Restaurant coaster pagers - those clunky hunks of plastic that flash, vibrate and/or beep when your table is ready - are getting some new bells and whistles.
After changing the technology little since the mid-1990s, makers are now hawking souped-up models that can do everything from tell time to play electronic games. And some firms are trying to expand their use beyond restaurant lobbies to stores, health care facilities and other places where patrons cool their heels.
"For years ... the only thing there was in the industry was a coaster pager with lights," said Lisa Roberts, chief financial officer of North Carolina-based EPD Inc., which this year began selling a pager called the InfoCube with games, famous quotes and other information. "There has not been any technology like this in the industry. This was a niche that needed to be filled."
Other firms are scrambling to fill that niche, which means stepped-up competition for early innovator Long Range Systems Inc. of Dallas.
"Everybody is jockeying just to be a little bit different than the other guy," said Long Range co-founder Ken Lovegreen.
Long Range received a patent for the first stackable coaster pager in 1995; it plans to launch its next-generation creation next year.
The original pager was welcomed by the growing casual-dining industry, which includes chains such as Chili's Grill & Bar and Red Lobster. It eliminated the cacophony of hostesses shouting out patron names over a loudspeaker. And because the signal could reach a quarter-mile or more, patrons were happy to get a much longer tether.
Statistics on pager sales and use are hard to come by because the industry is relatively new and many of its players are privately held. But the largest maker, JTech Communications of Boca Raton, Fla., put its overall sales at $20 million in 2004 and estimates that 750,000 of its pagers are in use nationwide. The wireless communications company didn't break out pager sales.
Long Range has seen sales grow from $5.8 million in 2003 to about $10 million this year and estimates that 350,000 of its pagers are in use.
The third major player, NTN Communications Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif., said sales for the wireless unit of its NTN Hospitality Technologies division were $5.3 million in 2004. It didn't break out pager sales or disclose how many of its pagers are in use.
Smaller firms are now angling for a slice of the pie. Privately held EPD said it has sold about a dozen systems since the InfoCube rollout in April but none to major chains.
Arkansas-based Ad Intelligence hopes to interest the industry in its new pagers, which feature full-color LCD screens and allow for wireless broadcast capabilities such as streaming sports scores, news and trivia.
Industry experts said competition from small players is adding to the slew of products. But they also point to decreased costs from advances in telecommunications and the restaurant industry's desire to address consumer annoyance with wait times.
Also on the market are new systems that enable restaurateurs to call a patron's cell phone when it's time to dine. Such systems have been available since 2000, but industry experts expect them to become more popular as cell phone use soars.
Long Range is among the companies offering rectangular "paddle" pagers, which have room for a small, printed ad that can promote a restaurant's products or be sold to outside advertisers.
Companies are also trotting out new coaster shapes - including tire- and pill-shaped coasters - to lure retailers and health care operators.