Hobby Watch 2015: What Will It Look Like?

It's a new year. Last year was a ride, to be sure. We broke store records not once, but twice. We had a huge slow-down during the polar vortex. We had immense success with the Estes Proto X quadcopter, and other products didn't fare so well. But this editorial isn't about looking back; it's all about looking ahead to the new year and seeing what I hope it will look like. Will 2015 look like years past, or is it destined to be vastly different?

Better Distributor Inventory Management & Forecasting

A retailer can't sell something he doesn't have. Backorders and out of stocks have plagued our industry for the last few years, and there's no sign that things are getting better any time soon. From R/C cars to quadcopter parts to train track to slot car sets, there doesn't seem to be a part of our large industry that isn't affected by shortages.

It makes sense that a smallish hobby shop like ours would run out of product from time to time. We have a finite amount of resources, and we don't sell to a wide audience. We can only support so much inventory at a time. But when a large distributor like Horizon Hobby or Great Planes runs out of critical product, it doesn't look or feel like they had money troubles, or could only afford so much product. It looks like poor planning.

I don't really hold out much hope that things will change in 2015. Already we see that blade guards and the blades themselves for the immensely popular Proto X are back on backorder, ETA unknown. Un-fraking-acceptable.

Whether the problem lies with poor planning, China-related manufacturing issues, or something else entirely, it would be nice to know what's going on. I can't believe that anyone at either of the two companies I mentioned are happy to take the constant beating from dealers and consumers alike for being routinely out of something. Why a better and more transparent dialogue isn't established with us or the press is beyond my comprehension. Whatever the case, I sincerely hope the industry can overcome whatever issue ails it in 2015.

Sensible "Drone" Legislation

Quadcopters exploded in popularity in 2014. But as popular as they are, there are those in the government that are looking to make them very difficult (at the very least) to fly. Currently, the legislation in the works is only supposed to target commercial use of these camera platforms. But it's not unreasonable to think the FAA will try to regulate recreational use of them as well, and the entire hobby aircraft community could be swept up in the ugly legal mess.

It's patently ridiculous to try and require all hobby pilots to obtain a full-scale pilot's license to operate their radio-controlled aircraft, as the requirements for one share little to nothing in common with the other. And while I don't disagree with current laws that keep recreational R/C aircraft below 400 feet, away from airports, and within the pilot's line of sight, any further requirements would be nigh-impossible to enforce. Requiring background checks to purchase R/C aircraft (which is something special interest groups want) would be onerous and put the onus on hobby shops to pay for expensive and exhausting checks and have waiting lists, much like gun stores do today. That would be disastrous to all hobby retailers, online and local alike.

Only time will reveal how the FAA rules, but even then the story will be long from over. Hobby advocacy groups like the AMA have already sued the FAA to try and prevent these laws from coming to pass. It's a big, ugly, legal trainwreck, and it's going to get worse before it gets better.

Fewer New R/C Cars, More Support for Existing Vehicles

There are just too many R/C cars in the world.

I don't mean the quantity of vehicles overall, mind you. No, I'm talking about the sheer vastness of makes and models out there. It seems like every day there's a new R/C car or truck being released... and that's only from the legitimate hobby brands (I don't count RedCat, Exceed R/C, and others like them as "legitimate"). The world does not need more.

What we do need, however, is more support for the vehicles that already exist. Companies like ECX and ARRMA have some decent vehicles, and are backed by two of the largest hobby companies in the world. Why on Earth they have so few accessories and aftermarket support is beyond me.

Aftermarket parts are what keep hobbyshops alive. We can't survive on vehicle sales alone. Parts are what keeps consumers coming back - and hopups are a great way to make the arrangement work for both parties. We get paid, and they get better parts for their hobby. It's a win-win; something Traxxas learned long ago.

Speaking of Traxxas, here's a company that got it right. They've been selling the Stampede and Rustler for something around 25 years. Sure, they've have some upgrades along the way, but the core design is largely unchanged since they were released. That doesn't mean they are perfect trucks. It does mean they are good enough to work well for their intended purposes. It's really the upgrades available for the vehicles that keep them on top as far as sales.

When presented with the opportunity to sell a customer an R/C vehicle, I will almost always push Traxxas the hardest. Not because we make the most money on their trucks (believe me, we don't by a longshot), but because time and again, Traxxas has proved to be the brand that brings people back into the store. ECX couldn't do it on multiple attempts. ARRMA isn't looking good either, though I can't make any conclusions yet.

The Traxxas formula - a handful of cars, tons of aftermarket accessories - works. It's time for R/C car manufacturers to realize this. Instead of putting more R&D into new cars, throw that money at RPM, STRC, and other accessory makers, and get them to support the vehicles you have. Help them make your cars better. Legitimize your vehicles with those upgrade parts. I'm tired of seeing all that potential squandered.

More Rock Crawlers at RHC

We have a checkered history with rock crawlers. We've supported them a bit in the past, but for much of 2014 we didn't do much at all with them. We'd like to change that this year. We're taking a very close look at the local rock crawler market again, and this time we have an eye toward more than just having a couple of crawlers on the shelf.

There is an opportunity here to cultivate the market. I think we can make a go of it, but it's not something we are taking on lightly, nor is it something we are going to jump in with both feet on. Instead, a slow and cautious build up of product is what's required.

If we follow through on this plan (and remember, it's a big if at the moment), we'll be approaching this the same way we do the basher market: with an eye toward beginners and supporting the uninitiated. Seasoned vets don't need us to hold their hands. And as most of us on staff will also be beginners in this territory, this approach makes sense. That's not to say we won't have high end product and accessories on the shelf eventually - but it's something we will be working into, if this happens at all.

Rock crawlers are an area I see plenty of potential in. But we must move forward carefully - I strongly feel that if we can't do it right, we shouldn't do it at all, and so we have to be sure we can honor rock crawlers properly.

Better Marketing From Us and Them

Now that we're the only hobby shop in the Tri-Cities, I think we can (and need to) do a better job of getting our name out to the masses. We've been fairly successful on Facebook, and we have a decent number of views on our YouTube channel. Our account on Instagram is growing well. Our website gets around 1,000 pageviews per day. Not altogether bad for a small town hobby shop. But we can do better.

I plan to step up on email marketing. We started a mailing list on Small Business Saturday with our free drawings - something to get us going on the email side of marketing. Soon we'll have a sign-up on our website for our newsletter. We want our information to reach you in the most convenient way possible. For many, that's email.

I'd also like to continue our radio advertising. We got plenty of great responses to our Christmas campaign, and we want to do more. I thought radio was a dying medium when we first talked to the ad sales guy. I'm happy to have been wrong.

But it's not just us that need to do a better job with advertising. Manufacturers in the hobby industry are doing a piss-poor job of getting the word out to normal people. It's not enough to advertise in the R/C magazines - that's simply preaching to the choir, many of whom will have already seen the product on the Internet. National television and radio campaigns are what is needed to get people mobilized. Horizon Hobby, for example, has a great product in their Blade 350QX3 AP. It's as good as (if not better than) anything else in its class... say, the DJI Phantom Vision 2. But DJI has already won the hearts and minds of the average person, because they have done a great job at getting their name out there. If a news channel carries a story about drone, guess which one is shown. The Phantom.

Many quadcopter manufacturers are at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) this year. But Horizon Hobby isn't. I'd be willing to bet CES isn't even on their radar. And that's a shame, because they have a great product that no regular Joe on the street knows about. If that guy walked into our hobby shop, we'd love to get him educated on how great the 350QX3 is. But no one comes in asking for it. They ask for a Phantom, or more generically, simply a "drone".

Hobby companies should do a better job at getting their message out to the everyday person. But time and again, they show that they only know how to market to their base. They can't evangelize their products properly. And without that, this industry will never expand into the mainstream, even with all the hype surrounding it.

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Those are some things to look forward to, and hope for, in the coming year. I hope we'll see all of them come to fruition. 2015 should be the year the hobby industry takes the world by storm. I know we are all capable of making that happen. It's just a matter of us all doing our part, however small, in building that future.

What are some things YOU'D like to see, hobby-wise, in 2015? Sound off on either our Facebook page or in the comments below!