There's no secret to TNT Amusements' success. It comes down to hard work and attention to detail. Since its founding in 1993, the McKinney, TX-based company has carved out a distinct niche for itself. With just nine employees working out of a modest 5,000-sq.ft. facility, TNT has earned a solid reputation by offering unique products and good customer service.
PHOTO: TNT DYNAMITE! Tom Hirt, TNT Amusements president and owner, spearheaded the company's transition from a vending operation into a premier bulk and crane supplier. TNT's sales and warehouse facilities are located in a 5,000-sq.ft. building in McKinney, TX. Candy crane and bulk vending products ship to operators.
The firm, which began as an operating company, received a boost when CiCi's Pizza named TNT the official bulk vending operator for a handful of corporate-owned locations. That relationship with the Texas-based pizza restaurant franchisor, known for family-oriented budget buffet pizza and salads, grew to 40 locations in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.
"As we serviced the route, we would come in contact with future franchisees of CiCi's, and as they went out to start their own franchise stores, they began looking for ways to maximize revenue," TNT president and owner Tom Hirt told VT.
Hirt reports that these franchisees recognized the need for an operator to provide and service videogames, but they wanted to take bulk vending in-house. The problem they quickly encountered was finding the unique candy crane mix stocked in TNT-operated cranes. This was indeed a problem, since TNT's high-earning cranes were stocked with the company's own custom mix.
"We were using different suppliers, but didn't like some of the product," Hirt explained. "So we explored the market, found some good suppliers and created our own mix."
Hirt began selling his crane mixes to CiCi's franchisees. As word of Hirt's success spread, operators beyond the franchisees came knocking at his door looking for candy crane mixes. This prompted the firm to expand its product lines, and to scale back its own operation. He took on a partner five years ago, local businessman Robbie Clark and his wife, Karen, who oversees accounting and office management.
IT'S ALL HERE!
Today, TNT regards itself as a one-stop coin-op shop, offering bulk products capsules, crane merchandise and flat vendibles, along with equipment parts. "We evolved into a distributor for several importers," Hirt said. "As new machines came on the market, like Stacker and other self-redemption games, we honed our skills to find and define different price points for the prizes those games required. We made it easy for small operators entering the bulk vending arena, but needed to have someone to guide them on what products to purchase."
One of the keys to TNT's early success, Hirt pointed out, was the decision to become the first supplier to offer a product guarantee. If merchandise doesn't sell, operators can return any unopened boxes for credit towards new product. This policy, which has since been adopted by other suppliers, built operator confidence early on for the startup company.
Recently, the company has begun directly importing more of its products from overseas sources. "We are importing more than we have before," Hirt said. "We've learned to bypass some middlemen we used to depend on. And we've increased our relationships with importers to demand greater discounts and commit to larger purchases."
This move has translated into lower prices for TNT's customers. However, the transition from re-packager to importer is not as easy as it sounds. With product safety issues at the forefront, the small company is required to dedicate resources to complying with laws regulating lead and phthalates.
"We don't risk buying from the secondary markets that may not have the paperwork," Hirt claims. "So operators know, if it came from our warehouse, it has all the safety paperwork required."
The company has also moved aggressively into Internet sales, with Hirt estimating his online sales to operators up 20% in the last 18 months. "We've created a user-friendly website," he said. "Operators can use either credit cards or PayPal. It's convenient for the customers and we have the payment, which means we can ship the next day."
Hirt takes care to emphasize next-day shipping, which, according the TNT owner, accounts for 98% of all orders. "We also use UPS, so customers can track their order. Not a lot of guys have the time to look at their orders during the day, but when they get home at night, they can look it up and know exactly when it's going to arrive."
BIG CHANGES, THE RIGHT STUFF
Among the significant changes Hirt is seeing in bulk vending is the continued move to 75¢ or $1 vends. The pricing transition has not been a smooth one, he cautioned.
"We see operators advancing to 75¢ or $1 more prevalently on the coasts," Hirt observed. "So, geographically, you'll see an NFL mug sell for 75¢ or $1 on the coasts, but here and in the Midwest, that same mug is 50¢." Similarly, those middle-American operators have been slower to move to the 50¢ price for 1" capsules.
Hirt feels the full transition to higher prices is coming soon, however, perhaps within the next two or three years, as operators facing rising supply prices step up their efforts to update coin mechanisms.
The TNT owner also sees changes in the international supply line, chiefly in India and Vietnam, where companies are beginning to offer more products suitable for bulk vending. "Importers have had strong relationships with manufacturers in China," he said. "And now the industry will develop new relationships in different regions."
Not surprisingly, the economy is another area of change with which Hirt is preoccupied. With foot traffic down in most accounts, the need for compelling, cost-efficient products is greater than ever. Because operators are under greater pressure to maintain profits, Hirt said he is determined to find ways to control costs.
"Like most companies, we've managed to figure out how to work 26 hours out of the 24 available to us in the day," he said. "Everybody's pulled up their shirt sleeves and gotten to work. We watch our inventories more closely to make sure we have the right stuff."