Business Articles

E-mail Article to a FriendPrint ArticleBookmark and Share

Reaping the rewards

Store owners sing the praises of in-store repairs, and offer advice to others
By Pamela Thompson
Published: May 14, 2017
Brick-and-mortar shops have a unique and powerful advantage over internet-only stores. If you’re known as the place to go to for service and repairs, you’ll stand out from local competitors as well as those online. Retailers in the U.S. and Canada spoke to Model Retailer about how their service departments build return business and customer loyalty.

Many retailers feel that service and repair are integral factors to their success. Cliff Whitney, owner of Atlanta Hobby and UAV Experts in Cumming, Ga., says his service department is a “key component. Service was one of the primary reasons we are able to win government contracts and offer equipment and fleet management services to large clients like Fox News Corp., Talon Aerolytics, General Electric and Costar. I don’t know how any company selling complex flying machines could not offer a service and technical support department. Why would anyone do business with a company that just sells boxes with no support?”

For some, like Charles Moore, president of Apponaug Color and Hobby Shop in Warwick, R.I., service comes naturally. “That was my first job, doing repairs—fixing trains, model airplanes with gas engines. I’ve been fixing things since 1971.”

His store is “the go-to place for repairs of all kinds,” Moore says. “One customer brought in a giant earring that was four inches in diameter made from a boar’s tusk. It was cracked all the way up and we super-glued it together. I even fixed dentures when I was in my 20s. I had a bit more courage then!”
Building relationships and engaging with customers is key. “Service helps differentiate us from the competition and purchasing product off the internet,” say Chris and Stacia Cope, owners of HobbyTown in Boise, Idaho. “We sell parts for all the products we sell. We can support them in their hobby. We want to make sure the customer isn’t purchasing a ‘one-crash wonder.’ ”

Service helps smaller stores compete with larger competitors, not just those online. “We compete against big-box stores that are going to have cheaper products but have little or no parts availability and no service,” notes Jim Parrish, owner of Kvindlog Services, a hobby/ automotive store in Waldo, Wis.

Reasons to return
“Our service department serves a number of purposes,” says Ruth Kremer, owner of Kremer’s Toy and Hobby in Albertville, Minn. “It reassures customers who are considering getting into R/C but aren’t comfortable with the idea of repairs. It also brings customers back to our store to purchase parts and helps build connections with customers. This connection keeps them coming back.”

Service draws “new customers who require help and gives existing customers a reason to return,” says Phillip Boyer, owner of HobbyTown in Duluth, Ga. “In addition to labor charges being one of the highest profit-margin items in the store, it gives us the best opportunities to upsell product. Frequently a customer will say, ‘I didn’t know you were here until I did an internet search for repair.’ ”

Bob Scott, owner of Credit Valley Railway Co. in Mississauga, Ont., points out that the service department “helps sell product if customers know you can offer after-sales service for their purchases.”

 “We rarely go an hour without someone bringing in a car, plane or drone to fix,” says Mike Murray, president of HobbyTown in Kennesaw, Ga. “They have a lot of confidence in our techs and really appreciate being able to go somewhere to get help. R/C and train departments are 55 to 60 percent of our business.”

A service department may not be a quick fix for competition from the internet or big-box stores, but many say it brings in new business. By solving customers’ problems, they’ve become known in their communities as the repair experts, and customers find reasons to return again and again. Reap the rewards of repair.

Question and Answer
Looking to start or expand your repair business? We asked several retailers to share their tips and experiences

Our Panel:
  • Phillip Boyer, owner of HobbyTown in Duluth, Ga.
  • Chris and Stacia Cope, owners of HobbyTown in Boise, Idaho
  • Ruth Kremer, owner of Kremer’s Toy and Hobby in Albertville, Minn.
  • Charles Moore, president of Apponaug Color and Hobby Shop in Warwick, R.I.
  • Mike Murray, president of HobbyTown in Kennesaw, Ga.
  • Jim Parrish, owner of Kvindlog Services in Waldo, Wis.
  • Bob Scott, owner of Credit Valley Railway Co. in Mississauga, Ont.
  • Cliff Whitney, owner of Atlanta Hobby and UAV Experts in Cumming, Ga.

How do you market your service department?
Phillip Boyer: “We use our webpage. We allow customers to see the staff repairing equipment, and we give a free preferred service card to each customer at the point of purchase. The card is good for a discounted labor rate on that specific vehicle for as long as they own the product.”

Chris and Stacia Cope: “We do it mostly in-store while customers are purchasing vehicles.”

Charles Moore: “Most of our business is by word of mouth. We are the center for model trains, model airplanes and R/C equipment.”

Jim Parrish: “The only marketing is talking to the customer or potential customer when they are looking at an R/C device, as well as word of mouth.”

Bob Scott: “We market from our website, and all sales staff are trained on ‘spreading the word’ of what we provide.”

Cliff Whitney: “We have two dedicated marketing associates, but there is tremendous word of mouth and referral business from our existing clients—and even from some of the big-box stores, which send customers to us from around the country.

What’s been the reaction from customers?

Parrish: “We’ve had very positive feedback and many referrals because we helped our customers. I saw a Facebook posting recently from someone in our area asking where to purchase an R/C car, and I didn’t have to respond at all—many of our customers responded and made it clear, go to Kvindlog’s.”

Scott: “They tell others about the service, and it grows from there.”

Whitney: “Nothing but smiles.”

What advice do you have for other retailers who want to add a service department?

Boyer: “A proper education for diagnostics and repair is a prerequisite for any service department. If you don’t have that education. you will run off more business than you gain.”

Cope: “Definitely add a service department. Customers like to know they can come and talk to someone about their problem.”

Ruth Kremer: “Have very clear documentation and communication with everything having to do with your service department. From the moment the customer comes in, communicate a reasonable expectation for them. Document what is being worked on, down to whether the batteries work in the transmitter they dropped off and everything that is done with the vehicle you repair.

“All contacts with the customer must be documented, including when they approve a more expensive repair and when we leave messages if they didn’t answer our call. All R/C items dropped off for repairs must be contained in a box with the work-order repair sheet. Failure to do this results in batteries and transmitters being mixed up, which can be time-consuming to figure out. At checkout, we make a copy of all documentation for our records.”
Moore: “It’s silly not to have a service department. It would be an affront to customers to have them contact the manufacturer for re-pairs. You have to service what you sell.”

Mike Murray: “Commit to it. You’ll need staff who can fix things quickly and do it right the first time.”

Parrish: “Make sure your employees are qualified and knowledgeable, and that they work openly and honestly with the customers. Some will pay you to fix their vehicle over and over, but most would like to know what they can do themselves. You are always better off sharing your knowledge with the customer; this helps you gain their trust.”

Scott: “Having a service department is a must in these days of high-tech equipment.”

What else should retailers know about service?

Boyer: “Be flexible with your repair policies; make customers happy. If you do that, they will be back. The goal of our service department is to boost sales and influence repeat business.”

Cope: “Make sure you have a clear-cut repair policy, and state what happens if they don’t pick up their vehicle in a timely manner. Clearly display labor rates.”

Kremer: “Know what you’re willing and able to do for service, and be very cautious about offering services that you cannot deliver in a timely fashion or may not have the correct skill set to offer. Let customers know [when] you’re not comfortable with a repair, or if a repair or upgrade doesn’t make sense. Do not sell the customers stuff they do not need. They will lose confidence in you.”

Moore: “Do it well. Stand by what you do. Don’t get upset if the customer wants to watch. Always estimate high because the customer is happy when the actual bill comes lower. Always give a quote right away. If anything is different from the original quote, we call them. We don’t take tips. We help people put models together and help decipher directions of plastic model kits. It’s fun fixing things.”

Murray: “Service customers are very demanding. They expect everything for free, so be very up front about costs. Don’t do the work until it is approved. We have a contract similar to an automotive shop. List everything, including hours required, and have the customer sign it before anything is done.”

Parrish: “It’s a great way to get to know your customers better. In many cases, some of our best customers are also our closest friends, and they come and hang out in our service area. It makes running a hobby shop even more fun.”

Pamela Kleibrink Thompson is a writer, recruiter, speaker and career coach. She has written and produced training films, and her articles have appeared in more than 90 publications. Email: