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www.trains-and-trains.dk : A personal view by Christian Vinaa


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Written by
Christian Vinaa - January 2020

"That's how I see it . . ."


What should the model railroad industry do ?




No doubt that the model railroad industry is pressed these days.

Writing these lines in the train on my way to the Toy Fair Spielwarenmesse ➚ in Nurnberg January 2020, it is depressing to look through the cataloque and see that the number of participating model railroad manufacturers are at a historical low and that the model railroad has been moved to hall 7a from hall 4 ( happened already in 2018 ) and has been put in group with "model construction" as a whole.

The model railroad segment in fact only occupies about 2/3 of hall 7a.

Whenever you talk with the ceo's and the executives you get the same explanation; "the internet".

And it is a bit annoying to always hear that excuse.

But is it correct that the internet is to blame for everything ?

No doubt that the individual small shops find it hard to compete with the internet - price-wise - and the number of small toy stores is in fact getting smaller and smaller each year all over Europe.

And yes - that means that when a child enter a toy store it is one of the larger "Toys are Us" type stores where the big players in the toy market - LEGO / DISNEY etc. - has a huge clout as to what the store should carry of products and where to place these products and - more important - can back these socalled toys, that actually are just merchandize, with a huge supply of movies - cartoons - tv ads - app's - etc. etc.

Far back in such a store there might be a few locs and tracks and wagons, where the individual manufacturers then compete for that small space.

So model trains are reduced to be found in specialist hobby-stores, where the "ordinary" child would never set his/her foot unless accompagnied by a father, uncle or grandfather who is into model railroading.

Children do not play with trains

Another thing you hear is that there is not enough children playing with model trains, and more importantly that the children get no inspiriation to play with model trains from the parents or the society as a whole.

"If only" - "if only"

So in fact the whole world - both the analog world and the digital world is against model railroads.

Lets take the digital world first :

Yes - children are digitalized in these days and even 3 year olds find a tablet more interesting than old-school toys.

And yes - we had that discussion also in the old days regarding the TV. Was too much TV-watching harmfull for children ?

TV watching is passive, but computers are a strange mix of passive and active. However when 3 year olds play on tablets it is mostly passive reaction to something that others have created.

On top of that I do believe that the interaction on the computer / tablet, especially the games, ignites something in the brain that is not unlike how a drug works. The INSTANT reward hunger is satisfied at the tablet and that hunger MUST be fed again and again. And the creators of the games know exactly how to trigger that part of the brain with sound effects and colours.

You might also argue, being old-fashioned, that playing a computer-game hardly is stretching your own imagination. You no doubt learn some skills in terms of speed / reaction / strategy and memory, but the creative part of the brain is left to itself.

So when a child goes back to the analog world where you have to build something yourself and use your own imagination it is not only a physical leap but it is also psychologically equal to withdrawel from a drug.

You simply do not get the same instant gratification when playing with model trains.

And then model trains get pushed in the background because the child will prefer to get the rush from a computer game.

It is a bit like teaching a child to also eat veggies and not only sweets.

So even if the child is introduced to model trains the parents and the kindergarten / school must make sure that the child devotes playtime to both worlds; the digital and the analog.

So what about the analog world :

As I mentioned earlier the analog world is dominated by the big players - LEGO / DISNEY - where toys are only a bi-product in the total picture. Movies - cartoons - games - toy-like merchandize is all part of a big consumer spending hunt, where especially parents are left as sitting ducks, almost forced to give into their childs craving for the flavour of the month.

And that is exactly the point.

There MUST be something new each month, each season - each year, because no manufacturer is getting rich by selling the same "old" stuff year after year.

And it is hard, if not impossible, for any model train manufacturer to come up with a "new flavour" each year.

After all the only "new" things in model railroading are a new locomotive or a new paint scheme. There is not much more to innovate, although the manufacturers have found many ways to sell the same basic car in various variations.

So the "buying the new flavour" excitement and the neural reward is not really to be found in model railroading.

Yes - there have been innovations within the model railroading but they are far apart, and in all honesty I doubt that it would be a success if i.e. Märklin each year would launch new "flavours" as DISNEY/LEGO does.

Märklin currently tries with the "Jim Knopf" train. Apparently Märklin has paid dearly ( very ) to get the rights to that merchandize, obviously in the hope that it would be another "Thomas Train Friends" and apparently it sells in great numbers, but will it keep children being interested in model trains ? Märklin previously sold a Harry Potter train with limited success.

The model railroading world is simply not about flavour of the month for that simple reason that model railroading always has and always will mimic the real trains; and the real trains do not get a new flavour each year.

So the whole foundation and all the premises for model railroading are the total opposite of what the LEGO/DISNEY consumer spending hunt is about.

So yes - model railroading is trying its hardest to survive in a world that is not geared to model railroading.

I once talked with an Märklin executive, who told me that Märklin could sell the first hundred layouts to chinese business men; if only the layouts could be delivered the next week.

The instant gratification craving is hard to ignore and even harder to fight.

But the model railroad community keep complaining : Not enough children play with trains.

We have established that it is uphill all the way in both worlds - the analog and the digital.

So what to do ??

Although I perhaps at first was a bit sceptic about the Märklin MyWorld segment I now think that it was the only valid way that Märklin could go.

Märklin has also in the later years succeeded in getting some synergy effects from the rest of the Sieber product line and has introduced Sluban-type ( LEGO knock-off ) bricks. See also Cross-Over.

Of course Märklin is up against Playmobil and LEGO who each have their own MyWorld type product line

Here I have to digress a bit :
It would make sense for Märklin to enter into some kind of partner-ship with both/either Playmobil/LEGO regarding the train items. Perhaps they already have ?

So Märklin has a product line that is attractive to young children. Now they have to get children to not only pester their parents till the parents buy the MyWorld items; Märklin also has to get the children to keep playing with MyWorld.

And that in a world where practically everything works against Märklin and model trains.

I've been to a lot of hobby/train fairs in Europe and looking back they are remarkable much the same.

There are the manufacturers and there are the vendors of both new and second-hand items and there are profi-layouts that has taken men at the age 50+ several years to build.

Of course the layouts are an inspiration to the many other 50+ men, and the many children look with awe at these layouts. But are they an inspiration to the children ?

I think that these layouts ( as the various MiWuLA-type layouts ) are more a disappointment than an inspiration to children when it comes to going back home and being interested in model trains.

The children go home and want in a few days to get the same kinda layout that they have seen at the fair. Result - disappointment.

Digressing :
That is also why the diorama contests for kids that appear at regular intervals are a great idea. These contests give all children a manageable and achievable goal within a limited work proces - something that a child, with a childs short term focus, can actually succeed with. How to eat an elephant ? - In small pieces !

Of course seeing and admiring the profi-layouts are a wonderfull experience for any child but hardly not different from going to the zoo or the circus or any adventure play-ground.

So Märklin has to have MyWorld layouts displayed at the fairs; not unlike the window-display layouts ( fenster-schauanlagen ) that any decent toy store had in the 1960ties.

Digressing again :
I, as any other visitor, like to see the big show-off layouts that Märklin and others for decades have presented at various fairs, but I would actually more like to see the type of layout that the typical model railroader can afford to build and has the space to build in a normal house / appartment.

At these fairs Märklin has had play-areas where children could play with a (rather) limited amount of MyWorld items and that is a good idea, but Märklin has to "up the ante".

MyWorld layouts needed.

Märklin has to use some precious space at the fairs to show one or more extensive MyWorld layouts - balancing between the very at-home-obtainable and the MyWorld layout that a Rockefeller could afford, giving all children an idea of what can be realistically achieved at home when buying MyWorld products.

Märklin could also go into partnership with some key local model train enthousiasts ( perhaps local MISTS ) to create some small but yet appealing MyWorld layouts to be displayed at various model fairs that will be an inspiration and not a disappointment.

When I say partnership I think that the typical railroad enthousiast would not likely buy MyWorld items but could be inclined to build a layout if Märklin supplied the items needed and helped to get such a layout displayed at a local fair.

Any fair organizer would / should be happy to allocate space for such a layout that would be very popular with the visiting children and would keep the attractions at the fair diversified.

So all in all

  • Märklin would be "paying" the MyWorld items
  • the local train enthousiast / MIST would donate time
  • the fair organizer would allocate space and free entry

As I see it; a win-win-win situation for all three.

The main point here is to NOT create a future disappointment for a child, but to create a feeling of achievement and joy with construction and using their imagination to create their own MyWorld the next many days and months and to do so in a limited amount of time.

THEN a child would go home with the wish to play with model trains and could get an affordable trainset from the parents and get affordable extra wagons and whatever from uncles and grandparents.

THEN more, but of course not ALL, children would begin to be interested in model trains. Beginning with the MyWorld and then over time graduating to "real" model trains.

So this is what a single manufacturer - Märklin - can do.
What about the other manufacturers ?

The ones that also have a MyWorld type should do the same.

The ones that have a smaller range, perhaps more niche-products, have to adjust their production to the number of model railroaders. They cannot wait for children to grow into 50+ men and be interested in their products, but - with a long-term view - these manufacturers should still be interested in supporting the whole model railroad industry - one way or another.

I am not saying that the manufacturers Märklin - Roco/Fleischmann - Piko should stop competing - BTW that is not legal within at least the EU, but they should look at the auto industry; co-production - and development. I.e the Toyota Aygo - Citroen C1 and Peugeot 107. Perhaps this already exists "behind closed doors" ?

The model train industry has already begun with the Wir Modelbahner and the Model Railroad Day in December, but it can be clearly seen that it is a balance act because on the one hand Märklin is the leader and on the other hand Märklin must leave room for the others. The others being PIKO and Fleischmann/ROCO.

It is far easier for Märklin to cooperate with the accesory industry like Faller - Kibri - Noch - Busch etc.

They on the other hand are competing on several levels amongst themselves.

So it is not easy to cooperate when you are also competitors. Go figure.

But in the end they all have to cooperate or file for bankruptcy together.

end of line






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