The demise and attempts at rebirth of a water phoenix
The last truly powerful water guns have disappeared long ago from store shelves, yet they remain on the minds of many members of the various water gun enthusiast forums. Unfortunately, apart from some rather unsatisfying re-releases of some past midrange soakers, they have remained elusive and may only be acquired at great personal expense at the online auction site eBay.com.
One suggestion put forward by multiple individuals over the years is contacting Hasbro to voice their disapproval over their apparent lack of interest in the enthusiast soaker market. Sending e-mails to Hasbro customer service is a futile undertaking however, as the people who receive these e-mails are generally quite low in the organization and are generally hired to relieve top management of any duty or responsibility towards customers. The main problem of larger organizations is that when they grow, they tend to add layer upon layer of management all the way to the top. As companies tend to be run top to bottom, with orders passed through the ranks down to the employees tasked with the execution of those orders, any suggestion put forward from the employees at the bottom of the organization will have to travel through all these layers of management to the individuals responsible for formulating overall strategy. Unless the idea is so revolutionary that they have no choice but to respond, it is going to end up at the bottom of some pile somewhere and most likely end up being dismissed for not having any potential.
Another problem that lies at the core of our current malaise in available water guns is the fact that the dominant supplier of water guns (Hasbro) is a multinational conglomerate that sells a great many different brands with thousands of individual items. This is not a company that has the interest or ability to micromanage an individual brand. To them, Super Soakers are just one brand among many, and I would not be surprised if it was not their highest selling/highest margin brand but more a somewhat average performer. The end result of having to manage so many different brands is that all brands will be governed by one generic strategy. This is not an evil plot, but more a business decision taken to alleviate some of the burden of having to develop marketing plans and strategies for each and every item. This generalization of products will in most cases, however, quickly result in the demise of specialty products or products that “stick out” (high price/low volume soakers for example) as all products are made to conform to this one company strategy. Generally they select one particular target market (in the case of Hasbro, that appears to be children up till the age of 14) and mold and change each brand as to be suitable for this market. Items and brands that do not suit this vision will be sold to other companies or discontinued. For niche markets, this is the worst possible scenario, as we have noticed to our dissatisfaction, as the supply of products that meet the high standards of the niche market will dry up in favor of a mass-market solution. So unless a change in strategy or company attitude occurs, or possibly changing market conditions (for example an upstart company having considerable success selling high-priced water guns), we will have little to no chance of seeing a reversal of the trend of recent years of low quality soakers being dumped on the market.
The quest for more powerful guns
Designing and producing powerful water guns that actually sell well is certainly doable, albeit far more difficult than it was in the early 1990s. The reason for this is that the interests of teens have changed, from a focus on outside social activities, to more individualistic pastimes that generally take place indoors. The main culprit in this case is the computer, or more specifically, videogames and the Internet. When the first Super Soakers appeared, they had the benefit of being a novelty (which attracts buyers), but also there were few other “competing” products. Right now, video games can easily cost upwards of US$50,-, and money can be spent only once. So people will be faced with a choice between various options, and their buying behavior will be governed by what they consider to be the best way in which to achieve a feeling of satisfaction. Videogames, apart from being considered “cool”, provide an almost instant feeling of satisfaction. Water guns, for the majority of the population, have only limited use, and they have lost their “cool” factor in the endless cycle of re-releases without any real innovation. In a fact, the water gun is entering the middle stages of the product lifecycle, having transformed from a novelty into a commodity item and facing even further decline. The only way out of this downward spiral is through a renewed attention to innovation and to reinvent the water gun into something that will turn heads of passers-by. Right now, the line-ups of the various companies feel very generic, with no real distinguishing factor between them. Some low-level product improvement is going on (the motorized Scorpion from Buzz Bee Toys for example), but no real innovation.
The problem is, any soaker aimed at the enthusiast market will have to face an uphill battle. First of all, it has to provide enough of a value proposition to customers (it will need to be able to offer something extra in order to compete with various other high-priced items that are marketed at teens) and it will have to be able to withstand comparisons with products released in the past. The main problem that has dogged soakers of the past years is that their value proposition has decreased; they no longer provide the breakthrough experience of earlier generations and due to the manufacturers’ increased focus on evolution rather than innovation, have lost their image of a cool “must-have” toy. As a result, consumers are unlikely to pay premium prices for these guns. In a way, the backlash of consumers versus the manufacturers of water guns should not have come as a big surprise, as instead of offering a better experience in successive generations, the experience actually degraded over time, whereas prices remained steady.
As soakers have a government/society imposed performance ceiling for safety reasons, constantly increasing power/output, the route taken by Larami up till 1996, will not be sustainable. This performance ceiling was reached by Larami with the release of the CPS2000Mk1. The CPS2000Mk1 was both an achievement and a problem for its creators, as their previous strategy could no longer be followed. With the demise of this strategy went their ability to really move the market. The next generations of Super Soaker water guns suffered greatly from a lack of focus, with the Super Soaker brand finding itself more and more adrift. None of the guns released after this generation (with the possible exception of the Monster XL) really captured their customers’ imagination, as the improvements in bodywork failed to offset the decrease in output and power. Instead of turning to innovation however, trying out novel concepts to reignite customer’ enthusiasm, the decision was made to simply withdraw from the enthusiast market at the end of 2002 with the feeble excuses of low margins/low volume etc.
Any company releasing a high-price water gun will need to get it right the first time, offering both acceptable power and novel/breakthrough features to reclaim this lost customer mindshare, as it will otherwise turn into a costly failure. This is where irony steps in, as in order to get it right, they will need to interact directly with customers, a move that is being avoided for fear of lawsuits or made with extreme caution. So unless a new start-up company (or any of the current market players) comes up with the next great thing, we are stuck using old equipment, buying substandard soakers, or designing our own. The problem is, even if a new company has a great idea, it faces an uphill battle of convincing investors to back the idea, getting the necessary permits and safety checks for the item from various government bodies, convincing retailers to carry the item and to make shelf space available; and of course promote the item on national television. Shelf space comes in at a premium, so retailers generally look for tried-and-tested formulas first and frown upon new ideas. It therefore takes a great deal of effort to get the new venture of the ground. The hurdles described above, if the idea ever comes off the drawing board, can delay its introduction as a shipping product by years.
A solution to this problem is not really clear. The best situation would be if a company like Buzz Bee Toys (I consider Hasbro a very unlikely candidate) were to augment its line-up with a high-end gun. They, as Larami before merging completely with Hasbro, still have the ability to develop products with a specific market in mind, and are large and well known enough to design, produce and market such a construction. Still, a deep level of fear of failure is present at Buzz Bee Toys, as made evident by their strategy of piecemeal improvements to their guns and their habit of releasing guns in specific geographic regions first to judge its acceptance by the market before committing to a more global distribution. While understandable due to the high risks involved with releasing a new product (markets can be difficult to read), it does convey a certain level of uncertainty and doubt vis-à-vis their own products. Perhaps past failures have made them more cautious, or it may simply be in their nature to be risk-aversive. This attitude will however only delay any improvements being brought to the market; and will probably end up hindering rather than benefiting them in the long run. Many have contemplated what might have been had Larami been allowed to continue in the status quo as a separate Hasbro division or as an independent company. It seems unlikely though, that given their past achievements, they would have been very happy with Hasbro’s move towards a generic strategy and their focus on a younger target market. It may even have been this unhappiness that ultimately sealed their fate with the closing their offices and the complete absorption of the Super Soaker brand by Hasbro. As it stands today, the current line-up has no right to the illustrious title of “Super Soaker” as born by their famous forebears. As long as no guns are released that can rival these past weapons of mass output or offer truly innovative features, the manufacturers will always have to deal with a certain backlash from the soaker enthusiast community, expressing their disappointment and/or denouncing their line-ups as substandard. Whether they care though, or have the luxury to care, is a different matter.