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Hobby Shopping Online

Online Hobby Shopping

By Michael Benolkin

1. Introduction

While I was growing up in Southern California in the 1950s and 1960s, my only sources for model kits were the local drug stores or the toy sections of the food stores.  When I entered Junior High School, I encountered Brookhurst Hobbies which was located near the school and I discovered what a selection of hobby products looked like. While the store has moved since those days, Brookhurst Hobbies is still in business today.

After I entered the Air Force in the early 1970s, I was stationed in Maryland and initially couldn’t find a good hobby shop.  Not long after Viktor Belenko defected with his MiG-25 to Japan, we heard that Hasegawa was releasing their 1/72 MiG-25P Foxbat A kit and a friend of mine told me of a unique hobby shop just outside of Washington DC. We made the trek there and we found stacks of the new Hasegawa kit at the entrance of the Squadron Shop. It was this particular hobby shop that set the standard from which I would judge future hobby shops. The Squadron Shop in Rockville, MD (just outside the Washington DC beltway) was an ergonomic showroom. There was a coffee pot near the front door and while you sipped your free coffee, you could walk the wall displays of all the various model kits from around the world. It was rare that you could walk out of that store without one or more kits in-hand. While you were there, you could also spend time visiting with old friends or making new ones, all the while looking around at more kits that wanted to be taken home. The staff was friendly and helpful and made the trek through DC traffic worth the effort. Of course, that store was one of several franchise retail stores in the Squadron Mail Order chain, and all of these are now long gone.

Whilst living in Berlin, Germany, I frequented numerous local hobby stores, but none of them had the chemistry for me that the Squadron Shop had offered. While the coffee was better, these stores were general hobby stores that catered more to the model railroader than the scale modeler. It was almost more fun to shop in East Berlin to see what crude subject had been released by VEB Plasticart.

So how did one get the newest kits and necessary hobby supplies when one lived in areas that were not well-served by a local hobby shop? Squadron Mail Order. Owner Jerry Campbell had set up an innovative warehouse and mail order system that featured an annual catalog and monthly supplements that kept even the most remote modeler up-to-date. Simply mail in (or call in) your order and a nice box would arrive in the mail a week or so later (depending on where in the world you were).

When I was stationed in Tucson, AZ, there was a hobby shop by the airbase that had a clue what the modeler wanted. With the Pima Air Museum nearby, Tucson had a really great IPMS club and many of us either worked or volunteered at the air museum to get some quality 1:1 scale modeling (aircraft maintenance/restoration) done. In that environment, the hobby market should have been great but unfortunately, that one good store closed. Another tried to draw in our business, but their customer service was lacking as was their selection of kits, so they too closed a year or so later. When I visited Tucson recently, there are a few hobby shops left, and the only good one ironically seems to be in the rear of a hardware store.

After I left the Air Force, I moved to Albuquerque, NM where I found another great IPMS club and very few hobby shops. In my first years in Albuquerque, I made extensive use of those Squadron Flyers as well as picking up various items in my travels around the country. I discovered some great hobby shops in my travels including San Antonio Hobbies (the largest hobby shop I’d ever seen) in Palo Alto, CA (now closed), Colpar Hobbies in Denver, CO and HobbyTown USA in Colorado Springs. I’ve seen other HobbyTown stores around the country, but the C-Springs shop was the only one I found with a great selection of kits, aftermarket products and books! For some odd reason, my luggage was always heavier leaving C-Springs than most other places around the country. Of course another favorite stop was the Hannants shop just down the road from the RAF Museum in Hendon (on the north side of London). Going inside that shop was like browsing through a kit stash in someone’s crowded attic.

One day, some visitors came to our IPMS meeting in Albuquerque to announce they’d opened a new hobby shop. It was a family-run shop that wanted the business from our club members and they made good on their claims. They eventually hired a person to run the scale model department (the owner was an RC airplane guru) and this guy was the epitome of customer service. Once he got to know you, he ensured that each of his regular customers was taken care of. Every time I walked into the shop, Larry would have a stack of stuff from the latest arrivals set aside for me knowing in advance that I’d likely take most or all of it when I saw it. With customer service like that, who needed mail order? Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and so it was for that hobby shop. The owners decided to retire and the store eventually went away. Fortunately, I had moved to Indiana by that time and missed that sad conclusion.

When I first moved to Fort Wayne, IN over a decade ago, there were several hobby shops in town. The one I found to be the best was another family run operation with the main store in another part of Indiana and the Fort Wayne store managed by one of the sons. What made this shop successful was that its only hired employee was also an IPMS member and he knew what his modeling customers wanted. Like Larry in Albuquerque, Dave took care of his customers and once again mail order was not a necessity. Unfortunately this business also went under along with other hobby stores in the area and my reliance upon mail order is now my only choice. By this time, Squadron Mail Order had changed owners and after a few more experiences, it was finally time to seek other online sources.

With so many local hobby shops disappearing around the world, the online hobby store is now the norm rather than the exception. The hobby market, like many other markets, is transforming in the 21st century, with many manufacturers bypassing the traditional importers/distributors (and their associated price mark-ups) to sell directly to selected online retailers and even directly to consumers. What we want to do is share with you some thoughts and lessons learned over the last few decades that might make your online shopping experience more enjoyable.

2. Select Your Subject(s)

If you’ve got a project in mind or are looking for some inspiration, check out the relevant areas on Cybermodeler Online as well as other online hobby resources to identify kits for subjects that interest you. If you’re not sure where to begin, Google is your friend. Start with a subject and perhaps a scale and see what happens. From a Google search, you can find online articles, chat room discussions, and listings from online retailers that may have the relevant products in stock. Before you buy though, look in the box. One of the key benefits of the local hobby shop was your ability to open the box of a prospective project to see what you’re facing in terms of quality and complexity. Online stores don’t have the resources to provide you with a look in the box before you buy which is why we do the first-looks here with images of each kit’s contents.

If you’re going to build your project straight out of the box, your quest is simple, but if you’re afflicted with Advanced Modeler’s Syndrome (AMS), you know that you can’t build that kit out of the box. You’ve got to find the right photo-etched parts, resin updates and aftermarket decals to complete the project. Search these out and make a shopping list. Be sure to collect the part numbers for each of the items on your list – more on this later.

3. Do Your Homework

Now that you have your list, you need to search your source(s) for availability. That sounds simple enough, but many online retailers have a problem with their inventory systems. Depending on who enters the product into their inventory database will determine how it is listed. Let's say that you want to do an Me 262A-1a project. You would think that simply entering Me 262 into the search field of their website will get you the answer. You will indeed find all of the entries for Me 262, but you may not find Me-262, Me262, Me.262, Me_262, and any other permutations. If you look closer at the products themselves, you'll see that notations like Me 262 will vary by manufacturer and country, and the less-sophisticated retailers will simply enter the title of the product as it appears on the label, hence the variety of possible search results.

You can do this same experiment on any online hobby system and see what you can find.  Some of the search engines on these sites are more intelligent than others where the smart ones will compensate for these variations and give you what you wanted to see. Some of the more disciplined systems use a normalized database approach so that Me 262 is entered into the system one way regardless of what was on the product package so that all relevant products can be retrieved. If you’re looking for the stuff on your list and you think they should have it in stock, try variations of the name (like simply 262) and see what happens. If you’re a 109 lover, not only do you have to look for the variations of Bf 109, but also Me 109. You're even going to have more fun if you're interested in Russian/Soviet subjects, as aircraft/armor designators will vary depending on how many languages the name is run through. While something like МиГ-21 (usually) transliterates directly into MiG-21 with most languages, Як-9 transliterates to Yak-9 in English while some of the east-European languages will transliterate it to Jak-9. Ми-24B transliterates to Mi-24V (Hind E) in English, but you'll know that a kit or aftermarket product has come through Poland when you see their transliteration of the Hind E as Mi-24W. It is no big deal once you know what to look for.

4. Select Your Source(s)

If your desired project is based upon a recent release, you should have a wide range of choices online that have your stuff in stock. Be careful though, there are a number of issues to be aware of these days. Many online stores try to get your money before having a given item in stock. If they mark the item as a pre-order, then fair enough, you know that you're getting in line at your selected retailer for the kit. Others however, don't ever stock the kit. Instead, they get sufficient orders to meet a minimum order with their wholesaler and then will ship your order when the kit(s) arrives. This phenomenon is based on the 'just-in-time' retailing model where they don't keep products sitting around on their shelves, reducing their overhead costs. While you have to wait for your order to be filled, some of these retailers will pass on their cost savings to you in the form of lower prices. If you're looking for instant gratification and quick delivery, you need to look for retailers that actually stock the products they sell. With one such retailer, I recently ordered three kits, all of which were marked in-stock, only to find out in the confirmation email that two were actually out of stock (due to an 'error'). Those two out of stock items arrived a few weeks later, but ironically, they sold the one item that was in stock to someone else and it took another few weeks to finally receive that kit. Needless to say, that retailer is off my list.

You won’t have the same flexibility for a kit that is out of production, but you’re still not out of luck. In the case where you’re having trouble finding your kit, you might have to exercise some patience and start lurking on eBay. If you do find an online retailer that has the kit in stock, the following factors may still be relevant for you:

4.1 Reputation

If you see something of interest from a retailer that you’ve never dealt with before, head over to one of the hobby chat rooms and ask them about that retailer. It will cost you a little time to pose the question and await a response, but the collective knowledge and experience on many of these chat rooms will save you from worry and frustrations later. While waiting for a response to your query, see if the retailer in question has a phone number listed on their website for customer service. You can even call them to ask if the item you seek is in stock or you get sent off to an answering machine. Some businesses provide an email address and you can ask questions to see how responsive they are before giving them your money. If you're not impressed with their responsiveness, move on to another store - quickly.

4.2 Pricing

When you see a price listed on a given website's catalog, you may actually see something listed as MSRP (manufacturer's suggested retail price) and 'Our Price'. Don't believe everything you see here. Many hobby manufacturers don't have an MSRP defined for their exported products, leaving importers and retailers to define their own prices and discounts. What might look like a great bargain from one retailer may not be so good after all. A case in point, I was looking at a recent sale on a major online retailer's website and saw a great mark-down on an item I've had on my wishlist. Checking on another online retailer's site revealed that the first retailer's discounted price was higher that the other retailer's regular price. Shop around!

Here's a recent example where I didn't do my homework adequately the first time: a hobby paint company released a new set of aircraft paints which really sounded interesting. At the same time, I received a notice from an online retailer that they were carrying this new line, so I pre-ordered two sets. These were listed at $39.95 USD each (plus shipping) and with eight bottles in the package, that's over $5.00 USD per 17ml bottle (ouch). Shortly thereafter, a US importer started bringing in that same product line at $34.95 USD per set (plus shipping and/or tax) or over $4.37 USD per bottle. The manufacturer was selling these same paints directly to consumers at €18.95 (approximately $25.80 USD) per set (and free shipping) or $3.23 USD per bottle. It pays to do your homework.

4.3 Availability

In the ‘old days’, online retailers would put an item in their online catalog when it was available and may not take it off right way when it sold out. In short, you don’t know whether you’re going to get your stuff in the mail or get backordered. Even today, some retailers will simply give you the static ‘In Stock’ (trust me) indicator or no indication at all for a given item and you’ll learn after the box arrives whether they had it in stock or not. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got more than one aborted project on my shelf that came in missing one or more key items on my list. Even if the online retailer shipped it to me later when stock was replenished, I’d already moved on to the next project.

For some things a backorder may be acceptable, but when I order, I want to know up-front whether I’ll see what I ordered or get stuck with an incomplete project thanks to a critical item being on backorder/out of stock. If they don’t have a critical item in stock, that’s okay. Knowing that up-front allows me to find a second source for the missing item(s) and get them on order elsewhere so everything will show up within a day or two of each other.

Many retailers will indicate whether a given item is ‘In Stock’, 'Available', 'Limited Quantities’, or ‘Out of Stock’. If a major hobby retailer won’t tell you up-front if they actually have the product(s) on their shelf in their online listing, go shop with someone who does. While I don’t expect the small online stores to be as sophisticated, I do expect the big guys to provide that information before I commit to buy. Don’t waste your time shopping with a major retailer that does not give you that courtesy.

Look closely at the product status. I will sometimes see 'Available' as 'In Stock' (my error, not the retailer's) and place an order. It doesn't take long to realize that I have to wait for the item(s) to be ordered before they will get shipped. Some retailers opt not to keep many items in stock, choosing instead to order from the distributor when enough orders are received. Some of those retailers will pass on the savings from their 'just-in-time' ordering system to their customers, others do not. That gets back to the Pricing discussion above.

4.4 Taxes

Here's a wrinkle that I encountered - buying from small businesses inside the European Union. Tax laws vary in different areas and the EU is no different. Vendors must charge Value Added Tax (VAT) to customers in EU countries, but some folks are trying to charge VAT to everyone purchasing online as well. In my recent experience, I even sent the person a link to the EU rules that clearly state that VAT doesn't apply to customers who live outside the EU, but they still insist on charging VAT to everyone. If you're doing similar purchases and you don't live within the EU, be sure you're not getting taxed improperly. Conversely, if you don't live in the United States for example, you don't have to pay state taxes on your order. If that vendor insists, find another vendor.

The US Supreme Court recently ruled that online retailers must start charging state and local taxes. It is unclear at this time how and when this will happen for smaller businesses, but the larger retailers are already collecting sales taxes. You won't be able to avoid sales taxes when shopping online much longer.

4.5 Exchange Rates

If you're shopping overseas, many online stores provide the convenience of letting you shop with prices listed in US Dollars. If you simply check out and pay using US Dollars as your currency, you may be paying too much. Check the currency exchange rates and see if the item(s) is cheaper in USD or in their currency. For example, I was ordering supplies from a shop in Germany. The prices were listed in my choice of US Dollars or Euros. Once I compiled my order, I checked exchange rates and found I was paying more if I pay in USD because most hobby stores don't keep their exchange rates up-to-date. PayPal allows us to pay in local currency and when I payed in Euros, I saved a significant amount of money. If you don't know where to find the latest exchange rates, you can use xe.com.

4.6 Total Cost

Even if your favorite online retailer does have real-time inventory control, what is the order going to really cost you? If you see a particular kit on sale at a one online shop, for example, resist the impulse to buy it for just a few minutes. You should factor in the cost of any taxes and shipping into the total price. Some online retailers have competitive shipping prices on larger orders but will charge you the same price on a single sheet of decals. Do your homework – sometimes the kit with the higher price is cheaper at check-out time when you factor in the other costs. If you can’t find the costs for shipping listed without having to place an order first, move on to another retailer.

4.7 Payment

In the early days of online hobby shops, there were valid concerns about who you were doing business with and whether you could trust them with your money. There are always scammers and thieves out there, but of the several times my credit card had been compromised, only twice was it online and even then, it wasn’t hobby-related. You are more likely to get your credit card compromised at a restaurant than at an online hobby store. Since 'cyber-crime' is so widespread, the credit card companies have responded in kind and I usually find out that my card had been compromised from them before I would spot a problem in my bank statements. I remember one call from my credit card company asking if I had recently made a sizeable purchase from Dell Computers, and they sounded relieved when I acknowledged that I had indeed made that purchase. It was when the chap asked if the other charges to 1-800-Flowers and Fredrick’s of Hollywood were mine that I realized the card had been somehow compromised. Fortunately, the card company was able to see the problem and took care of my account immediately as well as replacing my compromised credit card.

For those who use a debit card tied to your primary bank account to shop online, PLEASE DON’T! The nice thing about credit cards is that they are not directly linked to your bank account. Debit cards are just paperless checks and each transaction is taken directly from your bank account. If your debit card is compromised, your bank account can be drained before you know it and your money will remain unavailable to you while you try to resolve the problem with your bank. I’d rather have my credit card on hold than be unable to pay my bills.

 If you don’t have a credit card and you want to shop online, you do have some options:

  • Pay by check – some online retailers can accept electronic checks directly or through services like PayPal
  • Buy a ‘Pay-As-You–Go’ credit card – these look and operate like real credit cards, but you put money into that card account to keep it operational
  • PayPal – this service is taken by a growing number of retailers worldwide and at no time does the retailer or any intermediaries see your personal or credit information
  • Use a debit card tied to an alternate bank account

One option to consider is to open up a second bank account. It can be at the same bank or a different one (your choice) but if it is at the same bank, ensure that the two accounts are not tied together. This is sometimes done as a courtesy for overdraft protection where funds are pulled out of one account to cover an overdraft in another.  With your family budget safely in the primary account, you can use the second account and its debit card for online shopping. If this account is somehow compromised, you’re only out the money you had set aside for your hobby shopping until the bank sorts out the problem. The second account option is also good for PayPal since that system requires access to your bank account. Giving them access to your secondary account prevents any mishaps with your family budget safely in your primary account. I use PayPal quite often and while I’ve heard some ‘horror stories’ from their early days of operation, I’ve never had a problem with them and PayPal is one of my essential tools for my business as well as my hobby.

4.8 Delivery Time

If you are in a hurry for something, be aware of where you are physically located in relation to your online resource(s). For example, when I shop via Amazon Prime, I usually receive my item(s) within two days. When I ordered from GreatModels Webstore (before they closed), it was five days from Sandy, UT to my corner of Indiana; two days from Sprue Brothers in Liberty, MO, three days USPS from CultTVman in Atlanta, GA, and both Hannants (UK) and LuckyModel (Hong Kong) are one week via Airmail.

The better retailers ship within 24 hours of placing your order. For a recent special project, I placed several orders at the same time. Sprue Brothers arrived within few days of my order as did a conversion set from Bill Koster and an order with Squadron Mail Order. A week after placing an order with Megahobby, I received an email that they were (finally) shipping my order, so either they really didn't have the items in stock, or they were very slow to process the order. More recently, I placed an order with Kitlinx and two of the three items arrived a few weeks later while the third one took almost a month. Your experiences/results may vary...

You can get some incredible deals if you’re not in a hurry for the items(s).  I’ve found that you can get kits from one of the many overseas retailers a month or two before they’re available in the US.  While shipping may be higher if you elect for faster delivery, the retail prices are usually significantly lower and you’ll have the kit several weeks ahead of your friends (not that we AMS modelers are competitive…). If you don't want to shop directly from an overseas website, you can still get those Chinese-produced kits faster than most of your friends if you look for the newly released kits to pop up on the usual market places like Amazon or eBay.

5. Customer Service

There are two types of hobby stores: those that you’ve had problems with and those that you will. To paraphrase a famous bumper sticker “Doo doo occurs” and orders will get scrambled or lost. What differentiates the retailers that I deal with from the ones that I ignore are the ones that will make things right in a polite and professional manner. I’ve seen the world from their point of view and they have to deal with some rather rude customers, and invariably I am the call right after one of those.  No matter how frustrated you may be, if you’re polite, you should expect the same in return.  If you do get poor treatment, do what you can to conclude or cancel your transaction and move on to another retailer. Of course the better retailers are those that very rarely have these problems.

6. Mail Order Catalogs

A number of businesses still mail out paper catalogs and flyers to appeal to their ‘old school’ clients. Paper catalogs, like paper magazines, were never going to go out of style (as one businessman explained to me) because you can’t take the internet with you into the bathroom. That might have been true before, but thanks to smart phones and the iPad, you can read and shop online even in the bathroom (just don’t forget to wash your hands and your touch screen when you’re finished).

There was an interesting trend in the mail order community in the last few years to ‘abstract’ their products. They’d show you an item with a generic image but wouldn’t identify the manufacturer or product number, so if it was a 1/32 F-5E kit (for example), you wouldn’t know if you were ordering a Hasegawa kit or an Ace/Kangnam copy of that kit. When I saw the listing for a 1/48 Spitfire kit and again they wouldn’t identify who made the kit, I tossed the catalog into the trash. If you ever see any catalog that does the same thing, don’t waste your time or money. If they don’t clearly tell you what you’re purchasing, trash the catalog and all future ones from that source.

7. Conclusions

I hope some of these points will be useful for your future online shopping. Many of these are common sense but it is interesting to hear from the retailers’ point of view how often that common sense is forgotten/overlooked. Those of you who have been online shopping for a while will have your own favorite sources for kits and supplies. If you haven't, visit some of our sponsors and see what they have to offer based upon the criteria above. The intent of this article is simply to review your options and if you’re still happy with your online retailers, press on. Enjoy your hobby and get rid of those resources that aggravate that enjoyment.

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