Over the school holidays, my kids dragged out an old Scalextric slot car kit and set it up to revive some old memories of when they were much younger. In the modern age of electronics and new product releases every five seconds, the kids were a little disappointed when I told them that the first commercial slot cars were made by Lionel (USA) and appeared in their catalogues in 1912 and even the modern Scalextric was first available as far back as 1957 (when Minimodels Ltd showed Scalextric cars at the Harrogate Toy Fair in the UK). Despite the age of the technology, the kids had a great time until one of the controllers failed.
Not a problem – we have three toy/hobby stores nearby so I would simply drop into one of those and buy a new controller. What seemed simple enough turned out to be a revelation for me. A visit to the first store yielded no results. The last time I bought any Scalextric components, this toy store had twenty kits in stock and enough spare parts to build another ten tracks. They had cars galore. This time around, I had to ask for help to find the slot car stand.
When I was finally directed to it, I saw four or five components that were covered in dust and looked like they were part of the original sets from 1957. A quick question about availability of controllers or other components yielded blank looks and a simple statement that they don’t sell as many of these items as they used to. This surprised me because I have read several reports recently that discussed the resurgence in popularity of slot cars and slot car racing. No problem. I will just visit the next store and buy my required controller. When I walked into this store, I couldn’t find any Scalextric components. Again the staff member told me that they hadn’t stocked that equipment for some time because it wasn’t selling. I was a little concerned at this stage because the last store on my mental list rarely stocked this type of equipment.
My fears were confirmed when I walked in the door of the third store. I had never seen the store looking so empty. I almost knew the answer before I asked the question. I was taken to a corner and shown a sample of a few old slot car components. Again I asked the question in relation to availability and the answer I received confirmed all my fears for all three stores. “It is so hard to compete against the Internet now that we don’t bother keeping a lot of stock,” was the learned statement the salesperson made to me by way of explanation of the severe lack of stock.
If ever there was a way to ensure the demise of a toy business, it is to not keep stock on the shelves. Kids want instant gratification and not having stock does not provide instant gratification. If any business is keen to compete against the Internet, they need to offer points of difference to the Internet. No matter how good the transport logistics are for an Internet business, they can’t beat the instantaneous satisfaction of collecting your purchase in the store and walking out the door with the item under your arm. I wanted a controller to take back home to my kids. I didn’t want to wait a day or two for a controller to be posted to me – the kids would probably be tired of the slot car racing by the time the new controller arrived. The second area where a physical store can beat the Internet is with an experience. An experience of touch and feel. An experience of making sure the item to be purchased is exactly what is required. An experience of looking at items and choosing the one you want. A picture can never be quite as good as physically seeing the item you are about to purchase.
The last area where I believe a physical store can beat the Internet every single time is with advice. If you have knowledgeable staff who can provide sage advice that helps the client, you are more likely to sell items to your potential consumers. Simple as that.
The absolute last thing you want to do is throw in the towel and explain to people that you don’t have stock because the Internet is beating you. If you go that far, you may as well simply close the doors and give up. If ever there was a self-fulfilling prophecy that the Internet will beat retail, this is the best way to ensure the prediction comes true.
Tell me if you still like to see stock in retail stores at [email protected].