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Are hobby shops still needed in the 21st century?

Published: March 21, 2011
By Joey Kerekes, HobbyTown USA, Las Vegas, Nev.

First, let me clarify this question. When I say “hobby shops,” I am speaking of the traditional brick-and-mortar hoppy shops, not online or mail-order businesses. I am also not predicting the overall health of the hobby industry.

Also, let me state that my family has owned a hobby shop for the past 19 years, and I have personally shopped in hobby stores since the early 1970s.

My questioning the need for hobby shops in the 21st century in no way implies the industry is doomed or that hobby shops are on their way to extinction. I believe that if we diversify what we sell, utilize tools like the Internet and social media, and offer personal customer service after the sale, hobby shops will always have a place in the retail landscape.

My query is this: what part of the hobby industry equation will our stores be a part of in the future?

For as long as I can remember, hobby shops were a necessity to manufacturers and consumers alike. Hobby shops have long been a part of the three tiered system: starting with the manufacturer, then the distributor, then the hobby shop. In the past, when a manufacturer created a new product, it relied on hobby shops to get its products to consumers. Small companies relied on us to get their product out to a larger audience of consumers and large companies relied on us (with the help of distributors) to sell the consumer the smaller quantity they desired.

Now with the Internet, manufacturers are bypassing hobby shops (and distributors) altogether. Any new small company can advertise for little or nothing via blogs, eBay, etc. The Internet also allows them to sell directly to the consumer, leaving no desire to sell through a retail outlet. Large companies are rapidly following suit. Take, for example, Round 2 Models (AMT Models). Not only will Round 2 sell a model directly to the consumer off its website, but will sell it for less than its own suggested retail price. Or the new company who is about to release plastic models of the B-25 bomber in 1:32-scale that states on its website that its models will not be distributed into the retailer network. Instead, its models will only be sold through carefully chosen hobby store suppliers with great online experience. If this were not enough to contend with, we also must consider the growing gray market (i.e. counterfeit goods and cheap knockoffs).

I cannot think of a better time to be a hobby consumer, though. There has never been a better selection and greater quality available. So we must ask the question: if manufacturers are edging the hobby shops to the wayside, will consumers do the same?

In considering this, I am reminded of my youth, visiting hobby shops to see what was new on the shelf and what new tips the retailer could offer me. Now, consumers come into the retail stores to tell us what is new. With all of the information on the Internet, all the new tips and tricks are readily available, thus eliminating the need for many of the books, magazines and DVDs. With all their questions answered from blogs and online reviews, some customers have chosen to not frequent hobby shops at all.

When we opened our store 19 years ago, I could recognize 80% to 90% of flyers at the R/C airplane field as our customers. Now, it is only about 40% to 50% of these flyers that I recognize. I have spoken to hobbyists that say they have never set foot in a hobby store. They tell me that if they shop from home they avoid traffic, get items cheaper, and receive those items more quickly than if they were to frequent a hobby shop. Many hobbyists have found sites like Luckymodels.com, where not only can they receive items with shipping included at a dealer's cost, but it will arrive 30 days before it is available to U.S. distributors!

I know this all sounds very bleak, but I hope it will not be taken that way. I do believe that hobby shops will continue to exist in some form in the future. Hobby shops will still offer services not available on the Internet. I do not believe the industry can survive without some form of personal interaction. This said, I wonder how we as retailers can expand on this premise to regain the niche we once held. Or will we need to drastically change our role to fit into the 21st century?

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Model Retailer, Kalmbach Publishing Co., or its employees.
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