I'm a bit late to this party but discussed the same "hobby is dying" umpteen times before, and of course the Wall Street Journal article lit a match to the tired old debate yet again. For the record here, I'll add my "grist" for the mill.
The steady announcements and production of many new HO models indicates to me the hobby must be doing well and seems far from dying. The market is responding to consumer demand. Lets look at recent examples:
- Tangent is announcing HQ models left and right in the past year.
- ExactRail has churned out many nice new models a lot of reruns.
- Athearn continues to announce new runs almost monthly - the retooled SD40 is a nice model, SD39 coming, I'm looking forward to and freight cars too.
- Intermountain is still actively producing models including Red Caboose, Centralia etc..
- Wheels of Time is servicing many nice N-scale models and announced some excellent HO SP flat cars and bulkhead flats.
- Fox River produced the new GP60 and numerous freight cars.
- Scale Models is hitting the market with HQ new items and just getting started.
- Rapido has been really producing some top quality models in the past few years, has announced a series of Steam too!
- Atlas isn't quite as active as they were 6 or 7 years ago but are still producing some nice freight cars - I just picked up some nice 50' box cars from them.
- BLMA just shipped the ATSF Bx-166 box cars and is working on the Trinity 5660 Covered hopper.
- American Limited is producing Trinity 3281 covered hoppers.
- Moloco has some lovely 50' box cars out and more announced for next year.
- Trainworx is entering the HO market too with a drop frame trailer in the coming months.
It is argued that there is a lack of young modelers who aren't there because they are playing Xbox etc. or can't afford the nice stuff or whatever. Youngsters have never had lots of money for the hobby anyway - I remember those days! Models are selling its obvious - they must be or all the many companies I listed above wouldn't be producing lots of nice new models. It's because many people like myself for years had more kits than time or desire to build - end of story. Yes, there are still "real modelers" out there who like to build kits, but they are probably a small fraction of the consumers who are spending money on the products being made. The people with money to spend on hobbies only have so much time due to work, honey-do lists, house projects (me), families, spouses and you name it, and what hobby time we do have may go into layout building, track laying and other aspects than just building kits.
I have had jobs where I traveled quite a bit and made it a point to visit 2 or 3 hobby shops in the cities and states where I was visiting for work. I've been watching train shops close during those years. But one of the things that has changed and IMO gives an impression the hobby is dying is the fact that how we do commerce has changed pretty radically in the past 10 years. I heard a series of radio reports last spring which discussed how most major companies are changing to adapt to the electronic world including how they advertise and market to the newer generations, who are the next crop of customers and spenders. Of note in the report was that shopping malls are dying and quickly losing ground to online sales. Many are expected to close up around the country as sales shift from B&M stores to online sales. IMO, this sounds awfully familiar here on the forums - hobby shops closing at an ever faster rate. Companies are now targeting the young buyers where they are - on social media, on computers, on smart phones etc. That's telling in a big way. So some may say the view from the hobby shop is evidence that the hobby is dying? So is the dying of shopping malls killing the need for cloths or other items we used to buy in those stores too? Many in stores around the country could say the demand for many other things is drying up because of the lack of sales.
Times change and methods of buying have been changing over the past 10 years - much is done on-line now. ExactRail has gone 100% on line, and you don't have to go to a hobby shop and see a model in person to be tempted to buy it. Young people buy other products online and live online - it's a natural fit to the younger generations. Heck, Tangent, ExactRail and other companies can photograph and show and market to us their latest models, large in high resolution, in far better light and detail than we could see them in a box in the hobby shop! They look even more gorgeous in high res on your big computer screen.
You could say that about 50 other things that are getting the same treatment in recent years and proclaim that is evidence that that line of products proves a dying demand etc. It' now time to look at the world differently - it has changed! Products are still selling and selling quite well as long as people have money to spend. I still buy trains, more than ever as I am able with my modest budget, but now most come in a box from the USPS or UPS, and from shows also. B&M hobby shops ceased being my primarily outlet for trains by necessity 15 or more years ago. Young people aren't dumb or naïve, they can shop just like we do, in fact I think they are more skillful at it. Give them a website and they are long past us! Ignoring the changes in commerce give an unbalanced view of many things including our hobby. Same goes for print media - it's undergone a more radical change than our hobby. We now have a 100% online train magazine, MRH. Just like many things, change comes and its adapt or ... but model railroading still goes on. It may be pre-mature to say the hobby is dying, and not really constructive either if it matters.
Looking back at my own life, I wasn't buying lots of trains when young because I didn't have much money to spend on trains, but I did have interest and I think there are other boys like me out there. And oh, btw, I had many of the same distractions as kids do today. Yes, I played video games all throughout the 1980's and 1990's (even online MMORPGS) but it didn't foil my interest in trains.
The reality is that you end up with college, girls, jobs, and other things so the spark that starts at a young age doesn't develop into REAL money until you are older, like 30's or 40's at least. So I'll agree with you that young people aren't spending scads of money on the hobby but guess what? Neither did I when I was that age, cause I couldn't afford to. No surprise there so the "stealth" kids in hobby shops - which don't exist anymore anyway, probably wouldn't be keeping Athearn and ExactRail afloat - we all know that. That's not rocket science, but in another 20, or 30 or 40 years when they have good paying jobs and a place to run trains, some of them might just be part of that customer pool, which is buying most of their trains like I do, online or at the train show.
The customers who are patronizing Athearn, ExactRail, Tangent, Intermountain etc came from somewhere, not from under a toadstool. They started out as youngsters who couldn't afford to buy much of anything at one time. I know people in this area who are involving young people in the hobby, boy scout leaders etc. who regularly are involving them in the hobby. I've seen at the library where they set up big modular layouts so I don't believe trains are just for grandpa but it's something young people are being interested in and some will find they are infected like I was since I was little. Sure, there is lots of competition, but for anyone who is like me, who from a young age find trains are in their blood, they will come back to it like I did when they are older and have some cash in their pocket, and maybe a house with some space.
Those are some of my thoughts on why I don't think the hobby is dying and why my feathers aren't ruffled.
Cheers, Jim Fitch