2016: Top Hits & Misses

Photo Credit: Pixabay

2016 has come to a close, and with it, another year of new hobby products, trends, and fads. As we do every year, let's take a look back at some of the great things that happened this year, and some of the worst things. Without further ado, the top hits and misses of 2016.

Misses

Miss #1: What Christmas?

It was November 25th. Black Friday. We were ready for the masses of people out to shop for the holidays. The sign flipped to "Open". The door unlocked.

Nothing happened.

Sales this holiday season left us asking "Isn't Christmas around this time?" It wasn't anything like any of the other Christmases I have worked in the past. Despite us not being a big box store, Black Friday Weekend is usually pretty good for us, and despite a massive lack of traffic, Black Friday still ended up being the best Black Friday we've ever had, from a financial perspective. Of greater concern, however, was the lack of people — we went from 91 sales on Black Friday in 2015 to just 77 this year. So we did more with less, but the trend was troubling.

We kept telling ourselves that the Christmas rush would come, and we kept waiting for that to become true, but while there were pockets of people that all showed up at the same time, it never got busy.

We are at a loss to explain the phenomenon, and it's surely something we'll be analyzing for a while to come. However it shakes out, though, the huge lack of foot traffic in our store was a miss for 2016.

Miss #2: RealFlight X Fails to Make a Splash

I was hyped up on RealFlight-X. A new engine, new graphics, and new FPV racing mode was sure to get people's attention and get R/C flight simulators selling again. We even built a brand-new computer for it and set up an entirely new "kiosk" for the new simulator.

RFX, however, has not sold to our expectations. Part of this is due to the expense of upgrading a computer to meet the requirements of the program — especially in an era where desktop PCs are becoming marginalized in favor laptops and tablets. Part of the problem is the stripped down nature of the new simulator when compared to the previous version — no water physics, fewer aircraft, and the aircraft editing feature is missing in action. Finally, the decline in R/C aircraft interest also plays a role in the lack of RFX sales for sure.

I'd love to see a full-featured tablet version released for the iPad, with an adapter sold at hobby shops to allow your own transmitter to work wirelessly, and use Apple AirPlay to beam the screen over to a big-screen television. Something like that would make RealFlight relevant again.

Anyway, it's still early days for RFX, and it has plenty of time to recover from a rough start, but for 2016, RealFlight-X is a miss.

Biggest Miss of 2016: Horizon's Drone Debacle

I'm a big supporter of Horizon Hobby — anyone that reads this blog with any regularly knows that — but this year really showcased just how badly Horizon needs some better direction with its drone division. It was to me, without exaggeration, a complete mess of a year that, while finally showing signs of a turnaround, will be felt for years to come.

It started out with a product that made no sense: the Inductrix 200 FPV. It was a product no one wanted, nor asked for. The racers wouldn't want it because of the proprietary battery design. Casual, non-FPV pilots couldn't easily use it due to the lack of any external orientation cues. Anyone wanting to start out in FPV saw it as too cumbersome to purchase, because it was sold without goggles and a transmitter. We ended up sending every last one of them back. This bomb of a product was only the first sign of trouble, as we would come to find out.

Later in the year, it became apparent that the Blade Chroma, a fantastic camera-equipped drone that rivaled industry heavyweights like DJI in features and price, and flat-out beat them in customer service, was being discontinued and there would be no more: Horizon was getting out of the aerial photography market for good. Why? Because the Chroma couldn't capture market-share away from DJI and Yuneec.

Inductrix FPV

Inductrix FPV

Of course, this was because Horizon couldn't maket themselves out of a paper bag when it came to the Chroma. When DJI, Hubsan, and Yuneec were all at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas showing off their drones to hundreds of thousands of people, Horizon opted to attend a show in Ontario, California called the AMA Expo with significantly fewer attendees. Guys, if you want to market your drone, you have to realize that it isn't a hobby product anymore — it's a consumer electronic. The Chroma was a great product, killed off because the people that made it couldn't figure out how to market it effectively.

The list of missteps (the Blade Zeyrok, anyone?) and duds continues on, but toward the end of the year, Horizon did start to pull out of the nosedive with the Inductrix FPV. This little FPV drone hasn't been out for long enough to say for sure if it's a great seller, but it's certainly a great product for a great price, and shows that Horizon, while not perfect, is always listening and adapting. Hopefully they can figure out what they want to be and make 2017 a great year for them. 2016, however, will always be the year the giant stumbled into being the biggest miss of the year.

Hits

Hit #1: X-Maxx Mayhem

While the X-Maxx may have hit the market in 2015, the impact it would have wouldn't really be felt until well into this year. Our final tally of X-Maxxes sold this year is over twenty — something I would have lost money on if I'd bet at the beginning of the year. Really, the question wasn't if the X-Maxx would be successful, it was a question of how much success it would have, and judging by the response in our store to the truck, it was more than I had given it credit for upon release.

The sale Traxxas ran on the truck late in the year didn't hurt, either.

The X-Maxx may not have been the success that the Slash or T-Maxx was, but it's hardly fair to judge it on those terms. When compared to other recent releases from Traxxas, the X-Maxx stands head, shoulders, and basically everything else over the likes of the Funny Car and the XO-1. With the X-Maxx, Traxxas made a statement: big trucks can sell, and it will certainly be interesting to see how the other R/C manufacturers take that knowledge and try to apply it. The X-Maxx, however, started it all, and so it's a pretty big hit for 2016.

Hit#2: Converging Outside the Box

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The E-Flite Convergence is a strange duck — and that is a good thing. Interest in R/C aircraft is trending downward, and right now there's little hope of reversing course. It's products like the Convergence, though, that have the potential to do just that. It's an out-of-the-box kind of airplane — if you want to call it an airplane at all — and it demonstrates the kind of thinking that is needed to revitalize the industry.

I can't say if the Convergence is doing well as far as dollars and cents — it isn't for us — but that's not why I think the Convergence is a hit. Instead, the Convergence is showing that Horizon Hobby is thinking critically about the industry, and innovating in ways that aren't simply releasing another P-51, J3 Cub, and F4U Corsair every year. The industry has become stale, and products like the Convergence offer a refreshing change of pace.

So regardless of how financially successful the Convergence is, the mere fact that it exists is a hit, and I hope we see more out-of-the-box thinking from companies like Horizon in the near future.

Biggest Hit of 2016: The Club that Builds Together, Stays Together

I don't think I can accurately put into words how excited I am about this. One of our local R/C aircraft clubs, the Midland R/C Club, is doing a club-wide build project that sounds like it's going to be a ton of fun for the club members, but also a bonding experience unlike any other they've done before.

It started a long time ago, when I was chatting with another hobby shop owner about their local club. He mentioned off-hand that the club had bought a number of kits from him with the intention that every member would build the same airplane, and it would be a great activity and morale-booster. I held on to this idea for a couple years, until I mentioned it in passing to a member of the Midland club.

A few weeks later, representatives from the club came in and looked at kit options, and a few weeks after that, presumably having voted on the topic, the club was in to order twenty-two airplane kits. The club members received the kits in early November, and the level excitement at that meeting, I've been told, was through the roof. The members were described like "kids in a candy store", declaring their build intentions, and inquiring about everyone else's plans for their kits.

Sometime early 2017, the club will meet for a Fun Fly where everyone will take to the skies with their new airplane for the first time — no flying of these airplanes is allowed until then. Every Wednesday night leading up to this event, members of the club will come together to build together; the younger members learning from the grizzled veterans of R/C flight, and the passing down of build techniques across generations. What a wonderful idea!

Only time will tell how the concept fares in practice, but the Midland club's excitement in coming together in true camaraderie and celebrating the hobby is surely a big, if not the biggest, hit for the year.