Businesses profiting as thousands find rubber ducky irresistible
October 6, 2013 4:00 AM
The rubber duck behind a spray of water Thursday while a jogger makes his way around the fountain at Point State Park.
By Timothy McNulty Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
All that is inside the 40-foot-tall rubber duck by Point State Park is a fan to keep it inflated. But from the hundreds of thousands of happy onlookers it has drawn over the past week -- and the lightened wallets left in their wake -- it might as well be hiding a giant, cartoon-sized magnet.
The day Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman's Rubber Duck Project made its United States debut on Sept. 27, staff at Visit Pittsburgh's store in Fifth Avenue Place could not get replicas from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust onto shelves, since people were buying them right out of the shipping boxes. Sales for the store jumped 551 percent over the same week last year, and the following week it had to reorder duck merchandise from the Trust two times.
In the first weekend the Trust sold 10,000 duck items -- including $20 T-shirts and caps, $10 replicas and $5 posters -- to more than 3,500 people. It sells out and reorders new merchandise every day.
Stone Neapolitan Pizza is adjacent to the park in the first floor of the River Vue apartment complex. Since the day of the duck launch, owner Rick Werner has tripled his usual food delivery and sold out of everything -- sandwiches, pizzas, salads -- every day since.
According to park manager Matt Greene, in the duck's first three days Point State Park drew about the same number of visitors as the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta held around Independence Day every year. "It's been big, extremely big. We're talking 100,000-plus easy," Mr. Greene said.
The duck's visit has coincided with remarkably warm weather and the euphoria, right across the Allegheny, surrounding the first Pirates playoff games in two decades. It has also come in a year of rebirth for Pittsburgh's most prominent park, in which it restarted its iconic fountain after a $11.6 million makeover and celebrated the completion of the Great Allegheny Passage Trail.
Might the duck also be a giant good luck charm? The Pirates won their first playoff game with the duck downriver and it will still be floating there until the day the winless Steelers play the Ravens in two weeks.
"There is an avian theme," the Trust's vice president for programming, Paul Organisak, said Saturday. "We're hoping if we keep it up until Oct. 20 the duck will bring good fortune to the Steelers."
More luck came in the positioning of the duck just east of the fountain. It was placed there to tap electricity out of a park building for the duck's interior fan as well as to make the North Side a photo backdrop. Organizers worked with the U.S. Coast Guard and park officials to secure it on a tiny barge about 20 feet from the riverside -- far enough to dissuade anyone from touching it, but not so far as to inhibit busy river traffic.
What they did not realize is how much the park's cascading steps would lend to different duck perspectives for photos. Look up and down them at any time and one will see people setting up to kiss the duck, hold it, do a duck selfie, or share cameras with strangers for full family shots. "We kind of lucked out with the theatrical setting," said Chris Craychee, project manager for Clear Story, the South Side creative services firm overseeing the duck project.
Exactly why many thousands walk through the park to see the duck -- many on strollers, some helped by walkers or wheelchairs -- remains a mystery. There is not too much to it: Stand there for a while and one will constantly hear people say simply, "That is a big duck." Small children flap their arms and quack.
Once a skeptic, Braddock actor and civic booster David Conrad wrote the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after visiting the duck that it is "magically weird."
Mr. Craychee saw someone posing Chihuahuas dressed in duck and octopus costumes by the duck a few days ago. Early Saturday a man proposed to his girlfriend after a friend secretly set up flowers and a chair at the site.
John Doran of Brighton Heights visited Saturday with his wife and two children, ages 9 and 7. "It's hard to be in a bad mood looking at a giant duck," he said.
Notably, many real ducks (and geese) are often bobbing around the duck, too, while getting fed by the crowds. And the crowds attract other crowds who come to look at the crowds.
"It's so neat seeing everybody down here and the kids having a good time," said Dianne McMahon, 72, of Forward.
"I've never seen anything like it, and I've lived in California, Florida, Vegas and Nashville," said Terry Spooner, 70, a former Beaver cop and hotel security official.