Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lessons from York - Economic indicators?

My dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to York, PA for the Train Collectors Association Eastern Division toy train meets. As I've noted before, it's a pretty big event, and as significant in the field of toy train collecting as, say, CES is to consumer electronics.

This is a hobby that tends to skew old -- most people don't get serious about the hobby until they're in their fifties. So there's a significant portion of collectors that are retired, and living on a fixed income

Dad and I wondered if the economic downturn would impact the hobby -- or at least what we saw at York. Would attendees pull back in their spending? Would some even stop coming? After all, a hobby isn't a necessity, but for many, it's a very important part of their life.

In the spring, we didn't notice much of a change. Attendance was still very high, Lionel, MTH, Atlas and other manufacturers still displayed new products, and older items for sale seemed to be about the same price.

This month, though, things were different. The major manufacturers were all still there, albeit with somewhat restrained product lines. I don't have attendance figures, but the crowds did seem thinner.

But the most obvious change were the dealers. Quite a few halls had empty tables. In some cases, it was clear that the tables had simply not been rented. But many had names on them -- the tables had been rented, but the dealers never showed up. Table signup is finalized months before the meet, so clearly, circumstances changed during that time.

And the effect was similar to the "broken window" syndrome. The vacant tables didn't go unnoticed. We overheard many conversations talking about sluggish sales and general unease about the future. And if we stopped to look at something, more often than not the dealer was right there really giving us the hard sell.

We still had a good time and got some good bargains (like that Lionel MPC boxcar pictured above I brought home). And truth to tell, we also came with less spending money than in years past. And we got the answer to our question. Hobbies can provide a nice diversion, but sometimes reality can't be ignored.

- Ralph


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