By Sara Hodon
Coin-op and redemption game operators strive to offer customers machines with the most up-to-date technology to remain competitive. Currently, machines with swipe card mechanisms and paper redemption ticket dispensers are offered in certain venues like FECs, although they still have somewhat of a niche market. The swipe card machine is essentially a prepaid card for games. Customers can purchase the swipe cards from a kiosk inside the venue. Each card purchased has a certain number of points; as the customer uses the card, they also use their points. Although FECs and similar venues in larger markets are installing more swipe card machines, Charlie Robinson, owner of Charlie’s Novelty Company in Shreveport, La., said these machines are still largely cost-prohibitive for the smaller Mom and Pop establishments. “I don’t sell them because if you have these machines, you have to up the price for people to play,” he explained. “That same $1.50 toy you’re winning out of the crane has added expenses. By the time you add on all the other expenses, it’s about $9 or $10 for that $1.50 toy. If you let the kids win more, they play more. We try to let them win as much as we can,” he said. “When you use the card, you always have $.25 or $.50 left, which you can’t use because you can’t really get anything for that amount, so you’re wasting that money.” Robinson has been in business for a decade. He primarily installs video games, crane machines, and pinball machines in FECs and game rooms. “I like what I do,” he said. “I enjoy offering good wholesome entertainment to families. We’re a local business, so we work with our local community.” Robinson said there are three major expenses connected to the ticket redemption machines that make them largely cost-prohibitive for many smaller operators. “Again, the expenses that you have to put on the prizes is not worth it, in my opinion. There’s the salary of the person at the ticket counter, the expense of the inventory you stock, and the expense of the tickets themselves.”
Steve Belmonte, owner of Patriot Vending in Amesbury, Mass., said he has also opted out of the swipe card and ticket redemption machines as part of his inventory, focusing instead on his core business of arcade games and pinball machines.
But there is still a market for these machines. “I imagine the swipe card machines are popular because kids get the idea they have a credit card and can swipe them as Mom and Dad would,” said Greg Deller, co-owner of Amusement Games in Santa Claus, Ind. Deller does offer the swipe card and ticket redemption machines. “The kids like the paper ticket machines because they like carrying the tickets around with them. It’s almost like another game that’s free when they feed the tickets into the machine. The machine counts the tickets and the child gets a prize according to how many tickets they have.” Although both machines have their benefits, Deller said the swipe card is particularly beneficial for a small company like his. “We don’t have to worry about ticket or token jams with the swipe card machine,” he explained. Fewer service calls means focusing on building and maintaining relationships with customers. “There is an expense to get these machines, but the cost savings with not having to worry about repairs outweighs that expense.” He added the computer systems on the swipe card machines are responsive, so if there is a problem with the machine (such as a power outage), it’s usually back up and running quickly once the problem is resolved.
As with many other industries, technology continues to have an impact on the novelty and arcade game market in various ways. The physical space of a game room may have changed, but gaming is more popular than ever. “Just the graphics on the games have come a long way,” Robinson said. “If you play a new game and then a retro game, it’s funny to see how far technology has come.” Belmonte said technology has allowed him to serve his customers better. They utilize a cash management and marketing system called Intercard which has helped them streamline various functions and tackle some customer demographic challenges. “It provides us with any kind of report that we need—hour to hour, day to day, week to week, and month to month. It helps us identify times of day when our machines are getting the most use, and it has helped us identify the demographic of people using our machines and at what times.” This information allows him to meet certain customer needs, he added. “We were able to identify a customer demographic we weren’t able to identify before—the 25-45 year olds—the people who come in with their boyfriends or girlfriends on dates, or the husbands and wives who come in for a night out, rather than with the birthday party group. We’ve been able to offer a better selection of prizes for that customer group rather than those for the 5-15 year olds—larger, more expensive prizes, such as Coach purses for the ladies.”
As far as the games themselves, operators say pinball is coming back in a big way. “We’ve introduced a Bag of Five pinball machine,” Belmonte said. “We haven’t offered a pinball machine in 20 years, but they seem to be making a comeback.” Robinson is also seeing a renewed interest in pinball. “I put it back on our routes four or five years ago,” he said. “Kids today think it’s something new. It’s the same thing with video games—some of the kids think a game is brand new, but the older clientele know it’s not.”
Vendors said although younger customers have more entertainment options than ever, their industry continues to do well, and as Robinson said, “There’s still a market for good clean fun. It’s something for kids to do when they’re out with their parents—they usually finish eating long before the parents do, so the games keep them busy. The other thing I like about the games themselves is that they’re not nearly as violent as the ones you get for home gaming systems. Maybe there are different standards for games for the public.” Redemption games also have a physical aspect lacking in many of the home gaming systems. “Redemption games get the kids moving a little more,” Deller said. “You also can’t redeem tickets and win a prize at home. That’s why redemption is doing a lot better than the video games.” Belmonte said he sees this trend, as well. “We switched to more redemption games that weren’t available in the home or on a mobile app—like Skee-Ball, Down the Clown, Speed of Light, Milk Jug, and basketball games—ones that have more interaction.” Deller said the standard arcade of a generation ago has evolved. “I think the bowling, FEC, and go-kart places seem to be the trend and I don’t see that going anywhere,” he said. “They might add extra attractions.” This could mean an even greater demand for the swipe card and ticket redemption machines.