Lionel at Target

On Sunday, I went to Target largely because I had a coupon, but I also wanted to get a gift for my son.

I had heard Target was selling Lionel trains again like in 2006, and I’d seen a picture of the endcap, which included a Lionel teddy bear in addition to the trains. I wanted one.

I got my bear, but there weren’t very many left. What I also take as good news is what else wasn’t left.

I saw two O gauge train sets. But I saw zero add-on track packs, and I also saw zero add-on cars. I know my local Target had them because I checked their inventory online on Friday. So it would appear that people are buying track and train cars.

I’ve always believed the problem with selling trains at retail is that since the 1970s at least, for the most part sets are all anyone has tried to sell. The sets sell poorly, and people assume it’s because nobody likes trains anymore.

The bigger problem is that a train running around in circles is only interesting for so long–and “so long” has been getting shorter and shorter since the 1950s.

That’s why you could buy add-on cars, track, and switches anywhere trains were sold, and to some extent even in the 5 & 10 stores, in the 1950s.

But ever since Louis Marx got old and retired, nobody has realized this. They just sell a short train with a loop of track measuring about 3 feet by 4 feet and wonder why half the sets remain unsold and the other half end up in closets.

Since people are buying extra track and cars at Target this year, and the extra track and cars appears to be selling out before the sets do, that suggests to me that some of these sets won’t end up in closets. I just wish they would sell switches and crossings. Lionel needs to try not to alienate its network of authorized dealers, but maybe if Lionel only sold its manual switches at Target, the dealers would be happy.

Many hobbyists wouldn’t be happy with the stuff Lionel is selling at Target, but established hobbyists aren’t the market here. It’s the people wanting a train to put around the Christmas tree, or the people looking for a $200 gift that’s something more traditional than a video game.

Some of those sets will become family traditions, hauled out of the basement or attic every November and tirelessly running laps until sometime a little after New Year’s Day before being packed back into a box again. Some of those families will add a car here or there and maybe add some more track, but many will probably run the sets as-is.

I’m sure I’ll see some in garage sales in a few years. That’s just reality.

And for some percentage of the people who get these sets, the train will grow into an obsession. That first train will lead to more cars and more track, and then to miniature villages populated with miniature figures and miniature vehicles, and, of course, more and more trains.

But what I saw at Target on Sunday makes me more confident that Lionel will be around a while longer. And that’s nice. Lionel doesn’t get a lot of non-hobby press so it’s sometimes news to people that Lionel is even still around.

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