By Hilary Danailova

When it comes to picking the best redemption and game prizes, amusement operators frequently consult the authoritative source: their own offspring.

“If my three kids like it, chances are other kids will like it too,” said Matt Zasmeta, who owns Hazelwood Corporation in North Aitkin, Minn. So when it comes time to stock arcade machines and redemption counters at the 400 taverns, bowling alleys, and FECs he supplies around central Minnesota, Zasmeta shares merchandise catalogs with his own children — ages 12, 9 and 3. “They really help a lot,” he noted.

Games in the Bear Creek Music & Games company stock. The company’s owners look for merchandise that is within a reasonable price point.

In Jacksonville, Fla., Kathey Fanning takes a similar tack. “I look at my own grandchildren and see what they buy,” said the second-generation owner of Gator Coin Machine Co., which is managed day-to-day by Fanning’s son, Jonathan. The 73-year-old business supplies sports bars, trampoline parks, roller skating rinks and FECs around northern Florida.

Beyond specific toys, Fanning said her closeness with younger relatives has yielded insights into the pastimes parents want for their children. “My son and I got into trying not to get the tech-y stuff, but rather activities that kids can do outside,” Fanning explained. Machine prizes like bouncy balls and bubble kits “are things that get their attention and motivate them to do something besides sit down, look at a screen and hit a button,” she added.

Along those lines, bigger-ticket prizes like skateboards, hover boards and bicycles are all-around winners — with both kids and their parents — at the redemption counter. So are GoPros, the high-end waterproof cameras popular at pools and waterparks. When choosing her sporty prize selection, Fanning also specifically looks for items that work for either gender, avoiding pink and brights in favor of more neutral hues. “When they win something, you want them to be able to take it home and use it right away,” she said.

Co-Owner Adam Koch, Bear Creek Music and Games, photographed with The Prize Hub. The Indian Hills, Colo., company chooses its prizes based on that they believe are youngsters’ tastes.

Instant gratification: That’s the psychology behind perennially successful games, like the crane machines that are consistent top self-redemption earners for Zasmeta at Hazelwood. “Some of the stackers are very steady,” said the industry veteran. “Kids like them because they’ll get smaller prizes right away, so if they don’t want to continue on, they don’t have to.”

In the ticket redemption category, Big Bass is Zasmeta’s big performer. “Kids love that game. I don’t know why,” he said with a laugh. He keeps business strong by featuring new and different prizes all the time, like the YETI brand drinkware that has been a favorite lately.

Ducky cranes and egg dispensers are the top redemption earners for Liberty Coin Inc. and Minnesota Pastime in Virginia, Minn., according to Owner Bob Thomas. “Overall, with general merchandise, we all know cranes are popular,” he said. “Duckies and cute plush critters do well. Kids love the little animals, and who am I to argue with what sells?”

After a half-century in the business, Thomas has a feel for stocking the prizes that motivate patrons. “We do not buy from just one source,” he noted. “For diversity, we buy from multiple sources, just because people see things differently. And whenever we see a new distributor, we go and root around their site to check it out.”

At Bear Creek Music & Games in Indian Hills, Colo., Adam Koch considers youngsters’ tastes when stocking prizes for his self-redemption games. “I think about what people would want to buy if they walked into a store, and that’s what I choose,” said Koch, who co-owns Bear Creek with his father, Charles. “It’s all about what the kids would want.”

The Kochs look for merchandise that’s within a reasonable price point — often around $20 — and that can either hang in a machine or fit into a dispenser capsule. “I also look for a higher perceived value than what it actually costs,” said Adam Koch. Recent winners have included knockoffs of Apple AirPods, watches, electronic speakers, and headphones, along with the LOL brand of “surprise” dolls.

Mike McDonald, who owns Liberty Coin, Inc., and Minnesota Pastime in Virginia, Minn., with Bob Thomas. After a half-century in business, Thomas said he has a feel for stocking the prizes that motivate patrons.

With redemption machines in 27 states across the country, it’s impossible to say which games or prizes are consistent winners for Denver, Colorado-based Entertainment Experts, said Manager Dave Clark. The company relies on long-standing relationships and a wide selection to source the best prizes for various markets.

“We go to the conventions, we’ve been working with certain distributors for 30 years, and we buy in bulk,” said Clark.