Notable Changes in Retail .:
Now that we're well into Spring, 2017, most local stores have begun putting out their offerings for 2017 water blaster products onto shelves. Target seems to be still carrying Swimways' Flood Force brand, Walmart has its private-label Adventure Force series, but neither appear to be carrying any Hasbro's Nerf Super Soaker branded products in their seasonal section. In fact, though Target is actually carrying some of the new for 2017 Nerf Super Soaker models, those are found mixed together with other Nerf dart guns and other Nerf products instead of with the pool and water toys where the remainder of water blasters are found. Buzz Bee Toys' Water Warriors branded products are appearing in K-Mart and Walmart (Canada), but is still lacking from Target and no signs at my local Toys R Us, yet. Lesser recognized water blaster manufacturers such as Ja-Ru and Zuru also have items on the shelves.
However, one thing is for certain: the entire water blaster category's footprint is shrinking in retail stores. I recall the days back in the 1980s and 1990s when, during spring, water blasters and water guns would occupy at least one entire side of a toy aisle (from 16' to 24', sometimes over 40' of shelving space, floor to ceiling). Today, walking down the toy aisles, I would be lucky to find a water blaster section occupying 4' or 8' of shelf space with the remainder of the seasonal water toy aisle is now occupied by pool toys, beach toys, and other water play-related items. While those other products would usually be in the same aisle as water blasters, they were previously found on the other side of the aisle. In short, retailers simply no longer carry very many water blasters which is a reflection of consumers' interest in these types of toys nowadays.
The Commodification of Water Blasters / Water Guns .:
One overall trend that I have been observing over the years that is now even more apparent is the commodification of the water blaster category. Ja-Ru dominates the dollar-store trigger-based squirt blaster. Newcomers to the market, Zuru and Prime Time Toys, are presenting novel designs, but most of these models are either trigger-pump-based or pump-action. Prime Time Toys, interestingly, created an elastic-pressure-based water blaster under Walmart's Adventure Force private-label, though the Adventure Force Super Storm's largest nozzle only performs at roughly a 1x setting (27mL/s). However, seeing that the majority of new items are small-to-mid-sized pump-action water blasters retailing in the $5 to $10 USD price range, the only significant difference between these items becomes styling while performance now taking a backseat. Sadly, this appears to be an expected response to consumer demand, or rather, lack of care for true performance and merely accepting any water blaster as long as it can shoot water at least 6m (~20').
The manufacturers who are newcomers to the market appear particularly skilled at creating designs that appeal to the buyers representing the retail stores. As a reminder to those less familiar with how retail stores work, for products to be available to consumers, a retail store buyer must choose that product to be on their shelving; if the buyer doesn't like a product, the consumer will never see it. It remains unclear how well these nicely-styled, limited-performance water blasters are actually selling, but it feels that most products within the $3 to $10 USD price range are just becoming highly commodified; just tweak the style, put it in a new wrapper (package), sell, rinse-and-repeat the next year with no attempts to improve on performance.
Admittedly, this may simply be a natural evolution of a product category. As manufacturing technologies improve, it becomes easier for new companies to enter the market with comparable water blasters; the upper viable end of the price range appears to only be ~$15 USD. From my understanding, $20 water blasters generally appear to have trouble selling enough to "break even" on development costs and most consumers are simply unwilling to put money down for anything more expensive. Sure, there are a number of enthusiasts who would love to buy a truly high performance, full-elastic-bladder-based water blaster costing more than $50 USD. However, there just are not enough current customers to convince retailers to take the chance and carry a larger item that sells only satisfactorily; why use that space for a large, single item that has mediocre sales? The same space could be used to sell two or three different items that provide greater sales volumes and, thus, greater profits.
From my knowledge of water blaster product development, creating a pressurized water blaster model requires more engineering and parts (trigger, better valves, tighter seals) than that of a basic pump-action or trigger-pump-based water blaster. As such, pressurized water blasters tend to be significantly smaller than a similarly-priced pump-action water blaster. Those who neither understand nor appreciate the value of a pressurized water blaster simply see that they can either buy a smaller water blaster that is more complicated to use or buy the bigger water blaster that looks like it can shoot just as far, appears simple use, and even holds significantly more water. Given that choice, what is the pressurized water blaster's advantage?
The Challenge .:
While almost second nature to me, I admit I still fail at providing a concise, convincing statement to explain why a good, pressurized water blaster is worth the premium over a larger pump-action water blaster sold for the same price. Truthfully, at the lower $5 to $10 USD price points, even I find it difficult to easily justify pressurized-over-pump-action water blasters.
Pressurized (Air or Elastic)
Looking at the table of Pros and Cons above, it is difficult to justify choosing pressurized over pump action.
The true value of pressurized water blasters becomes apparent when comparing larger water blasters: pump action water blasters cannot easily create long, high output streams as easily as pressurized water blasters can. Some will argue that the large pool cannons (>2'-3' long) can push large, thick streams long distances, but to do so requires good strength. Moreover, pool cannons cannot be far from a refilling source since they only get one shot and aiming them accurately is far more difficult. It is much easier and more effective to pump up a pressure chamber and be able to unleash a >5x (150mL/s) stream with the ease of pulling a trigger. Unfortunately, to manufacture a pressurized water blaster capable to producing a good, solid 5x stream, the water blaster would likely need to retail at least ~$20 USD, but as noted before, most consumers are no longer willing to spend even just that much on a water blaster.
Thus, we are stuck. General consumers do have fun with higher-performance water blasters if they have access to them, but are generally only willing to spend ~$15 USD; they simply do not consider water blasters to be something worthy of higher expense since they are not considered as long-term investments. Given how roughly I have seen people treat their (or even my) water blasters, it is no surprise to me that many water blasters end up broken after only one season of use. In one sense, people are ok with the $15 USD "throw away" item they can replace next year. Few consider taking on any effort in trying to repair a broken water blaster. Most consumers view their water blasters as seasonable, throw-away items that are not expected to last until the next year. This helps explain why most prefer to spend only around $10 USD (roughly the cost of a movie?). Combined with the lack-lustre performance of the recent several generations of Nerf Super Soaker, the typical consumer no longer has an expectation of better performance, thus prefer to save their dollars than spend more.
Unfortunately, upper $15 USD is not a high enough retail price point to allow for a larger, higher performing water blaster to be built due to the costs of materials and manufacturing. Thus, for the $10 USD and under price point, pump action performance ends up being on par with pressurized performance; since retailers and manufacturers can make greater profits from pump-action and the fact that the general consumer does not care so much, we appear to be left with the present conundrum for water blaster enthusiasts.
Predictions for the Future .:
Without a significant change in general consumer behavior or significant improvement in manufacturing technology, it will require a dramatic change improving water blaster technology to get consumers to notice and once again seek out better quality, higher performance water blasters. Improvements in mass-manufacturing techniques may help slow the further deterioration of water blaster quality, but unless the $15 USD price point ceiling can be raised, the likelihood of a higher output performance water blaster being released in retail stores is extremely low for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, for those of us seeking better performance, we shall need to find alternate, creative paths to acquire or attain the soaking capabilities we seek.