The Summer Slip 'N Slide Saved Wham-O

Have you ever visited your old elementary school? It's a shocker how small the classrooms feel. It's like how the backseats in cars were a lot bigger when you were a kid.

It's understandable if you get that feeling this summer when you unfurl a Slip 'N Slide on your lawn for the kids. But that same phenomenon doesn't apply. Today's Slip 'N Slides ARE shorter and narrower than the ones we enjoyed in the1960s and Seventies. FORTY inches wide and TWENTY-FIVE feet long.

Unfortunately, Slip 'N Slide has become a commodity to retailers. In the nineties, Wham-O found itself in competition with a Chinese brand. Retailers, jumped on the opportunity and began dictating what the retail price point would be each summer, and therefore what they would pay for slides. Each year the length and width of the slides shrank. This is what happens without innovation. The retailers are concerned with traffic in their stores and sales. The toy companies are necessarily concerned with profit. In a commodity environment, who is concerned with the customer experience?  

This is the Thrifty Drug store in our neighborhood. When Slip'N Slide was new, retailers promoted they had them because they were in demand (they need foot traffic). It so happens that NEW, and FUN are popular. But without innovation, the new becomes the SAME, the story goes stale. 

I unboxed one of the original Slip 'N Slides in 1989 for my daughter's 5th birthday. I recognized as we were playing that I was doing the same things with my kids that Dad (Rich) did with my sisters and I. When you notice those echoes within your family, it's precious.

Slip 'N Slide is more important to Wham-O's history than Hula Hoop or even Frisbee. Although Frisbee began before Hula Hoop, Wham-O wouldn't have been around long enough to develop Frisbee into the worldwide sport it became, if not for Slip 'N Slide.

The Hula Hoop story is for another post but suffice it to say that Wham-O was almost done-in by the "success" of Hula Hoop. They struggled to stay in business through several mediocre toys, and were very close to throwing in the towel when Mr Carrier brought his Naugahyde creation to show Spud and Rich. 

Dad described how tough that time was. They put their last dollars into developing the plastic sheet that became Slip'N Slide. Wham-O toys, were well-suited to action shots and they filmed a commercial for Slip 'N Slide. It was not expensive because they shot it themselves and used kids from the neighborhood (as usual).

The future of Wham-O was in the trunk of Dad's T-Bird as he drove to Phoenix, AZ to see if retailers there would buy Slip 'N Slide. Phoenix would be their test-market because the weather was warm enough, months before most of the country.  Dad said it was a very somber drive as their future was in the balance. In the trunk were Slip 'N Slide samples and Brown Betty.

Brown Betty was what they called the 16mm Projector that Dad would project on the wall for the buyers. He'd show the film and tell them how they'd be running TV spots in the market and if they bought they'd tag their store on the end of the spot, "available at... "

The retailers bought and so did their customers. The test market was a huge success. So Dad and Brown Betty got on a plane and started hopping across the country. By the time he returned from the east coast, the company's future was bright. 

In an almost cinematic end to the story, Dad described his return to the Wham-O plant in San Gabriel, CA. As he walked across the asphalt parking lot, he noticed a long red carpet leading up to the front door of the offices. The door burst open and he was met by Spud and their employees, clapping him on the back as they handed him a trophy for a tremendous sales trip. There was much celebrating.

 It wasn't until after Dad passed away that I discovered this Polaroid photograph, someone took at that moment. It's one of my favorite pictures.