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Playset market as durable as the equipment itself

Alfred Hitchcock's birds have nothing on Periodical Cicadas. Called the largest insect emergence in the world, billions of these particular species of cicadas appear just once every 17 years. Swarms of nymphs leave the safety of underground and scurry up whatever happens to be nearby and vertical, where they drop their skin and then sit tight to let their exoskeletons harden.

This year just happened to be year 17. Brood X, as this generation was called, started invading a territory from the Eastern Seaboard west into Indiana and south to Tennessee in mid-April.

It takes about a week for them to mature after attaching themselves to trees, tombstones, playsets — whatever is closest. Then the males begin their high-decibel shriek of desire that no female cicada can resist. Duty done, they drop dead. The females, meanwhile, go off to lay eggs in a tree branch where they will hatch and fall to the ground to burrow in and begin the cycle all over again.

The phenomenon is truly astonishing. But a retail enhancement it's not.

"There were bugs everywhere," said Steve Watson, manager of Watson's Fireplace & Patio, Lutherville, Md., including all over his outside display of ChildLife playsets.

The good thing about the cycle of the Periodical Cicada is that it doesn't last more than a few weeks.

"They were a deterrent but playset sales picked up after they left, and all in all it was a pretty good season," Watson said.

It isn't surprising. Playsets are consistently strong sellers for specialty retailers, and it will take more than some bugs — even a lot of bugs — to slow them down much. As long as there are kids, there will be parents and grandparents looking for quality back yard play equipment for their offspring.

At Watson's, playset price points range from $1,000 to $8,000, with the average sale coming in around $3,000. That is typical for the category.

"People can talk about the economy, but there are a lot of people out there with money," said Kathy Emmert, president of Statuary World Patio & Fireplace, Oklahoma City, Okla. "Most of the (Rainbow) playsets I sell range from $2,000 to $5,000. People want quality."

Statuary World, one of two Rainbow dealers in Oklahoma, has carried the brand for many years. Emmert keeps plenty of sets in inventory, as well as displays five or six of them.

Watson's also stocks deep. "We sell a lot of ChildLife so we dedicate a good chunk of space to the displays as well as in our warehouse," Watson said.

Space is a drawback for some specialty retailers when considering adding a playset category, but liability is the bigger issue. Emmert and Watson both have signs posted alerting adults that children play at their own risk. Emmert once had a child break her arm on a display but without repercussions.

"I never heard anything about it after the father took the child to the hospital," she said. "I think he felt responsible for letting her do something that a sign I had posted specifically said not to do."

At Extension Patio Shop in Trenton, N.J., three complete ChildLife playsets are on display outside in a locked area so children can climb on them only when adults are present. There are also two climbing towers on display inside.

"You can't ask someone to spend $3,000 on a product without being able to touch it," said Jennifer Troll, manager of her family's business.

Andre Gera, president of Gera Gardens in Mount Sinai, N.Y., agrees, and as a result is considering dropping the category. The garden center displays 20 to 24 playsets that are accessible all season long.

"That's why we pay a fortune in insurance," Gera said. "We've been in the playset business for 15 years, but I'm not sure how much longer we will stay in it if the insurance continues to go up at the rate it is going. But we'll see. We do pretty well in it."

Gera Gardens carries several lines of playsets, with wood sets from Casual Living and PVC sets from Bellevue Lawn Furniture its major lines. Gera has seen a distinct trend toward the PVC equipment. Last year, 40% of Gera Gardens' playset sales were PVC and 60% wood; this season it was 80% PVC and 20% wood.

"It was considerably different," he said.

Gera Gardens offers PVC sets from $1,300 up, with the average sale between $1,800 and $2,400. "We also sell quite a few in the $3,000 range as well," Gera said.

The garden center does all installations to protect itself from liability should customers erect the playset incorrectly resulting in someone getting hurt.

At Extension Patio, installation of the ChildLife playsets is offered as an option for a cost of 10% of the unit sale. "Everything comes predrilled with hardware and instructions, so we give them the option," Troll said. "Most people have us do the assembly, though."

Playsets tend to be a destination item thanks to manufacturers' national advertising and Web presence. ChildLife in particular invests heavily in getting its name in front of consumers, something Troll appreciates. She particularly likes the ChildLife Express feature on the company's Web site, which allows consumers to configure the playset they want and click "submit" to send it on to ChildLife for a quote. The manufacturer then e-mails the dealers with the lead.

Troll also appreciates the good customer service. "I can call them on a Saturday afternoon with a customer's question, and if they don't know the answer, they put me on hold and get it," she said.

Emmert is also pleased with the support she gets from Rainbow. The company assigns dealer territory based on area code and uses that to direct leads back to the dealer.

"When consumers call Rainbow's 800 number, it rings into the dealer in the area code of the caller," she said. "So I get all of the calls that come in from my two area codes."

Exclusivity was one of the reasons Rupesh Kotecha chose Woodplay as his primary manufacturer of playsets when he opened California Swings in Anaheim last year. He was also drawn to the brand's use of redwood. His first year in the category has him excited about continuing.

"We've done very well," he said. "We have a good location and we market quite a lot, so we think that next year will be even better."

Average price points for Kotecha range from $1,500 to $3,500. As is fitting to the category, his customers are parents and grandparents.

Kotecha has a year-round market in southern California, but playsets are more seasonable in other parts of the country. Christmas offers retailers an additional boost as well, although it has its drawbacks as Steve Watson can attest.

"We assembled one last year in what must have been 10-degree weather. But we accommodated them," he said.

Bugs, frozen ground, cold metal bolts ... it's all in a days work in the specialty business.

Playsets, like the one above from Swing-N-Slide, are consistently strong sellers for specialty realtors.

Made from recycled teak, the checkerboard table from Groovystuff features a carved game table design, complemented by natural earthly checkers of the same material.

Consumers can add colossal fun to the back yard with Kettler's larger-than-life chess set and mega checkerboard, constructed of all-weather black and white resin.

Childlife's Firechief Play System features sliding, swinging, climbing and sand play.

Young players can practice their tennis game at home with the HEAD-Starts Retail Set from Penn Racquet Sports.

Spirit Elements' European Sheds' line of playhouses is constructed of imported Scandanavian Pine and treated with ACG, an environmentally friendly treatment that offers long-term protection from decay, insects and termites.

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