Under the title “What’s next?”, Aiways has launched a series of interviews with interviewees from industry, business, and politics. The ninth interview partner is the hero of bricks, Thomas Panke, owner of ‘Held der Steine’. The passionate model maker and one of the first Aiways U5 owners talked with Aiways Managing Director Dr Alexander Klose, primarily about the possibilities of intelligent software solutions, lean distribution systems, and the irresistible attraction of colorful, plastic bricks.
Mr Panke, how did you end up, as an adult, getting to play with colorful plastic bricks every day?
Thomas Panke: “By chance. At some point in the evening, while browsing eBay, I came across my old Lego castle from the eighties. It immediately brought back memories and I bought the used set for 20 euros. After assembling it, I took some nice photos, put the set back online, and sold it for three times the price. At that time, I still thought: wow, now I’ve found a cool and free hobby!”
How did you go from being a hobby model maker to a “hero of bricks”?
Thomas Panke: “At that time I was in process management at a large corporation. A great job with interesting projects, but nothing I could imagine doing for the rest of my life. After I had bought more and more used models at auction, built them, re-photographed them, and actually sold them again with unbelievable demand, the idea came to really take the whole thing up.”
Dr Alexander Klose: “Was it also the start-up opportunity that appealed to you? For me, that was one of the key points about Aiways that excited me. To start again on a blank sheet of paper and build a production and a platform for the mobility of the future with the knowledge and state of the art of today, was and is a wonderful challenge for me.”
Thomas Panke: “I was mainly concerned about things in the background. How do I manage to cover the needs of the customers with a small shop, how can I stock enough interesting products without a large warehouse, and how can I hold my own as a bricks and mortar specialized retailer against large online shops? The solution lay in process management. Even though the shop looks completely chaotic to many, there is a strict digital system behind it.”
What are the advantages of your system?
Thomas Panke: “I can react in real-time. The entire resource planning runs in the cloud and so, despite the apparent chaos in the shop, I always have everything in view. I deliberately chose such a solution because I want to spend as little time as possible in day-to-day business with boring topics like this. Instead, I want to take care of the products themselves.”
Dr Alexander Klose: “I also see such intelligent software solutions as the key to success. You can’t do everything on your own, so you need tools and companions who give you the support you need. For the U5, we therefore deliberately decided against a navigation solution of our own and instead built a seamless integration of the driver’s smartphone. In this way, we not only ensure intuitive operation but also real innovations such as real-time charge planning with our companion Pump. Developments such as the integration of vehicle data into a modern app environment give us a lot of freedom and, above all, responsiveness to customer requests. The feedback from sales also shows that we are successful with this.”
Sales is a good keyword, what does the market of the future look like?
Thomas Panke: “It is difficult to judge. In retail, we have already experienced digitalization to a large extent. Large platforms like Amazon are known and used by practically everyone. Nevertheless, the demand for local specialist retailers is constantly high and it is becoming increasingly difficult to get advice. There are almost no more toy shops in the big shopping malls, and the big department store chains are also withdrawing more and more from many cities. In my shop, people queue up to get their turn. They want competent advice, even if they usually already know what they want to buy.”
Dr. Alexander Klose: “The right advice is also essential for us. That is why we have carefully selected our sales partners in each country because it is important that the product is understood and lived. Only then can we respond optimally to our customers’ wishes. For us, it is not so important whether the customer gets to know his vehicle in a car dealership, in a specialized electronics store, or on our website; it is only important that all his questions are answered comprehensively and that a contact person is available at all times.”
So, does advice play a significant role in the purchase decision?
Thomas Panke: “I can answer that from two perspectives. I also drive an Aiways U5 privately and for me, the sum of its features was the main reason for the purchase. Whenever I make a major purchase, I first draw up a list of specifications, and then I buy the product that best meets all my requirements. For my purchase decision, I naturally read a lot online, looked at tests, and was thus relatively quickly confirmed in my choice. Regarding “Hero of Bricks”, I also took most of my advice to the digital realm. On YouTube and Twitch, I assemble a few models and sets every week and go into detail about the quality of the models, instructions, and functionality. For some, it’s casual entertainment, for others it’s buying advice.”
Dr Alexander Klose: “So you are a real influencer. And you can see it works, I watched the video on the remote-controlled all-terrain vehicle kit yesterday and I’m a fan of such robotics kits anyway and I think I really have to buy it now.”
Do you notice an influence on buying behavior after your videos go online?
Thomas Panke: “That’s not my point at all. I don’t hype collectibles, nor do I make special order plans based on my videos. It’s purely about having fun, about playing with the colorful plastic bricks and what you can make out of them. And since it should remain fun, the models must work and be convincing in their quality. That’s exactly what I want to bring out in my videos. Of course, people often buy what I praise and recommend in the videos, but I don’t keep statistics and I don’t praise any model in particular just because I bought a whole pallet of them as a remnant somewhere.
Dr. Alexander Klose: “Do you actually do that, i.e., buy remnants as a whole range?”
Thomas Panke: “Sometimes that does happen. When a colleague gives up the business, it can happen. There are also often special offers from the big chains, where models are offered far below my purchasing conditions. I always stock up on a few sets there, too. But on average, I’m rarely more expensive than Amazon. And that, of course, is still an argument for many people, in addition to the personal advice on site. Because the toy business is and remains traditional, despite all the collector’s items and special editions. This is perhaps best seen in the sales strength of the individual months: In November and December, we make as much turnover as in the entire rest of the year. Even the cleverest process management doesn’t change that.”