IN FOCUS: Small Business – Full steam ahead

Posted on Nov 1, 2015 :: Small Business Spotlight
Andrew Schaick
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer
Clipper City Trains in Manitowoc offers merchandise from model trains to electric train parts. Photo courtesy: Andrew Schaick

Clipper City Trains in Manitowoc offers merchandise from model trains to electric train parts. Photo courtesy: Andrew Schaick

It isn’t often you see an online business transform into a brick and mortar store, but for Tom and Judie Lehman, it was truly full steam ahead.

The Lehmans’ Clipper City Trains, formally known as Lake Shore Choo Choo, is the only model train store in Manitowoc. With more than four years of selling model trains on eBay, it is no stranger to the hobby and its enthusiasts. When the opportunity presented itself to move from e-commerce to a physical store, there was little trepidation.

“Tom came home one day and said, ‘Honey, we bought a store,’” Judie says. “I was hesitant at first but I was surprised with how fun it actually is.”

The inventory was purchased from Lake Shore Choo Choo, which was owned by Albert Nelson. He says he is happy with the new store and owners.

“These are great people, and the store looks great,” Nelson says.

Although taking over the store was scary at first, Judie says there is a lot of fun in the new role as store owners. There was a void in the couple’s life after retirement and they say the store has given them a new reason to get up and go.

“Retirement was supposed to be fun, but this place has given us another purpose to get up each morning,”
Judie says.

All the parts

From larger train models to the tiniest of parts, Clipper City Trains claims to offer almost anything to model train enthusiasts. And if the Lehmans do not have something in stock, they hold true to their motto, “If we don’t have what you need, we will order it.”

With a focus on, but not limited to electric model trains, the store offers a variety of in-stock items including new train engines, locomotives, tankers, box cars and more.

The business as a whole operates as two parts: the store, and the eBay account. Each part contributes 50 percent to the overall sales of the company.

With a passion for all things regarding trains, Tom says they get customers from all over the country and worldwide.

“Besides customers from here in the states, we get customers through our eBay site from places such as Japan, and a lot from Australia,” he says. “Sometimes the price of shipping is more than the actual product they buy.”

The Lehmans say taking over the business happened during the course of a week. Even though the transition happened quickly, Judie says they relied heavily on their customers to learn what kind of products to stock.

“We’ve made mistakes but we’ve also made great achievements and have seen a growth in sales since takeover,” Judie says. “The amount of information you learn while taking over a business for the first time is unbelievable, but we learned a lot from the people that come to us, our customers.”

All for a cause

Turning a profit is the mission behind most business models, but for the Lehmans, it’s much more.

As a way to bring more children into the store, the company runs a birthday club program for their youngest customers where an in-store gift certificate is mailed out one week before the child’s birthday.

“The best part of my job is seeing the smiles on children’s faces when they come into the store. Those smiles are like profit to us,” Judie says.

For the owners, the business goes far beyond selling merchandise. They want to keep the enthusiasm of model trains alive. As older collectors and enthusiasts are on the decline, the business buys and sells used trains and parts to avoid the chance of products being scrapped or stored away and forgotten about.

“We have inventory that comes through the door for consignment,” Tom says. “There are models out there that have been sitting in someone’s basement for years and we want to bring those back out and get them into the hands of collectors who can really appreciate them.”

Like the birthday club, the business aims to bring a younger crowd through the doors. The business aims to establish long-lasting relationships with clients through their brick and mortar store, as well as their eBay store.

“We didn’t open the business expecting to make a tremendous amount of money, we just like doing what we are doing,” Judie says.

Tom aims to make a difference in kids’ lives.

“If we could take one or two kids off the street and turn their focus to model trains, then everything we have done has been well worth it,” he says.