Catalog trends

For those of you who are old enough to remember what “catalogs” are, there’s a new one from Estes.

I’ve been compiling some statistics from historical Estes catalogs. Here are some numbers from 40, 30, 20, 10, 1, and 0 years ago — numbers of kits, and percentages of the total, for each skill level:

Skill level 1975 1985 1995 2005 2014 2015
1 19 25% 38 41% 23 29% 19 28% 37 20% 29 17%
2 19 25% 28 30% 17 22% 13 19% 30 17% 22 13%
3 25 33% 18 20% 11 14% 7 10% 8 4% 11 7%
4 7 9% 5 5% 7 9% 0 0% 3 2% 3 2%
5 4 5% 2 2% 0 0% 0 0% 4 2% 5 3%
ARF 0 0% 0 0% 0 0% 0 0% 16 9% 18 11%
E2X 0 0% 0 0% 16 20% 22 32% 49 27% 51 30%
RTF 0 0% 0 0% 0 0% 6 9% 24 13% 19 11%
pro 0 0% 0 0% 0 0% 0 0% 6 3% 6 4%
pro E2X 0 0% 0 0% 0 0% 0 0% 4 2% 5 3%
unk 1 1% 1 1% 5 6% 1 1% 0 0% 0 0%
total 75 92 79 68 181 169

And here are a couple of graphs of numbers of kits in each skill level vs. year. The first includes ARF, RTF, E2X, etc., but is kind of busy, so I also include a graph showing just skill levels 1 through 5. Edit: I also included a graph showing totals in four categories — levels 1–2, levels 3–5, ARF+E2X+RTF, and Pro Series — as well as the total number of rockets in all categories.

image (1) imageimage (2)

(This is by my count. You might count differently. I’m considering all individual rockets, whether available individually or in combination kits, starter/launch kits, or bulk packs. I’m counting the 12 crayon rockets as one. I don’t count air rockets. I do count cold power rockets. The new “Mix-n-match” kits I count as one rocket each… they’re not actually individual rockets, nor are they three specific rockets, I dunno, how do you want to count them? And so on, lots of judgment calls.)

Probably the first thing to notice is there are a lot of rockets: 12 fewer than last year (the all time high), but almost twice as many as 1985. Back then there were only skill levels 1 through 5, no Ready To Fly or Almost Ready to Fly or Easy 2 eXecute or Pro Series. Back then skill levels 3 through 5 accounted for 27% of the rockets available; now they’re 12%. But in terms of absolute numbers, they’ve gone from 25 models to 19 — not a huge change. And 5 of the current models are skill level 5, versus only 2 in 1985.

Which may be a meaningless comparison, of course. Are 1985 skill levels comparable to 2015 ones? I’ve seen it argued that skill levels have been inflated, that a modern level 5 would have been considered only a level 3 back in the good old days, because kids these days don’t have the patience and grit to build “real” level 5 rockets. I’ve also seen it argued that skill levels have been deflated because kids these days are lazy and don’t want to buy kits labeled skill level 5. In fact the data don’t convince me of either. Certainly if you look at kits that have stayed more or less unchanged in production over the years, or have gone away and come back, their skill levels sometimes have gone up, sometimes down, sometimes even both within a period of two or three years.

The Big Bertha has always been skill level 1, for instance. (Of course, these days it has laser cut fins; once upon a time you had to cut them yourself.) Always since 1971, that is, when skill levels (or challenge levels, to use the better terminology they started with) were introduced. Wait, how long has the Big Bertha been in the catalog?

A long time. It first appeared in the 1966 catalog, and has been in every catalog since. But my understanding is the kit was introduced in 1965. (There was no 1965 catalog.) Vern Estes’s original Big Bertha dates from earlier, as do the plans Estes published in Model Rocket News, but the Big Bertha kit, unless I’m misinformed, is turning 50 this year.

Back to the statistics. That net loss of 12 rockets from 2014 comes from the discontinuation of:

Shuttle Xpress Launch Set E2X
Puma RTF
Summit RTF
LoadStar RTF
Scrappy RTF
Slinger RTF
Blue Ninja E2X
Eliminator E2X
Gold Strike E2X
Silver Streak E2X
Quark 1
Reflector 1
Payloader II 1
Ricochet 1
Space Eagle 1
Vector Force 1
Plasma Probe 1
Super Alpha 1
CC Express 2
Mega Mosquito 2
D-Region Tomahawk 2
Screaming Eagle 2
Solar Flare 2
Long Tom 2
Photon Disruptor 2
Dark Energy 2

(Also, the Gnome is now only in bulk packs.) and the introduction of:

Nova ARF
Rookie ARF
Mammoth pro E2X
Mix-n-Match-50 E2X
Mix-n-Match-55 E2X
Mix-n-Match-60 E2X
Flip Flyer E2X
Show Stopper E2X
Sky Cruiser E2X
Crossbow SST 2
Mercury Redstone 3
Scorpion 3
Lynx 3
Odyssey 5

(and the Generic E2X is now sold individually). The discontinued rockets are predominantly skill levels 1 and 2. The new ones are mostly E2X… but most of the rest are skill levels 3 and 5. Seems as though Estes is flattening its skill level distribution somewhat. Or maybe trying to cater harder to its two disparate markets: kids and builders. The reduction in levels 1 and 2 and the increase in E2X continues a recent trend and reverses one from five years or so ago, when level 1 outnumbered E2X for the first time since early in the millennium. As for levels 3 to 5 they’ve been building (see what I did there?) pretty consistently over about the same time period.

The Pro Series isn’t doing much. There’s one new one, another E2X. All the old ones are still there — the builder’s models maybe only for so long as there’s inventory, though. We’ll see.

It’s easy to deplore the “E2Xization” of Estes, but Estes didn’t singlehandedly create modern culture, and if E2X kits can bring kids into the hobby gently, I think that’s a good thing. For now, there still are plenty of level 1 and 2 kits they can move on to — and my guess is those numbers won’t decrease much further in the next few years — and increasing numbers of levels 3 to 5. Really, if you look just at skill levels 1 through 5, the numbers of rockets are not that different than they were 40 years ago, except that the level 3 count is down — and it’s been heading up. By these measures, I think the market’s in a pretty good state.


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