In case you haven't noticed, toys are not just for kids these days. More and more, adults are spending money on fun — for themselves and for the whole family. Add to that an increased interest in fitness and exercise, plus the growing trend toward folks spending more time at home (and more money on their homes), and you get a pretty good environment for selling pool toys and games. Although many of the pool toys and games on the market these days practically sell themselves, with a little more effort you can put them to work for you.

Toys For Big Girls And Boys

The availability of sports-equipment-style games for the pool has more grownups taking off their court shoes and jumping in the water. Manufacturers like Huffy Sports make basketball goals and volleyball sets that look like the durable equipment at the neighborhood park, and can take just about as much abuse as the playground hoops and nets.

These days Keith Zars of Keith Zars Pools in San Antonio, Texas, sells net games on the majority of the pools he builds. "We're selling to a dad and his son, they want something everyone can use," says Zars. "When they play, they play 'gorilla rules' — you can hang on the hoop, you can do whatever you want. They don't want equipment that's fragile."

Zars' clients want games that look and perform like authentic sports equipment. "They want to show off and dunk the basketball, they want to hang on the net and spike the volleyball. They just want to have fun; they don't want to worry about breaking it. They want it to look like sports equipment, not a child's toy."

Hoops and nets haven't always been "must-haves" for Zars' clients. It took a little coaxing and some neighborly peer pressure. "When we started, we didn't sell as many as we sell today," he says. "Then people started seeing them at their friends' and neighbors' homes. Once they tried them and liked them, we started building up a bit of a reputation." Some clients ask for the game equipment right from the start, but there are also folks who don't know they want it until they see it. That's why Zars introduces the games at the start of the sales process: "We always show a photo of the equipment, and that helps bring it up in the conversation."

Something For Everyone

Pro-style games are just the ticket for adults and teens, but they're overkill for little kids. Remember when you were 5 and you tried to take a regular sized basketball to a regular sized hoop. Pretty discouraging. Dale Quezada, sales manager for San Diego's Hallmark Pools, says it's important to match the game with the player.

"It's way too much for kids under 8 or so," he says of the sports-equipment-style games. "But they will last 10 to 15 years, and they will take the abuse of teenagers and adults. Now, the two-in-one basketball/ volleyball game, that's a good allages game. But I don't recommend that for teenagers, because they aren't going to want to play on the 'little-kid games,' so it depends on the age group."

He carries three different levels of games, grouped around the age-appropriateness for the participants. "It's more just helping the customer with selection: We talk about the age group of the kids who are going to be using them, and whether this model going to make sense for what the family wants." Most of the toys on Hallmark's shelves sell themselves; it's at the higher price points that customers can use some guidance from knowledgeable salespeople. "The only time we really have to get involved with selling is with the basketball games, because they run from $60 anywhere up to $239," says Quezada.

Ball games aren't the only toys that cross the generations. The lifelike, colorful, battery-operated tropical fish, koi, frogs and other creatures that everyone has seen at industry trade shows can spark both a child's imagination and a conversation at a cocktail party. "All ages can use them and enjoy them. When the water's too cold to swim in, but you're having an outdoor gathering, throw a couple of those in the pool. It's a great accessory for a party," says Quezada. The creatures also add life to a spa. When it's not being used for therapy or relaxation, colorful battery-operated aquatic life can turn it into a water feature.

Not Just For Fun

Quezada himself often adds battery-op toys to spas, but he does it not for fun so much as for profit. "Whenever we do shows — out at the fairgrounds, stuff like that — we'll take everything that's battery-operated and put them in the spas," he says. "It's just one of those things that make people say, 'Oh that's cool! Where can I get one?'" Quezada then directs them to Hallmark's retail stores.

Hallmark builds pools along with running two retail locations. Toys can help drive pool clients to the store and down the road to being loyal customers. "We give gift certificates to the customers we build pools for," says Quezada. "We also give them additional discounts on their initial purposes, so they can choose whatever they want."

Zars finds that the games he sells serve two roles, as well. "It's a profitable item, sure, but it helps the overall sale." Instead of selling the pool as just a lovely body of water for swimming and splashing, add a hoop or a net and the pool is transformed into a fitness center, party room, teen hangout and an outdoor family room. And Zars points this out to clients during the planning process. "When the adults, for instance, are playing volleyball, the kids all want to play volleyball, too. If it's just kids, they kind of wear out on it. But when adults are involved, the kids want to emulate adults." And that's a great recipe for family togetherness.

Toys Will Be Toys

Toys can be educational, help sell product and make exercise fun, but their core purpose is still to delight and amuse. Toys and games are still very likely to practically hop into shopping carts. "Pretty much, toys sell themselves," says Quezada.

"Come summer, I don't have to do anything, just put them on the wall. It's one of those items that I can make a pretty good return on. You just have to have them out there."

Part of the reason that toys sell so well is that manufacturers are doing their part to keep them turning over. In the highly competitive toy industry — if you have kids, you can testify to just how competitive it is — manufacturers are organized to respond quickly. They're good at spotting trends, getting market intelligence and turning out products to meet customers' needs.

"The market's been pretty responsive to changing designs, so I think the manufacturers have been staying on top of what people are looking for," Quezada says. "The key for us is always to find what's going to sell. So you have to keep a good selection."

That means big, fun inflatables like a pirate ship island, or a spaceship capsule or a giant octopus, in addition to the standard air mattresses, lounges and rings.

Keep Some For Yourself

Toys also are not just for your customers, nor are they just for play. In a showroom's sea of soothing blue and green and silver hot tubs, a shocking pink inflatable ball or a school of bright orange, blue and purple fish can serve as sign posts and directional markers, catching the eyes and piquing the interest of shoppers and inviting them into showroom-floor vignettes. Toys also capture the attention of kids that might be along on the trip to the spa store. And wherever the kids go, parents will surely follow.

Toys are designed to be fun, provoke a giggle and invite a grin. When customers — whether big or small — have smiles on their faces, everyone is happy.

Rainbow Reef Fish Tapped for TOTY

Swimways’ Rainbow Reef Fish, the lifelike battery-operated tropical fish that swims around at most spa and pool industry trade shows, has been nominated for a prestigious TOTY award. The TOTY (toy of the year) is given by the Toy Industry Association in 14 categories ranging from “Most Innovative Toy of the Year,” to "Retailer of the Year."  The Rainbow Reef Fish is nominated in the outdoor toy category and is up against competition like Huffy’s Electric Scram Micro Monkey Bike and the Razor XLR8R electric scooter. Swimways is located in Virginia Beach, Va., and manufactures a variety of pools toys and games. 

— K.P.