Track Owners Association, Inc.

Track Owners Association, Inc.

Featured Raceway - April 1998
Zeppelin Hobbies & Raceway
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Back in 1984 my wife, Sue and I opened Zeppelin Hobbies in a small store with about 700 square feet of space, on the main street of Riverdale, NJ.  We both put in lots of hard work and long hours selling R/C racing cars, boats and airplanes.

To further promote R/C cars, we would rent the gym of our local high school and hold R/C races, we even rented the cafeteria so the racers would have a place to pit.  During that first summer our bank let us use their parking lot for outdoor racing.  We brought a moving van from North American Van Lines to hold all the needed equipment.  Response to the racing program went so well that we had to limit racers to 150 per night!

All of our hard work paid off so within six years we decided to expand.  A new shopping mall was opening on the highway with lots of space, we took 12,000 square feet for our new store and raceway!  Since we were the first tenants in the space we were required to pay for everything…the suspended ceiling, sprinkler heads, all the electrical work, light fixtures, heating and cooling ducts, walls and carpeting.  In addition we needed lots and lots of store fixtures, showcases, computers, telephone systems, public address systems, and four new slot car tracks with timing systems, batteries and power supplies.

We dumped some super big bucks into the new store, so many dollars, that to this day it still scares us!  When all was said and done, we finally opened on the highway, with a 92 foot sign across the store front, marking our arrival to the big time.  Three slot car tracks, a drag strip and a 85 foot by 65 foot R/C indoor carpeted track, almost 3,000 square feet of retail store and an enormous pit area, and occupied by the two of the most nervous people in New Jersey!  We anxiously awaited to see what would happen.  Would the customers come?  Would they keep coming?  Would the tracks attract enough customers to keep the doors open?   These and dozens of other questions ran through our minds day after day.

Our fears soon diminished as business boomed!   Within the first year we were able to pay all of our bills, plus we replaced all of our opening expenses!  Best of all, other slot car raceways began to open after seeing our success!  By the second year there were at least a dozen tracks within a 20 mile radius of our store and business was great!

For those of you who think eliminating all of your competition is good, we have some news for you, it isn’t!   We knew this the day we opened and we know it today.  Business suffers when you are the only raceway in the area.  Think of the most often asked question when selling a new slot car kit…"Where else can we run our slot cars?"  If you can’t give them an answer, you’ve got a problem!

As time went on both the R/C and slot racing programs got more and more popular, we were really packing them in!  Yet, as everyone knows business can be cyclic and you’ve got to find other things to fill in when those "slow times" appear.  R/C racing was at it’s peak from the mid 80’s until the early 90’s and then began to slide.  It wasn’t just us doing the sliding.

We communicate very well with our industry.   I’m secretary on the Board of Directors of NRHSA, (the National Retail Hobby Stores Association) and also serve on the Board of Directors of R/CHTA, (the Radio Controlled Hobby Trade Association, so I believe we have our finger on the pulse of the industry - and we watched the R/C car portion of the business really begin to fall off drastically.  My personal opinion was R/C racing simply got too high tech.  It priced lots of people out of the hobby.

Around the same time R/Cs took a dip, nearby slot tracks began closing down.  Contrary to popular belief, if a nearby track closes customers won’t beat a path to your door!  Even if they do, you can rest assure, they will slowly and surely begin to disappear.

In order to offset the dip in R/C and slots, we began to look in new areas to boost sales.  Pinewood derby cars were selling like hotcakes.  So we began talking to our customers.  What we found out was there was a need for a Boy Scout Distributor in the area.  We applied for a distributorship and after several months we were approved.  Becoming a Boy Scout Distributor brought in hundreds of new customers, all looking for Boy Scout products, and possibly hobby items as well.

Becoming a Boy Scout Distributor has been one of the smartest moves we ever made!  September is the worst month for just about every hobby shop in the country.  That’s because everyone is getting ready for the new school season.  It’s also the time when everyone joins the Boy Scouts! That means new uniforms for everyone!  September is now our third best month, just behind December and January.

As R/C racing continued to fall off, we faced the prospect of having to make a huge decision.  Did we dump the R/C track, or just go down the toilet with it?  Fortunately for us, and about the same time, another store in the mall became available.  We decided to take it and moved into a smaller location - about half the size - reducing our area to 6,500 square feet while our retail section stayed the same size.  There is no longer an R/C track but we have two slot tracks.  Since there was some room to spare, we now have a partyroom and an H.O. slot track.  If you have any room in your store, by all means put in an H.O. track.

The H.O. track doesn’t always generate the same cash that a 1/24 scale track does, but H.O. cars, track and accessories will sell better than you can possibly imagine!  You won’t be able to keep the H.O. sets in stock around Christmas time!  The cars, accessories, track and parts will sell and sell - way into the new year!

We were quite nervous when we closed the R/C track, because we figured it would spell the death knell to our R/C business.  After all, who would want to buy an R/C car without having a track around where it could be raced?   However, in retrospect, next to becoming a Boy Scout Distributor, closing our R/C track was the best thing we’ve done.

Remember when I said we were worried about our R/C sales without the track?  Well our fears quickly melted away.  In fact, in the first year without the track, our R/C sales went up over 20%!  And best of all, we have new R/C customers who have proven to be much more appreciative of us, our business and our service...much more so than any of the racers we had previously ever were.   As R/C became more competitive and expensive we found new people coming into the hobby for the first time being exposed to that same competitiveness and expense being a complete turn off. R/C racing, at least in our raceway, was responsible for the loss of any new R/C business.

As you can see, change can be good.  Another area we really promote is model rocketry.  Zeppelin Hobbies probably has the largest selection of model and high powered rockets in the east.  Some of the rockets we have hanging from our ceiling weigh in at over 100 pounds!  And…we have the motors to send these heavyweights up nearly two miles!

Over the 15 years we’ve been in business we’ve had to change and adapt to the times.  I believe the reluctance to adapt to change has caused many slot tracks to fail.  Only a handful of tracks have been able to exist as slot raceways only.  If you want to keep your doors open, you’ve got to be willing to change with the times!

We opened as an R/C-only hobby shop…no models, no trains, no nothing unless it was R/C.  It didn’t take us long to see the possibilities to adapt and expand so we took the chance and our "super big" raceway lasted for over 6 years.  When we saw the market weakening we made a move to downsize and save what we had.

Now that we’ve changed, our business is stronger than ever.  We’re more diversified and serve a much broader range of customers.  We’ve addressed the peaks and valleys of our business and made it stable year round.  Lots of customers continue to come into our store throughout the year so we do now notice any perceptible slumps.  Who can ask for more?

Visit our website at www2.zephobby.com/ZepHobby.  It’s still under construction but with all the new information coming available for us to put "on-line" I don’t think it will ever be done.

Lou and Sue Ballini
Zeppelin Hobbies & Raceway
92 Route 23 North
Riverdale, New Jersey 07457-1200
Phone: (973) 831-7717
Fax: (973) 831-5989
E-mail: zephobby@aol.com

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