Yesterday, we drove two hours to Colorado Springs, the closest city with more than one hobby shop, and the closest anywhere that has more than a token selection of plastic scale models and supplies. Yes, there is a Hobby Lobby in Pueblo, which is only an hour one-way drive from here, but they are not at all focused on what we scale modelers would consider even an elementary selection of stuff. So, being in Colorado Springs with four or five shops, and having a bit of time to explore I found one nearby (thanks, Google Maps) and drove up to the parking lot. It was a very small shotgun store jammed between a giant Party Central store and a Best Buy in an out of the way collection of stores, anchored by a huge Sam’s Club sprawl off to the east.

Inside the little store was clean, well lit and staffed by a teenage, long-hair RC geek working on one of his cars at the register. He looked at me suspiciously, offered an almost inaudible “hi” and went back to his screwdrivers. There were two isles with stock on each wall separated by a long center set of shelves. Many RC items. Many model railroad items, perhaps as many as the RC stock. Some paint (no Tamiya Extra Thin or TS-13 in evidence). The $6 cans of Tamiya spray paint at Sprue Brothers were $10 here. Walking around the big center display island I found the plastic scale models in the back of the store. I’d say they occupied about 10% or less of the display space. I checked a few items and compared prices. Airfix 1:72 Harrier kits are $20 plus tax, or $21.60 out the door. Sprue Brothers: $15. Tamiya 1:42 F-14A $139.92 out the door. Sprue Brothers: $92.

True, that in addition to Sprue Brother’s prices one must factor in shipping, but with multiple item buys, the shipping cost per item is very low and decreases rapidly to zero once the $200 mark is reached. If I were to buy $100 worth of items, the shipping from SB would be less than the tax I would have to pay at the brick and mortar store.

Now, it is true that walk-in stores have a higher overhead relative to sales – rent, utilities, cleaning, staffing, insurance, inventory loan interest, and so forth, but this really doesn’t matter much to me. Most of us have a definite modeling budget, or know our limits and want to get a good deal (hence the early scrambles at show vendor tables and the subsequent online whining when some individual buys out entire tables at the beginning or before actual opening time of modeling shows).  From the store owner’s perspective online buying of models and supplies is major competition and none are happy with it at all. However, from the modeler’s view, the only real advantage the brick and mortar store offers is quick gratification. If I lived in, say, Sacramento and had the unshakeable urge to get that new Harrier kit, some paint and perhaps a couple of other odds-and-ends, I could get to a model store, buy what I want, stop at In-N-Out for a quick #3, chocolate shake and extra crispy fries and be modeling in just a few hours.

However, even that potential advantage is often unrealistic. Just as I was unable to find a bottle of Tamiya Extra Thin cement or a can of TS-13 clear gloss, I might well be disappointed in getting that item I went out for in the first place. The only sure thing would be that #3 with extra crispy fries. Looking through the inventory of Sprue Brothers items, for example, I can find many items that I need when the local hobby store, given that there is a local hobby store, probably would not stock them or at best might be special order items to arrive sometime in the vague but often distant future.

So, I must continue to armchair shop on my iPad at Sprue Brothers and stop niggling at myself because I’m so far away from a good hobby shop.

Why Sprue Brothers (SB for short)? I’ve also ordered from Great Models (which sold all their inventory to SB a few years back), Lucky Model, Squadron, Hobby Link Japan and probably one or two I don’t remember. But over the last couple of years it has been mainly SB, and for the last year, exclusively SB. Why? A number of reasons.

You can’t order an item if SB doesn’t have it in stock. They evidently use an effective real-time inventory database and solid procedures to keep it up to date. I find this overcomes any advantage a brick and mortar shop might have by having items on the shelves. You walk in, ask for that new Eduard Whiz-Bang Luftwaffe fighter kit and are told that it’s not in stock right now but they will be coming in real soon. The guy at the register takes your number on a sticky note and promises to call you when it arrives.

You try to put that kit in your shopping cart at SB only to be alerted that it is out of sock. You ask SB right then to let you know when it comes in. You get an email when it does. You never hear from the hobby shops because the next guy on the register doesn’t know what the sticky note is about and trashes it, or the number is wrong and he gets Linda Mae who knows nothing about Luftwaffe fighters and thinks it is a Tea Party political call and hangs up.

SB prices are good. Sure, you might get some things cheaper from Lucky Model or HLJ, but you’ll pay a hefty shipping amount and may have to wait for a few weeks. Or months. Squadron has always been hit or miss. Sometimes good prices, sometimes not. Stock availability is not obvious and back orders may be too long in coming. I’ve found that dealing with Squadron is kind of hit and miss. Your mileage may differ.

If you order a number of items, the shipping costs from SB are likely to be less than the tax you will pay at the store.

If SB pays a bit less for shipping your order you will get a refund. Imagine my surprise when I got an email a couple of months ago telling me SB was refunding a small amount because my shipping charge was less than quoted. Made a big impression on me.

SB has a huge inventory. Like as not, if I want it, they have it, or will have it soon.

And, just as importantly, when I want to go screen shopping with good photos and descriptions of goodies I might be interested in buying, I do it from home or anywhere else. Any time.

What’s not to like?