Slot It’s Bold Move

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This week we received an announcement from Hornby America about a new policy by Slot It that could be the beginning of a major change in the way slot cars are sold in North America.

Here’s the announcement:

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Without a doubt this will be controversial.  If it is tightly enforced and if that enforcement effort is able to deal with all the dodges some dealers will use to get around the policy’s requirements, it will mean an end to dirt-cheap prices for Slot It cars.  Some hobbyists will not like this at all.  Some dealers, certainly, will not like it because it blows away their entire business plan, at least in regard to Slot it and Policar.

Other hobbyists will welcome this new policy.  That’s because it has the potential to make Slot It/Policar products available in many more places.  As things now stand there is zero incentive for most local hobby shops to carry slot cars when there are people blowing out even the newest releases at prices as low as $5 over dealer cost and sometimes even less.  There is no way most hobby shops can even begin to make a profit at such a low margin.

We get e-mails from customers who tell us they wish our shop were located in their home town because there is nowhere to buy slot cars and related items anywhere within driving distance even though there are hobby shops not far away.  When we travel we make a point of visiting as many local hobby shops as we can.  I can tell you that it is rare to see a shop with slot cars and when we do the selection typically consists of a couple of race sets, a few packages of track, a dozen or so cars (if that) and maybe a few of the most basic parts such as guides and braid.  When we have a chance to talk with the owner we nearly always hear that the reason for not carrying much if anything in slot cars is that they can’t sell the stuff for profitable prices.  A common story is the sight of a customer roaming through the store checking eBay on his cell phone.

 Now there will be a least one manufacturer’s cars that these local shops can sell with the assurance that they can move them at a decent profit and not be undercut by Internet dealers who have little or no overhead and, in many cases, don’t need or intend to make a living from the slot car business.  The retailer who has to make a living and pay the bills will be all in favor of the new policy.  He will want all the manufacturers and distributors to adopt it.

Of course, this same thing happens in every other part of the hobby business and in retailing in general, but it’s much more of a problem with slot cars.  There are several reasons for that.

One is that slot car racing is not a widely and deeply established hobby in America.  There are few, if any, places in America where you can open up a new hobby shop and count on finding enough of an existing customer base for slot cars to justify investing in it as a product category the way you can for radio control, model railroading, gaming, and other categories.  That’s because there just aren’t that many slot car racers to begin with and they are sparsely scattered across a very big country with lots of open space between population centers.  The store has to build a slot car following essentially from scratch, and why bother when there are all those other categories with at least some number of ready-made customers?

Another reason, one that follows from the first, is that most hobby shop owners are not slot car racers.  Most of them are either R/C enthusiasts or model railroaders.  When you go into business you more than likely will stick to what you know and love.  That’s what gives you the knowledge base to sell and service the products and the passion to see the business through to success.  I can tell you from my own experience that the only reason I am in the slot car business, as opposed to some other category of hobbies or something else altogether, is that I’m a lifelong slot car racer.  It’s the only hobby I would even think of starting a business in.  It’s the only one I know enough about, and that’s despite 30-plus years of professional experience in the general hobby industry.

Yet another, and perhaps in some ways the worst reason, is that the slot car business has a “history” and not a good one.  The slot car hobby reached these shores around 1960.  By 1963 or so it was a fad.  by 1965-66 it had grown to monstrous proportions. And then it crashed, as in straight into the ground leaving a big, smoking crater.  A lot of people lost their shirts.  There probably has never been anything quite like it in the history of the American hobby industry.  Insane discounting wasn’t the only reason for the crash but it was one of the major ones. And the hobby industry has a long memory.  Those in the business who weren’t there have heard the horror stories from those who were.

All of that taken together is a big mountain for today’s slot car business here in America to climb.  That’s why the hobby and the industry need a greater than usual degree of nurturing to get them to where they need to be.  Far more than in most of the rest of the hobby industry,  the last thing they need to survive, grow, and flourish is suicidal discounting.  Of course, sane pricing is not all we need, and I’ll be writing about that in future blog posts.  But getting retail pricing under control is the biggest single thing that will provide fertile ground in which slot car retailing can put down lasting roots.

Now make no mistake, I don’t fault anyone for shopping for the best combination of price and service they can find, wherever that is.  That’s just the free enterprise system.  The problem is not with the consumer, it’s with the industry and its will, or lack thereof as the case may be, to put both the hobby and the business on a sound footing.  For my own part and VLH’s we’re in for the long haul no matter what the rules are. But the hobby and the industry as a whole are a long way from where they should be in a country with the population and economy of the United States.  We welcome anything that raises the chances of more local shops selling slot cars.  That will be nothing but good for hobbyists across the land and therefore for us.

Slot It is just one company, but it’s an industry leader and its new policy has implications for the whole slot car landscape.  Other companies will be watching.  If Slot It’s MAP policy (which, by the way, is not just for North America, we hear) succeeds in growing the market and bringing new dealers into it, other manufacturers and distributors will follow.  And that could change everything.

Bob

 

The Victory Lap Hobbies 4-lane Event Track

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One of the best ways for a slot car dealer to build local business is to take the slot car racing experience out into the community.  In any area there is usually no shortage of public events that draw good-sized crowds of people.  If you do some research you can easily find events that attract members of your target demographic groups.  Many of them will cost nothing to be a part of.  Others may cost something to get into but will be worth it.  There is nothing that can turn a potential hobbyist into an actual one  like putting a controller in someone’s hand and inviting him or her to race a miniature car around your track.

Of course, first you need a track.  It needs to be big enough to impress people and provide good racing but not take up too much space.  It should be easy to learn at least well enough to keep a car on the track.  That’s so the first-timer who has waited in line, maybe for quite a while, has the best possible chance of enjoying that very first race enough to make it worth the wait.  It also needs to be still challenging for someone who has gone through the line and raced a dozen times.  You want that person to see improvement in his performance each time through yet still feel that there is more speed to be gained on the next try.

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After a lot of experience and experimentation we decided on the stretched figure-8 shown here.  It has eight turns (seven if you don’t count the kink nearest the camera in the top photo).   The most “technical” parts of the track are closest to the drivers where they have a good view of them.  The only turn where sight lines are not ideal is the 90-degree left leading into the underpass, but experience so far shows that it hasn’t been a problem.

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Why a track with an overpass, you may ask.  The main reason is that making a figure-8-based layout, which requires an overpass, equalizes the length and more or less equalizes the lap times of the four lanes.  That gives every racer the fairest possible chance to win.  Another reason is a certain “wow” factor it gives the track.  It let us put the longest possible straightaway within the track’s 16×5-foot footprint (on four 8-foot office tables) by running it diagonally across the tables.  There’s also added interest that elevation change adds to any racing layout as well as the “will my car get airborne going over the top” factor.  No, it won’t, but finding out can be delightfully scary fun.  Many first-timers (or second or third timers) have to work themselves up to taking the “hump” at full throttle. We think all that’s worth a little compromise on sight lines.

The overpass structure is made of plywood and finished with a textured grey paint that looks a lot like concrete.  It’s made in two sections that bolt together in the center.  There’s a recessed place for the DS light bridge, ensuring that it stays in its proper place with the sensors and LEDs lined up with the openings in the slots.

The track is Scalextric Sport, each lane powered separately by a stock race set transformer.  To get separate power we had to use the now out-of-production C8217 and C8241 power bases and the round-plug transformers that go with them.  We also had to use the older power bases so we could use Professor Motor controllers.  You can’t get PM controllers with the new rectangular plugs.  Somebody at Hornby should have been fired for not carrying over the separate power feature to the new power base and not making one that is wired to power the inner lanes of a 4, 6, or 8-lane track.  Then again, with all the personnel turnover at Hornby lately, maybe somebody was.

One non-standard thing we did to improve power continuity and ease of setup and takedown was to use the 90-degree radius 2 curves and extra-long straight sections that only come in race sets.  To get them we had to cannibalize six race sets, but we also now have all the cars and power packs from those sets to use with the layout and all the stock controllers and other components to sell.   the long straight sections only come with either a lap counter or a power base attached.  We had to remove those.  The lap counter comes off simply by removing a few screws, but removing the power base requires using pliers to break tiny welds between the track’s contact strips and other metal strips that connect them to the controller plug sockets.  Scalextric really needs to make both the 90-degree rad 2s and the extra-long straights (without the accessories attached) available as separate track sections.  If you’re building a long layout they really do make a difference by cutting down on the number of track sections and, therefore, track joints.  The long straights, by the way, are equal in length to a full straight plus a track section from the C8295 elevated track accessory.  We also used four of the C8295 track sections in the layout after cutting off the ears the overpass supports plug into.

Like every event track we’ve ever used, this one is timed and scored by a DS electronic system consisting of  DS300 and DS334 modules with a 4-lane light bridge and a 12-volt power supply.  We also use a 2-lane DS system on our 4×8 in-store track.  DS systems are not cheap, but they do everything most slot car hobbyists will ever need in the way of timing and scoring, and they are  durable and reliable even, we’ve found, under conditions sometimes bordering on outright abuse.

As this is being written we’ve had the this track out to two public events where it has been wildly popular and completely successful.  There are more to come, and we’ll give you an update every now and then.