Saturday, February 12, 2011

How then, may the Friendly Local Game Store be saved?

No matter which gaming forum I happen to be visiting, and I visit a lot of them, there is always a thread concerning the shortcomings of the Friendly Local Game Store.

The discussions revolve around stories of poor service, indifference from employees, shallow selection of products, problem customers, foul smells, etc… I know you’ve all heard, or have horror stories of your own about events you’ve witnessed in your FLGS. Plus, with the selection of game product available online, accessible without the threat of being cornered by some smelly duster wearer who won’t shut up about how his character kicked Wolverine’s ass, the brick and mortar game store itself is an endangered species, with fewer to be found every year.

The state of the economy is itself a major contributor to the decline of the FLGS, but there is nothing to be done about that. Instead, I want to discuss what can be done, by those who care about such things, to contribute to the survival of Game Stores.

To start out, I accept as a given that the internet is a superior delivery system, for what it can do. I can buy an item online quickly, efficiently, almost always less expensively, and from home. The net has a wider selection available, 24 hours a day, and I don’t have to spend time on the trip, or gas, or aggravation.

In these categories, a brick and mortar store will have a very difficult time competing. So, to survive, a game store has to offer something the internet can’t. When I come at a problem, I like to spin it 360 degrees and look at it from all angles. A retail environment is complex, with all the participants being driven by different perspectives and goals. You have to consider what each wants and why to see how to make a store function well.

I break the cast of characters down as, the owner/owners, the employees, and the customers.

Customers you can further subdivide into Regulars and Non-Regulars. Game store regulars you can again subdivide according to their specific enthusiasms, such as war gamers, card gamers, role-playing gamers, board gamers, etc…

Non-regulars include any first time visitors to the store and those who visit intermittently. The non regulars are a broad category and converting them to regulars whenever possible should be a major goal of owners and employees. These are the people who come into the store on a whim, or in search of a gift. They just saw the sign and thought of that favorite game from childhood. Maybe the customer is a teacher with some vague ideas of a game as a class room aide.

They don’t speak the gamer-cant, they aren’t certain what they want, but they came through the doors because they do want something that they think you might have. Every one of them is the owner’s chance to expand his stores customer base. Just like every other business out there, if the customer has a good experience, they’ll probably mention it to friends and family. If the customer has a bad experience, they will certainly tell everyone they know. Everyone who comes into your store automatically becomes a word of mouth advertiser for you. You fail them at your peril.

Retail always operates at the thin edge of the profit margin. I haven’t run a game store, but I have to assume that like any niche retail, you can’t afford to lose any business, no matter if it’s not the sort of business you envisioned the store doing when you began.

A lot of the times I’ve gone through game stores, they’ve been thinly stocked, or overly specialized in the item of the moment. Or they focus heavily on the personal favorite games of the owner and employees while ignoring other viable segments of the hobby.

In the hey-day of game stores, the boom time of D&D and the RPGs which followed it, the sheer force of the expansion of the hobby allowed game stores to thrive even if they weren’t well run. That time is over and it’s not coming back. The RPG boom was a cultural phenomenon of its time, like vans painted with fantasy scenes, and though I think they will always be around, they won’t ever regain the influence and presence they had in the early years. At least not in the same form they had, a real time, face to face table top game.

So, if you want to have a game store, have a game store. Not a magic card store, not a 4th edition D&D store, not a wargame store, not a chess store, not a heroclix store, a frick’n game store. Stock games.

Sure, some categories will be more popular in your area than others, but you are running a niche store competing for entertainment dollars against every other non-necessity purchase out there. A game store has to be broadly stocked in order to cast the widest net possible. You don’t have to have depth in categories which don’t move often, but they need to be represented on the shelf. It matters less what you as the owner think should be in your game store than it does what the customer thinks should be in your game store. If it says game store on your sign and not Magic card outlet, you better be prepared to satisfy the expectations of whoever comes in the door should they be looking for Risk.

I ordered some things at a local game store a while back, and I waited for the call but never heard back from them. I went back to the store a couple weeks later and found the item I wanted sitting on a shelf. It had apparently been successfully ordered, but when it came in, no one knew it was spoken for. By then my enthusiasm had cooled and I decided I didn’t really need it after all. When the kid taking down an order does it by writing an unreadable scribble on a 3” scrap of paper and pushing it under the keyboard, it’s a sign that the stores customer service system isn’t very good. Have an actual order form.

Finding and supplying the hard to acquire, out of print, or short run game product should be a specialty of game stores. I can get the new stuff easily from many sources in most cases. I want to walk into a game store and see rarities and forgotten treasures. I want the guy behind the counter to be a go-to guy who can get me the hard to find stuff. I want him to be interested in tracking down the things the customer wants if it’s not a regular item. This is also something which increases the value of the game store to its customers.

I personally see gaming, meaning the more specialized and complex games we talk about, RPGs, wargames, etc, as opposed to the simple board games of childhood, candyland, snakes and ladders, chess, etc, as a part of the Greater Fandom of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

I like to capitalize things.

So, Greater Fandom includes all that stuff that gamers also like to talk about and collect, comics, movies, Science Fiction and fantasy books, figures, t-shirts, paraphernalia, accoutrements, what-not and such. The game store will do well to selectively stock game related items in these categories as well. These are things that non-gamers who have come in searching for a gift may well pick up if you don’t have the answer to their vague desires in stock.

Comic book stores generally do a much better job of cross merchandising in this manner than do game stores. Comic book stores have loads of tie-in products that support the actual comics sales. Game stores, not so much. You have to sell a lot of comics to equal the price of a new RPG hardback book, minis and dice. Of course, those comic buyers will be back again next month to get the new issues. If there are comic stores nearby, I would suggest deliberately stocking these sorts of gaming related items in a complementary and not a repetitious way.

Meaning, if he leans DC, you go Marvel. If he sells movies, you sell books. You want to have on your shelves what he doesn’t have on his.

I’m not saying the comic store is your enemy, a rival for the entertainment dollars of the customers you share, certainly, but not the enemy. Actually, getting together with the comic book store, as well as other game stores, local game clubs, SCA groups, science fiction fan groups, LARPers, re-enactors, movie theatres, any other organization which has members whose interests are similar or complementary, can raise the public profile of the game store.

Sponsoring events or providing a place for them in the store or the parking lot can bring a lot of attention to the store. Of course this can be a minefield of possible disasters, but you know, who dares, wins.

If there is a convention in striking distance, get involved in it. Not just on the vendor floor, make your store known. Wrap one of your counter monkeys in foil and put a sandwich board on him and make him walk the con handing out flyers or coupons or the product you can’t get rid of. Con goers love crappy robot costumes.

Get the local radio show guy involved. These guys love to do the remote broadcast at goofy events. They especially love it if there are Star Trek nerds or costumed LARPers involved. Put a big yellow hoola-hoop on a stand in your parking lot. Get a little manikin and dress it up like a hobbit. Give away prizes to anybody who manages to throw the Halfling through the Ring. Get one of those mobile barbeque guys to sell burgers and dogs and rat on a stick.

If there is a local independent movie theatre, host a gamer movie night. Show Hawk the Slayer and Galaxy Quest or some other crappy game inspirational movie. Make the audience roll for movie marching order.

I’m also pretty sure this internet thing can somehow be harnessed to drive sales. I’m sure somebody is looking into that.

There is always a heluva lot to do in running a retail store, but if you sit behind the counter playing WOW online and waiting for customers to come to you in a failing economy, I’ll take your backpack to carry treasure in when you die.

What an unsuccessful game store owner might look like.

Creating an informal supportive association of related businesses and customer groups may help keep the game store afloat in hard times. Small, individually owned local stores actually have an advantage in this situation over large chain stores. Big chains are top down operations. At the store level the manager has very little control over operational decisions. That all comes from the corporate headquarters, and those guys usually have little in store experience and no flexibility.
The individual store owner can move quickly to take advantage of situations, and to create them. You need to be something of a ferengi in small business. Surf the Great Material Continuum game store owner!

What a sucessful game store owner might look like.

I expect that anyone who owns a store of whatever sort wants it to do well. A lot of game store owners double as managers, but it seems that most of them are gamers who decided to make their hobby a business. That’s not a problem if they are also business people and understand retail, but that’s often not the case. It is a problem when they go into opening a store unprepared and thinking more of having a cool place to talk about the games they love with people who share their interests, and less about their bottom line.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting the game store to be a gathering place for those with the same interests. In fact, I think building a sense of community identity focused on the store is vitally important to ensuring its survival. Especially now, as the greater economy continues to decline. If however, the part of the equation that’s most important to the owner is the camaraderie with his gaming peers, then a game club or co-op with a game commissary attached is probably a better model for a business. My point is that the owner can’t lose sight of the thing that keeps a retail store alive, and that is, moving product out the door.

Are your employees Goofus or Gallant?

Small store owners often employ friends and relatives. That’s expected, but if you hire your gaming buddy to work in your store, don’t expect his behavior to change. Sales people are the face of a store. They make all the impressions on a customer about what the store is like.

I was in a store last month. There were two guys at the counter. One was making entries in the computer on the counter, he gave me a weak hi as I came in, and the other didn’t stop in his rant about whatever the hell he was ranting about. I don’t know if the guy actually has tourette’s or just lacks discretion. Every fourth word out of his mouth was the F-bomb. Finally the other guy said, “Man, cool it with saying F—k every F—king 5 seconds, F—k!”

About five minutes later, while I was rooting around, the first guy asked me if I was doing ok. I said yeah, and that was the total of my interaction with the staff while I was in the store. I actually signed up for some store club membership at this store maybe six years ago, nothing ever came of it.

I didn’t buy anything that day. Not because of the clerks behavior, but because there just wasn’t anything in the store that appealed to me. The selection has gradually been thinned down to new war gaming stuff, warhammer minis, boxed board games and puzzles, and three shelves of new school RPGs of various sorts.

Anyway, they wouldn’t have made any sales that day as they had nothing I wanted, but I would have been interested in some conversation about the state of local gaming, how the store was doing, the future of gaming, upcoming events, just shooting the breeze with fellow game enthusiasts.

If there had been any adults present.

Sure, I could have taken over and instigated and guided the conversation, but they just looked like nerdy deer in headlights whenever I looked their way. I just didn’t have the heart.

So, here’s the take away for game store owners. Hire people for their retail experience first and gaming experience second. Also don’t forget that gaming experience and product knowledge are not the same thing. If you hire good clerks who are interested in games even if they don’t have a lot of previous experience you’ll be better off. Product knowledge they can acquire, personality defects are much harder to get rid of.

Taking care of the Regulars and managing the fanboy

The core of store’s customer base, the regulars are those guys in at least weekly, and they almost always spend at least a few bucks. They will be the store’s most ardent supporters, and can be the backbone of store sales. If you take care of them, you may find they offer unexpected support in hard times. In the best situation, the regulars become unpaid auxiliaries to the store staff. They learn the store workings as well as the employees and if you lose somebody, or have an emergency, you may be able to hire one of the regulars to fill the spot on short notice.

Regulars can also become an information net as well, keeping the store manager apprised of events and happenings in the local scene, as well as providing valuable feedback on product lines. They can help shape the stores stock to maximum advantage.

You want the regulars to feel at home in the store, and always welcome. Like at a favorite corner bar.

Problem customers are a different matter. Everyone’s heard or seen the problem customer. Edition warriors, tellers of unending character tales, smelly, personal space invading, duster wearers who drive off other customers with their obnoxiousness.

Training your store staff to manage these people is important. Getting them away from non-regulars will keep you from losing sales. I’m not dumping on the less socially functional members of the gamer tribe to be mean here. I love the nutty bastards; it’s like watching a train wreck in progress. The fact is though; they will drive off potential customers who are important to the store if they are always present, loudly proclaiming the superiority of the Katanna over the MP5.

The store itself.

Game stores are usually small and cramped, retail space is costly if you don’t own the building and every square foot has to make money. A lot of stores just don’t have the space to devote to customer gaming tables, but I really think it’s a good idea if you can swing it.

A game in progress on the floor is always interesting and likely to draw attention from customers. Customers who buy stuff. The good kind.

The gamers you let play on the floor should be the sort with some self control though. They are also taken as a part of your store by the non-regular customers and if they swear and stink, it looks bad for the store.

The best situation is a second room or space devoted to gaming. The store can host game clubs or events without losing retail space or scaring non gamers. If you have to pay for it, you have to keep it in use though. Maybe allow the space to be reserved for private games for a fee.

If space is available in the store, a couple of chairs and a coffee table as a waiting room for non-gaming spouses is a good idea. Just make sure the staff know to keep the problem customers from hitting on them.

Also, if you want to play music in the store, you’re better off with movie soundtracks, tv show themes and news. You may love Slayer, but Aunt Nina who came in looking for that Dragon game won’t appreciate them.

I’ve got a lot more to say about game stores, but I’m getting tired and I have to get up early tomorrow.

If you’ve got something to add, I’ll be glad to hear it. If you want to post about game store solutions on your own blog, please do. I know game store owners read these blogs of ours, when they have time, heh.