A Totally Tubular Summer Fad
IF you found one in your garage, you'd probably throw it out with the rest of the styrofoam packing materials.
But a five-foot-long flexible foam ''bratwurst'' is the biggest summer craze since those giant water guns hit town.
Maybe that's not so surprising.
Americans have shown a remarkable predilection for turning the most simple toys - from Hula Hoops to Frisbees - into cultural fads. So why not a foam noodle? Or to be more precise, a ''Funnoodle.''
Anywhere people bob in the water between here and Los Angeles, the three-inch-diameter flexible cylinders are gaining in popularity over the ubiquitous inflatable alligators and inner tubes.
The attraction - apart from no more huffing and puffing - is that this lightweight piece of plastic pool pasta can keep up to 200 pounds afloat.
Sales have been so strong that the Funnoodle has bumped last summer's hot seller - the Super Soaker water gun - to third place in June, according to NPD Group Inc. in Port Washington, N.Y., which compiles toy-industry statistics. The Funnoodle was riding high in the No. 1 spot (based on units sold).
Retailers say they're having a hard time keeping up with the demand for the neon tubes, which sell for about $3.
''They're selling incredibly wonderfully,'' says Heather Glynn, a manager at Toys R Us in Woburn, Mass. The store has already sold out of them twice this summer, she says. ''I had a lady come in the other day who wanted to buy a whole case of them.''
Kristi Langis of Revere, Mass., says she wanted to buy a few for her four children (and for herself) to use in their backyard pool. But every store had been cleaned out: ''They've sold out of them at the supermarket ... at Wal-Mart, everywhere.''
Her children and their friends managed to track a few down from an elderly neighbor (who had them but didn't know what they were called) to demonstrate for a photographer.
''Look ... a pretzel,'' shouts Shannon Langis, twisting the Funnoodle around her body.
''A chin rest,'' counters Eric Lampedeccho.
Kidpower Inc., a sporting-goods and toy manufacturer in Brentwood, Tenn., which makes Funnoodles, won't reveal sales figures, other than to say it has sold ''millions'' this year.
The aquatic product actually hit shelves last year, according to J. Mac Brown, in charge of new products at Kidpower. But he says the company has sold twice as many this year as last.
His explanation: ''Funnoodles kind of breed Funnoodles.'' (Remember those long snake-like things fans waived behind the basketball hoop at this year's NBA championship? Funnoodles!)
''I don't think we've seen the top of it yet,'' says Jamie O'Rourke, president of Kidpower.
Like most fads, the key to keeping the Funnoodle craze going is expanding the product line, Mr. O'Rourke says. The company has already introduced Super Funnoodle (a four-inch round, hollow Funnoodle), and Connect-a-Noodle, a plastic device for connecting the noodles. Seven more models are due out next year.
They've managed to make it big overseas, too. The tubes are showing up in Israel, South Africa, Japan, Australia, and Brazil.
Retailers - and even his own staff - originally scoffed at the idea, O'Rourke says. At first, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., in Bentonville, Ark., was the only major chain that would buy the noodles.
''They [fellow buyers] all tried to talk me out of buying them - they thought I'd lost my mind,'' says Mark Clark, the Wal-Mart buyer who took the Funnoodle plunge. ''They don't give me too much grief anymore about what I buy,'' he says with pleasure.
A bit of trivia: Because Funnoodles have to be cured before shipping, where do they hang those oodles of noodles? In tobacco houses. In the spring, O'Rourke says the company fills hundreds of millions of square feet of tobacco barns with Funnoodles.
''But don't try to smoke them,'' he quips.