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Looking back at holiday sales trends

By Nick Bullock
Published: March 29, 2013
Remember the holiday fad Furbys ­— those furry, electronic, baby-gremlin-looking “pets”? Or Tickle Me Elmo? Or Big Mouth Billy Bass singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”?

No, these weren’t exactly hot sellers in the hobby industry. But the point is the same.

“Every year there’s something,” says Steve Noel, owner of HobbyTown USA in Orland Park, Ill.

This year’s hot item for Noel’s store? Quadcopters. Traxxas quadcopters, Heli-Max quadcopters, Ares quadcopters — it didn’t matter. “It was all over the board,” he said. “From parents buying them for kids, to young guys buying them for themselves, girlfriends buying them as gifts for their boyfriends.”

As radio-controlled quadcopters have risen in popularity over the past year, most hobby shops that sell R/C have seen that trend reflected in their sales.

It should be no surprise then that quadcopters — and, to a certain extent, R/C helis in general — were the big winners over this past holiday season. At the same time, sales of model railroading sets were down, according to several dealers who spoke with Model Retailer.

Multi-rotor madness
Many different R/C helis have their merits, but becoming a holiday darling is mostly a matter of timing, said John Brown, owner of Brownie’s Pro & Sport Hobbies in Staten Island, N.Y. The 1SQ sold well at his store because it was brand new. “It came out just at the right time,” he said. “I think it came out a month or two before Christmas. And we sold them every day, it seemed like.”

A product’s price point is also a key factor in its holiday success, Noel said. The 1SQ was also one of his top holiday sellers, as were the Traxxas QR-1 and the Ares Ethos QX 75. Each of those products retail at his store in the $79.99-$99.99 price range, he said.

Brown said the quadcopters are also hot holiday sellers because they are easy to use, which makes them a perfect gift for kids and beginners.

Allen Fenton, owner of Al’s Trains & Hobby in Bedford, Ohio — who typically only sells the entry-level helicopters — said the micro-helis seem to be tailor made for the holidays because they are small enough to fly indoors. “You don’t have to go outside and fly them,” he said. “If you’ve got a halfway-decent-sized room, you’re OK.”

Outside of R/C
Retail trends in the model railroading hobby segment were a bit tougher to peg.

Noel and James Pentifallo, owner of Ridgefield Hobby in Ridgefield, N.J., both aid they saw lower sales of Lionel trains and sets, which they attributed to Lionel selling its products to Amazon, which in turn sells the products direct to the consumer, often with free shipping or no         sales tax.

“I used to sell, believe it or not, between 100 and 150 train sets,” Pentifallo said. “This year I was less than 60. Just for the holidays.”

Other retailers in our March What’s Selling surveys also cited Lionel’s direct-to-consumer sales as reason for lower holiday model-railroading sales at their stores.

Several messages to Lionel for this article were not returned.

Noel, however, said that this trend may have also led to increased sales of add-on items, such as track and track accessories.

Fenton said he checked the prices of some train accessories on Amazon, and some actually were higher than what he would charge in his store. “Where they were really cutting prices,” he said, “were on the train sets.

“I can’t honestly sit here and tell you I can guarantee I lost sales because of Amazon selling online, but I can probably tell you for a fact that at the prices they were selling, I couldn’t compete.”

Others, however, said the biggest problem around the holidays was simply getting the model railroading products.

“There’s just been production problems on a lot of the other lines,” said Mike Niedzalkoski, owner of Niedzalkoski’s Train Shop in Jeannette, Pa. “Some lines you couldn’t have an increase [in sales] even if you wanted.”

Fenton echoes this sentiment, saying the only manufacturer “anywhere close to being able to ship anything was Kato.”

He said he also had problems getting track and accessories from Lionel. “For whatever reason,” Fenton says. “They never gave a real reason.” ­­