Bookmark and Share

News Story

Reprint of Service Station Special Sets 1971 - 2002

                                                       Click Here and view Bill’s past article reprinted here.

Anyone who worked in a marketing position understands the need to keep sales channels effective and best case not to conflict with one another. With that premise, bring yourself back to the 1990’s if you can and remember the rapid growth and customer acceptance of the big box stores offering substantial discounts in most anything and the introduction of large mail order operations.  And then remember our train hobby back then.  Most regions had multiple small, owner/operator hobby shops.  In major cities there could be dozens.  All competing not only with each other but also with the bigger mail order houses.  A quick review of back issues of Model railroader in the 90’s often shows as many as 6 full pages of offerings from each of three or four major mail order houses.  These houses worked on volume and were able to offer significant discounts to retail pricing.  The smaller brick and stick hobby shops worked hard and with a limited customer base were forced to not only purchase inventory at a higher cost, but could only survive by selling product close to retail.  The continued onslaught of the local shops against the mail order houses can be best explained in terms we currently experience. 

Amazon and other on line shopping outlets are able to provide a much cheaper alternative in most items than can brick and stick operations, even with freight costs included.  While they can sell for less and offer return privileges, they are usually unable to service product and can offer only generalized premarket service.  It is the smaller shops with the personalized service that helps the consumer with both pre and post sale services.

Hobby shops experienced the same issues, not being able to offer the lowest price, having the highest costs and having a considerable investment in inventory to cover all hobbies, RC cars, boats, rockets, multiple train gauges, plastic models, etc.  Those that were able to keep their doors open screamed for relief.  In the case of Lionel, they addressed these concerns in a few ways.  Lionel continued to train specific shops and individuals as a service station.  They provided contact information for local hobby shops where products could be purchased and serviced. And with the intend of driving customers into hobby shops, they put together special train sets called “service station specials” or SSS.

Did it work?  For a while – sets were offered one each year.  In total 26 sets were offered.  The first series of 8 sets were offered 1971-1978.  The second set of 18 were offered 1986 – 2002.  The original concept was to offer these sets ONLY to smaller shops which became Lionel Approved Service Stations.    Times, shopping habits, hobby interests, sources of product, quality of offerings, and so much more changed.   What we do know is that for a lot of reasons (recently including the internet) the neighborhood hobby shop is a thing of the past.  (Do you remember back when internet sales were sales tax free.  For an expensive item a $30-50 dollar savings in sales tax was not unusual).   

While gone, the SSS offer a solid glimpse into the marketing of trains in the 1990’s and 2000’s.  As we sit back and reflect on these days still alive in our memories, and as we remain quarantined (this was written in early 2020), we can look at these SSS sets as the gems they were and still are.

A few generalities about these sets
1. The first and second SSS came with track or transformer.  In this regard, they could be considered starter sets.  All later sets did not include track/pack so when a hobby shop sold one, the sale may well include track and pack.
2. Except for the first set which was a collection of separate sale items (IC set from 1971), all the sets were made exclusively from items specifically designed for the SSS program. 
3. Two SSS (in 1995 and 2002) consisted of only one item, and as such were a set in name only.
4. In hindsight, one can only speculate why this series was discontinued between 1978 and 1986.  Management directives, change in marketing and sales strategies, outside customer pressure.  the need for the “next new thing”.  What is known is that around 1986 Lionel offered for the first time in its history a “direct to customer” program bypassing distribution and other outlets.  Some say it was to reflect Lionel’s dissatisfaction with many of its distributers.  Might the restart of new SSS sets been a nod to Service Stations and local hobby shops?
5. The SSS sets did do their job in getting customers in the store to review them.  Whether or not the customer purchased them depended to a great degree on the sales skills of the hobby shop owner.
6. There was an implicated expectation that each item was and would be unique.  Lionel would not “remake or reissue” the same car/deco/number for separate sale.
7. No set offered top of the line features, but all sets had many of the nicer features available at time of production.
8. As later sets were introduced, they offered a wide variety of motive power and cars and after a few years most every product type was offered.
9. Service station sets offered individual item boxes and came in protective cardboard box

The February 2014 issue of TLR contained Bill Schmeelk’s (RM 6643) article which provided the specific details of SSS sets including the year produced, consist, and other details of each SSS set.  

Click Here and view Bill’s past article reprinted here.