Tuesday, 16 December 2014

It's been an interesting year...

At Blists Hill Victorian Village Sue dons Victorian garb to spread the Meccano message
Christmas is just around the corner and it is time to take stock on the past year and see what we have been up to. It has been a strange year, with Spin Master, the new owners of the Meccano brand, finding their way around the existing Meccano community and getting to know a lot of us enthusiasts around the world. Sue and I have been talking to, and met with, some of the guys from Spin Master since the Autumn of 2013 shortly after the acquisition became public knowledge. The noises being made were encouraging. I have to admit that I was pleased to hear what was planned but, as with so many new owners over the years promising the earth, I was hopeful without getting too excited.

This was just part of the huge Meccano section of the Spin Master stand in 2014
My first indication that this time it might be different came in late January this year when I walked into the London Toy Fair on press day, with Sue, where we were confronted with the Spin Master stand displaying Meccano in a way I have not seen for years. The full story of that visit can be found HERE. It was obvious that these guys meant business. As the year went on, Meccano continued to make their presence known around the world through the Spin Master's extensive dealer network.  Their plan, from day one, has always been to relaunch the brand for Christmas 2015. That may seem a long time but remember that the toy retailers are buying for Christmas in January at the toy fairs. That means that we will find out very shortly what Spin Master have planned for Meccano any day now.

Most of what we have seen so far has been the product of the old company as Spin Master inherited what was already in the pipeline. There has been lots of discussion and speculation around the adult Meccano community regarding what has been happening and what is going to happen. In an attempt to reassure the Meccano world of their good intentions towards us enthusiasts, Meccano supported several events this year including the main event in the Meccano calendar, SkegEx. Not only did they lend their expertise with the publicity and provide financial support, they made the not inconsiderable effort to attend the show themselves - something that Meccano have not done for years. All this has been very encouraging but I really think some people have missed the point completely. So, I am going to do something I don't usually do on our blog. I am going to stand here, on my soapbox, and say my piece.

Meccano is a toy!      

Meccano always was and always will be a toy. It is us, the boys and girls that never stopped building that have turned it (in our eyes) into something different. Meccano have never sold the product as an adult hobby and never will. The adult market is just not big enough. In the 1930s when Meccano was arguably at its most successful it was not the adults that drove the market, but their children that they were buying for. Yes most Meccano, especially the sets, were bought buy adults, but not for themselves. Today is no different, Meccano will survive or fail of sales and the bulk of those sales will be to adult buying Meccano for their children as toys.

What is very different is the marketplace are the volumes of sales required to make a global business successful. When Frank Hornby built his business up in the first few decades of the twentieth century, cashing in on market that was wide open. In those days, there were not the distractions of today, indeed even in the late 1950s and 60s when I first saw Meccano my choice of pastimes was fairly limited compared with today.

We saw Meccano as something that we could use to replicate the exciting new world that was developing around us. Huge civil engineering projects and the modern technology of the day was all based around metal and gears and this could all be replicated in Meccano. Today the big engineering projects only make headline news if something goes wrong or, God forbid, a bit of inconvenience or delay is caused to the odd commuter during rush hour.

In short we would make our own entertainment, today most kids want to be entertained with the minimum of effort. The problem Meccano has is how to find a way to engage those kids in Meccano building without the effort we were (and still are) prepared to put in. It is true that once the introduction has been made, and some fairly instant success has been had, a lot of children will want to explore what else they can build. This is where the whole concept has changed.

A 1960s Meccano set - I had one of these!
Our Meccano outfits were used to build lots of toys from one set; build a crane today and a railway truck tomorrow from the same parts - This was Frank Hornby's original concept. Children were encouraged to buy more parts and the infrastructure was there to support this with hundreds, even thousands, of small dealers all over the country selling sets and spare (extra) parts.  The idea being that small sets could be made up into larger sets. The users (children) were sold a dream, a dream that most of us were not able to realise until we were adults. Today that is not the case at all. Meccano is seen as a kit of parts to build a model, usually the box-art, or 'A' model as it is known, with a few variations. The sets do not relate too much to each other and the progressive marketing of the system toy has gone.

Meccano are not alone in this approach, the original idea is lost to history and can't work in the modern environment, except in a very limited way, that does not have the volume of sales required to make it viable. That is where the specialist manufactures and re-sellers come in and, today, supply our every need. There is not a Meccano style part I cannot buy, either as a second-hand original or as an after market reproduction. Taking it one stage further, as an enthusiast I can now buy many extended range parts that Meccano have never made. Parts of different sizes in various colours, more gears than you can shake a stick at, and all readly available to us enthusiasts at meetings or by post. Meccano themselves give this trade its blessing and have no problem at all with enthusiasts producing replica and extended range parts, so long as they are not sold as Meccano.   

None of this makes sales for Meccano. Most children want to build a model and if they do anything with it, will display it and buy another set. Very few modern sets are bought to enlarge a collection of parts in the way we did and still do today. One of the problems with this approach is the amount of Meccano that is bought and never used. The sets have moved away from progression and have taken on the multiple model status with with progression of size being unrelated to the number of models possible. The thing that is all but missing is progression of build within a set. Most models (not all, it has to be said) shown in the instruction manuals use most if not all the parts, so if this is your first Meccano set you are in at the deep end from day one confronted with a complicated build. This is evident by the number of second-hand sets available that are complete down to the last nut and bolt. This is not due to careful ownership but a total indifference to the set. The recipiant usually being put off even starting by the daunting instructions. We have bought many hundreds of second-hand sets over the past few years and I can count on one hand how many had any significant number of parts missing. All these sets have been acquired at a fraction of the original price.

Alternative models made from an Evolution set
Meccano need sales and they need to get parents to come back and buy again. The only way this will happen is if the recipient can achieve a result fairly quickly. Progression within the sets has to be the key to this. Parents will always want to buy the bigger sets, especially if it is to be given as a present, Having some simple models detailed in the instructions will help this, enabling the confidence to be built and the "Look what I built"  moment to be achieved much quicker. The robots above are built fusing parts from the Evolution ATV and as you can see there are plenty of parts left. Even from a small set, a progression of models can be built as we have shown HERE and HERE. In both cases, all the models can be built from one set at the same time.

As the skill level increases, new creations can be made from the parts once the idea that you don't have to use every last part in every model is dispelled. From the recent sets it is not hard to let the imagination run wild and build some interesting models.

A Trike from the 20 model set
The two models pictured here are built from sets that have been released in the past few months. The top one is built from parts in the motorised 20 model set. More details and pictures of this model can be found HERE. It does not use the motor, just because it is there and gives a model that can be built without having to buy new batteries. Below a dragster makes a pleasing model from the latest 15 model set. The full story and more pictures can be found HERE.

Dragster from the 15 model set

The future     

I know that Meccano are introducing some graduation into the sets and that it is no secret that they will be moving into the Meccano compatible electronic toy market. There is also some talk about bigger sets that will be aimed at the higher end of the toy market and that will find some interest from enthusiasts. The Toy Fair is just around the corner and I cant wait to see what Meccano have tucked up their sleeve.

Looking forward to a bright new future for the brand as a whole, here's to a happy and even more interesting 2015 


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