TOMS RIVER, NJ - Four years ago, United Textile Fabricators headed in a direction off its beaten path. It transported a selection of its skill cranes to Las Vegas and displayed them at the National Bulk Vendors Association trade show.
United recalled that it may have been the only amusement crane company to exhibit at the bulk vending showcase, and the timing could not have been better. The prize-merchandising sector, dominated by traditional claw-enabled cranes, was in a rapid growth stage, and crane machine earnings eventually surpassed video game revenues in 2002. The company's success at the bulk vending exhibition validated its premonition: there was strong demand for skill cranes from all kinds of operators.
United Textile Fabricators' president Brian Petaccio has since led the company on an imaginative course of nationwide expansion. This year, he expects machine unit sales to reach 5,000, which would represent an all-time record for the 25-year-old company whose origins go back to Grayhound Electronics.
In an expansive 32,000-sq.ft. factory and warehouse in south Jersey's Toms River, United manufactures, services and ships a full-line of skill crane products, which includes about 10 different models under the "Treasure Chest" banner. Models are fabricated in "single," "junior," "jumbo" and "goliath" sizes. State-of-the-art electronics are imported from Taiwan and cabinets are built in United's on-premise woodshop. According to Petaccio, the company today builds its strongest and most reliable product.
The "fabricate-or-outsource" determination, an important ability for any manufacturer to possess, was an easy choice for the company. While many of today's crane company's resell imports from the Far East, United has found that outsourcing the electronic assemblies , the guts of a crane , and incorporating them into its own cabinetry provide vital controls over quality. Most importantly, it enables the company to control costs.
The company applies its expertise in the production of different crane models to offer more choices for its operator customers. And United stocks parts, all of which are interchangeable on its different models, and maintains a full-service technical department to support operators. Parts are available in volume, and the company takes pride in its policy of importing components by the container load, thus avoiding any shortages that can result from partial shipments. And because United sells directly to operators, it has implemented an advance parts replacement program in which a customer requests a returned merchandise authorization (RMA) for fast component replacement.
"We've redesigned and developed the crane machine to increase appeal," the United president observed. "For the operator, our electronics make it easier for him to 'percentage.' And we've kept the machine cost low." Every crane is equipped with its own voltmeter, allowing the operator to make all programming adjustments from the service door.
United's cranes, Petaccio added, have great appeal for the amusement machine patron, who ultimately determines the success of any coin-operated device in the field. The crane's profile, which includes the positioning of the control panel and bill and coin acceptors, has been optimized for customer interaction, allowing easy access. The computer-controlled play cycle (older cranes employed direct voltage) delivers a smoother experience as the player guides and positions the retrieval mechanism across the playfield. And when the mechanism is released to pick up a prize, new rubber tips on the claws provide a better grip around it. All of these subtle enhancements, the United executive pointed out, encourage patrons to continue playing and create an enjoyable experience.
The computerized functionality, programmed into United's motherboard, hardwires every crane for this play experience. A prize is picked up almost all the time and then, during the hold cycle, the tension decreases. Two potentiometers , for grabbing and holding , can be adjusted.
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Customized graphics have become a big part of United's manufacturing model. It maintains a fully staffed graphics and print department, equipped with the latest digital imaging equipment and software, that enables the immediate production of decals for specific orders.
"We can customize any crane any way you want," Petaccio boasts, "and the demand for this service is tremendous."
This desire for customization, and United's graphics capability, turned out to be a stroke of good fortune. Seizing on the opportunity, the crane manufacturer developed the "Sports Crane" line featuring detailed artwork associated with professional sports teams. The "Sports Cranes" have proven to be so successful in some markets that machine models for teams in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Sacramento have become standard selections in the company's crane portfolio.
And customization has been a boon beyond geographical sports preferences. For the restaurant industry, United Textile Fabricators makes special orders for such chains as Friendly's, Chi Chi's pizzerias and Red Robin Burger & Spirit Emporiums. And, of course, some of the Jersey Shore's most fabled boardwalk locations employ United's skill for custom work.
"We can customize cranes over their entire life," Petaccio added, referring to the company's personalized graphics package in which it creates a decal design for a small one-time charge, and stores the layout for future use. United presently has 125 designs in its graphics database.
The origins of the skill crane can be traced back to traveling carnivals of the early 20th century; early arcade versions, known as "claw" games, first appeared in penny arcades in the 1930s. Their universal application in typical street and location-based sites began around 1980 when they were added to the mix of equipment found in video game arcades. While they became prolific and profitable through the 1980s, they experienced a sudden drop in the early 1990s.
"Cranes were very big in the mid-'80s," recalled Petaccio, who in 1986 sold to Sugarloaf, which eventually became the nation's largest operator of cranes and is now owned by Coinstar Inc., its first crane.
As the crane business slowed , and in some markets, died , many industry observers believed the category was just a fad that would never return to its glory days. United was among the stalwarts in the prize-merchandising business to prove wrong the pessimists. And the New Jersey company has contributed greatly to its revitalization.
Cranes , and other prize-dispensing devices, along with kiddie rides and bulk venders , have established themselves as "other" income sources for national and regional mass merchandise chains, restaurants, movie theaters and grocery stores. This, in part, is due to continued restrictions on the placement of video games, which are oftentimes not considered "family friendly" enough. But skill cranes provide street operators with flexibility, as the units have an almost unlimited player base; they can be placed in equipment rotations for adult stops as well as child-oriented locations.
"What's driving our success is our ability to help operators become more profitable and liquid," Petaccio told VT. "One of the ways we do this is by offering trade-ins on all models , from any manufacturer!"
United may offer one of the most aggressive trade-in programs in the crane industry, enabling operators to upgrade their routes at an accelerated pace. "I'll trade out an entire route," said Petaccio, who recently completed a 47-unit exchange with a large Jersey operator. "This strategy has helped us create a new market."
The trade-in business has kept busy the company's refurbishing division, which overhauls, cleans, preps and paints the used equipment for resale. Much of the refurbished equipment is sold to bulk vending operators, who in recent years have increased their involvement in amusements in order to remain competitive and retain their vending accounts where other coin-op machines are placed.
Bulk vendors, who tend to operate cranes like vending machines, servicing them less frequently, are attracted to inexpensive used equipment. Amusement operators, on the other hand, are focused on maximizing weekly earnings and therefore service their cranes with far greater regularity. In addition to programming cranes routinely with new prizes, experienced operators understand that a brand new crane will outperform an older machine , even if both units are filled with the same prizes.
United has skillfully developed a business model that addresses the needs of these two operator types. As a result, the firm's equipment sales have doubled over the past year, Petaccio reported. A good amount of sales, he added, are handled by the company's new website , unitedtextile.net , which is frequently updated to keep up the product advances.
The cost for United Textile Fabricators' new equipment ranges from as low as $1,595 for its standard "Treasure Chest" single, which measures 30.5 ins. wide, to as much as $6,995 for the "Goliath," a 66-in.-wide deluxe model. The company offers popular variations of its cranes to merchandise a variety of prizes, including the "Jewelry Treasure Chest" line. Standard features on all cranes include chasing lights, removable metal consoles, joystick and button controls and bill acceptors. Prize counters and bill stackers are offered as options.
Also propelling the resurging crane industry is the advancement, on the part of suppliers and operators, of product merchandising for crane machines. The industry has been highly successful using merchandise and favorable award programming to attract more patrons, and this is an area in which United Textile Fabricators has excelled.
The company has always sold prize merchandise, which is a natural fit for any crane manufacturer, but is applying new energy and focus into its prize business. It imports annually about 175 containers of generic and mixed goods. Buying trips to China have become customary for Petaccio.
The United warehouse is staffed by a full-time workforce that assembles prepackaged prize kits. Mixes include generic and licensed merchandise at piece costs ranging from 75˘ to $3.75, depending on size. Licensed sports balls are available for the "Sports Crane" line, along with other licenses like NASCAR and hard goods (watches, jewelry, lasers, Ty beanies, etc.) on foam.
The company has demonstrated that it can innovate in this area, too, and has created a unique assortment that consists of 5-in. balls and 5-in. capsules, which hold watches and other popular novelties. The equal diameter of the balls and the capsules allows them to be picked up by a crane's claw programmed for that size. United also has begun importing product under its own name. The new "Treasure Chest" toy line consists of 200 different items and is available now.
For United, skill cranes are a growth business. Amid all the discussion about networking jukeboxes and video games, the New Jersey crane manufacturer is investing heavily in a coin-op staple that will help keep operators profitable well into the future.