Where to Buy Garden Railroading Stuff

Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

No question, you can invest a lot of money in Large Scale equipment. But you donít need to, at least not all at once. And you certainly donít need to blindly pay the first price tag you see when you encounter an item you want. Whether you are buying new or used, there are ways to keep the price manageable and the process agreeable for all parties.

Learn Before You Spend

Most people who sell Large Scale equipment are honest. However, some of them provide better products, services, and prices than others, and the more you know before you buy, the more rewarding your purchase will be in the long run. The following list shows a few ways to educate yourself before you make large cash investments in your empire.

Warning: Most of these educational opportunities are also opportunities to purchase stuff you may regret buying later, when you realize you should have saved your money for something else. So try to keep your money in your pocket while you learn enough to avoid being swayed by advertising and claims of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Understand the Marketplace

The Large Scale marketplace is still relatively new; only a handful of companies have been seriously involved in the business longer than fifteen years (as opposed to, say, fifty years for some HO suppliers). As a result, we still suffer from a range of issues such as product shortages and incompatibilities, manufacturers who get in and out of the market or who change hands, and distribution channels that have only really stabilized in the last several years. Itís possible to see the same item selling for, say, $100 in a warehouse club, $160 from an mail-order house, $180 on the used market, $260 in a hobby shop, and $300 in an online auction. The point of this section is to help you figure out why these things happen and to avoid spending additional money in places that donít provide additional value.

Buying New

Donít assume that youíll save money buying stuff used. If you know what youíre looking for and know where to look you can often save more money (and much more time) buying new than you would buying used. For one thing, lots of those "original owners" paid more than they should have when they made their original purchases, and they will want to salvage as much as they can of their original investment. Unfortunately, there are also individuals who make a good second income from preying on the uninformed.

Hobby Supply Distribution Channels

Youíll be able to make wiser purchasing decisions if you understand how the products you want get from the manufacturer to the dealer.

In the traditional hobby retail marketplace, the product moves from manufacturer to consumer like this:

  1. The manufacturer sells product "below wholesale" to the distributor in large quantities.
  2. The distributor marks the product up slightly and sells it "at wholesale" to the local hobby shop.
  3. The local hobby shop marks the product up more and sells it at "list price" (or a moderate discount) to the hobbyist.

For example, letís say thereís an HO boxcar that retails for $9. The manufacturer may sell that boxcar to the distributor for $4.50. The distributor sells it to your local mom-and-pop hobby shop for $5.50 (plus shipping charges, etc., that make it worth $6 by the time it gets to the store). Your hobby shop prices it for $9. If they canít sell it before it gets dusty, they may mark it down to $7, but they canít go much lower than that without losing money on the sale.

This is called three-tier marketing. Unfortunately for the local hobby shop, many "distributors" also sell product directly to the consumer. That results in the "two-tier" model:

  1. The manufacturer sells product "below wholesale" to a company that buys in distributor quantities to get the best pricing.
  2. That company marks the product up slightly and sells it directly to the hobbyist. (The same way Wal-Mart uses quantity purchasing to underprice local retailers.)

Consequently, when you buy product from a company that gets distributor pricing, you may get it for very nearly the same price that the hobby shop owner pays. Using the HO example above, you may be able to find the same $9 boxcar from a mail-order dealer for $6.25 plus shipping. But that $2.75 differential isnít really going to keep you from buying it in the hobby shop, is it?

In the smaller scales, the difference between "wholesale" and "list" pricing for many products and accessories amount to "chump change." So, many hobby shop owners survive selling to hobbyists who impulse buy or who prefer to carry things home in a bag.

Now letís pretend that you were looking at a Large Scale boxcar with a list price of $90. The manufacturer sells it to the distributor for, say $45. The distributor sells it to your local hobby shop for about $60, and your local hobby shop marks it up to $90. But in the meantime you have access to the same car for $62.50 on a mail-order basis from the same distributor that is supposedly serving the hobby store.

Now when it was a $2.75 differential, you didnít mind. But $27.50 is real money. What if you were ordering more than one car, or a $600 locomotive?

The percentages in the above example are fictitious; real-world discounts vary from market to market and from manufacturer to manufacturer. However the principle holds true whatever the discount structure of the product youíre looking for.

Personally, I feel bad that hobby shop owners get caught in this bind, and I can see why many get "spooked" after a few attempts to make a profit on Large Scale in their communities. Compared to smaller scales, Large Scale equipment is expensive to get onto the shelves, expensive to ship, bulky to store, and plagued by incompatibilities between brands and a relatively high rate of return.

Choosing a Hobby Shop

Hobby shops that want to carry Large Scale equipment have a number of choices:

  1. Buy everything through their regular distributors and insist on charging list price. This usually results in a few sporadic sales, a few Large Scale train set sales at Christmas, and little else. Often such shops give up after a few seasons, liquidate the rest of their Large Scale stock and curse quietly whenever Large Scale comes up in conversation.
  2. Get into Large Scale "whole hog" by buying enough from at least one manufacturer to qualify for "distributor pricing." Unfortunately only one or two dealers in any major market can usually sell enough product across the counter to justify this investment.
  3. Buy everything through distributors, but charge somewhat less than list price for the big stuff (recognizing that making $15 off a sale they make is better than having stuff gather dust with a $30 margin). They also feel that personalized service and product availability makes up for the difference the customer could "save" going through mail-order channels. In some cases they are right.

Personally I think that every hobby shop is worth supporting to some extent. But Iím more inclined to deal with shops like #2 and #3, especially if theyíre working hard to promote Large Scale railroading in the community.

For years, I didnít have access to anything but #1-type stores. Sometimes I would go in to see what they had, wince at the prices, ask questions nobody knew the answers to, and go home empty-handed. So I evolved the following framework for choosing and buying Large Scale products.

By the time there was a hobby shop in my community that fit the #3 profile, I have already made most of the major purchases I expect to make for a while. But I support them with minor purchases, and I would recommend them to "newbies."

Choosing a Mail-Order Supplier

Three basic kinds of mail-order suppliers currently serve the Large Scale marketplace:

Full-Range hobby supply places that have added Large Scale products to their N, HO, and O-scale offerings--These tend to have very good pricing, and they occasionally get closeout deals, etc. that companies with less volume donít have access to. On the other hand, good luck getting an intelligent answer to a question that relates specifically to Large Scale, garden railroading, or a Large Scale product line. TrainWorld and Standard Hobby Supply are two good examples. Charles Ro (maker of USA trains) started out as a full-service train store, but now has a far better understanding of Large Scale issues than the others named here.

Large-Scale-oriented suppliers who focus on garden railroading and other Large-Scale-related products - One of the earliest and best of this breed is Watts, which was a landscaping company that started importing LGB for the fun of it over twenty years ago. They now carry (and can answer your questions about) almost every available Large Scale product line. Other prominent Large-Scale-oriented stores include San Val and St. Aubinís Station. Such stores may not always be able to match the prices, the closeouts, and the variety of the full-range hobby suppliers, but they tend to have people who understand the merchandise and can answer questions.

Non-hobby catalog stores that happen to sell trains Ė Mail-order warehouse clubs, department store chain toy catalogs, and the like. If you know ahead of time what you want and what you should be paying for it, and if youíre sure you wonít need any support or questions after the purchase, go for it.

Non-Hobby Channels for New Equipment

Large Scale trains occasionally turn up in non-hobby-oriented settings like toy stores and department stores. Keep in mind that if you buy equipment in such settings, youíre pretty much on your ownóthey know nothing about model railroading, garden railroading, or what else you need.

If you belong to a warehouse club, you may occasionally see Large Scale train sets, especially Bachmann, at what seem to be spectacular discounts. Sometimes the discounts are excellent. Donít buy just because itís available, though, unless youíre just starting out and know you can use it. Your best bet is to compare the price to similar sets from reliable mail-order houses. But donít take too long, because if the price really is good, the trains usually go pretty fast.

New Channel Summary

The following table summarizes some of the choices you must make buying Large Scale items new (1 is poor, 5 is good):

 

Variety

Pricing

Service

Hobby Shops that donít understand or discount Large Scale

1

1

3

Hobby Shops that specialize in and effectively promote Large Scale railroading

2-3

2

5

Full-Service Mail Order Stores

5

5

2

Large-Scale-Oriented Mail Order Stores

3-4

4

3-4

Department and Toy Stores

1

1

1

Warehouse Clubs

1

4-5

1

Buying Used

Large Scale hobbyists love to swap gear. One reason we do is that, without local access to many product lines, we occasionally order things that we decide against keeping for the long term. Another is that our tastes refine, and we start filtering out stuff that doesnít quite suit the rest of our railroad. For example, I started with a lot of Bachmann narrow gauge models, but when I decided to model a standard gauge railroad, I sold off most of the Bachmann. The new owners of the Bachmann were very happy, and I had room and resources to acquire other equipment.

I have also shopped for used Large Scale equipment that was out of production or otherwise unavailable new.

The Downside of Buying Used

On the other hand, buying Large Scale equipment used isnít always a good deal or a good idea. A few of the reasons include:

The proverb "buyer beware" is especially important when you buy used.

Protecting Yourself When Buying Used

Your safest bet for buying used equipment is to deal with people face-to-face at club swaps and train meets where you can see and even try out the equipment. Unfortunately this is a very limited market in most parts of the world.

Next safest are probably other hobbyists, like folks you know from internet forums. Many Garden Railroad and Large Scale support web sites have "classified ad" listings. Of course, anyone can post an ad. But if itís someone you know from the forums, youíre safer. If itís not someone you know, limit your dealings with the person at first. (In other words, buy a car or two from the person before you send a four-thousand-dollar check for a collection.) If you are spending more than you can afford to lose outright, be certain you have a good contact phone number and a home address (not a PO box) for the person.

The worst place to buy used is on the online auctions. In the early days of e-Bay, I picked up a few pieces at a decent price, and one real, substantial bargain. I also noticed that the vast majority of items sold for more used from individuals than the same item would sell for new from a reputable mail-order house. After that I picked up a couple pieces that I was looking for specifically and hadnít been able to find anywhere else. After that I bought a "mint"-condition locomotive that had apparently been cannibalized to fix another locomotive. After that, I bought a "new-in-the-box" train set which turned out to be filthy, battered, incomplete, and inoperational (the locomotiveís gears were completely stripped). About the same time as that experience, I saw a pile of used Bachmann starter sets, worth maybe $300, being sold as a collection of "AristoCraft." It sold for about $1200, even though I contacted e-Bay, the seller, and the buyer to tell them that the advertising was fraudulent. I know you can post warnings about sellers, but if they arenít interested in dumping anything else on the same auction for a while, they really donít care.

Even the technically "honest" people on the auctions arenít always being as helpful or forthcoming as you think they are. One fellow who always posted his "TCA" club number (Train Collectors of America) used to put a "reserve" approximately equal to list price on every item. And to my surprise, he sold many of them the first time out for more than list. In one sense, itís not his "fault" people are paying way too much for the stuff they buy from him, but I couldnít sleep nights if I did that to fellow hobbyists. In addition, a seller may show 400+ sales, but that means nothingóall of those sales may have been in other scales, or even other products (like antique doorknobs) and he may be clueless about the value and condition of the Large Scale equipment he is selling.

If you are going to buy used, the following steps will help you avoid costly mistakes (though nothing is 100% certain, of course).

P.S. Some folks think they are protected if they use COD. But most drivers wonít let you look inside the package before you cough up the cash. Even if they did, there may be hidden internal damage (like stripped gears) or something else. If you canít trust a person enough to send a check, donít assume COD is any real protection.

In my own experience, I started out buying a wide variety of used equipment from strangers. At first, I had mostly good experiences, while the Large Scale community was still pretty small and close-knit. But eventually I started having too many bad experiences and close calls, as Large Scale equipment turned up in the hands of more and more people who didnít know what they had or what was "fair."

At this time in my life, I restrict my "used" purchases to buying things I am looking for specifically from people I know. Iíve passed up some "deals," Iím sure, but I havenít overpaid or been "burned" recently.

Learn to Recognize Exceptional Deals

When youíre starting out in Large Scale, everything can be a blur. Most beginners buy too much of the wrong stuff before they realize where their interests lie and what they really need.

However, there really are some bargains out there that you can take advantage of. Occasionally there is even a "no-brainer" that you will kick yourself later for not picking up when you had the chance. Two examples of unusually good deals that turn up fairly often are:

That said, here are some points to remember:

Summary

Keep the following guidelines handy and refer to them as you shop for gear.

Best of luck,

Paul

 


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