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SHOULD YOU BUY YOUR PLAYGROUND EQUIPMENT FROM CHINA?
As you're developing your family entertainment center plan, if you plan on catering to children 12 years and under, one of the biggest equipment costs will be your indoor playground equipment. You'll have two choices when it comes to purchasing your play structure—buying from within North America, or buying from China. Buying China will look very appealing, as their costs can be as much as 50-60% cheaper. But don't let that influence you—there are some very real concerns you should consider when examine before you purchase equipment from China.
Several fun center developers have learned the hard way about buying indoor playground equipment from China.
Here is what several have shared with us:
1) Quality—A cheap indoor playground often uses cheap equipment. That means pads, nets, attachments and hardware can wear out in more than half the time it would take for a North American-made playground to wear out. Also, North American manufacturers build for North American guests, taking into account height and weight ranges. Chinese manufacturers tend to build the cheapest way possible, meaning mostly 4-foot high levels instead of a sturdy, 8-foot ground level grid.
2) Safety—Structural stability, eliminating pinch points, and other safety issues are stringently adhered to by North American manufacturers of playground equipment. They conform with ASTM and CPSC guidelines. Manufacturers in China don't need to follow thses guidelines. This may be changing, but at the moment, there are no playground equipment police or inspectors that enforce ASTM. Read more about Indoor Play Safety.
3) Insurance—This relates to point 2. If your playground is not safe, insurance inspections will be problematic. Let's not even think about the possibility of guest injuries.
4) Components—We've heard several reports of everything from pieces of hardware to entire components being short-shipped. North American manufacturers are much more rigorous in ensuring everything ships according to the order.
5) Shipping—An indoor playground from China takes much longer to arrive than one from North America, and typically doesn't need the hassles of being expedited through customs.
6) Assembly—North American manufacturers will often arrange for the installation and set-up of your indoor playground, either with their own contractors or providing you the steps to get it done yourself. The playground from China is completely a DIY project for you, and if you don't time your subcontractors and the shipment arrival correctly, your playground could sit on the docks causing a back-up of time and money.
Looking for a bargain on your indoor playground equipment is smart business - however, that initial price that is sooooo appealing from China, may be expensive lessons waiting to happen. I know from receiving literally hundreds of emails a month from Chinese manufacturers, that they are very eager and flooding the North American market with offers to buy competitive designs at60 - 70% off North American pricing. Recently, one of our Startup Academy graduates, went against our best advice, and was lured into the attractive price-based decision to purchase an indoor playground from China. Having received quotes here in North America for upwards of $180,000 - $200,000 USD for a rather large 70' x 40' 4-level soft play climbing structure, he decided the $70,000 indoor playground from China, at the same size with even more activities (so he was told) was a much better buy.
The promise of great savings clouded his judgement and apparently disabled his hearing, because a couple of things we discussed during the academy program went in one ear and out the other. First off, these guys wanted 90% payment before they would ship the indoor playground, and the balance due at port before they would release the container - are you crazy? You are going to give these guys full payment BEFORE you see your product? See what low prices do to people. Once the shipment arrived at his location, it sat for close to a month because the installers from China who were going to set it up were late on arrival. Once the installers did arrive, there was one guy instead of the 5 that were promised.
This did a couple of ugly things. First, he had to pay extra for onsite storage of the container. Secondly, he had to scramble locally to try and find some Chinese speaking labor he could hire to help the installer from China, which cost him more money. A late start with less labor then agreed upon delayed the opening of the center, and he lost money on initial marketing. The construction delay ate into the three months free lease he negotiated, affecting his limited cash on hand, and revised his projected first year gross revenues. It also trickled everything down the line, delayed the hiring and training of staff, and it caused him to miss the seasonal group opportunities prior to Christmas. And guess what - because it was paid in advance, the buyer had no recourse but to suck it up and try to get it completed asap.
Once the playground equipment was finally installed and finished, the biggest slap in the face was, unknown to him all of the playground grids were 4 feet tall, including the lower level where guests enter the play structure. This is bad news because you now have a very restrictive anchor attraction that is difficult, if not comfortably impossible for adults and/or staff to get into the playground in case of an emergency. No big deal you say? Well, in this case it was a big deal, because the fec business plan and financial projections were based on the local community and a target audience of 2 to 12 year olds. I hate to break it to you, but 12 year olds are not going to have fun crawling around in 4 foot grids. For that matter, most 8 year olds will not either.
So, one year later, his gross numbers are about 65% of what they should be, and the toll on his initial business branding (for ages 2 - 12 years old) has gone out the window, now that the community has branded him an indoor play center for 8 year olds and younger. Ouch!
This is just such a shame, because the location offered wide open, 24 foot ceilings with lots of room for beautiful fast slides and a big, open and inviting ground level that would have encouraged adults to enter and participate with their children along with easier access for staff to monitor and nurture the play experience. In this case, the cheapest indoor playground was not the bargain it initially looked like.
Price is important, we all know that. But I hear similar stories to this one more and more as new amusement developers look to get started "on the cheap". There are many things to be aware of as you head down the road to fec startup, but at the end of the day, keep in mind that it is the guest experience you deliver that will ultimately determine your community success. Balancing the right attractions for your business goals and local market opportunity is paramount to indoor party center success.
The bottom line is do your research, plan carefully, and make sure your family entertainment center business plan budgets appropriately for safe, quality-built indoor playground equipment.
As a side note... having been in the indoor play industry for a number of years - if you are looking at purchasing an indoor play design and would like an unbiased, experienced second opinion. please feel free to call my office, I can always be reached at (604) 755-7942.
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