Online Model Train Shops Redefine an Old School Industry

They were once found just about everywhere in America. Tucked away off the beaten path track in an old section of the city, or a go-to family favorite situated on Main Street in Smalltown USA, the iconic hobby shop has been slowly losing its ground…in-person, at least.

Consider just a few headlines from the last several years:

What are the factors behind hobby shops closing?

It’s complicated.

For the owner of Jackson Hobby Shop in NJ, health issues were a major factor. His small business even outlasted Toys R Us and stood its ground in the era of online behemoths like Amazon, continuing to attract customers from around the country.

For others, the old mantra “all good things must come to an end” holds true: it was simply time to retire. After 22 years in business, Jeff Olin, the solo owner of Village Train & Hobby in NY shared his insight in a news article: “Brick and mortar stores really are going to be a thing of the past. Everybody buys online. Really, when you’re a brick and mortar store in a very, very small town, which is having struggle after struggle to keep tenants on Main Street, yeah, it’s tough…”

Back in 2015, then 94-year-old Bob Schuh offered many words of wisdom as he prepared to close the doors of his beloved “K-Val Hobbies” after more than 40 years of doing business in Buffalo, NY. Schuh became known as the backbone of model railroading, sharing his lifelong passion out of the tiny shop – a hidden gem for many in the area.

Harold Lee, a customer interviewed in a Buffalo News article featuring Schuh, shared, “It’s the passing of an era, you know? There used to be hobby shops all over, and this is one of the last,” Lee said.

Why is that? Schuh, a WWII vet and an icon in the Buffalo model railroading community, had this to say of younger generations: “Parents still bring in their young children, but few of them continue to be interested by the time they reach their teenage years and ‘start doing this,’ Schuh said, moving his fingers on both hands as if operating electronic devices.”

He continued: “There are so many other choices around today, and model railroading isn’t one of them.”

Full Steam Ahead: Online Model Train Shops Are the Future

The closing of Walt’s Train Shop in Berlin, MD, marked the end of an era for that community as well – like so many others around the country.

Owner Walt Dennison offered his opinion on the industry during an interview with the Bayside Gazette in 2019: “They [model trains] were better than the stock market for many years … you could buy some Lionel trains and in three years sell them and get 30 percent on your money,” Dennison continued. “Nowadays, the average age for a model train person is 65 years old.”

But, he continued: “If you see the number of trains and things that are advertised and available on the internet, you’d think the railroad business is really great,” he said. “But the internet, because it’s a worldwide thing and there’s millions of people out there, may save the whole model train industry – that’s my opinion.”

Online model train stores redefine an old-school industry

It seems many of the big players agreed: For instance, industry titan MB Klein, Inc. announced the closure of their flagship walk-in retail store in Maryland in 2019. The reason was straightforward: “…to keep up with the times and devote ourselves to offering the best ecommerce experience for our customers,” says a page on their website.

The transition to an online ecommerce model represented a “natural next step…of serving customers the way they want to be served,” explained the company. Online sales gave MB Klein – and many other online model train stores – the ability to serve a much wider customer base all around the globe. By the time their retail location shuttered, online consumers measurably outweighed walk-in retail customers.

It’s simple, really: the customer spoke – and the company adapted their shopping experience to meet changing times. Isn’t that what business is all about?

Online Model Train Stores Bring the Railroading Hobby to a New Generation

Looking at all the headlines over at least the last two decades, it is easy to believe the entire model train industry is going under.

In reality, nothing is further from the truth.

Yes, physical, in-person hobby shops have closed – and in no small number. But focusing only on that paints a partial (and woefully inaccurate) picture of the future of the industry. Many economists once said US malls were dead, too. According to at least one article, that’s hardly the case:

“But malls are not going extinct, they are merely adapting to a new environment. In fact, many have reported robust occupancy levels and bigger crowds than before the pandemic…”

Eva Rothenberg for CNN

In business & life, adaptation is key. For many small business owners used to the traditional mom-and-pop style local shops, adapting to the world of ecommerce can feel daunting. The most successful online small business owners need to cover a lot of ground:

  • Build and manage a website/web presence
  • Learn how to leverage social media marketing
  • Constantly discover new ways to reach a wider audience
  • Stay current with changes in laws, sales tax & other compliance matters

Oh – and when you’re not focusing on all of the above, you’ll have to somehow stand out in a vast sea of other hobby shops crowding Google searches.

Why Shop for Model Trains Online?

Despite that, online model train shops offer big benefits to both buyers and sellers. Back in the day, you were limited to whatever hobby shop was closest to wherever you lived. These days, the entire model railroading industry is at your fingertips – literally.

Successful sellers can connect with a much larger pool of buyers than they might have reached in a local hobby shop. There’s also the flexibility factor: running an exclusively online train store gives small business owners the opportunity to be less dependent on a dedicated retail location. The advantages are many:

  • Lower overhead
  • Increased efficiency
  • Ability to run a home-based business

The WHY Behind a Passion for Model Railroading

The late Bob Schuh knew the real “why” behind the time-honored model railroading hobby: everybody has got to have something to do. Schuh retired at 94; his own father lived to be 101. So, it’s safe to say he knew the secret to a long life.

What is it? The importance of staying mentally active.

“They used to say that when the old foundry guys retired, they gave them a rocking chair. A year later, the rocking chair was there, but they were gone. You’ve got to have something to do,” he said.

Two years after the closing of his beloved K-Val Hobbies, Schuh passed away. His legacy lives on in the memories of area model train enthusiasts who will forever remember visits to the hidden gem of North Buffalo, NY.

Model railroading as a hobby is far from “dead.” And the hobby shops that offer everything train enthusiasts need? They’re not going anywhere, either. They’re just adapting to a new digital era.

The most successful business owners know how to flex with the always-changing times to give customers what they really want. And they know that it isn’t location (online or off) that matters:

“Your website isn’t the center of your universe. Your Facebook page isn’t the center of your universe. Your mobile app isn’t the center of your universe. The customer is the center of your universe.”

— Bruce Ernst, VP of Product Management at Monetate

Nightwatch Trains isn’t the largest online model train store – but we bring small-town values into a digital experience to give our customers the best of both worlds. See what new products we’ve got in stock today, from collectible brass locomotives to HO scale DCC and sound components and more…