Why retail pool toys and games

Hhh 908 AqYou don't need to read about it in AQUA Magazine to know that Americans love their sports. From Bug Ball (soccer for 2 year olds) to the Senior Games, from church-league basketball to X Games snowboarding, there's an organized (or chaotic - whichever you prefer) sport for virtually anyone who wants to play. And if you prefer to watch, there's ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, EXPN, ESPNews . .

So why should things be any different in the pool? Sports-based equipment and games are more than ever an important part of consumers' backyard resorts and there's a real opportunity to enhance pool-owner satisfaction through any number of lifetime sports adapted for the pool.

"Everyone loves basketball or baseball or football, and it's very easily translated from the playground to the swimming pool," says Paul Entin, spokesperson for Pool Shot, a game manufacturer based in Ashtabula, Ohio. "It's something that the kids don't get bored with. If anything, as they get older and go through the teen years, it becomes more and more fun."

Many pool and spa retailers do carry the mass-market toys and inflatables that are easily had at self-serve warehouses like Wal-Mart and Target. There's no denying the appeal of a wind-up tropical fish with lifelike action or an inflatable, life-sized shark; and with commodity-type prices, these kinds of toys are excellent impulse buys or promotional items displayed near the water-testing station or at point of purchase. In fact, a kiosk of brightly colored, whimsical pool toys may be as valuable as a retail-design element as it is a profit center.

But sport-based pool games distinguish themselves from toys by the level of involvement they foster. Entin says it's an ongoing trend that speaks to the longevity of sports games. "I have a pool and I have two kids and every year we make our trip to the pool store and we end up buying some kind of toy," he says. "And it inevitably gets used for two to three days and it gets put in the bottom of the bin and you never see it again. I think that's how a lot of toys get treated; they don't have much longevity. What we've found among our customers is a lot of people are tired of doing that every year."

Tapping into culture is a powerful way to ensure the popularity of any new game or product. "As far as sports games versus toys, you're talking about a concept that everybody understands already," says Entin. "It's basketball or football, volleyball or baseball. It gets all ages involved. When you're talking about some of the underwater toys, diving games; I've never seen my dad dive underwater for a ring. It's not going to happen. But when you're talking about getting a basketball game together in the swimming pool, everybody of all ages is going to participate in that, it's going to bring families together."


Every once in a while a game comes along that becomes the center of its own culture. Swimways Corp.'s Subskate underwater skateboard has done just that.

Subskate is a rigid foam skateboard without the wheels. Kids can use the Subskate in the pool to do many of the same tricks they might do on concrete with a skateboard. At least that's what Swimways had in mind. But it turns out that skaters are using the Subskate to practice moves indoors, and even in skate parks, where they add a little water and jump on for the ride.

"Initially we thought that Subskate was going to be used by younger kids to emulate skateboarding," says Jones. "What we found out is there's a little bit of that, but it's a much older demographic using the Subskate. We're finding that it's actually the skateboarders who are buying it, and then of course it flows down to the younger ones as well. We did focus groups about Subskate and they got it right away, they said, 'Yeah, we can practice our tricks [in the water] and not get hurt!'"

Swimways, well known for its colorful, whimsical, mass-market water toys (think wind-up, lifelike action tropical fish; radio-controlled, articulated sharks and scores of underwater games), introduced the Subskate in 2006 and quickly realized it had something different. "It's been a cultural phenomenon, with the social networking online, videos on YouTube, it's totally a departure from everything else we make," says Jones.

While the product itself has developed a huge following - "Once you start subskating you can't stop!" say the kids on one of 80-some YouTube videos about Subskate - the manufacturer has signed a celebrity with his own following. Tony Hawk, the most-recognized skateboarding personality in the United States, will produce a line of Subskates for Swimways. "Actually he approached us, because he had had a Subskate in his own pool and he and his sons played with it all the time," says Jones.

While Swimways products are found in every imaginable big-box store, the company recognizes the unique needs of pool and spa retailers trying to compete with those behemoths.

"We've created a Subskate line exclusively for pool dealers. It means that you won't find it at a mass-market, big-box store," says Jones. "We will have one called Subskate Pro, it's a regular Subskate but it will have graphics on the bottom - very skater oriented. Then there is the Tony Hawk Subskate called the Signature Series. It features a full-size pull out poster with the Subskate and distinct graphics from Tony Hawk designs."

Skate-At-Home Moms?

Both Entin and Jones agree that society's ongoing focus on the home bodes well for sports that translate to the water. Established, culturally significant sports games like basketball and volleyball create a forum for connection and family togetherness.

"I think the key - and this is the ongoing trend of cocooning - is people are spending more time in and around the home and they're designing and building their pools and their yards to be an oasis for their families," says Entin. "When you're trying to create that setting for the family, these games can be a real social focal point. It isn't just the pool, it's about being able to extend the time that people are happy, interested and excited about being in and around the pool."

A sport like Subskate provides the same kind of connection and involvement when a new culture forms around it. "We see that as people are investing more into their pools, it's not about the commodity inflatable products, it's about having something special, you have everything you want for kids to play with in your backyard," says Jones.

Builders: Sweeten The Deal

4 X 908 AqGame equipment can be a great item for builders; they can sell it outright or use it as an incentive. Pool Shot, the Ashtabula, Ohio-based game equipment manufacturer, offers these ideas for capitalizing on the appeal of sports, whether basketball, volleyball or some other equipment:

Include a game package free to close a sale, to up-sell a larger pool or to step clients up to better tile or special decking. Or, include a sports equipment package with a one-year service contract.

While there are game sets that are built with the dual features of commercial quality and portability, some clients will want the custom look of an in-deck installation for a basketball setup or volleyball net. "Our deck-mounted unit was created for smaller decks, or for where somebody doesn't want to have the larger plastic base in sight or potentially in the way on the deck," says Pool Shot's Paul Entin. "Certainly pool builders are welcoming of the concept because they could put that in when the pool is being constructed."

Builders might offer free custom installation when the equipment is purchased for a new pool or renovation.

- K.P.

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