Spielwarenmesse: Model railroad manufacturers are looking for new customers

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Liliput L136130 Diorama
  Movers & shakers

Movers & shakers

Model railroad manufacturers are looking for new customers

from Ulrich Texter

Great Britain is an island of strong-willed, sometimes eccentric, people with legendary humour and charming traditions. David Haarhaus, Managing Director of Bachmann Europe Plc., also has a good sense of humour. Haarhaus is not particularly concerned about how Brexit in late March 2019 will affect Liliput. He is convinced this proud nation will manage just fine with the additional paperwork. He believes the actual challenge lies in getting new customers interested in taking up model railways as a hobby.


Spielwarenmesse®: Mr Haarhaus, I'd like to ask you a question, if I may, that, at first glance, has little to do with your portfolio, but could potentially affect your business. At the end of March 2019, the EU will be a thing of the past for the UK. How will that affect Bachmann Plc., particularly with regard to Liliput, your brand for continental Europe?

[Translate to English:] David Haarhaus, Geschäftsführer der Bachmann Europe Plc

David Haarhaus: At Bachmann Europe, we do not have any concerns that the UK leaving the European Union will adversely affect our business relations with other European Nations and our other customers across the globe. It may introduce some additional paperwork somewhere to be able to continue to trade across European borders, but I am sure we shall cope.

Liliput is managed by our German office in Nuremberg, and has been for many years. The product ships direct in to Germany from our own factory facilities in Asia. The trade does not involve the UK so will not be affected by Brexit in any way.

Does the UK have a different attitude towards model railways, a more national one, for example? In Germany, we hear that there are few young model railway enthusiasts and that hobby is almost only the domain of older people. Some manufacturers have even turned to railway sets for little children. Is the world between Torquay and Inverness better than it is between Flensburg and Konstanz in that young British people are more interested in model railways?

D. H.: We see many similarities between the problems in the German market and those in the market in the UK. The industry needs to understand though that it is not an issue of young people not being interested in the hobby, it is an issue that they have less or no way to discover the hobby.

The internet is good for finding a product you already want at a low price. It does not create new customers for our hobby. This is done by real shops with real people. We must work as an industry to protect the physical presence of the hobby out in the real world.

Sets for Children are good, and Märklin seems to be doing a good job with their My World brand, but it will have little effect if those Children have nowhere to go to learn about the depth of the hobby, practice skills with experienced modellers, and look lovingly at the tempting new products, pestering their parents to buy them for Birthdays and Christmas.

Leave it all to the internet, and they’ll just play the latest app game instead.

Be honest, now! Isn't your industry a bit short-sighted? It constantly surpasses itself when it comes to details and technical equipment, but loses sight of the children. Are there any developments in the UK that fills young British people with enthusiasm on model railways?  What is Bachmann's strategy?

D. H.: Aside from the traditional model rail shows, the industry has struggled recently to expose itself to young potential modellers. We are constantly trying though. Bachmann will visit many steam fairs and steam gala days through the year, where families visit and get the chance to see the hobby. Hornby can often be seen out and about with their Airfix brand, getting kids to make kits at different shows. It is not directly model rail, but it is modelling at least. Again the issue seems to be, after briefly noticing the hobby at a weekend event, it is soon forgotten and there are less places on the shopping street to keep the enthusiasm going.

This year though the industry has had a great boost. With support from Bachmann, a TV production company aired a series 'The Great Model Rail Challenge' We watched the series launch with some nerves. Is our hobby now so uncool, so irrelevant, nobody will watch? We needed not to worry. The series was a great success and has been commissioned for a second year – bigger and better too. People, young and old, have great interest in modelling in miniature.

How do you rate the effect, eventising the model railway hobby with a TV show has on young people?

D. H.: It is too early to say at the moment. At the National Model Rail show we had the winning layout on our booth. It attracted attention all day long. It was a fantasy space theme which pleased the kids. We signed up more new club members than normal. Perhaps we are seeing the effects already.

The show itself had large interest in the 16 - 30 year old category. This is certainly a lot lower age than the traditional image of a railway modeller.

We are working up plans and strategies to tap into this interest and make best use of the next show. We are also developing a general plan to make the hobby more permantly available to youngsters to try and buy, and learn from seasoned modellers.

Liliput tower railcar L136133
Liliput tower railcar L136133

At the Spielwarenmesse in Nuremberg, visitors to your stand were told that Liliput had refrained from issuing new designs so it could finally deliver on the new items announced in 2017. How much longer does the Liliput fan have to wait patiently?

D. H.: We do understand the frustrations of the consumer. By the time of the show, the new toolings already announced will be well progressed or in production. Our policy of not announcing many new projects has allowed us to catch up.

What's the reason for the long delivery times – which must put a damper on your business? Is it because the European market – especially the German-Austrian one, which you serve with your Liliput brand – is not seen by the parent company Kader in Hong Kong to be as important as the American market, which must certainly be more interesting in terms of volume than Europe, because there aren't so many locomotives in the US?

D. H.: The European market, and Liliput brand is valued very highly by Kader. There is certainly no favouritism within the group from one brand to another.

Liliput brand does aim to be technically more complex than the USA in particular, which is a more volume business, and sometimes these technical challenges cause unseen delay. This unfortunately happened to several projects at the same time recently, which has led to the aforementioned delays.

Kader never gave up though. The suggestion to lower expectations in the German market never came. Just a relentless push to solve the problems one by one to meet the demands of the German and Austrian modeller.

The Bachmann brand is, we suspect, the No. 1 brand among the world's suppliers in terms of volume. What quantities does the brand manage to shift these days? In America, the figure once was said to be more than 1.3 million train sets a year!

D. H.: America was certainly selling those volumes at one time. Like the European market though, model rail has declined. It still remains a market of great interest.

I will not be disclosing actual figures, but everyone knows volumes across the industry have declined. Noting this trend, Kader have been busy reshaping the factories to cater for a lower volume market in model rail. As long as we can keep creating new customers, Bachmann is ready to supply.

One big surprise was that Liliput has now launched buildings made of cast resin for the very first time. What was the decisive factor here? The segment is already very well supplied or do you want to make use of the know-how of Woodland Scenics?

Liliput L132054 H0 diesel locomotive Henschel-BBC DE2500 "UmAn"
Liliput L132054 H0 diesel locomotive Henschel-BBC DE2500 "UmAn"

D. H.: At Bachmann we have been creating ready made resin and metal structures in an exclusive deal with a partner factory for over 10 years now, with the Scenecraft brand in the UK.

We researched the German market many times with the German office. With the number of building kits available, it never seemed the right time to add ready made structures to the German market.

Recently we did create some station buildings for Austria, and were surprised how quickly they sold out despite the number of kits available there. This has encouraged us all to create product specifically for the German market. The first product is delivered this month, and there are new and interesting announcements to add to the growing range at the show.

Eight years ago, you started offering N scale trains. Do you have to offer every kind of scale these days because the overall number of trains being sold is getting smaller? If I'm not mistaken, the 0 scale has experienced a small renaissance here in Germany in recent years.

D. H.: As a ready to run manufacturer, we shall produce products for scales that have a certain mass. We have seen the same interest in the UK in scales like O and G, but it appears that not enough people are actually building layouts for us to justify the expense of making products in those scales. For now, we concentrate on HO and N.

Chasing smaller and smaller numbers in numerous scales is not the answer. Creating new customers is.

The industry needs to work together on this. I am at the show all week at our booth in hall 7A / F-58 if anyone wants to discuss ideas.

Thank you very much for this interview.


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Author of this article:

Ulrich Texter

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