The story was so good that we wept from beginning to end. No, this has nothing to do with the Oscars. And no, no one famous died (at least no one that we want to write a blog post about).
Rather, an industry has been seemingly resurrected, arisen from the dead. In an article from Crain’s Chicago Business last week (link here), we learned that there are still a couple of companies extant churning out high-priced pinball machines.
Only readers of a certain age would recall that Chicago was the Silicon Valley of pinball manufacturing back in the day, cranking out tens of thousands of new machines for bars, arcades and other social venues (think of them as “physical social networks,” kids) every year. Until Space Invaders um, invaded in the late 1970s.
The industry consolidated, with companies merging, closing, reforming, swirling about like so many steel pinballs. Chicago’s Stern Pinball is somehow still in business – last man standing, if you will.
The pinball industry is in what we call “survivor plateau” mode. Almost every industry gets here at some point – just enough customer interest to support one or two providers, nearly to infinity. In so many words, such an industry isn’t going anywhere: little sustained growth, but also with a floor on decline.
The Crain’s article reports that Stern Pinball has turned up the marketing strategy jets recently, doing things like going global, customizing product, and incorporating digital media into the machines (e.g., music, movie clips, etc.). Owner and industry legend Gary Stern claims his business has tripled in the past three years. (To be sure, we are dealing with the theory of relatively small numbers, here.)
While the bulk of the sales lift is credited to the nearly bottomless pit of Boomer nostalgia, the article also mentions a “hipster digital backlash” dynamic at play. We wouldn’t bet the house on the latter lifting the pinball industry off the plateau. The digital train left the station years ago, never to return.
Nonetheless, we are heartened to read that, in the U.S. at least, 80% of Stern’s $5000-and-up-priced machines are bought directly by consumers for home use. Which just goes to show you that the fundamentals of marketing are required for any and every type of market – new, growth, mature, and “survivor”: a target segment(s) willing to pay up for a valuable value proposition, in this case one that needs constant retuning to stay relevant.
Pete Townsend was 24 when he wrote “Pinball Wizard.” For which he included the line “plays by sense of smell.” Call us bottomlessly nostalgic, but we’re fairly certain the pinball apps that today’s 24-year-olds play are odorless.