Every November, Small Business Saturday puts the spotlight on small businesses. With that in mind, we spoke with Kenneth Bianco Jr., Director of Sales and Marketing and third-generation member of the family who founded TrainWorld. He talked about their store in Lynbrook, TrainLand, as well as TrainWorld, the name of the Brooklyn mail-order business as well as the combined entity.
How and when did your family get involved in this business? My late grandfather owned a beauty salon. One Christmas, he bought a train for his children. When he found it was worth more than he paid for, he ended up taking the train back and selling it, saying, “I’ll buy you another one.” He put up a sign in his barbershop: “I’ll give you free haircuts for your old trains. He started small and he took over. He gave away free haircuts for old people trains. It started in the basement of his house. We are now the largest Lionel dealer.
When and where did the store open? In 1968, we are therefore over 50 years old. It started with him. The first location was in Brooklyn on Avenue M. They have expanded to another location in Brooklyn where we do all of our mail orders. We opened our retail store, TrainLand, in Lynbrook, our retail flagship. I believe this is the largest model train store in America. During Covid a lot of shops closed. We have always been one of the biggest. We have stood the test of time. Our store has always been that iconic store. People from all over the world visit our store. They land at JFK and take a train or taxi to TrainLand.
What does running a small business look like today? It’s very difficult. You have to wear several hats. You are not just focused on selling. Different challenges arise, different regulations and rules. You are competing with global corporations. It’s hard to compete with retail alone. You must have an internet presence.
How have you adapted as a small business during Covid? During the Covid, we had to adapt. Many people were nervous. It was a scary time and a scary time to have a business. With the support of local municipalities and PPE (personal protective equipment), we have put in place protective shields and barriers as well as other means to ensure the safety of our customers and staff.
People were ordering online and picking up at our outlet where we had curbside. We’ve done tons of virtual events with makers. Lionel, MTH, LGB, the biggest train manufacturers in the world, talked about new items, new trains, what’s happening in the industry. We have organized many revolutionary seminars for the industry.
How up-to-date is your industry with technology in terms of marketing? The model train industry is more of an old-time industry. Railroad shows in America have been closed. We were the first in our industry to offer a virtual train show, show trains, show product, show what they [people] could do in their basements and homes, and how they could escape Covid.
How important are vacations to your business and industry? The model train industry and Lionel in particular are synonymous with Christmas. When people think of a Christmas tree, they know there’s a train under it. It is a huge pleasure and pastime. It’s fun for kids and family. People are so in love with trains. During the winter we have different arrangements going. It brings joy to families. Their eyes light up.
What’s new in railway technology? Manufacturers always come out with something more advanced than years past. You can now control the trains with an app and/or a remote control. There are a lot of new advancements that the trains haven’t had, whether it’s lighting or smoking features or just details. Smoke features are new, different, exciting. Smoke has been put into such small trains.
Some trains pay big. Collectors sometimes put it near their fireplace just to look at it. There are trains for all types of people. Bluetooth is great for New Age kids, kids in their apps, phones. Now they can interact with trains. It’s a great thing for young children and a great way to bring trains to the next generation.
How many generations have been involved in your store? We are on the third generation, which is rare. For a small business to be successful in the first year, that’s a small percentage. Going down to the third generation, we’re talking about 10%. Each generation has brought something different to the table. With my grandfather, it was more about selling one by one at the counter, having a retail link with the local consumer. My dad, aunts and uncles, the second generation, got into mail order, shipping all over the world. The third generation, with me and my cousins, we take it on the internet and social networks.
How do you use social networks and how important are they? Social media is the way to connect with consumers around the world. We were the first in our industry to use social media as it should. On YouTube, we have nearly 32,000 subscribers and over 15 million views. On Facebook we have over 50,000 followers and over 35,000 followers on Instagram. We have more followers and views than most manufacturers.
Are the trains mainly for children or adults as well? Model trains are not just for young people. Our main bread and butter is the collector, people 20+. They want the latest and greatest, the highest quality. In our TrainLand store, we have two operating schemes. Kids and adults can grab remotes and operate the trains themselves with our Lionel display or operate it with a Bluetooth app.
We have an iPad set up that people can use to operate the trains. People are amazed when they enter our store. We have trains on our walls. When people walk into our store, whether they like trains or not, they walk out loving trains and amazed at how cool the model trains really are.
Do you have any upcoming events for the holidays? We have Lionel Trains coming to our store on Saturday, November 19, 2022, with new products and announcements. National Lionel Trains Day is Saturday, December 3, 2022. It’s a big event celebrating over 122 years of Lionel Trains business. We have raffles, giveaways, discounts and exclusive products for that day. Come to TrainLand to celebrate the magic of Lionel Trains, 122 years of making memories.