It’s not really Minichamps fault! - by Christopher Paul

Christopher Paul has been thinking about the issue of lead times and what collectors perceive as the delays and shortcomings of the various manufacturers. Here he explains why he thinks it’s unfair to blame the companies who make the models. It’s perhaps the internet companies like us who should really take this one on the chin!

I had a letter from a customer recently about a model that he suggested we had failed to deliver, and it set me thinking.

We here at DCL Towers live with diecast every day. We know how the business works and long gone are the days when we took too much notice of the timings attached to the various manufacturers’ new releases. And many of our customers, especially those experienced in the dark art of diecast collecting, understand it too. Over the years, we’ve tried our best to explain how this market operates, even though some customers clearly continue in their belief that somebody, somewhere really does know when new models are going to be produced and delivered.

Around every corner, it would seem, there’s a conspiracy theorist who thinks there’s a dastardly plot afoot! Anyway, the letter I received from this customer drove home to me that not everybody appreciates how this industry and indeed we, as probably the world’s largest seller of diecast, go about our business. Basically, the gentleman who wrote to me was lambasting us for our failure to supply a couple of cars that he had on order. In return for letting him down, and by way of compensation for our general ineptitude and incompetence, the customer wanted a big discount on a 1:12 model motorbike that he knew we had in stock. Suffice it to say that we did not accede to this customer’s demands, but in replying to him we did try to explain why we had not, in our opinion, let him down, or failed him, in any way. But, given this recentcorrespondence, I thought that it might be worth reiterating, once again, the dynamics of the diecast business and how the supply chain works.

The pre-Internet era

When I was a boy, I used to collect models. On Saturday mornings, my elder brother, under duress I imagine, used to take me to the local cinema to watch the matinée performance; a series of cartoons, cowboy films starring actors such as Ronald Regan, and pirate films with the likes of Errol Flynn. Hot Dogs, popcorn and Kia-Ora were consumed, but what I most looked forward to was visiting the model shop afterwards that stood just over the road from the Odeon cinema. Sometimes, I would walk out with an Airfix kit, and sometimes a box of mini soldiers, occasionally a classic 1:24 motorbike from Britains. But when there were enough coins left in my pocket, it would be a diecast car of some description. In those days, invariably a Corgi or a Dinky. What I bought was what I saw on the shelves. I had no idea what was coming the following week, or the following month.

Life was much simpler back then! Now you’ve probably guessed that I’m describing events many, many years ago. But the fact is that even in the nineties it wasn’t a very different story. In most reasonably sized towns, there was a decent sized model shop that offered, amongst other things, a good selection of diecast models from companies like Solido, Bburago, Kyosho, Minichamps, UT Models, Revell and so on. But just like when I was a kid, you selected your next model from what you saw on the shelves. The guys who ran the shop had absolutely no interest in selling you pieces that weren’t on their shelves, as they wanted cash in their tills there and then, in order to pay their rent, their suppliers and their staff. In truth, even those who worked in the shop probably didn’t have much of an idea about what was due to be released in the coming months. Representatives from the model companies would come by the shop every couple of weeks and orders were placed, but there was no rush. When the new items turned up, they would be put  out on display if there was space, and when there was a spare moment. But all in good time. And collectors never felt let down because they had few, if any, expectations. Every trip to the shop was a mini-adventure. You never knew what you were going to find on the shelves on your next visit. It was all rather exciting. And then along came the worldwide web!

The start of the Internet era

The internet only really started to come into being, as far as diecast is concerned, in the second half of the nineties. We were probably one of the first companies to start selling diecast on-line. That was in about 1996. We didn’t really know much about the internet. We were based in a small mews house in Notting Hill in west London and our neighbour opposite was, supposedly, a black-belt in website creation. He built our first site. It took about five minutes for a picture to download.

The website certainly didn’t generate much business and, frankly, we had no idea how it would transform the way we worked. It took us many years to build up our range from the few 1:18 F1 cars and supercars we started with. It all seems much easier these days, but in the beginning we would wait until new models turned up on our front door.

We would take the best ones to our local photographer to have them shot. The transparencies he supplied to us were then scanned at a nearby printer and our website builder would load them up to our site when he had some spare time. By the time the picture of a car actually went up on the site, it had often sold out, especially if it was a 1:43.

Slowly, we got better at using the internet and started to load more and more models onto the site, but in those early days, there was nothing comprehensive about our selection. We chose our favourite 1:18 cars and rarely, unless it was a Senna car, did we feature anything in 1:43. The smaller scale stuff was for the shops. The internet, we felt, was all about 1:18s.

Every year in January, we would go to the UK Toy Fair in Olympia. We would hear about the models that were being planned by the diecast manufacturers, but even back then we didn’t take too much notice of what we were told about delivery dates. We gave our opinions to the distributors, and sometimes produced loose sales projections, but we normally never really actually marketed models until they arrived in the UK.

It was only when we went to our first Nuremberg Toy Fair in 2002 that we began to see the world differently. There at the show, all the big players had on display models that we had never seen before. The following year we decided to take a photographer with us, so that we could feature what we saw in our catalogues and on our ever-growing website. As the years passed, we became ever more keen to be the first company to announce the new releases we saw at Nuremberg, and at other trade shows.

The truth, though, is that the key international manufacturers had always announced their new release programmes at the famous German trade show but, until we came along, that information sort of remained in the trade. It never reached consumers and collectors. Okay, occasionally new pieces were reported in the pages of one of the diecast magazines that you found in the newsagents, but that was about it. It was we, and companies like us, who decided that it would be a good idea to take the information we were given at Nuremberg and tell the world all about it. From our perspective, we got a kick out of being first and we thought that fellow collectors would be keen to hear about what was coming down the road. But, as I have said, the reality is that the manufacturers, like Minichamps, AUTOart, Kyosho and so on haven’t really changed the way they do business. It always took them two, three or four years to get what they announced at Nuremberg, into the market and onto the shelves of shops and mail-order companies. They haven’t got any slower or less efficient. They are no worse or better at producing new models than they ever were. The big difference, the only real difference, is that collectors are being told about models far earlier than they used to be, by companies like us. So really, when you examine it, the diecast companies are not at fault. They are not letting anybody down.

They are not failing to supply models. They are simply going about their business in the same way they always have done. So when someone writes to us to complain about Minichamps or some other diecast manufacturer and their failure to produce a newmodel, bear in mind that it’s not really fair to take a pop at them. If anybody is to blame, it’s companies like us who go out and advertise new releases years before they go anywhere near a factory.

Are we really letting our customers down?

The genie is out of the bottle and it’s difficult to push it back in again. The internet allows information to be disseminated to a global audience overnight. Collectors have got used to hearing about new models way before they are released and that quest for news and information now constitutes part of the fun of collecting diecast. Some customers in the past have suggested that we simply shouldn’t advertise models until we can supply them. But that’s like the Luddites in 1811 who thought they could halt progress by smashing up the spinning machines. Selling models before they are released, sometimes many years before they are released, is now an integral part of how the diecast business works.

It’s a feature of the internet age and for many, indeed most, people it’s a positive move. Your choice is no longer restricted by what your local model shop owner has decided he wants to put on his shelves. If you really want a 1963 split-window Chevrolet Corvette in blue, you can go onto the web and search for one. If it’s available today, you can buy one, but if it’s some years away, you can place an order, sit back and relax. Which brings me to my central point. We really don’t think that when a customer has to wait for a long time for an item he has on back-order, we are letting anybody down.

You place an order. We take no money. We send you an email every month to remind you of what you are waiting for. When your model turns up, we send it out immediately. We guarantee that the price you pay is better than anybody else’s. And if we fail to deliver something you’ve pre-ordered, we’ll send you a cheque for twice the price of the model in question. Heck, we think we’re offering an invaluable service, especially these days when so many new replicas are selling out on, or very shortly after, release. In fact, the way we see it, if you learn about a new model from us and really don’t want to miss out on it, the ability to place an advanced order without any form of commitment is surely somewhat of a godsend.

It’s the internet, of course, that has made all this possible but if, from time to time, you start to feel a little frustrated at the long wait for your replica to arrive, don’t get upset about it. It’s not Minichamps’ fault, or the fault of any other manufacturer. And we can’t really see that we are letting you down either. Rather, we’re providing a totally free reservation service. We don’t take a deposit. You can cancel at any time. And, however long it takes, you are guaranteed to get your model as long as it does actually get made.

We don’t reckon it’s a bad deal. So relax!