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Model kits see resurgence as coronavirus shut-ins turn to old-school hobby for ‘something to do’

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 5/4/2020 By Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune
Lou Aguilera standing in front of a window: Lou Aguilera, president of Revell North America, holds an Iron Maiden Ed Force One outside of his home in Cary, April 28, 2020. © Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Lou Aguilera, president of Revell North America, holds an Iron Maiden Ed Force One outside of his home in Cary, April 28, 2020.

While auto sales slump during the coronavirus shutdown, build-it-yourself plastic versions at 1/25th the size are flying off the shelves.

Revell, the 77-year-old model kit maker that was acquired out of bankruptcy two years ago by a German investment fund, has seen a resurgence as a growing number of people stuck at home during the pandemic painstakingly piece together everything from ’60s muscle cars to “Star Wars” spaceships.

a black and red toy car: Revell's Junior model kit for Disney's Lightning McQueen car. © Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Revell's Junior model kit for Disney's Lightning McQueen car.

“We saw a spike in the weeks leading into the stay-at-home directives,” said Lou Aguilera, 50, president of Revell USA, based in northwest suburban Fox River Grove. “Since then, our online sales have seen significant growth from people just staying at home, looking for something to do.”

Founded in California in 1943, Revell pioneered the plastic model kit that would become a childhood staple for many baby boomers. In 1986, Revell merged with its chief rival, Morton Grove-based Monogram, making the Chicago area the center of the model kit universe.

Revell's Star Wars Millennium Falcon model kit. © Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Revell's Star Wars Millennium Falcon model kit.

The basic kits feature sleek cars, planes and ships you build by breaking parts off a plastic tree, gluing them together and then painting and applying decals. The process often takes many hours to either complete or abandon in a sticky mess of adhesive collateral damage.

Many aging baby boomers apparently decided the COVID-19 outbreak was a good time to take another crack at it, Aguilera said.

“You’ve got people that did it maybe 30, 40 years ago and said this is something I would like to do, if I ever get the time,” he said. “Well now they’ve got the time.”

A former Motorola executive, Aguilera joined Revell in 2011. He has spent the last decade trying to rev up interest in an unabashedly old school hobby

Model kit sales have declined in recent years, failing to capture the interest of a generation raised on video games, smartphones and instant gratification. In 2015, Revell introduced easier snap-together kits in a bid to lure younger model builders.

In 2018, Revell’s then-parent company, Champaign-based Hobbico, filed for bankruptcy protection. Quantum Capital Partners, a German investment group, bought the Revell assets — a warehouse filled with model kits — and briefly dissolved its U.S. operations, focusing instead on Revell’s sister company in Germany.

a truck cake sitting on top of a car: Revell's Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine kit. © Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Revell's Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine kit.

Aguilera, who was general manager of Revell under Hobbico, convinced Quantum that he could make a go of it, and a scaled-down Revell USA relaunched in June 2018. The business has 10 full-time employees, with a small network of commission-based salespeople.

Last year, Revell sold more than 1 million kits at an average of $24 each, generating roughly $30 million in annual revenue, Aguilera said.

About 70% of sales run through bricks-and-mortar retailers such as Hobby Lobby and Michaels, Aguilera said. In March, sales were up 90% year-over-year, as customers stocked up on items to keep busy at home as social distancing took hold.

When the stay-at-home orders hit in mid-March, many of the hobby retailers closed. But sales of the model kits exploded online through Amazon and other platforms, keeping April sales on par with last year, Aguilera said.

Revell stores its model kits in a third-party warehouse in Northlake, which has remained open with a skeleton crew during the shutdown. Aguilera said Revell is “a little short on inventory,” with product en route from Asia to meet increased demand.

The company was in the process of creating its own online store when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The shift to online sales makes that project a priority in the months ahead.

Leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic has included beefed up marketing campaigns to reach new customers. Aguilera is hoping some of them will stick with it — even after the golf courses, ballparks and other recreational activities open up.

“The business was going to be gone two years ago,” Aguilera said. “We see that the business can survive.”

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

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