|Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm) and Garden Train Store(tm)|
About Pricing and Availability of Big Train Products - Updated July, 2013
I have observed the dynamics of the model train market for many years, and even written articles about them. But when I started posting product recommendations online, I learned first-hand just how quirky the market can be, just how fast prices can go up or down, and just how quickly a product that seemed widely available a month ago can virtually disappear.
Since I posted my first "buyer's guide" in 2004, I have been contacted by hundreds of readers who waited until the last minute to buy, then found that some product I recommended had disappeared from almost everyone's shelves only a few days before. They also discovered that the web sites and voicemail systems of many model train suppliers became so congested that they were difficult to navigate after December 12, and impossible to navigate after December 18.
When assembling my buyer's guide pages, I try to recommend products that not only meet my own quality and usefulness standards, but which seem to be widely available. Each Christmas season, though, I find myself rebuilding links and replacing suppliers for certain products as one after another ran out of stock. Some products which should have been widely available disappeared altogether.
Of course, you would expect supplies of high-demand products to run low during the holiday season. But the truth is, model trains and related accessories come and go all of the time. Although I will try to help you find any particular item you need (unless you wait until December 15 to start panicking), I cannot absolutely guarantee that any particular product will be available next week, much less by the time you need it.
From the perspective of anyone selling trains, the answer is simple: If you think you want it, buy it now. But I'm much more interested in informing than in selling, so I've included an explanation for the vagaries of this industry. Hopefully this will help your decisions to be "educated guesses" at least.
Model Trains Have Long Development Cycles and Slow Return on Investment - Manufacturers make and distribute model trains in huge "batches." The batches are planned 12 to 24 months before the products are expected to hit the shelves, then more often or not, the instructions and any molds needed are sent overseas to start the manufacturing run. Soon afterward, the manufacturers start taking pre-orders from distributors and other huge customers, so they have some idea how many of a particular item they are likely to sell.
If the manufacturer can get a "prototype" or sample model to show at the industry trade shows in February, so much the better. For many kinds of trains, the majority of orders come at or just after those shows. Hopefully the factory is ready to go, because the trains have to get from the factory to the warehouse (several weeks if the factory is in China), from the manufacturer's warehouse to the warehouses of the distributors and/or big-box stores (hopefully by August), to the retail stores (hopefully by October). Usually this works out, but, as you can imagine, there are several places where the system can break down.
Because "setup" can be half or more of the cost of producing a product, the manufacturer may add another 50%-100% to the orders they think will be popular enough to justify keeping in their own warehouse for next year. That way they don't run out prematurely and have to face either losing sales or rushing into another manufacturing run.
By the time a run has terminated, and the products are on their way back to the US, the manufacturers are already working on the next product. They won't order another batch of the first product until it starts disappearing from the warehouses altogether, and they can start accumulating orders for it again. This may take weeks or years, and manufacturers aren't always very good at guessing which it will be.
If a manufacturer feels that they've accidentally glutted the market, they may never order another batch of that particular product (even one that seemed popular at first). Also, many "collectible" products, such as the subscription trains offered by Hawthorne Village®, are never reordered.
There's Many a Slip - How would you like to be in an industry where you have to invest a million dollars in tooling a new product (or a 100K revamping an existing product), only to have your mind-blowing sample or prototype get to your sales guys two weeks too late to show at the February trade shows? Or have a union slowdown just as your containers arrive from China?
Or worse yet, what if a killer recession happens between the orders and Christmas? So you get your product in on time, then you ship it out to your distributors (on credit) and to any big-box stores (with a generous return policy). Then the economy goes into the toilet, and two things happen - the big-box stores wait until after Christmas, then send most of your product back for a full refund (including products that their customers played with and returned with damaged or missing parts). Worse yet, your biggest distributor or three go bankrupt with a fortune of your stuff on the shelves and you never see a penny.
And we won't even talk about the tax ramifications of the Fed making you claim your "accounts receivable" as income for one year, then having to deal with a fortune in bad debts and a warehouse full of returned merchandise only a few weeks into the next tax year.
All of this and more happened to several garden train manufacturers in 2008, and we have yet to see all of the fallout. Some manufacturers have all but disappeared, though a few are trying to keep the lights on. But it could take the garden train market years to recover. In the meantime, a lot of products folks imagined they could pick up whenever they wanted are either unavailable or double the prices folks were used to.
Why Waiting Too Long to Purchase Is a Gamble - In ordinary years, two-thirds of the garden train products that are available at any given time are just as likely to be around a year later. But, the "spurty" manufacturing cycles that characterize this industry have been aggravated by global economic pressures. Now, more than ever, products that have been gathering dust for years in stores and warehouses across the country, may suddenly become unavailable, period. The only problem is that neither you nor I have any way of being entirely certain which product will be available indefinitely and which product will be gone tomorrow. That's where waiting too long to buy what becomes a gamble.
For my part, as the "owner" of this page, the BigTrainStore™ and related buyers' guide sites, I periodically check the supplier links. If a product shortage seems to be temporary, and I can't easily link to another supplier with the same product, I will leave that original link up so that you can get your name on the supplier's waiting list if you want. If I determine that a product is on the verge of extinction, I will remove it and attempt to replace it with a similar product that seems to be widely available. I will also attempt to answer all e-mail questions (including those about availability) in a timely manner.
But the caveat is that any product on any page may change price or become unavailable at any moment, and I may not be able to help you find one at any price. The first year I posted product recommendations, I was contacted by several customers who wanted particular trains that they had waited too long to order. Because I didn't realize how time-consuming it would be, I took it upon myself to search every supplier and competitor (and even some collector sites) looking for those trains - fruitlessly, as it turned out.
Unlike the big hobby publishers and store chains, I still make it a point to answer every legitimate question I get by e-mail. But nowadays, I get so many e-mails in December, that I usually don't get through all of them before March. So if you have a question about trains for Christmas, don't wait until Christmas Eve to ask it.
And don't even think about calling my house. Here's an irony - the people who've been most persistent in tracking me down, even to the point of finding my work or cell number and calling me at my day job have never either followed my recommendations, or bought from one of my recommended suppliers.
The first year I posted a Buyer's Guide, I included my home telephone number, because I was trying to be helpful. But then I spent Christmas Eve arguing with people who had literally waited until the last minute and called me because they couldn't get through to their local the hobby shops on the phone and couldn't be bothered to take a car, taxi, or subway ride to check for themselves. They seemed to think that I could magically produce the product they wanted in Springfield Ohio, and get it to Brooklyn or San Jose or wherever in time for it to be under the tree on Christmas morning.
As we used to say when I was working my way through college at Radio Shack, "We can't make them here." If you see a specific product on these pages that you need to own, then it's up to you to time your order so that you avoid disappointment. All I can say with certainty is that you will not be disappointed with the quality or features of any item listed in our buyer's guides. (And if for some reason you are, the suppliers all have a very good return policy.)
Finally, I hope that you have enjoyed taking a look at what is available, and learning what will work and what will probably not work for your particular needs. Please let me know if you have any concerns or suggestions for improvement.
Best of Luck
Paul D. Race
Note: Family Garden Trains™, Garden Train Store™, Big Christmas Trains™, BIG Indoor Trains™, and BIG Train Store™ are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications (www.btcomm.com). All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically
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