Lockdown… but an upturn for hobbies?

While the events unfolding around the world due to COVID-19 are nothing less than a global tragedy, it’s also a rather curious fact that the pandemic has triggered some tiny silver linings in unexpected areas. And one of those might be hobbies – and hobby stores.

R/C stuff has been selling out like crazy, hasn’t it? At least, it seems the good stuff has. And that’s not bad for the industry.

There’s little I can add to what’s already been said about the novel coronavirus sweeping the world… except of course, that I hope everyone who stops by this little vintage R/C blog has been keeping themselves and their loved ones safe during this difficult time. 🙁

I haven’t posted much lately. Not because I haven’t been enjoying my model building. But rather, because the state of the world since mid-March had initially been too much of a distraction for me to really get in the mood for hobbying (or blogging). However, more recent weeks have reminded me of the importance of continuing to do the little things you love, and which bring you comfort and joy. Even (or perhaps especially) during times of upheaval and uncertainty.

So I begin this post with a firm disclaimer: none of what I am about to write really matters. Not in the global scheme of things. Not while hundreds of thousands of innocent people have lost their lives, and continue to do so.

Nevertheless, I just thought it might be worth mentioning that among all the unexpected and strange consequences of this pandemic, there have been a few strange positives to come out of it as well. And few of these came as more of a surprise to me than the apparent boom-time being experienced by those quaint, tactile activities we call hobbies. Let’s face it, prior to this pandemic, if someone had said to you “what do you think people would do in a pandemic?”, I hardly think your answer would have been “hoard toilet paper and buy jigsaw puzzles”. And yet, here we are.

It seems this unexpected and unprecedented shutdown of society, despite it’s massive job losses, has caused quite an uptick in trade for hobby stores and manufacturers? And I end that sentence deliberately with a question mark. Because I have little in the way of hard evidence to support the theory – mostly just the sight of fast-disappearing R/C stock on hobby websites. But here are a few things I’ve noticed…

Recently, the Managing Director of one of Sydney’s largest (and oldest) hobby stores, Mike Wall from Hobbyco, was interviewed on Sydney radio where he indicated that rather hit a slump, store turnover had taken off. And for whatever you may think (like/dislike) about specific hobby stores, there’s no denying that for many of us who love hobbies there has been a general sense for many years that the hobby industry was in a sort of slow-decline (and if you still like visiting physical hobby stores, as I do, this is really rather sad). So any sort of turnaround for the hobby industry, and hobby stores in particular, seems welcome.

While new toy fads always come and go (drones, ugh 🙄), the overwhelming popularity of screen-driven technologies over the past decade suggest that older hobby fields have been on the way out. Things like model kits, model trains, cars, slot cars, planes and so forth… just don’t attract younger generation, like they did in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. And perhaps we can hardly expect them to – after all, some of these toys now have a history dating back more than a century. Why should anyone in 2020 still care about the toys or pass-times that (some) people may have been enjoying, even during the Spanish Flu of 1920?

This issue came to the fore around 10 years ago, when Top Gear host James May outed himself somewhat as England’s preeminent vintage toy nerd, by creating a series of hit television specials called Toy Stories. The show was predicated on the notion that classic hobbies are much cooler than most people give them credit for – if only they’d take their eyes of their stupid phone screens for a moment, and notice them again. After harassing bewildered high schoolers into building model kits and Meccano, James eventually had them working inside a real aircraft hangar building a bonkers 1:1 scale Spitfire warplane. Later, he also corralled entire townsfolk to help him attempt to run model trains and slot cars, on outdoor tracks, across miles of countryside. (James still supports hobbies, and most recently narrated James May’s Big Trouble in Model Britain about the fall – and rise, of Hornby Hobbies)

Whether James’ heroic efforts to put these types of toys back on the map triggered any sort of uptick in the sales of R/C gliders, Plasticine or Scalextric, is unknown. But fast-forward 10 years, and isn’t it interesting to see how a societal lockdown has sent so many people rushing back to many of these familiar, comforting, and tactile hobbies they can enjoy at home. Shouldn’t we expect that most people would just be sitting at home, staring at tiny screens and dissing each other via TikTok, or something?

Take jigsaw puzzles, for example. When asked about recent sales of jigsaw puzzles (surely one of the most old-fashioned, low-profile hobbies of the past century?), Mike Wall had this to say…

“…the numbers we did in late March/early April exceed the whole of the previous year. So in six weeks we’ve done equal to an annual turnover in jigsaws.” – Hobbyco’s Mike Wall.

(Listen to the full interview below)

If sales of jigsaw puzzles went through the roof due to the pandemic, what about plastic model kits? Or model trains? Or R/C car kits?

Well from what I have seen in recent weeks at some of the hobby shops in Australia, either the pandemic has cut the supply chain of R/C kits coming into Australia. Or R/C kits have also been selling like hot cakes. Or both.

A few weeks ago, I decided to buy one of these…

I bought it from a place called Hobby Central in Queensland. And while I have absolutely no affiliation with them (or anyone – I’m really an island here on this blog 😄), I must say the service was so polite that I even got a phone call to confirm my online order. During the chat, the lady I spoke to also confirmed something else: R/C sales had been strong. Very strong. And just a few days later, the lovely Tamiya Lancia 037 Rally kit was well and truly sold out from them. As well as, seemingly, all other hobby stores in Australia.

Scooting around the web after that, I began looking for more R/C treats – perhaps to buy (after being scratched once, my wallet was itchy all of a sudden), or perhaps just out of mild curiosity to see what was available and what wasn’t.

It was then that I noticed a sign on the homepage of Newcastle-based Frontline Hobbies to say that there might be a delay with postage because “sales were extremely busy” or perhaps even “unprecedented” (I can’t remember the exact wording and the notice has since been removed, but it was wording to that effect). One look at their R/C pages today, tells me that out of the grand total of 29 Kyosho R/C buggies they would like to sell me – a mere 7 are actually “in stock” right now.

This pattern was repeated everywhere I looked.

Down in Melbourne, the large Metro Hobbies website has (at the time of writing) just 2 out of 115 Tamiya models in stock. I kid thee not. And I cannot imagine that under any normal retail conditions, they’d have anywhere less than 30 of those kits available at a given time.

So apart from the few overpriced retail kits you can still find on eBay (as usual), hobby shops appear to have very low stock of many R/C kits, right across the board in Australia. Hobbyco themselves, normally a large stockist of Tamiya, literally have 1 Tamiya R/C model left in stock on their website today.

Admittedly, I have only really polled my favourite “retro” R/C brands: Tamiya (who manufacture in Japan and the Philippines) and Kyosho (who manufacture in Taiwan). Both classic brands, manufacturing in democracies. I didn’t bother to see if any of the Chinese-made R/C cars (that I refuse to buy on humanitarian/political grounds) have been shifting extra units also.

But in short – I think it’s fair to say the past few weeks have been a positive time for quality R/C brands, and the reputable businesses who sell them. At least, the ones with good e-commerce websites!

How much of this stock-shortage is a factor of virus-related interruptions to the supply/shipping lines from Japan or Taiwan, I couldn’t tell you. But I think there’s an enough evidence around to suggest hobbies have been booming. Perhaps right across the category. I hope the model train companies are getting some love too.

Could this be the start of a little renaissance for hobbies in general?

What do you think? Have you noticed strong sales of R/C or other hobby products lately? And do you think the pandemic has triggered a little renaissance for hobbies?

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