Business

Frisbees, Hula Hoops and Hacky Sacks: Wham-O looks to nostalgia, digital age to reinvent toys we loved

Employees at Wham-O play with new ultimate frisbees at the company's headquarters on Aug. 2 in Carson, Calif.
Employees at Wham-O play with new ultimate frisbees at the company's headquarters on Aug. 2 in Carson, Calif.

Life was once an easy summer breeze for Wham-O. The Southern California toy outfit, founded in a South Pasadena garage shortly after World War II, churned out Frisbees like pancakes and Super Balls like gumballs.

Its Boogie Board stood sentinel in suburban garages. Only squares didn’t own a Hula Hoop (introduced in 1957; 100 million units sold within three years). In Wham-O’s television ads, its iconic starburst logo dropped into living rooms like a Super Ball off a third-story balcony.

Times sure have changed.

Of the many entertainment-centric outfits disrupted by the digital era, few have been upended like Wham-O. Its toys, once symbols of an endless summer, are now relics of a bygone season. Even the notion of a firm devoted to plastic playthings feels like an anachronism. Why kick around a beanbag when there’s FIFA Mobile Soccer?

Wham-O has had a rough time financially too. Sales fell sharply from their peak, but were still hovering around $80 million as of 2005, according to public documents and company statements. Since then they’ve slipped further, to less than a quarter of that as of 2015.

But a new set of executives isn’t convinced the company is doomed. Since they took over at the start of last year, they’ve come up with a number of new ideas and, like Super Elastic Bubble Plastic (introduced in 1970), set out to put some air in them.

“We think there’s a way to make our products the new cool,” said Wham-O President Todd Richards. “Being outside can be the new iPhone.”

Tools or toys?

Around his desk lie various distractions — or are they research? A miniature basketball hoop. A water balloon “aqua bow.” Balls, discs and an assortment of flying objects. Richards turns to them when he needs a break from thinking about how to modernize his company, or as inspiration for the same.

Like, for example, the YouTube channel the company has created, in which users can do things like upload videos of their creative (if hardly safety-first) uses of the Slip ’N Slide.

“Officially the box says under 12,” he said wryly of the watery backyard implement. “Not everyone abides by that.”

Richards oversees an area staff of about 30 employees. (A second office of about 50 staffers sits in Hong Kong.) The group’s mission: To tweak designs and marketing for the 21st century. At their core, after all, many of their products function the same way as those toys in grandpa’s basement. But Richards maintains they can be repositioned for a new audience.

At Coachella this year, Wham-O sent out ambassadors. The emissaries handed out Hacky Sacks (first licensed by Wham-O in 1983; legally required to be present for Phish to perform) and talked to concert-goers about how to master the mini-sphere. The idea was to update the toy’s image from 1990s jam-band staple to 2017 hip-hop accouterment.

“A lot of young people would love our products if they got the chance to know what they are. But they’ve never had the opportunity,” said Olyvia Pronin, the company’s director of marketing. “We’re trying to show them what they’re missing by going to wherever they are.”

Or to whatever they’re on. Wham-O, founded in 1948, is developing a Frisbee app that will essentially allow the disc to be “thrown” from one mobile device to another — all the gratification of backhanding a low slider to your buddy without any of that that running-into-trees messiness.

“You’re sitting in a meeting and you say ‘Hey Paul, catch this,’” Richards said, miming a wrist-flick swipe across an imaginary screen.

“And Paul is at the other end of conference room and he looks up and ‘catches it’ just in time.”

At regular intervals, staffers will gather on the office’s second floor and rain down Super Balls (early 1960s; it’s how the Super Bowl got its name) or head out to the parking lot to try new Slip ’N Slide designs (1961, all fun and games until little Lucy ends up in an Ace bandage).

In a large room, a handful of toys, including one involving Nerf projectiles, offers a combination brainstorm session/stress-reliever.

Innovation

For a mature business like Wham-O’s, the company’s ability to innovate can turn on small tweaks.

Wham-O also is using a crowdsourcing model, hearing as many as several dozen pitches per week from ordinary citizens who think they’ve come up with the next great toy; the ideas sometimes find their way into the company’s product-development pipeline. The idea is to make all outdoor Wham-O toys as ubiquitous as Silly String (invented in 1972, terrorizing New Year’s revelers ever since).

Indeed, digital efforts aren’t the only way Wham-O is seeking to grow. New physical toys have been a priority too. The aqua bow, for instance, allows for water balloons to be shot a maximum distance of 150 yards, instantly making any family picnic more perilous.

And Richards says a radical new Frisbee design is on its way. He at first doesn’t let on what it is, then eventually some details slip out — it’s shaped more like a square and can thus “self-correct” and fly longer and straighter than the saucer-shaped disc that’s been keeping us and our mutts happy for years.

“It will change everything,” Richards said.

As it looks to fight its way back onto toy store shelves, Wham-O hopes to take advantage of built-in nostalgia for its name.

Richards likes to tell a story about how magician

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