Walking into a hobby shop is a very personal, might I even say spiritual, experience. The feeling of being around like-minded individuals, the smell of poly bags and fresh Lexan, the sound of chargers humming away; it is truly an immersive experience that needs to be seen firsthand to truly appreciate. Whether you are walking into the hobby shop for the first time or if they know your name like a radio toting cast member of Cheers, for many people in the hobby the LHS (local hobby shop) is the gateway to RC nirvana. Alas, all is not peaches and cream though; what happens when the LHS fails the hobbyist at every turn? We as an industry not only lose participating members but those same individuals will spread the word of their experience not only within their own communities, but, with the advent of modern social media, across the globe.
I recently scheduled several hobby shop tours in a city around 10 hours from my office and had plans to feature the booming RC community in that area. Due to the ongoing pandemic three of the shops were curbside only but the fourth was willing to let me do a tour with the incentive of some free advertising. I am not going to mention the name of the shop as I am not here to drag a business through the mud but rather will just reflect on the events that led me to the realization that some shops are actively working to destroy the hobby.
The LHS in question is among the largest that I’ve seen in my near 30 years in the hobby, but its size does not reflect on selection or service. The checkout counter is directly in front of the entry door but no greeting was offered as I made my way in from the rain, in fact the employee was engaged in a profanity-laden shouting match with who I would later discover was the owner, a man that never got up from his perch at the slot car track or acknowledged a single customer in the half-hour that I was in the store. The right side of the building, which is roughly 2,000 sq. ft., houses the service counter as well as the shelves lined with RC gear. Or at least some of the shelves were lined; more than half of the aisles were filled with broken home theater equipment that most likely saw the Nixon administration and an OPEC field array of barrels, each filled to the brim with garbage; to say the musty oder was overwhelming would be an understatement. Nearly all aisles were lined with locked glass cases, housing what I can only assume was product; the dust on the glass made seeing what was actually for sale a difficult task. Errant smudge marks dotted the panels where shoppers had attempted to remove the layer of filth to reveal the secrets that lie inside.. Alas I had finally arrived at the portion of the store catering to cars and trucks, only to find that everything was in the back, locked away from customers reach. The shelves had a small selection of thinner shock oils and some knockoff Deans-branded “Wet Noodle” wiring of an unknown vintage, but little else. A few damaged and open-bag Lexan bodies were taped to the top shelf, out of reach for anyone that may wish to purchase one and the counter was unmanned at that point making all of that merchandise unaccesible to potential buyers as well. I could almost forgive the shoddy appearance of the store were it not for the only customer interaction that I witnessed while I was there.
A family came in with an Arrma Senton that had a close encounter of the mailbox kind and needed a handful of parts to get back up and running. After standing at the counter for a few minutes and chatting with them a door opens slightly in the corner of the room behind the counter and a man’s voice can be heard, spouting profanity and using racial slurs toward the family. He offered them no help, rather told them they “were stupid for buying that truck instead of an X-Maxx, that thing is just a piece of (expletive) toy.” It was fairly obvious that this truck belonged to the young boy, who was around five or so, as he carried the truck in both arms like it was his baby. He was proud of his truck and to hear an adult say those things about it brought him to tears. The family was ready to walk out at that point and throw the truck in the trash. How did the store owner and employee react to this? Laughter.
I couldn’t believe what I had just seen; these are the stories you read on Reddit or see in a bad D-list movie, these things don’t happen in real life, do they? A business owner can’t actually treat his (or her) customers like this and expect to stay in business? I stepped aside with the family and apologized on behalf of the entire RC community. A few clicks on my phone and I had them set up with a Tower Hobbies account and added all of the parts that the Senton needed to a wish list for them so they could order them with one click and even went over some body options to replace the now well-worn factory shell. The look of excitement on the son’s face when he saw all of the different ways his truck could look was reflected in the parent’s joy that they did not have to throw the truck away and buy another, as they had no doubt done with many toy-grade vehicles in the past.
It took me less than 2 minutes to find all of the parts for that family, one-hundred-and-twenty seconds to help guide a newcomer to the hobby. Assuming the counter man earns $8.75/hr. shows that this customer was worth less than $0.29 in wages to this business. Twenty-nine cents to retain a customer and grow their business. Twenty-nine cents to be a decent human being and help you fellow man, which you are being paid to do. I left that business having not interacted with a single employee, could not get one person to acknowledge my presence nor the existence of the other two shoppers that were in the store during that time, but rather with a good understanding of how they chose to do business. I hope the best for the RC community in their area; I hope that other businesses step up and fill the void left by such poor customer service, and I hope that the RC’ers that have been treated poorly by this business give the rest of us a second chance to show them how great this hobby truly is.