Jackie Gleason had it right with his signature line: "How sweet it is!"
He could have been talking about S&B Candy and Toy Co., the St. Louis based company that has been supplying candy cranes and candy and toy mixes to the industry for 17 years.
S&B has built its reputation on quality cranes and product mixes that combine name brand candy, licensed items, and movie-themed merchandise that bring excitement to the candy crane market.
For an industry that was built on quarters, that monetary denomination remains the dominant coinage in candy cranes, which guarantee players an opportunity to win something of value, at a low cost to machine operators.
Brian Riggles, President of S&B, is keenly aware of the impact that the current economy is having on the coin machine industry, and estimates that business is down overall by 25-percent.
"Focusing on a quarter at a time is what the company is all about," said Riggles. " We make it possible to provide good entertainment, and a prize every time, for only 25-cents."
When asked about the keys to the company's success, Riggles first mentions the long term staff, which includes Marty Leupker, Product Manager; Kari Dickinson, Production Manager; Rick Rea, Business Development and Corporate Accounts Manager; Ron Blue, Sales and Technical Support and Route Operations Manager; Beth Bullard, Web Manager; and Geri Kuechler, Redemption Manager; among others.
In addition to dedicated emploees, Brian cites the company's location in the midwest, which makes it possible to ship products anywhere in the U.S. in three days with no extra freight; the company's good relationships and buying power with candy manufacturers; and consistent quality mixes.
Brian and Marty both worked for Edison Brothers Stores (EBS), which operated mall-based entertainment centers in the early 1990's. When Brian heard about the new concept of a winner-every-time crane built in south Florida, he investigated. Based on his background and market experience, he instantly saw the potential and he bought the first machines produced.
Brian soon realized the need for merchandise mixes with broad appeal, which led him on the road to creating his own mixes, and eventually his own cranes.
The company has grown from its humble beginnings, literally in Brian's garage, into a major crane manufacturer and merchandise supplier.
Players of all ages recognize well-known candy names. Brian said that 85-percent of S&B mixes are name brand products made in the U.S. It's all about perceived value.
Marty said, " That's the way to attract adults, too. If it's not something they remember and like, they are not interested."
He supplied a prime example of savvy children: "My son (age 12) befriended Starburst and Runts candy on his Facebook page. Kids know candy by name."
While name brand candy may cost a little more, the investment is worth it.
Brian said, "You can't buy penny candy for a crane and make it work. You have to include licensed items, and know the hot buttons at the time such as Hannah Montana and popular movies, which will draw attention to your candy crane."
He added, "Another one of the keys to our success is that we keep kids interested in the machines with our mixes. At any given time we have over 25 different candy mixes."
Kari Dickinson said, "At a quarter a play, if they win something, children will continue to play. If it's 50-cents per play, they will think about it because there are more choices for what ehty can do with that money."
Regarding the price per play, Brian said, "It's hard to raise the price on a game in a cabinet that does not change. You have to change the merchandise value. If you want to get a higher price per play, you must change the fundamentals of the crane."
According to Marty, because S&B has been dealing directly with candy manufacturers and purchasing substantial amounts of product, when those companies come out with something new, they check with S&B to see if it is going to work in a candy crane.
The Tempo at S&B is upbeat, and it's easy to see why: "It's fun to go shopping for candy, and to create candy and toy mixes," said Brian. "We're making kids happy."
Knowing what kids want is critical. "We all have kids, and we are around kids," said Brian. "I take samples home to get feedback from my children. My son is very selective."
When asked if it's tempting to have all that candy around the office, Brian quipped, "We try to stay away from the warehouse!"
Brian points to several significant "firsts" in company history: S&B was the first to operate candy cranes in the country, and the first to design candy crane mixes. "No one had a candy crane mix until we came on the scene," said Brian. Today, 65-to-70-percent of S&B's total business is in candy crane mixes.
S&B creates 20-to-30 new mixes every year and produces flyers every six-seven weeks promoting four-to-five new mixes. Examples: a "Bee Movie" special, and a Simpsons mix that sold out in the first two months. S&B offers 17 themed mixes to coincide with every holiday and season.
"Innovation and consistency are important," said Brian, adding, "And when you fill the crane, you have to look at how the items are placed in order to draw attention of players."
S&B achieves consistency with hands-on approach of checking every single box of candy mixes to be sure they are identical in weight and size. "It's labor intensive," said Brian, "but it pays off. Our customers need consistency, and we provide it. We post photos of everything we sell on our Web site."
Brian noted, "Most locations with cranes have repeat customers: bowling centers, pizza palors, groceries, and other local establishments that draw customers from nearby neighborhoods."
Brian said it is "imperative" that mixes look different monthly: "Any plush crane operator will tell you the same thing. You have to maintain a fresh look in your machines. You're not capturing the full potential of a location if you keep putting the same things in your cranes. Eventually, kids will stop playing."
The company has developed mixes for every manufacturer's machines, as well as its own. S&B follows one credo: Everyone has to be happy, and everyone has to make money.
He added, "We've been able to keep costs down with our buying resources. We have a 70,000-square-foot warehouse, and we occupy an entire city block in downtown St. Louis with a view of the famous arch."
S&B has an unshakable faith in the value of cranes. Brian pointed to the fact that many traditional video arcades have disappeared, but cranes have prevailed.
He commented, "Kids have plenty of enterainment options today; they can even play video games on their cell phones. Cranes, merchandisers, and prize machines will never go away. I would go so far as to say that if you don't have cranes, you're not a true amusement operator."
Brian added, "We're seeing more operators sonsidering cranes. Cranes have been sonsistent revenue producers for decades. They are popular because they can be placed anywhere. There is still a lot of business to be found with cranes."
S&B's line of cranes answers every need in the marketplace. The company's Candy Depot Crane, which is geared to small children, is 24-inches wide and not as tall as other models. Marty said, "Even four-year-olds can go up to the machine and learn to play. A crane is the first game where they can have a good control and actually win a prize."
One of S&B's most popular cranes, Route 66, is a nostalgic, upscale crane that appeals to an older audience, and is equally at home in a steak house or a pizza parlor. It comes in either a black or yelloe cabinet, and is 24-inches wide. Alos available: the Route 66 Plush Crane in a red cabinet, 31-inches wide.
Brian and Marty are proud of S&B's versatile and innovative 27.5-inch-wide crane, the Multi Use Crane. It's the company's 50-cents-per-play candy crane that is ideal for large chain locations. It has the same footprint as an old-fashioned candy crane, but us taller. Marty noted, "Players are psychologically accustomed to putting 50-cents into a large machine."
The Multi Use Crane makes a great plush crane because it holds as many plush items as a 31-inch-wide crane. S&B offers this model as The Perfect Ball Crane. The Perfect 50-Cent Candy Crance, and The Perfect Plush Crane.
S&B has developed particularly versatile strength settings on its cranes, which makes the tension as strong on the 15th play as it was on the first play. Marty said, " You don't want it to look like the claw cannot pick up the prizes."
As a testament to the popularity of cranes, Brian said that S&B installs at least 200 machines a year, and sells 20-to-25 cranes a month.
S&B is proud of its after-the-sale customer service, which includes detailed explanations of how each crane operates, and advice on the best priduct mixes to maximize crane revenue.
Ron Blue explained, "Once the customer receives a new S&B crane, we insist they test it in theri shop first. We follow-up the first week the crane is on location to see if there are issues. We are unmatched in technical support, available seven days a week. Long distance service calls are not uncommon."
When a customer buys five or more machines from S&B, the company will fly the customer to S&B headquarters fro "Crane Camp," a session for additional hands-on training.
S&B is also known for its licensed sports ball mixes. These prizes work well in cranes placed in any type of location. Kids can play with the balls at home or on the playground, and adults in sports bars are drawn to licensed sports items.
The company is importing its own line of sports balls with the look of leather, and is gearing up for World Cup Soccer with soccer balls for all the major countries.
Marty commented, "For loactions with Hispanic customers; having a soccer ball for Mexico is fantastic."
In addition, S&B has a license with General Motors (GM) for a line of GM Design Studio balls, which depict such classic cars such as the Corvette and the GTO. This line of balls is ideal for the Route 66 crane.
S&B's newest items include a line of plush farm animals; nine plush jungle animals, which include elephants, lions, and zebras; modern rag dolls; and licensed college team sports plush bears that pair up with the college sports balls and other fun items.
Rick Rea commented, "We are promoting college mixes regionally because children and adults relate to local teams. This is the way to cash in on tailgaters for the college sports season."
Kari added, "Right now we are promoting a multi-sport mix for universal appeal. This mix includes sports-themed items such as keychains with sports balls, notepads with sports designs, team helmets, foam cheer finger puppers, and candy packaged with sports related graphics."
S&B has an assortment of animals with different colors for each style. According to Marty, "We pack 12 different styles of animals in a bag. When you go to fill a jumbo crane, you can grab one or two of our bags, and you will have all the variety you need."
Relatively new additions to S&B's line-up are stickers and tattoos. "We've jumped into this area with a lot of enthusiasm," said Marty, "especially with licensed product, such as High School Musical, Speed Racer, Dora the Explorer, Elmo and Friends, Disney Princess, Dr. Seuss, and Hannah Montana. We feature over 30 sticker and tattoo styles all the time."
What's the biggest challenge S&B customers face in today's economy?
Marty said, "Diversifying-going outside of what they are used to doing, such as adding bulk vending to a route. At the National Bulk Vending Association (NBVA) Expo this spring we offered over 50 different bulk-vending options for capsules.
We offer the lowest price in the industry on capsule toys and high bounce balls, and have bought in 25 containers full of bulk vending product since March."
Brian added, "We are developing our own line of bulk vending products, such as candy filled capsules for stores that do not wnat toys in capsules. Candy in a capsule is a good idea, and we are confident in its potential.
S&B's sticker, tattoo, and bulk business grew tenfold this year. " We're making bulk products that work, and we are developing new bulk items that no one has done before." he said.
Product saftey is a priority at S&B, which assures customers that all of its toy items have certificates verifying compliance with the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA) requirements. In addition, S&B has insurance certificates for all of its candy items.
When asked about advice for newcomers to the coin machine industry, Marty replied, "I would tell them to start with cranes, bulk, and sticker machines."
He said that every third phone call he receives is from customers who are seeking new accounts. Due to the state of the economy, and many retail outlets closing, operators are looking for places to relocate their equipment.
Brian said, "We are working around the clock to help get locations for customers all over the country."
Brian and Rick Rea suggested revisting old hot spots, such as skating rinks. If operators pull lists of candy crane locations from the late 1990's, they may well find locations that could use a new crane.
S&B suggests that operators can help reduce service calls by working closely with the owners of the locations. Ask them to do simple checks to determine what may be wrong with the machines. Many times, simply resetting the machine may fix the issue over the phone.
Brian said, "With gas and labor, you can't afford to go on a service call to remove a toothpick or fix a coin jam."
S&B is always thinking of what's best for its customers. Brian said, "We stay ahead of the curve in terms of timely product mixes and provide cranes to suit every type of location."