model train set on track

Zany Economics

e*Train Issue: Mar 2003   |   Posted in:

By William Laughlin

“Zany Brainy” closes their store in the fashionable “Bradley Fair” shopping center in Wichita, and I, for one, won’t miss it.

Maybe I’m somehow atypical, or too far out of the mainstream toy-buying public, but I have a negative disposition towards large, corporate-chain retail stores. It may have begun years ago when I needed to buy occasional birthday and Christmas gifts for my four children (now all young adults.) “Toys R Us” probably was the first encounter I had with this “zoo-like atmosphere” world, populated by throwaway, plastic, overpriced, mass-market “trend toys.” Hard-to-find store personnel with limited product knowledge, and of course, seldom any train sets (not that those were the only reasons I went into the store.)

Years later, as we strove to distribute advertising flyers for our not-for-profit Wichita Toy Train Club train shows, this type of store turned a cold shoulder towards lending a helping hand. In fact, I was informed abruptly that it was against “corporate policy” to help promote any type of local club’s fundraising events. Some idea of community spirit!

When this particular store opened a few years ago, I encountered the same idiotic corporate stance there as well. Suck local dollars out, but what do you return to the community in return? Nothing, besides a few minimum-wage jobs as far as I could tell. Well-lit, attractive displays, but strictly mass-market coldness. Is that the “norm” for toy retailing in the 21st Century?

It was with surprise that I noted the “Store Closing Sale” signs in the windows the other day. Curious, I entered to find largely empty shelves, especially in the “Road & Rail” section near the front. There were indications that this had once been a well-stocked area purveying much of the “Thomas the Tank” and “Brio” wooden toy train sets.

My attention was drawn to a pile of boxed, wooden train sets–the generic, no-name variety, showing two children (“Not Recommended For Children Under Three”) happily engaged playing with their wooden railway layout on a wooden play-table. Price for this 120-piece treasure trove? $249.99!!!Yes, OVER TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS! “Play-table NOT INCLUDED!”

Did it contain any “Thomas” pieces? NO! I looked twice to make certain the Brio name—the “Tommy Hilfiger” equivalent in this product category—was nowhere on the box.

My first thought: what could a person buy from Lionel or MTH in “O-Gauge” trains for $250.00? A trip to our largest local multi-gauge retailer revealed three Lionel starter sets ranging from $140 to $230, two K-Line sets at $175 and $210, and two Railking fully-digital sets at the “king’s ransom” of $350 and $380. Why on earth would anyone waste $250 on lifeless, dull, wooden push toys?

Now to be completely fair, this “bargain” wooden set WAS 40% OFF—what could I buy from a mail-order house such as Gryzboski, for the same $150? How about the Lionel # 31913 Pennsy Flyer set for $121.95? Or try the Scranton Hobby Center for the Railking Pennsy Turbine set, with wireless remote, for a bank-busting 169.95! Or maybe the K-Line NASA set from York Trains for a paltry $115. (Source: Classic Toy Trains ads, March 2003 issue.)

WAKE UP PEOPLE!!! How is Joe Public or Annie Average ever going find out their hard-earned dollars will buy “A Lifetime of Happiness” instead of mere moments of movie-toy flash and sizzle? And when will our three-rail marketers—that’s essentially what Lionel, MTH and K-Line have become, now that all manufacturing is offshore—realize that there’s a definite “toy store” market for “O-gauge” trains, aside from their standard hobby shop and train store accounts? If adding back these accounts into the sales “mix” risks displeasing large, established national dealers, I say return to the days of yesteryear and issue special sets—which is currently being done on a limited basis: MTH’s “Sears” sets, and Lionel’s J.C. Penney and Betty Crocker offerings.

Gone since the 1960’s have been the broader distribution channels, as the marketplace has changed and evolved. If we are serious about expanding the size of the future market, I believe the Big Three need to re-think their strategies. Lionel’s program to work through Home Depot is a small step, but one in the right direction.

We need a lot more of those small steps.