A Critical Look: Not With a Bang, But A Whimper

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Back in the distant past of the mid-2000s, our R/C aircraft department was the money-maker. It more than doubled the R/C car department, and was, by far, the department we counted on to allow us to stay in business. Over the last few years, however, R/C cars have been steadily gaining on R/C aircraft, swapping dominance between 2013 and 2014. Since then, R/C aircraft have been falling behind at faster and faster rates in a process that doesn’t seem to have an end point.

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I wrote about this early last year, and as you can see based on the graph to the right, the trajectory of the R/C aircraft department continued it’s net decline. The big question is why? What is causing the general collapse of the once-golden goose department? What is making the R/C aircraft department fall like a rock and the R/C car department continue to stay strong?

I’ve covered some reasons I think the trend continues, but none of them feel exactly right to me any longer. In the previously mentioned article, I circled two main causes for our R/C aircraft department’s decline: a lack of new builders, and the dearth of cheap hobby products available through online retailers, both foreign and domestic. These explanations do make some sense, but now I don’t think this can really be the whole truth, because each of these factors also affect the R/C car market — which seems render my reasonings invalid.

Just like you used to have to build R/C airplanes, R/C cars used to only come in kit form as well. My old Tamiya Lunch Box required assembly before it could be used, and the venerable RC10 gold-pan kits were the gold standard (haha, I made a pun) for R/C racing back in the day, and those needed to be built too. So just like R/C airplanes, the barrier to entry for R/C cars has been dramatically lowered, yet they maintain strong sales. As for my second argument, cheap online hobby sites aren’t a problem only for aviation — there’s no shortage of inexpensive radio-controlled cars and trucks out there, yet they haven’t overrun the domestic mainstays like Traxxas, ECX, Losi, etc.

So what gives?

I think it makes sense to look at the structure of how people interact with these hobbies — how are people spending their time in each segment of the radio-control world? When you dive in there, it becomes obvious, I think, why R/C cars continue to have staying power, and R/C aircraft are in a nosedive.

R/C Aircraft

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A typical user purchases an airplane — let’s say it’s an E-Flite Apprentice S RTF. She goes home, plugs in the charger and battery, and while it’s charging, she goes to work putting the airplane together. The entire process takes a little longer than an hour, and pretty soon she’s ready to fly.

She goes out to her local soccer field and puts the Apprentice in the air. The SAFE technology does its thing, and she’s able to safely land the airplane on her first attempt. She flies it a few more times, and once she’s confident, she tries the intermediate difficulty level. This time, though, she doesn’t manage to land it correctly, and it needs to be fixed. This is the point where I assume most beginners just stop, but let’s say she goes to the hobby shop and buys the supplies and fixes it. Let’s even say she conquers intermediate level, and then expert level.

Now she’s presented with a choice. She can continue flying the Apprentice, but she’s already flown it as aggressively as it can be flown, and it’s getting a little boring. So she goes to the hobby shop to see about spicing up her flights a bit and finds if she wants a different experience, she needs to buy a whole new airplane. If she doesn’t like flying the Apprentice anymore, there’s nothing she can do with it to make it any better. It is what it is. Frustrated, she gives up on flying altogether.

R/C Cars

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A typical user purchases an R/C truck — let’s say it’s a Traxxas Slash 2WD, a standard entry-level vehicle. She goes home and plugs in the charger and battery, waiting the standard forty-five minutes for it to get fully charged. She goes out in the yard and has a blast running it around the grass, driveway, and even a little in the street. She’s careful with it, and manages to complete the first run without hitting anything too hard.

A few runs later, though, and she smashes it into the mailbox post and breaks the front suspension arm, so she comes into the hobby shop and purchases a replacement, but not just a stock replacement — the hobby shop guy recommended an RPM replacement arm, and it was available in her favorite color: green. Being a beginner, she has no idea how to put it on, so the hobby shop employee guides her through the installation. Finally, her truck is fixed, and she’s ready to go play again.

After a while, she’s getting bored with the relatively slow truck, and her battery doesn’t seem to be lasting as long. She goes to the hobby shop to see what her options are, and finds out she can upgrade her truck to a brushless motor and a LiPo battery. Faster speeds and longer run times sound good to her, so she buys the upgrades, and tosses in a few green anodized aluminum parts because she likes the way they look on her truck. Once again, the hobby shop employee helps guide her through the installation, and then she’s ready to go home and tear up her yard with her new, faster truck.

It is my belief, based on observation and experience, this is why R/C aircraft are not doing well in today’s climate. There is a lack of flexibility inherent to the hobby that just doesn’t jive with today’s sensibilities. R/C cars and trucks offer so much more to the end user in the ability to not just improve the vehicle, but to make it yours. This might not make sense to some, but a look at another immensely popular past time can shed a light on how important this is.

Fortnite, a popular video game, is a free-to-play game with over 125 million users. Being a game that essentially costs nothing to play, you’d think the game wouldn’t be a huge money-maker, but well… as of June 26th, it had amassed an eye-popping “$1.2 billion in revenue, all of which comes from nonessential in-app purchases, for stuff like clothing and dance moves.” Which is to say, that money was entirely spent on cosmetics, or how your character looks in the game.

Why is it any surprise, then, that R/C cars continue to sell strongly and R/C aircraft are struggling along? R/C cars offer hop-ups, customization options, and overall more ways for consumers to interact with them, nevermind how they aren’t nearly as space and weather dependent as R/C aircraft.

Another key point of differentiation, the R/C cars scenario offers us more opportunities to interact with the customer in a positive way. One of the services we offer is guidance on how to fix an R/C car, and so long as the consumer is the one actually doing the work, we don’t charge for this — we see it as a way to both increase the consumer’s knowledge about the hobby and demonstrate how our primary focus isn’t on simply selling products, but on being good stewards of a fun and rewarding hobby. R/C aircraft rarely afford us the same opportunity to engage with the customer in that way, and as a result, customer retention in aircraft lags behind.

Sadly, I don’t think there’s a solid solution to this problem. Simply adding random cosmetic upgrades for airplanes and drones isn’t going to do anything. Perhaps offering some sort of upgrade package, like a low-wing option for a high-wing trainer, would work in the long run, but that would almost certainly require designing new airplanes from the ground up. Similar airplanes have existed, like the FlyZone Switch, and they didn’t sell all that well, though they may have been a little ahead of their time. Fundamentally, though, aircraft aren’t really able to be as flexible, cosmetically and performance-wise, as cars and trucks, and that lack of flexibility seems to be the true reason R/C aircraft aren’t selling.