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Retro resurgence: Boomers, youngsters go for classic products

Five years ago, pinball machines were an endangered species in Vancouver. Pinball zealot Angelo Muro says there were fewer than a dozen machines left for public play across the Lower Mainland. They were poorly repaired and limping toward extinction.
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Vinyl records, pinball, watches, low-tech toys and print books were supposed to be dead or dying. Instead, they've been given a new lease on life.

Five years ago, pinball machines were an endangered species in Vancouver.

Pinball zealot Angelo Muro says there were fewer than a dozen machines left for public play across the Lower Mainland. They were poorly repaired and limping toward extinction.

Something funny happened on the way to the techno-graveyard. A new generation of players discovered a passion for pinball — and older generations rediscovered it.

Today, Pinball Vancouver, Muro’s pinball-leasing company, has installed 65 machines across the Lower Mainland, with more on the way.

“One of the biggest reasons for pinball’s popularity is that retro is cool and pinball is retro, even when the machines are new,” Muro says.

Antique technology is making a comeback as Canadians fall in love with older, simpler products displaced by the digital revolution.

Pinball, vinyl records, watches, low-tech toys and print books were supposed to be dead or dying. Instead, they’ve been given a new lease on life.

Nobody predicts that born-again products are about to topple Apple or Facebook. Their resurgence — or in a few cases, their enduring and defiant popularity — is about finding a niche, about clawing back “a residual but still prominent place in popular culture,” says Rick Gruneau, a professor at Simon Fraser University’s school of communication.

Canadians’ embrace of vintage products is selective and pragmatic. Betamax, rotary dial phones, eight-track tapes and cathode-ray tube televisions are unlikely to crawl out of the dustbin.

Retreat, rebellion and romance drive people into the arms of products old enough to have acquired a whiff of the exotic but young enough to remain functional.

“Many of these products offer some sort of retreat from the digital world insofar as they offer a return to older and quite different tactile sensations and experiences,” Gruneau says.

“Audiophiles tell you that vinyl has a warmth that MP3s can never match, toys are tactile in ways that video games are not. Printed books are also tactile, tangible and esthetically pleasing objects.”

Vintage products also provide a way to rebel against mainstream digital culture. They’re a way to make fashion statements and declarations of identity, he says.

Technologies such as pinball speak to the romance of a lost world, Gruneau says — and to an underlying sense that Google is not God.

“It has something to do with the sense of unease that many people have about the omnipresence of the digital world, the belief that a balanced life requires engaging with objects and technologies that offer some respite from that world.

“Many of these objects and technologies are ‘cool’ as a result.”

Welcome to five of the coolest players in the retro revolution.

Vinyl is the comeback kid

Revenge is sweet for the vinyl album — the comeback kid of the music business.

A few decades back, the compact disc knocked vinyl off its perch as music buyers’ format of choice.

Today, CD sales are sagging as consumers turn to digital downloads and streaming services.

But vinyl records have pulled out of their nosedive and are making strong sales gains. For that, you can thank a leapfrog generation of music buyers, experts say.

Physical CD sales in Canada have fallen 10-15 per cent annually over the past five years, according to Doug Raaflaub, Warner Music Canada’s vice-president of sales.

Over this period, vinyl sales have grown 15-20 per cent, Raaflaub says.

“Vinyl has become the majority of our sales,” says Dave Gowans, co-owner of Red Cat Records in Vancouver. “Over the last five years, there has been a noticeable shift.”

Music business players say a new wave of music consumers in their early 20s has leapfrogged the CD and opted for vinyl records.

“For the younger generation who skipped CDs altogether and have been brought up in the digital age, those fans for the last number of years have decided they want something more tangible than having their music on a streaming playlist or from a digital download outlet,” says Ivar Hamilton, vice-president of catalogue and strategic marketing with Universal Music Canada.

Older music buyers are pleased to discover that the quality of reissued pressings of classic albums is superior to that of the originals, Hamilton says. Vinyl partisans insist the technology sounds better than its usurper, the compact disc.

“It can sound better, depending on your turntable, system and what you prefer to listen to,” Gowans says diplomatically.

Vinyl’s renaissance has brought a new appreciation for the album format to young record buyers used to downloading single tracks, Gowans says.

“You have people taking part in vinyl nights,” he says. “They’re like book clubs and you bring in an individual album.”

Vinyl will remain a niche product and its sales are not likely to overtake those of CDs, industry players say. But vinyl has room to grow.

HMV Canada president Nick Williams says vinyl will be an important presence in the product mix at the new HMV store that opened this month on Vancouver’s Robson Street.

Vinyl currently generates 10 per cent of HMV’s music sales and three per cent of its overall sales.

“I can see it growing to five to eight per cent of our overall mix,” Williams says. “There’s no question that vinyl is growing rapidly.”

Hamilton foresees vinyl sales increasing at a rate of 10 per cent annually over the next few years. It currently accounts for 10-12 per cent of Canada’s physical record business, he says.

Print isn't dead . . . yet

Print books were being torn to shreds by their electronic rivals.

E-books were posting double-digit growth as readers decided that staggering through airports under the weight of several hundred pages of Stephen King’s latest novel might not be the best thing for their backs.

“Between 2010 and 2013, we saw a fairly significant decline in print book sales in Canada,” says Noah Genner, CEO of book industry association BookNet Canada. “I see digital formats continuing to erode physical sales.”

But the e-book revolution has so far failed to deal a lethal blow to print and, in fact, appears to be losing steam. E-book sales in Canada flattened between 2013 and 2014, according to BookNet.

Early indications for 2014 are that e-books may be more or less stalled at 17 per cent of the book market in Canada.

Tim Waterstone, founder of the Waterstones bookstore chain in the United Kingdom, goes further, suggesting the e-book revolution is petering out.

“I think you read and hear more garbage about the strength of the e-book revolution than anything else I’ve known,” he said earlier this year.

People’s love for print books is immovably strong, Waterstone said.

“Print on paper has lasted for centuries. It’s one of the most wonderful, really successful consumer products of all time.”

Margaret Reynolds, executive director of the Association of Book Publishers of B.C., says the plateauing of e-book sales may be a result of people having figured out which kinds of books they wish to read electronically.

Romance novels, followed by mysteries, are the most popular genres on e-books, Reynolds says.

“People who consume primarily romance have probably switched over largely to digital,” she says.

When mass-market paperbacks appeared, people predicted it would be the end of nice books, she says.

“That, of course, did not happen.

“Now we’ve got another format change that is not the end of books.”

Reynolds herself reads in both physical and electronic format. E-books make sense for travellers who want to download a pile of books.

But if she wants a book to linger on her bedside table she goes physical.

“The print book is the perfect product. Why would you want it to change?” she says. “It’s not going to go away.”

The resurrection of pinball

The two pinball machines Kyle Seller installed in Pub 340 in Vancouver were hardly raging centres of commerce.

“It was lacklustre. They didn’t get much play,” Seller, owner-operator of East Van Amusements, says of the machines he installed two years ago.

Three months after he installed them, Seller gambled that there would be strength in numbers. He persuaded the pub’s manager to let him install five machines in an empty room.

The machines exploded. People who hadn’t played pinball in years, people who had never played, started pouring loonies and toonies into Seller’s machines.

He had to place more machines to keep up with demand.

“We’re now up to 12 machines and it definitely has a growing cult following,” Seller says. “Every time I’m there I see new faces.”

The surging popularity of Seller’s machines at Pub 340 is being echoed across the world of pinball. A pastime that had taken an almost terminal beating by video games is making an unlikely comeback.

Pinball owes its resurrection in part to a re-embrace by baby-boom nostalgics. But pinball machine suppliers say their rebirth is mainly fuelled by a new wave of millennials whose only experience of gaming has been through Xboxes and smartphones.

“The core group of players is from their mid-20s to their early 30s but we also get regular players in their 60s and 70s,” says Seller, 39, a former video game designer with Electronic Arts.

“It’s not just pinball nerds like me. I never thought it would attract so many different generations. I see it getting bigger.”

Pinball’s popularity has grown to the point that Seller is now renting machines for parties, corporate events and weddings.

“Bar Mitzvahs are quite popular for pinball,” he says.

Pinball Vancouver owner-operator Angelo Muro, 31, says pinball restores tactile contact to people in a world of disembodied screens.

“It’s a physical game. You’ve got to nudge it and move it and each machine is randomly different.”

Vancouver’s Chad Bruhaug, 29, has played competitive pinball in tournaments for the past two years but started playing the game when he was six. Now ranked as one of Canada’s top 10 players, Bruhaug loves having an opponent that refuses to yield.

“You can never really beat a pinball machine,” Bruhaug says. “You always have a thirst for a higher score, so there’s no end.”

Everyone loves classic toys 

A six-year-old who time-jumped from 1984 to the present would have a quick learning curve with toys.

The time-travelling child might need a little time to decipher an iPad, but he or she would find oodles of toys that have been popular for decades.

Retro toys and classics likely account for up to 75 per cent of Canada’s toy business, according to Rob Chuchla, a member of the Canadian Toy Association’s marketing committee and a sales director at Mississauga-based Hasbro.

Barbie, My Little Pony, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Lego are among the most coveted toys in 2014. They have been for years, Chuchla says.

“Retro toys have taken over the industry,” Chuchla says. “They stay in year in and year out.”

Tamar Nersesian, public relations and special events manager at Toys R Us, says toy makers have maintained venerable toys’ supremacy by continually tweaking them to stay abreast of children’s evolving tastes.

Cabbage Patch Kids, which have sold more than 130 million units since being launched in 1983, now have Skechers shoes that light up and sparkle when tapped. Last year, Hasbro rejigged My Little Pony, which was also launched in 1983. The main pony characters were re-envisioned as human characters in a high-school setting and named Equestria Girls.

Sales of Barbie fell 21 per cent in the most recent quarter as Mattel’s biggest product saw fans move to Mattel’s own Monster High dolls and toys linked to Walt Disney’s hit movie Frozen, Bloomberg reports.

But Nersesian says demand for Barbie remains high at Toys R Us as Mattel constantly refreshes the 55-year-old doll and her wardrobe.

“Brands update their products and really figure out what kids like,” Nersesian says.

Gerrick Johnson, a toy analyst with BMO Capital Markets, says lower-tech toys are benefiting from a “no-screens” trend that sees parents seeking activities that take their children away from tablets and smartphones.

Lee Richmond, who owns B.C.’s chain of Kaboodles toy stores, focuses on non-tech toys that nurture children’s creativity, language skills and socializing.

“Play is how children learn and grow,” she says. “They have to put their heads together and come up with solutions to problems.”

Lego, whose interlocking brick was unleashed in 1958, is Kaboodle’s second-largest selling toy category after general toys, Richmond says.

There are expected to be Lego shortages in Canada this Christmas. Richmond saw this coming and ordered aggressively to try to meet demand.

“We won’t get as much as we wish we had. It’s insanely popular,” she says. “We still have a lot of Lego to sell but are missing those large pieces that people search for at Christmas time.”

The list of red-hot retro at Kaboodles goes on and on: Spirograph, Slinky, Scrabble, Monopoly, Twister, Jenga, Gumby, Barrel of Monkeys, Rubik’s Cube, whoopee cushions and Viewmaster.

For those who prefer ancient over retro, there are Jacob’s Ladder, kazoos and kaleidoscopes. And Etch A Sketch.

“It constantly flies off the shelves,” Richmond says of the 1950s toy. “People are thrilled to see it.”

From timepiece to fashion piece

People who predicted the cellphone would kill the wrist watch overlooked a little thing called fashion.

Cellphones armed with clocks have emancipated more than a few wrists from the tyranny of timepieces. But the watch has escaped the fate of obsolescence by making the move from timekeeper to fashion component, industry players say.

Darren Bondar, founder-owner-president of the Calgary-based Watch It! retail chain, says watches have become a fashion accessory that completes and complements people’s outfits.

“Since I started this business 15 years ago, there has been a constant argument about the death of the wrist watch,” Bondar says. “But we’re seeing a resurgence in the popularity of the watch and the industry is doing better than ever.”

Contemporary watches fuse fashion with technology, Bondar says. Major fashion houses have injected the watch into their fashion mix, while watch makers are incorporating smart-watch technology into their product lines.

And classic products such as Swiss Army watches, which Bondar began selling 15 years ago, are agelessly popular, he says.

How many watches does a person need? Bondar won’t offer that kind of advice but he says many customers own watch fleets that number in the dozens.

One of the retailer’s top-selling items is a 30-piece watch box for storing watches, he says. Watch It!’s timepieces range in price from $60 to $1,500. It sells “tons” of watches in the $60-$200 spectrum, he says.

David Ritter, president of the Canadian Jewellers Association, does not foresee the watch fading into a niche product. Wearable technology with its added functions will give the wrist watch a chance to fight back against smartphones, he says.

And watches are better than smartphones at helping fashion-conscious consumers define their identity.

“Watches provide an extension of one’s personality,” Ritter says. “The variety of brands and looks in the watch category allows one to make a statement about who they are.”