A Few Bad Apples Threaten The Prize Merchandiser’s Future

Posted On: 1/6/2020

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Throughout their history, coin-operated amusements have been the targets of sensationalist reporting that often has failed to recognize the difference between amusement-only and skill games, on the one hand, and gambling devices on the other. As the postwar coin-op game industry evolved, it became effective in describing the differences, and we saw a steady rollback of blanket ordinances that had included  the prohibition of pinball machines by New York City, and of prize cranes in many jurisdictions.

Another challenge has been the persistent tendency of the media, and some politicians, to react to every mass shooting by blaming it on “violent videogames.” This dates back four decades, to a time when the increasing popularity of videogames led to their replacing violent television programs and violent comic books as suspects in the perceived increase in bad behavior by kids. But the most recent upsurge in these allegations gained no traction. Repeated studies have shown that videogames really can’t be linked to outbreaks of violence, and the word seems finally to have gotten out. Our trade associations have done a good job of emphasizing the facts, and of implementing age-appropriate rating systems similar to the motion picture industry’s. This willingness to understand and respond to critics’ concerns has gotten good results.

What I find troubling at present is a persistent and widespread push to regulate cranes and other prize merchandisers by limiting the maximum allowable value of the prizes they offer. This has taken place in a number of states, and it doesn’t appear to be tapering off.

I think that what inspires these laws is a popular belief that “you can’t win at a crane,” and “Nobody ever wins.” When people tell me that, I reply that we go through a million dollars’ worth of prize inventory every year, so somebody’swinning! Obviously, players have to win sometimes or they won’t keep playing. But we need to understand what causes that perception.

Cranes – I knew them as “diggers,” many years ago –have been around forever, mostly on boardwalks in seaside resort areas. The early ones date back to the early 20th Century; they usually consisted of a toy power shovel in a glass enclosure, with controls that allowed the player to rotate the cab, lower the boom and close the bucket. They became associated in the public mind with unsavory baiting practices. Unfortunately, there was some reason for this, and it resulted in those bans I mentioned. The modern claw games entered the U.S. market about four decades ago, and they’ve become commonplace.

To run today’s prize merchandisers successfully, operators need to understand the importance of studying their market areas and the sdemographics of each location. The goal is to adjust the value of the merchandise and the hit frequency to match the amount that the typical patron is willing to spend. And in locations with substantial repeat traffic, players will talk to one another and develop a sense of what to expect from the games. In public sites, players often are transient and don’t communicate.

During the videogame revolution, good operators learned to keep close track of the number of plays between collection stops. Their objective was to adjust the level of skill required to win, so as to keep pace with the players’ abilities. When the game was new and unfamiliar, a low skill level encouraged repeat play as patrons learned the skills they needed to win. As those abilities developed, it was necessary to increase the required skill level, in order to keep the game challenging and fun.

In high-income market areas, people will accept a higher price per play and a lower hit frequency to win an attractive prize. In lower-income areas they won’t, and this has to condition the pricing and the merchandise mix.

This means that you have to study the clientele in every location. This seems obvious, but some operators don’t do it –just as some people will open a family entertainment center without first doing a feasibility study.

I find that my ticket redemption cranes in entertainment venues cam work well at a 1:3 hit ratio, in some cases. In on-street locations, the ratio might be 1:10 or 1:12; if it’s any higher, people won’t play.

And there still are a few operators who want to be the bad guys. Two worst practices are attaching cash to prizes and offering alcoholic as a prize. There’s no need to do it; it tarnishes the industry image, and we have to self-police in order to stop it.

Something I’ve noticed is that state attorneys-general are very sensitive to cranes with claws that don’t grip the prize strongly to prevent its sometimes falling away. This also creates an unfavorable impression, and it’s time to improve those claw mechanisms to prevent their prematurely dropping the prize.

The amusement industry’s trade associations have done a good job in recognizing that the public, and elected officials, don’t understand the business the way they understand a bakery or a shoe store. This requires effective public and government relations, and the long campaign against unfair videogame regulations has gotten results.

It’s time to take a close look at prize merchandisers, to build greater understanding. The associations can’t do it all; we must learn to see ourselves the way others see us, and act accordingly.

FRANK SENINSKY is a veteran of half a century in the leisure entertainment industry. Known during (and after) the videogame revolution as “Frank the Crank” for his incisive, operator-focused game reviews, he went on to found the the Alpha-Omega Group of now 13 companies, of which he currently is president. This enterprise includes a consulting agency, Amusement Entertainment Management, two nationwide revenue sharing equipment suppliers, AlphaOmega Amusements and Alpha-BET Entertainment, and Alpha-Omega Sales, a full-line game and related equipment distributor. Contact Frank at seninskyaem@gmail.com or (732) 616-5345