Model railroad shop serves customers across nation

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:15

    Sussex County-Failing to listen to the advice he gives others led to Raymond Threlfall owning one of the more prominent niche market businesses here, The Model Railway Post Office. His business, off Airport Road near Greenwood Lake Airport, is a hybrid of model railroad retail store and thriving mail order business, with combined annual revenues in seven figures. But, the news isn't all good. It's a three-decade-decline in model railroad interest due to lack of sufficient new model railroaders, according to Harold "Hal" Carstens, publisher of Fredon-based Railroad Model Craftsman magazine. RMC, as it's known to its' regular readers, is the second largest consumer model railroad publication in the country. That the industry decline is serious is reflected by statistics from another Hal, Hal Miller, editor of Model Retailer Magazine, a leading trade publication based in Waukesha, Wisc. "I would say that hobby stores generally, since the 1970s, have probably gone from 6,000 stores, to 4,000 today, and that's conservative." Despite the decline in total numbers of model railroaders, Threlfall's business continues to thrive based on what he says are two axioms, service and competitive pricing. "When I say we're service oriented, we not only try to maintain a well-stocked hobby shop, if a customer has need of an item we don't stock, we will try to acquire it for them whether it's a $1 or $1,000 item," says Threlfall. The second major leg of its success is "our service and discount policy," MRPO's owner says. "The average discount is 20-30 percent depending on the manufacturer." "He's been around a long time, has a good inventory and knows what he's selling, and he knows his customers," says RMC publisher Carstens. "On top of that, he knows where his customers interests' lie and specializes in railroads from the area. If those are your favorite railroads those are the stores you go to," he said, speaking of such regional favorites as the Central of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Erie-Lackawanna, New York Central and others. "In terms of the model railroad business today, MRPO faces the same challenges as all hobby manufacturers or businesses right now. That's the economy. The other thing is the competition for time. People would like to see more youths in the model railroad hobby, but at the same time there are more and more activities for kids to do. Consequently, model railroading, although remaining popular, (has seen) it's demographic becoming older over the years," Miller asserts. All three agree that a core problem is the declining demographic. In an age where half the households are single-parent: "If there's a gender problem, it's probably that single mothers aren't wired to bring their children to a hobby shop; they're oriented to more organized events." But for members of the existing demographic segment: "It's a very good place to come," according to one of the shop's retail customers, Bob DeMartino of Nanuet, N.Y. "They get whatever you're looking for and I've been coming here for 20 years," he added. "The business was started by my late wife, Theresa, and myself back in 1977. Our initial product was the Whistle Stop mug, which we originally made as a spoof, but found there was a market for them. We still make and sell them today," the shop owner said. The whistle stop mug is a regular coffee cup with a railroad logo on the side. "The company was originally designed to be a small manufacturing and distribution firm, but when we had trouble placing products in hobby shops, we began selling to consumers and hence Model Railway Post Office was started with the mugs. Shortly after we added custom decorated freight cars to the line, as well as doing contract decorating for other companies. The third leg of our CM Products brand was model coal loads," said Threlfall. Such loads are inserted into hopper cars and gondolas to create a visual image of being loaded. Then in 1981, "we ran our first display ad for MRPO as a mail-order operation. In 1982 we added the walk-in store. The walk-in store has always been at this location. Prior to that our operations were at an address on Morsetown Road." "Until 1993 the business grew quickly. The first year we did $10,000. "By 1993 we did more than $1 million. Then there was a severe downturn in all hobbies, including model railroading after 1993. It wasn't until 1996 that things stabilized and started to grow again. We had moderate growth from 1996 until 2004," the owner said. "Initally it was just Terry and myself. Then we added Curtis Carlough, 1978, and he's still with me to this day. Eileen Casbarro has been with us since 1990 and Bob VanGurp has been with me since 1991. There was a time, back when the mugs were more popular that we had a ceramicist. He had as many as 10 employees during peak years. Although he serves customers across the nation, Threlfall says the majority of his business is with area modelers who visit the store. "There has been an increase in the marketing (of model railroading) over the last two years, but nothing targeted specifically to that (missing) segment of the population (single mothers). It (marketing) has been, in large part, preaching to the choir (existing model railroaders). I think what the prevailing wisdom has been is to get the children of those who are already in the hobby, and that may not be enough," Miller says. Wider marketing efforts are needed. That's not only on the part of the manufacturers, but also at the local grass-roots level with the hobby stores themselves," the retail magazine editor said. Threlfall agrees, saying" "What we're doing is working and I don't seen the need for any changes. The model railroad industry is challenged to draw young people's interest. So if there' anything we need to do its find a way to involve the younger generation in model trains. Girls as well as boys. We do have few women model railroaders that come into the store. A couple of them are spouses, one is not, Peggy. Her husband isn't interested and she has created a beautiful layout in Sussex County. "Most of the time when it's a spouse (wife) involved, they tend to be involved in the scenery details, placing backdrops, etc." As to the future: "The bad news is we have less model railroaders. The good news is the ones we have spend more per year on their hobby. That's not a good long term plan, but it works as a short term plan. Borrowing from another mode of transportation, Threlfall observed: "We're pretty much sailing a straight course."