Clear Block is a railroad signal, indicating that the block of track ahead is clear and no train wrecks are in the offing. Joe Derouin, a 48-year-old who loves trains, dreamed of being in the model-railroad business. He got the “clear block” call from his wife Jeanne almost eight years ago.
“I thank God everyday for my wife. It was she who supported me and made it possible to live this dream. If it weren’t for her we wouldn’t be talking about this; that girl made all the difference. Not a lot of guys have had the luck I had,” Joe says.
What Jeanne’s support allowed was for Joe to spend virtually every waking second of his life working with model trains. Along the way, he acquired a partner, Gary Paulino, an electrician who also happened to be very savvy about ecommerce. Between the three of them, they are growing a business that will finally allow Joe to take a salary from after seven years of work.
Joe has been a model railroader since he was six years old. In 1999, he went to a big regional train show as a vendor.
Derouin: I was a hobbyist who basically converted his collection to inventory and went to a train show to sell stuff. I had a pretty good weekend. The next thing I know the business was started and I just kept rolling with it. We were home-based for many years, and after doing all these shows we reached critical mass—the cellar couldn’t hold the inventory anymore and the customer base was growing. So, we moved into a storefront, which had been a dream, but it came a little sooner than expected.
As is the case with dreams that come true, there is some shock when it happens. Suddenly there is rent to pay, more customers to serve and of course the need for cash— read that “more business.”
Derouin: I had a very good customer, who is now my partner. Gary Paulino is a very important person in my life. He was very well versed in ecommerce, Internet, computers and eBay. Gary suggested to me that until we get enough people coming through the doors we should supplement with eBay. About the same time I had a major company build a website for us, which I was disappointed with. Gary suggested a few other things to do. He revamped the site. He went from being my best customer to my partner. He had a job he couldn’t get away from easily, so he did a lot of his work at home and we communicated through emails and telephone. In a nutshell, he kept telling me that there would be days when did more business on the Internet than we would do in the real store.
I’ve got 35 years of retail experience, and I know how to put a physical store together and how to make it look pretty, but when to comes to doing that on a website, Gary knows what he’s doing.
Trackside went on eBay with a full presence. Trackside was also live on its own TracksideSales.com site using the Miva Merchant shopping cart and, of course, there was the brick-and-mortar store at 31 Pleasant Street in Attleboro, Massachusetts. The physical store still accounts for the lion’s share of the sales. But, the Internet is throttling up for Gary and Joe.
Derouin: Between eBay and the website we have gone worldwide many times over—last week we got our first customer from Australia. Ebay and Trackside.com account for about a quarter of the company’s sales. I see that number growing with each passing month. We just need more online exposure.
The eBay Store was a cash-flow strategy. Gary had learned that with the proper use of the eBay platform, they could move a lot of merchandise with a minimal investment.
Derouin: I needed to make some money quick and Gary told me that we would probably see more people looking for products on eBay and we would get more exposure quicker. It always was our dream, however, to have a separate website, which we have now. We used eBay to get experience and to get customers to our site and our shop.
The eBay experience has been a pleasant and useful one for Trackside. They have used eBay for two years. The feedback has been 100% positive, which certainly helps push things along. Besides the eBay card the pair also played the whole deck when it came to exposing the website. Every shipping label has the website address, as do all business cards, signs and packaging. ECommerce successes not withstanding, an underlying theme for Joe is good retail merchandising, just like he did for 35 years selling suits.
Derouin: What we try to do is try to make sure we have the right product at the right time. So that when the customers comes in, “It’s hot, it’s new, it’s on the counter, come see it.” We also try to go to market with it electronically at a competitive price. Of course, we know our products, what’s available and what’s not available, and when we come across special buys we can go to auction at eBay to maximize profits.
While Trackside got into the ecommerce business after selling at expos for years, Joe now finds the Internet and his website are the underlying catchall for customer service and customers he meets at the shows. The name of the game now is “tell everybody to go to the site.”
Derouin: Now we fall back on the website almost like a crutch. We tell people to call the store if they want, but they can find most anything they want at the site. We encourage them to use email. All of our email addresses are listed on the site. We get quite a bit of email. We ran an ad in Model Railroader Magazine and to maximize the impact of the ad we headed it www.tracksidesales.com. People from all over, Seattle, Texas and other places, saw the ad and took a chance on us.
Model railroaders, being who they are, really would rather go to the store and visit with other train buffs and play with the toys. For that reason, the regional customers still come to the Attleboro store to buy their gear. But the Internet plays a roll in that as well.
Derouin: We have three operating layouts and we do clinics and special events. We use the website to advertise all of that. And, for every individual who sits up until three in the morning buying a locomotive online, there are three who would like to come to the store.
Joe and Jeanne and Gary, soon to be Trackside Sales, Inc, have fought the good fight. Joe says he had his midlife crisis and turned a hobby into a viable business. They have all had their share of long days and even longer nights and longer weekends on the road with a van full of little engines that could, could make them successful ecommerce merchants.
For others who think the entrepreneur’s life is for them, Joe’s has these words.
Derouin: I’m still in damage control. It’s been tough. In our business, a lot of people like trains, but they go to the shows and they throw the stuff on the table and hope someone will buy. But before you make customers you gotta make friends. I was always taught to interview a potential customer, talk to them a little and find out what they like. I know what I have and if we can marry the two ideas together you got a winner. As far as someone starting out, yeah you have to follow your heart and see where it takes you, but you gotta know your product. You have to know your product.
Joe is going to take a salary this year and he and Jeanne are going on their first vacation since 2002. They are incorporating the business this year. The little engine that could, did. And the baby is growing up.
Derouin: The funny thing is that I built this baby from nothing because my wife loved me and she supported me. Now, we’re going to incorporate, we’re not a mom and pop anymore and it’s getting bigger. But it hurts a little bit, because it’s not my baby anymore.
Joe says it’s a hurt he can live with.