one tables, which feature a poker table on one side, a regular table on the .ip side, and bumper pool on the inside. Elephant Balls Ltd. even has a four-in-one table which replaces bumper pool with a roulette wheel and craps table.

Imperial International will soon offer a Texas Hold 'Em table with folding legs that can be stored under a bed or in the closet when someone else is hosting poker night. Despite the fact that they aren't in stock yet, and none of the company's salespeople has even seen one yet, the company has already sold 3,000 to its dealers. "They're looking at the Christmas season and they know if they run an ad with Texas Hold 'Em in it, they're going to sell out of them," DiMotta says.

Dealing In Accessories: A Safe Bet

In spa and pool retail, not many people come in looking for trichlor or filters unless they have a spa or pool. Can you imagine. I'll take some of those test strip things. I don't own a pool or anything, but I saw a guy on TV using one and I simply must have them.

But that's precisely what happens when you carry gaming tables and accessories. "We're seeing a lot of people come in just for the accessories," says Patrick Conners, director of marketing and sales for AMF Billiards & Games. "You can just go to Walgreen's and buy plastic chips, but it's harder to find a place with really good ones."

Zach DiMotta, sales executive for Imperial International, says poker accessories, especially chips, are selling so well some retailers can't keep them in stock.

"You can't get chips right now," he says. "We've got customers who are going to other retail outlets, buying them, and bringing them back to their stores to mark them up and sell them again."

Other items found in a well-stocked poker display include card shufflers and shoes, dealer buttons, chip carriers and wooden chip cases.

But, DiMotta says, the chips are where the real money is. "Dealers are making a killing on chips," he says. "They can buy them for $0.12 a chip and turn around and sell them for $1.50."


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