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
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
We need a lot more of those small steps.