Whither the hobby shop?

Not too long ago, there seemed to be several hobby shops in every city. And plastic model kits were popular enough that they were a staple of the toy section in most major department stores. I remember those days fondly.

The toy section was the only saving grace for young boys forced to accompany their mothers on shopping trips downtown (I speak from experience). With a little prodding, mom could be persuaded to drop by the toy section after all the boring necessities (clothes, household supplies, etc.) had been purchased.

As a teen, I remember embarking on long bike rides and trips on city buses to visit local hobby shops whenever possible. Sometimes a friend and I would organize a day trip to another city to see the sights, which inevitably included a hobby shop or two. Even our family vacations were not complete without a visit to the local hobby shop. This was before the advent of the Internet, so who knew what unique products might be found in a hobby shop located in another city or country?

Sadly, many hobby shops have closed their doors over the last several years. Some of these closings are due to the shift in retail from bricks and mortar to online, which can be seen in many retail categories. But research from IBISWorld confirms that profit margins for hobby shops have been steadily declining over the past decade, and this has forced many small independent stores out of business. Only the larger online retailers, who can negotiate volume discounts that small mom and pop stores have no hope of matching, are surviving. Model kits are ideally suited to online retail, since plastics are lightweight and inexpensive to ship.

For buyers, the advent of online shopping is nothing short of revolutionary, and in a good way. I can now locate the most obscure decal sheet, aftermarket part or thirty year old kit in minutes and have it delivered from anywhere in the world.

Another benefit of the online shopping revolution is the surge in producers of garage kits. Now, with the help of a website, any talented individual can produce and sell resin kits to buyers worldwide. This also increases choice for the buyer, since subjects which are too obscure for major manufacturers to mass produce are covered by garage kit producers who can make a profit on very low volumes.

There’s a part of me that misses the bricks and mortar shopping experience. That sense of anticipation: “what cool new items am I going to see on the shelf when I open the door and walk in?” And once you enter, the chance to talk about the fine points of modelling with the store owner. This is missing from online shopping. Yes, we have online forums where people can talk about modelling, but it’s not the same. People act much worse online, protected by a cloak of anonymity, than they do face-to-face. This is why online forum discussions tend to resemble food fights in a school cafeteria.

Another trend I’ve noticed is that model kits in hobby shops have begun sharing shelf space with fully assembled (or almost fully assembled) diecast miniatures. Diecast cars from the likes of Corgi and Dinky have been around for decades, but now diecasts of aircraft and science fiction subjects have become popular. And they are offered in the same scales as plastic model kits, meaning that they are being positioned as direct competitors. It appears that diecasts are popular with adults as well as children.

If hobby shop owners are sacrificing plastic model kit shelf space for ready-made diecast miniatures, there must be a reason for it. The obvious one is a shift in demand. Perhaps fewer people are willing to spend the time to assemble and paint a plastic model kit. They want the payoff—a realistic aircraft replica to display in the living room—without the work.

In today’s world of condensed sound bites and abbreviated text messages, few can muster the focus needed to devote several hours to reading a novel or putting a plastic model kit together. Parents equip their kids with smart phones and video games, which reduce attention spans and train them to expect instant gratification. Public schools are not helping either: although children are still taught to print, the teaching of cursive is being phased out. The elegant art of handwriting will soon be a thing of the past, replaced by typing at a computer keyboard.

How will this impact the manual dexterity of future generations? Picking up a pen and learning cursive is an important part of developing motor skills. Someone who doesn’t know how to manipulate a pen may find themselves challenged by other tasks requiring fine manual motor skills as well. These skills are de rigueur for gardening, cooking, and home repairs, to name just a few. Where will the next generation of surgeons (whose level of manual dexterity can have life or death consequences) come from?

I recently asked a hobby shop owner if he thought the increase in demand for diecast replicas was due to a downturn in the popularity of model building. He wouldn’t admit to it, despite the fact that there were several shelves of diecast aircraft in his store. He pointed out that buying a diecast replica and displaying it on a bookshelf doesn’t give the buyer the feeling of accomplishment that he gets from putting a plastic model kit together. And he seemed strenuously opposed to the idea that building models was going out of style. But then why was he carrying diecast products?

Based on the IBISWorld research, discretionary spending on hobbies in general has been down since the 2008 recession, so it’s probably safe to say that there are fewer plastic model hobbyists today than a few decades ago. If I had to guess, I’d say the golden age of modelling was somewhere around the end of the 20th Century. Long-time manufacturers like Revell and Airfix had been joined by newer companies such as Tamiya and Hasegawa, and the latter elevated the quality and accuracy of their products to new levels. Lots of people seemed to be building plastic models. On a positive note, most of the top plastic model manufacturers are still in business, and they continue to introduce new products every year.

In the end, what matters is not whether everyone else loves what you do, but that you love what you do. It’s inevitable that the popularity of plastic modelling will wax and wane over time, just like everything else, so why worry about it?

I’m reminded of a great scene from the movie Spinal Tap, in which the band’s manager, Ian Faith, is being interviewed. The interviewer mentions that the band is playing much smaller venues than it used to, and he asks if this is because the band’s popularity is waning. Faith brilliantly replies, “Oh no, not at all. I just think that their appeal is becoming more selective.”

-Ivar