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Hobby shops persist among high-tech competition

Hobbies evolve with technology

Jeff Armstrong of Cedar Rapids gets help finding a replacement gear for hit remote controlled truck from Box-Kar employee Josh Roberts of North Liberty at Box-Kar Hobbies in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, April 02, 2015. Box-Kar hobbies sells remote-controlled cars, helicopters, rockets and model trains, among other items. (Michael Noble Jr./The Gazette)
Jeff Armstrong of Cedar Rapids gets help finding a replacement gear for hit remote controlled truck from Box-Kar employee Josh Roberts of North Liberty at Box-Kar Hobbies in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, April 02, 2015. Box-Kar hobbies sells remote-controlled cars, helicopters, rockets and model trains, among other items. (Michael Noble Jr./The Gazette)
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Before smartphones, before computers and video games, there were hobby shops.

And even though a 2010 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 8-to-18 year-olds spend more than seven hours using entertainment media per day, some of the stores — almost remnants of the 1950s and ’60s — are still in business.

Hobby shops were a popular entertainment option for both children and adults before the growth of high-tech gadgets. They still carry model train sets, board and card games, RC vehicles, science kits and a variety of other toys.

Tim Woolums, owner of the Hobby Corner in Iowa City, noted that hobby shops are sometimes looked to as an alternative option for youth entertainment.

“We often have parents and grandparents come in looking specifically for non-electronic items to get their children outside or even just off their computer and phones,” Woolums said.

Woolums identified 25-to-45 year-olds as the Hobby Corner’s average customer.

Diane Kar of Box-Kar Hobbies in Cedar Rapids said that she typically only sees young people come in when accompanied by an adult, and that it was more common to see children come in on their own when Kar and her husband opened the store 42 years ago.

Part of that likely has to do with children being less likely to be allowed to go out on their own now as opposed to when the store opened.

But even for this niche market, large retail stores and online markets are big competitors for hobby shops. A major concern is staying competitive in pricing and also having enough profit to pay larger operating expenses than online stores need.

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Woolums noted that the Hobby Corner competes by offering higher quality items and carrying spare parts in store. Oftentimes they even repair items for customers or show them how to do repairs on their own.

Kar said that hobby shops also tend to carry a wider variety of products than less-specialized competitors. Box-Kar Hobbies is able to check pricing and availability of specific items for customers and place special orders if necessary.

Although increases in technology do cause some challenges for hobby shops, their products also benefit.

“There are always new technologies coming out that add to or change existing hobbies,” Woolums said, citing electronic quadcopters and drones as examples.

The Hobby Corner also added home brewing supplies to their product line at the end of 2013 to reach more of the adult market.

Box-Kar Hobbies added an RC computerized flight simulator, which helps customers learn to fly RC planes and helicopters.

“Changes over the years have mostly been improved details in models, more choices in radio control because of improvements in batteries and motors ... and the introduction of digital command control in model railroading,” said Karr.

“We’ve always tried to carry not only our interests, but also what our customers want.”

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