Play sets' upward swing

Toys: Thanks to deep-pocketed (and possibly guilt-ridden) parents, sales of 'bigger and bigger, fancier and fancier' backyard play sets are soaring.


Without fail, it happens each time a new salesman is hired -- Frank Goldstein must teach him not to be afraid of King Kong.

Not the giant ape, but a Kong namesake that is equally impressive: a towering backyard play set, variations of which cost $5,000 and up -- way up.

"The salesman can't afford a $5,000 play set, so they're afraid to show it," says Goldstein, president of Play N' Learn, a family-owned play equipment retailer based in Columbia. "I say, 'Start your customers there. You'll be surprised.' "

Much to Goldstein's delight -- and his own occasional surprise -- King Kongs are hot. In the past five years, sales of high-end wooden play equipment have been booming, fueling his company's expansion from two to seven stores in Maryland and Virginia.

Forget the old steel-pipe swing sets that baby boomers grew up with and watched turn into heaps of rust. The modern mega-play set comes in redwood or cedar assembled in thick, 4-by-6 beams, is designed to last decades, and offers such exotic amenities as a rock climbing wall and a spiraling tunnel slide.

"The person who is going to be our customer wants the best," says Duncan W. Brown, owner of CedarWorks, a play equipment manufacturer based in Rockport, Maine. "It really is incredible how far things have come."

Brown, who bought the company 11 years ago, said he regularly sells play sets that cost as much as a new car. Each prospective customer is mailed a slickly produced video featuring his wife, Susan, lovingly detailing accouterments such as the "splinter-free" northern white cedar wood and a 15-year warranty.

The company's "CedarSaurus" line includes play sets in the $5,000 to $15,000 range and demand for them is growing. "We keep thinking people can't keep spending these prices," says Brown, "but they do."

Fred DeFinis, vice president of Creative Playthings Ltd., a Framingham, Mass.-based manufacturer, said growth in the 1990s has turned high-end play sets into a $100 million-plus field -- not even counting the millions of dollars more produced by dozens of smaller, regional manufacturers.

"We're growing 30 percent a year and I'm sure our competitors are doing the same," he said. "It's like SUVs [Sport Utility Vehicles]. People want bigger and bigger, and fancier and fancier."

Lisa Carreno distinctly remembers telling her colleagues at a large telecommunications company last year that she would never spend so much on a play set. Six months and $4,200 later, a tractor-trailer pulled into her driveway and dropped off 20 boxes of CedarWorks equipment.

"I don't tell my friends how much I spent on it," says Carreno, a Columbia resident whose husband owns a medical supply company. "There's a little guilt. Did we need to spend $4,200 so our son could swing?"

Her 5-year-old son, Wesley, has no such reservations. He readily points out to visitors the myriad features, such as a built-in toy box, rope and bucket, and gazebo-sized playhouse and steering wheel.

"They only have a swing," he says, pointing to a neighbor's yard. "They come here to play."

Wooden play sets have been widely available since 1945 -- when Massachusetts-based ChildLife Inc. first started mass-producing and marketing its distinctive Hunter Green enameled play sets nationally.

From the beginning, the equipment was expensive -- $1,000 or more -- and was favored by the rich (the ChildLife catalog still includes a picture of the model that graced the Kennedy White House lawn). But by the 1970s, wooden play sets caught on with the public. In the 1980s, more affordable versions hit the market.

But the 1990s have seen play sets go back to their affluent roots. And thanks to a booming economy and robust stock market, there are a lot more rich people to buy them.

"I tell customers that they've come to the equivalent of a Mercedes showroom," says Goldstein of Play N' Learn.

Goldstein sells only equipment made by Rainbow Play Systems Inc., a Brookings, S.D., firm that is generally acknowledged as the largest of the high-end play set manufacturers.

The company uses only redwood and its dimensions are generous (King Kong model swings are held up by the equivalent of a 4-by-10-inch beam raised 10 feet off the ground). A photo in the Rainbow catalog demonstrates its ruggedness -- at least two-dozen factory workers are shown sitting or standing on top of one model.

"With our typical customer, both parents work and they want their kids home with them when they're home," says Lola Dobesh, the company's sales and marketing manager. "They are people with disposable income."

Craig and Jacque Pfeifer first saw the King Kong model earlier this year at a home show and had one delivered to their 58-acre home in Sparks just weeks ago. The attraction was relatively simple -- "When I was younger, I would have loved it," says Craig, owner of a screen printing company. "It's just as neat as can be."

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