Each November, Small Business Saturday spotlights smaller companies. With that in mind, we talked with Kenneth Bianco Jr., director of sales and marketing and third-generation member of the family that founded TrainWorld. He discussed their store in Lynbrook, TrainLand, as well as TrainWorld, the name for the mail order business in Brooklyn as well as of the combined entity.
How and when did your family get involved in this business? My grandfather, who has passed away, was a beauty salon owner. One Christmas, he bought a train set for his kids. When he found out it was worth more than he paid, he ended up taking back the train set and selling it and saying, “I’ll get you another one.” He put up a sign in his hairdresser salon, “I’ll give free haircuts for your old trains.” He started small and it took over. He gave free haircuts for people’s old trains. He started in the basement of his house. We’re now Lionel’s largest dealer.
When and where did the store open? In 1968, so we’re over 50 years old. It started out of his house. The first location was in Brooklyn on Avenue M. They expanded into another location in Brooklyn, where we do all our mail order. We opened our retail store, TrainLand, in Lynbrook, our retail flagship. I believe it’s the largest model train store in America. During Covid, a lot of stores closed. We were always one of the largest. We withstood time. Our store has always been that iconic store. People from all over the world visit our store. They fly into JFK and take a train or a cab to stop off at TrainLand.
What’s it like to run a small business today? It’s very challenging. You have to wear many hats. You’re not just focused on selling. Different challenges come up, different regulations and rules. You’re competing with global corporations. It’s difficult to compete with just retail. You have to have an internet presence.
How have you as a small business adapted during Covid? During Covid, we had to adapt. A lot of people were nervous. It was a scary time and a scary time to have a business. With local municipalities’ support and PPE (personal protective equipment), we set up protective shields and barriers along with other ways to keep our customers and staff safe.
People placed orders online and picked up at our retail location where we had curbside. We did tons of virtual events with manufacturers. Lionel, MTH, LGB, the largest train manufacturers in the world, talked about new items, new trains, what’s going on in the industry. We hosted many seminars that were groundbreaking 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. The train shows in America were shut down. We were the first in our industry to offer a virtual train show, to display trains, to show off the product, to show off what they [people] could do in their basements and their homes, and how they could escape Covid.
How important are the holidays to your business and industry? The model train industry and Lionel specifically are synonymous with Christmas. When people think of a Christmas tree, they know there’s a train underneath it. It’s a huge enjoyment and hobby. It’s fun for the kids and family. People get so enamored with trains. During winter, we have different layouts going. It brings joy to the families. Their eyes light up.
What’s new in terms of train technology? The manufacturers always bring out something more advanced than years past. Now you can control trains with an app and/or remote. There are many new advances that trains haven’t had, whether it be lighting or smoking features or just the detail. The smoke features are new, different, exciting. Smoke has been put in trains that are so small.
Some trains are big money. Collectors sometimes put it by their mantel just to look at it. There are trains for all different types of people. Bluetooth has made it great for New Age kids to get into, kids into their apps, their phones. Now they can interact with trains. It’s a great thing for young kids and a great way to bring trains to the next generation.
How many generations have been involved with your store? We’re on the third generation, which is rare. For a small business to succeed in the first year is a low percentage. Getting down to the third generation, we’re talking about around 10 percent. Each generation brought something different to the table. With my grandfather, it was more selling one by one over the counter, having a retail connection with the local consumer. My father and aunts and uncles, the second generation, expanded into mail order, shipping around the world. The third generation, with me and my cousins, we’re taking it on the internet and social media.
How do you use social media and how important is it? Social media is the way to connect with consumers all over the world. We were the first in our industry to use social media the way you should. On YouTube, we have close to 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 trains mostly for children, or adults as well? Model trains are not just for young people. Our main bread and butter is the collector, people from 20 years and above. They want the latest and greatest, the highest quality. In our TrainLand store, we have two operating layouts. 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 walk into our store. We have trains on our walls. When people walk into our store, whether or not they like trains, they walk out loving trains and amazed at how cool model trains really are.
Do you have any events coming up for the holidays? We have Lionel Trains coming to our store Saturday Nov. 19, 2022, with new product and announcements. National Lionel Train Day is Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. It’s a big event celebrating over 122 years of Lionel Trains being in business. We have raffles, giveaways, discounts, and there’s exclusive product for that day. Come on down to TrainLand to celebrate the magic of Lionel Trains, 122 years of making memories.