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Local Independent LEGO Shops - An Ominous New Trend?
Lately, I've noticed quite a few small businesses popping up in my area which specialize in LEGO bricks. Some of these are run by AFOLs but I have noticed a growing trend of what seems to be prospectors looking to cash in on the raging market and it concerns me, but maybe it shouldn't. I was curious to see if anyone else had similar experiences and misgiving.
I spend a decent amount of cash on Bicklink and occasionally even eBay buying used LEGO bricks and sets both for myself and my daughter. Local shops appeal to me since you can see what you are buying, browse, and also hopefully interact with other fans of LEGO. But often I am met with antagonism or condescension when I go into these local brick shops and it confuses me. Shouldn't I be their target consumer base? Should this not be one of the few stores in which I am the most welcome?
At first, I was thinking that maybe I don't come across as your regular AFOL and I was being pidgin holed as something else, an outsider. The antagonism is one that I often encountered in Baseball card shops or comic book stores before. But I am starting to think that is not what is going on.
Two specific factors make me think that the stores are being started and run by people who aren't actually fans of LEGO at all, but rather are just looking to cash in on the popularity of the brand.
Firstly, I have noted that there are many minifigures for sale in the display cases, a great source of income certainly, and I know from experience that they price these using Bricklink. Classic Space figures command high prices in the case -> $12 - $14 usually and that is comparable to Bricklink prices... for the best examples of those figures. But those seen in the cases often have the Classic Space Logo heavily worn, or almost gone. And some have the wrong helmet or no air tanks. the wrong head, etc. And yet, they are still listed at these high prices.
The other instance was recent. I was browsing the store and the person running it at the time decided to move a shelf. The shelf was fully loaded and he started pushing it from one end. I noted that a few of the big price sealed sets fell off the far side and I called out for him to stop telling him that some of the boxes had fallen down between that shelf and the next, and he rolled his eyes at me and assured me that he didn't need my help. Then he continued to push the shelf, crushing the boxes that had fallen. Sealed/overpriced sets.
Has anyone else experienced this? Are these shops popping up everywhere or just by me?
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To my mind, to make a success of a small independent LEGO store, you need someone who knows what they're talking about. Good customer service is essential in small stores, and if you don't have that, people won't go back.
Wait a year or two, and the ones you're complaining about will have changed or gone out of business.
But I do think there's value in an in-person LEGO experience, like LEGO-themed parties and activities. That's always seemed like a potentially viable business model (and obviously there are a bunch of these out there). So if they're making money this way, I think they're less vulnerable if they have non-AFOL staff.
The other thing I've always been curious about is re-selling with a retail discount. IE, buy sets from LEGO, offer them on shelves, and if they don't sell, then break them apart and sell them on BrickLink. LEGO won't sell to a retailer unless they have a storefront (or, at least, that certainly used to be true, I assume it still is), but could a retailer then grind up MISB sets into parts to sell and still be in the clear with LEGO?
Anyway, the realist in me says that if they're making any significant portion of their money from selling effectively "collector's items" like the classic space figures or old MISB sets, they're probably doomed to fail-- all the more so if they don't know the market. But if that's just some income on the side, then they might be able to chug along for quite a while, I'd think.
The other thing to consider is that it's possible he wasn't the owner (although he could be, I obviously don't know!). I know someone locally who owns a LEGO business, and he has to find people to employ since he doesn't want to work 7-days a week straight! And I'm not sure he's ever actually been able to land a true AFOL as an employee.
This issue isn't isolated to LEGO. I went into a new candy store in the mall. It was huge and everything was overpriced! I got some caramel creams just to be nice and immediately found some for half the price on my phone while walking to my car.
Colleges don't graduate people with experience companies need, which makes them turn to other ventures like selling LEGO. While they probably have built some sets, they most likely aren't huge fans. The amount of hours people work is declining, and work ethic is declining with it. Automation makes life easier as well as reduces usefulness of humans.
Just hope these people don't get or start getting loans or incentives from government to open up their "business".
Your points about things potentially being overpriced is still a legitimate concern, but it might be important to consider the added overhead costs a permanent retail location would have compared to an online seller working from home, as well as the convenience factor of being able to walk into a store and buy what you want instead of having to pay, or wait, for shipping.
I also know that there are some flea markets around that feature a ton of Lego, and it is just what the OP said. A relative got me a skeleton fig they thought I would like. It was based on one of the Ninjango characters, but had a wrong foot and arm. She bought it off a big table with rows and rows of figs.
If I had the capital, I would LOVE to open a Lego and similar stuff store. I have these visions of buying and selling used bricks, selling new sets, having pits of parts that people can play with (and buy their creations for a fair price, doing minifig customization, and so on.
I considered that too, though the guy did tell me he was (one of the) owners. But even still, that wouldn't explain the display case figs. Just the instance of the boxes.
I'd be curious to see if the Thrift Store option doesn't eventually lose out to these stores. I have collected Records, starting in the early 90's, and it was once the case that everyone thought they were worthless, out of date. You could get great copies from Thrift Stores and Garage Sales for almost nothing. But eventually people realized the value of what they had. When a store will pay you for the items, its easier than selling it yourself and better than giving it away.
All it takes is a few news articles explaining to people the value of the items, which LEGO has had, and people start to catch on. But in a way, this would be a good thing for such stores to act as an intermediary, buying up childhood collections, organizing out sets, and reselling at or near value to collectors.
Thing is, we already have that store and it has been doing amazingly well. The owner is a fan of LEGO and has a corresponding Bricklink Store. His store is popular with Kids and adults alike and it has been expanding.
These new stores seem to be trying to replicate his success, without the know how. At this point, I have a store that sells used LEGO in my town and one in each of the cities North, East, West, and South of me. But they are not all created equal.
LEGO doesn't focus on the grass-roots retailers, as they do not want them potentially undercutting TRU, Target, Wal-Mart, etc...
Also why LEGO doesn't normally end up at outlets or discount stores.
People point to wages, but the average for a Walmart and Amazon employee is the about the same.
PS. Amazon gets quite a bit of hate in the UK and Europe for the incredibly low amount of tax it pays. Sales £19.5 billion, tax £15m.
But people still use them as they are cheap, what with not paying much tax and all that!
The third way of doing retail - trying to be all things to all people (see Woolworths, WHSmith, BHS, etc.) is doomed. I suspect WHSmith only survives because it has cornered the market and found a niche at railway stations and airports.
There are a few independent stores near me and I prefer the one owned and run by an AFOL and his family. He does commissions which are usually very cool builds and he offers classes on building techniques. We always converse when I visit the store and I can tell that he wants his Customers to have a good experience. The prices are BL, so no surprise, but his bulk setup is good and they run specials every once and a while.
There is another one that is a bit closer but the prices are ridiculous. They want $12 for a used green 32x32 baseplate! I can buy brand new just a few miles away at the Lego store for $4 less than that. I've spoken with and observed the owner, and while he is a super friendly guy and works to promote the other businesses near him (hoping that they will do the same for him), he's in it for the money. He also works like crazy to push the franchise angle (he owns two). If I were to open a Lego store, it would certainly NOT be a franchise.
* A name that's slightly more recognizeable
* A spot on their website
* Graphics to use in store (I assume you still have to pay for them to be printed, etc)
* Training Program & strategies for re-selling
In theory, they could have things like merchandiser deals with LEGO or other vendors like BrickArms, etc, where you get a negotiated price/volume that's better than if you were on your own. But I see no indication of that?
Further, it'd be neat if they did things like having a "master" inventory (or some sort of centralized one) that hooked into a POS system that they provided. That could allow for neat things like buying things from other franchise locations, and having them shipped to you for customers. But that seems unlikely from the looks of things.
I guess it seems like a useful thing to pay for to get your foot in the door, but beyond the hurdles with startup, I'm not sure if there would be much ongoing value, unless there's more that's provided that I don't know about.
Things like BrickArms, BrickForge, etc. ... Maybe? I guess I dunno. If part of the franchise deal were to maintain a specific stock in these items, then maybe they might get a better deal on them, but I didn't get the impression that there were any specific requirements with regards to products.
Anyway, I was curious what the terms of the franchise deal were, since (as you point out) from the description on the website, it seems like it's not really worth much. That was my impression as well, but I certainly haven't seen all the info.
Also, my one experience with a local franchise of said chain were two guys with no interest in LEGO outside of financial gain. In other words, definitely not AFOLs.
As a side; I can also see how having a Lego business can really sour an AFOL over time.
I know I purchase LEGO as a front for the second largest drug cartel in Mexico.
But, as has already been mentioned, when buying a LEGO set most AFOLs don't really need customer service or advice. They know what they want and what price to pay. So the difference between "in it for the money" sellers and die hard AFOL sellers is not that great. They are both in business to make money.
I don't begrudge the owner, but it's just different in his store vs the other (my preferred). It boils down to one owner exudes a lifetime love of Lego and the other spends a lot of time talking up the franchise opportunity. I use both stores to fill my needs when I'm looking to build, but if my preferred location didn't withhold rarer elements from their bulk table, I would only use their store. As it is, they do withhold and so I go to the other stores and I've found elements in their bulk tables that sell for a lot of money on BL.
The very first LEGO Toy Stores were mostly all Independent stores.... but officially selling LEGO. As I mentioned above by 1961 there were over 11,000 independent shops in continental Europe alone that sold LEGO... and not all of them were toy stores, or department stores. But that's a whole long story. In fact the last volume of my 9 volume LEGO printed collectors guide will be about LEGO retailers, their supporting merchandise (signs, lighting, stands, etc... all referring to LEGO displays and sales). Also included will be retailer documentation (what's new in LEGO?)... and lots and lots of glued display models, from all decades. But that's best discussed elsewhere... ;-)
My first LEGO purchases as a youngster... were at this store in Detroit... when Samsonite started selling LEGO in the USA in 1961. The store was 90% bike related and 10% LEGO.... go figure?
Maybe I was born in the wrong time. I freakin love stores like that. The small town I live in smack in the middle of Ohio has a Main Street that has buildings like this. Many unoccupied now. I used to dream of winning the lottery and opening a toy store in one of them. It would be for fun alone, I couldn't make money doing it...there is just no way for small shops to compete with Amazon.
Check that...there are some exceptions certainly. But they have had some history, some luck, etc.
Not sure what my point was...other than nostalgia. :)
It's these small mom and pop shops (in the truest sense of the words) that closed down as the owners grew old or passed away. Europe has much different zoning laws than say the USA... and you could open up a shop in a neighborhood (although in Europe homes are much more densly packed than USA/Canada subdivisions or neighborhoods). Thousands of these shops across Europe have closed down in the last 40 years.
Here is an original 1960s LEGO retailer sign that was hung outside the front door (also in much of Europe a "front lawn" is virtually non-existent)... rught by the street. This sign was attached to the front of a German house that had a LEGO sales room.
Part of my LEGO Collectors Guide updates....