Arms race escalates with water weapons Old squirt guns can't match powerful toys

May 24, 1992|By Eben Shapiro | Eben Shapiro,New York Times News Service

The international arms race may be slowing, but a major weapons buildup is under way in the nation's toy stores this summer.

DTC On beaches, in backyards and even in a few executive offices, high-powered water guns are the weapons of choice.

A far cry from the little squirt guns of old, the latest water guns are hefty in size and price, around $30 for the most macho ones.

Using air pumped into a chamber, most of the guns can blast a forceful, though small, stream of water 50 feet with considerable accuracy.

The brightly colored plastic weapons are one of the hottest toys in recent years, and Memorial Day weekend is almost like the opening day of the hunting season.

Retailers ranging from Toys "R" Us to local drugstores are stocking up on guns to avoid having their supplies run out, as they did last summer, when the water guns unexpectedly took off.

In fact, the popularity of squirt guns helped sales of toy guns to more than double last year to $200 million, up from $68 million the year before, according to NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y., research firm. Squirt guns accounted for most of the sales.

Toy makers and toy retailers expect the booming gun sales to continue. "It's a very hot category," said Michael Goldstein, vice chairman of Toys "R" Us Inc. The company, the country's biggest toy retailer, has doubled the selection of water guns it sells and more than doubled the amount of space devoted to them.

"This year will definitely be bigger than last," said Loren Taylor, executive vice president of Playtime, a division of Tyco Toys Inc. that makes Tyco Super Saturator and Entertek-brand Blaster.

The high velocity of sales indicates that more than kids are buying the guns, which cost from $8 to $30. The new dual-tank Super Soaker 200 by Larami Corp., which sells for about $30, is a space-age pink and orange weapon nearly a yard long that holds two liters.

Larami, a privately owned company in Philadelphia, is the chief beneficiary of the water-gun craze. It sold more than 2 million last year, accounting for the vast majority of squirt-gun sales. Its Super Soaker series has a pump action device that builds up a large amount of pressure to propel the water forcefully.

"Retail sales are up 35 percent to 38 percent compared with last year," a company press release said.

Tyco has the squirt-gun equivalent of an automatic weapon, a battery-powered motorized gun, the Blaster, that shoots several bursts with a single trigger pull.

Most of the guns are being used in traditional ways -- kids soaking each other and taking potshots at hapless adults and passing cars. But some are showing up in conference rooms at a few of New York's biggest banks and law firms.

A few weeks ago, one banker, John G. Hall, was preparing for what promised to be a particularly contentious round of negotiations. To get his team of consultants and lawyers in the proper frame of mind, he distributed water guns to his advisers before the meeting.

They left the weapons behind when negotiations began, but Mr. Hall said, "It was a good outlet for people's aggressions."

At a packed rock concert in a Baltimore bar last year, bouncers used high-powered squirt guns to keep the aisles clear.

"They would move through the aisles and blast people," said Chris Mann, a congressional aide who attended the show but avoided taking a direct hit. "A couple of blasts from those things and people would start moving."

Even the recent issue of the Sharper Image catalog, which devotes most of its pages to divers' watches, electronic massagers and expensive sunglasses, uses a good portion of a two-page spread to display the Super Soaker 200.

The guns have been so popular at Target stores that for the first time, the chain, the discount store division of Dayton Hudson Corp., is carrying water guns all year.

Kmart Corp., one of the nation's top toy retailers, is doubling the

space it is devoting to water guns.

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