Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Honesty in the Balance (Tradecraft)

You know what needs to go. I'm referring to the small business with the blind spot on their balance sheet or income statement. Most stores have a blind spot. Maybe it's an employee. Perhaps it's a luxury you think you can't do without. Perhaps you refuse to properly manage inventory because you're afraid of disappointing customers. For successful stores, who have conquered all the big problems, it's often owner compensation.

Some blind spots are a refusal to admit you are defeated. Rent that's far too high is often a sign you're doomed, as it's usually non negotiable. If you've got a bad lease, you may be sunk, spending your time re-arranging the deck chairs in hopes to slow the intake of water on the lower decks. As Dave Wallace lectures, when he attempts to acquire stores, the only deal breaker, the only unfixable thing, is a bad lease. If you're in this situation, you may be trying to wait it out, although it's possible to re-negotiate a lease. Everything is negotiable all the time. If this is you, bring your broken financials to your landlord and lay it out before it's too late. I did this during the recession and got a steep reduction with no increases for the lease term.

Debt is also one of those things you may be trying to wait out. I'm in that situation after a big expansion. As long as you can proceed slowly and it's not getting worse, you're not going further into debt, it's the bed you've made and you've got to lay in it. Debt can be re-negotiated as well though, as in restructuring it to kick the can down the road and smooth it out. It's a logical thing to do if you're against the wall. I did a little of that earlier in the year.

Staff is a hard one because you've invested in people and through no fault of your own, you can't afford them. It may also mean regressing in your personal lifestyle. You may need to work an extra day a week or take a pay cut to get things back in balance. You may need to stop expensing your personal life through your business. This is often the necessary strategy when sales take a steep downturn. The economy is strong in most places, but it won't always be. Rolling up your sleeves is something to consider and plan for, as a contingency. If you have employees, know who can cover what areas, and make sure staff are cross trained.

What I see are elaborate plans to avoid obvious imbalances. Any experienced small business owner in your field can look at your income statement and point out your obvious problems. It doesn't take an expert, an accountant or a broker to point out you're off course. So why is it so hard for many of us to do the same? The good news is when I see a bad income statement, I see profit. I don't see terminal mismanagement, I often see what's known as SDE, or Seller's Discretionary Earnings, all the dumb things you do that I would change to equal profitability. If you think you're in trouble, if you want to sell or restructure, maybe take a look at your SDE, take a deep breath and do the hard work of fixing your business. You go first.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Board Game Analysis (Tradecraft)

Welcome to the annual jumping to conclusions event! I hope you're wearing your special jumping shoes, because I have a tiny sample of my sales data that I'm going to tweak into a narrative that provides me meaning and allows me to sleep at night. Ready?

This came from a discussion in which some game store owners will avoid games that rank highly on Amazon. Some will also avoid game exclusives out of principle or laziness, exclusives being games only sold by one supplier. Publishers will claim exclusives provide various benefits, including brand value protection by implementing control over where their product goes. Is this true? We'll take a look.

I'm also noting games that were crowd funded. This will show whether crowd funded games have penetrated my best sellers, as many believe Kickstarter will be the death of the game trade. I think you'll find that's not quite true.

Below are my top 50 sellers over the last twelve months. Past performance is no indication of future results, so if you're a new store owner, staaaaaaaap. Buy new games going forward and avoid the strong temptation to back fill. This is not a buyers guide.

So what do I see?
  • 14 of my top 50 board games (28%) were crowdfunded. Most are at the bottom of the top 50 though. I've managed to back two of those, despite backing eight board game projects in total. Most were terrible. The other 12 top crowd sourced games came through distribution, making their origin more of a footnote for me. These numbers are significant, so I certainly wouldn't want to be shut out of the Kickstarter market. It's clearly part of the ecosystem. However, my ability to pick winners via crowd funding is sorely lacking. Years ago when I tracked every KS board game product, my conclusion was Kickstarter games were no better ranked nor worse ranked on Boardgamegeek. 
  • There's not much difference between Amazon discounts of distributor exclusive games. The distributor exclusive games average a 15% Amazon discount versus 17% for non exclusive.  Those are averages, however. If you look at very deeply discounted games, more than 20%, you see they are 2:1 more more likely to be a game that's not exclusive. With exclusivity we usually see a brand value protection strategy, which for brick and mortar stores is quite welcome.
  • Amazon top selling ranks make no difference.  8 of our top 50 games (16%) are on any of Amazon's top 50 lists. The average ranking of both distributor exclusive and non exclusive games is around 1,000. That might be because Amazon has already saturated that market or perhaps we're a little too niche within the game market. I personally don't look at Amazon rankings for games, although I'm intensely curious about how my book ranks (#144 in starting a business, but anything is possible if you create small enough categories).

So what did we learn? Amazon rankings are meaningless. Kickstarter is important for the board game ecosystem, but my ability to pick winners is poor. Distributor exclusives aren't especially brand value protected online, but those without exclusivity tend to be very deeply discounted.
Betrayal at Baldur's GateNoNo64018%-
Betrayal at House on the HillNoNo3631%-
Dead of WinterNoNo40810%Alliance
Cards Against HumanityYesNo100%CAH
Arkham Horror LCG: Core SetNoNo7417%Alliance
Legend of the Five Rings LCGNoNo58421%Alliance
Twilight ImperiumNoNo177827%Alliance
Mansions of MadnessNoNo16150%Alliance
Codenames: Disney FamilyNoNo5536%-
Stuffed FablesNoNo120320%Alliance
Harry Potter Hogwarts BattlesNoNo4736%-
Star Wars: Imperial AssaultNoNo81910%Alliance
Boss MonsterYesNo20923%-
King of TokyoNoNo10020%-
Warhammer: ShadespireNoNo15%-
Pandemic: Legacy Season 2 - BlNoNo38635%Alliance
Dark SoulsYesYes52345%-
Ticket to RideNoNo2214%Alliance
Dominion NoNo1233%-
7 WondersNoNo15810%Alliance
Terraforming MarsNoNo2780%-
Massive DarknessYesNo3,77021%-
Eldritch HorrorNoNo27923%Alliance
Fallout Board Game NoNo33720%Alliance
7 Wonders: DuelNoNo16510%Alliance
Exploding KittensYesNo20%-
Bears vs BabiesYesNo370%-
Rising SunYesNo76925%-
Near and FarYesNo70136%-
This War of MineYesNo26%-
Century: Spice RoadNoNo132324%GTS
Mice and MysticsNoNo53614%Alliance
Sushi Go!YesNo110%-
Axis & Allies Europe 1940NoNo62729%-
Pandemic: Legacy Season 2 - YeNoNo145221%Alliance
Small World Board GameNoNo105917%Alliance
The Grimm ForestYesYes22133%-
Dist. ExclusiveAvg111315%

Saturday, September 15, 2018

FLGS: The Card Game

"I really like your book, but what I missed was customer stories."
-- customer

I laughed and said it was a terrible idea. It would be my last act as a store owner, before they strung me up. In my book (currently 13, 5-star reviews on Amazon - go check it out), I was careful not to include the interesting cross section of humanity I call my customers. I love these people. They are my tribe, as much as they like to divide and question authenticity.

I don't actually know if they're any more insane than the rest of the general public. However, despite their unusual antics, they're far more predictable and rational than regular people. I've said it many times, if I had to sell things to mundanes, I would quit. I've got better things to do, for more money and less stress. Which brings us to the card game.

FLGS: The Card Game is all about quirky customers. It's basically a Guillotine knock off, since I lack creativity and skill in the arena of game design. If you're questioning whether it's legit to copy game mechanics, let me refer you to a little black box known as Cards Against Humanity. Each card in FLGS is a customer and each player is a store owner.

Your goal is to acquire high value customers, the alphas and the angels, while fobbing off the difficult customers, the vultures and parasites to your store owner opponent. These are categories I wrote about eight years ago in a blog post called Law of the Jungle, and they work very well for a game (stereotypes are like that). As the customer comes up to the counter, you can be your smooth self and retain them or use action cards and such to fire them and and send them on their way to your competitor. My real-world competitor actually collects these people, providing an important service to the gamer ecosystem.

The point of this game is the cards are amusing. That's it really. The game mechanics are pretty standard fare. If you find the idea offensive, first you have no sense of humor, and second, this game is not for you. I've got 14 years of anecdotes and customer stories I can't share publicly. But I'll happily put it in a game. This may only appeal to other store owners and my readers, so who knows if anyone cares, especially in an age when people take themselves far too seriously (gotta maintain subculture authenticity).

I've got to be careful to file the serial numbers off. I know from experience people will think I'm talking about them, so when possible I'm creating a composite. Your crazy behavior is probably not unique to you. My fading memory is actually a help here. For example, my energy drink swilling and candy binging Doctor Goodbar card is a composite of my next door neighbor dentist who buys Red Bulls (diet) and the dental staff who binge on candy bars.

My plan is to make maybe 25% more cards than needed in the prototype and let an editor weed out stuff only I find amusing. If it's all funny, who knows, maybe we can be idiots and launch the expansion at the same time as the base game. Did I mention I can pillory the rest of the game trade with the action cards?

Although the vast majority of my customers are white males, a trend that is changing rapidly, I'm trying to be as gender neutral and inclusive of people of color as possible, without falling into stereotypes, of course. Writing the book, the proof readers pointed out quite a bit of Ferengi-level sexist crap I had acquired over the years in the trade to describe various business practices, and the book was better for removing it.

I've posted some card concepts on my Facebook author page. I've got one mildly interested publisher (not my book publisher) and I've thought about using Kickstarter. The pitfalls of a first time game designer are many, even if it's a bunch of cards, so I would rather not do this on my own. If you're an interested game publisher, let me know. For now, I'll be working up (really writing up, since mechanics are established) a prototype.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

How I Knew

The question people sometimes ask is "How did you know you were going to be successful as a game store owner?" You might be surprised to learn it was fairly recent. I spent far too much money building my stores, and it wasn't clear if these sunk costs would ever pay off. You can easily overbuild a business with no financial benefit and a really, really, long return on investment (ROI). I still wince when I think of the startup losses for the first year, and what I could do with that money if I hadn't been paying to learn retail. I could start a store now for a lot less, that's for sure.

I took no significant profits from the business for the first five years. We moved to a bigger location, with stratospheric costs, after three years, expanding with loans and the like, so eventual profitability was in doubt. That's right, after five years, which included writing my blog for the last two, I wasn't entirely certain this whole thing wasn't a boondoggle. When the profits finally did arrive, what did I do? I expanded again. Too much money leads to risk taking.

During the early years, I started doling out ever increasing distributions in the $1,2000-$2,000 a year range, as a kind of success place holder. Maybe if I faked profitability for long enough, it would actually happen. It's kind of like budgeting for your salary, even if you know you can't pay it in the beginning. Getting up to speed on profitability was critical, because my financial life had a five year period where I had an artificially low mortgage, and at year six, I needed to make nearly double my salary. My mortgage was set at fives years of "interest only," something banks don't do anymore. Year six was a wildcard.

So for five years, I felt like we had overbuilt. It was like we were waiting for demand to catch up with the supply we were providing. We were overstaffed, over-inventoried, and growth was slowly putting wind in our sails. I say slowly but it wasn't uncommon to have 10-20% growth a year during these early days, but with corresponding infrastructure and staffing headaches to manage it. We talked a lot about gross sales, but I carefully avoided the "n" word.

By the end of the fifth year, profitability started to climb. It appeared to be enough to guarantee I wouldn't lose my house solely because I couldn't make the payments. Was it a blip on the radar? Maybe, but my trend lines in Excel told me we were onto something. Just sit back for a moment and think about that. After five years of my life, maybe I wouldn't go broke. How is that rational? Who does that? If you think I'm bragging, let the stupidity of these statements sink in.

2013 was year six in business and I had enough steady profits to know I was doing the thing. I was making a steady middle class income, enough for the Bay Area even, but still not quite as much as when I worked in IT, nine years previous. Even with painful construction loans taking a big cut of profits, I still managed to maintain profits and my extravagant rise to the middle. Although the trade is constantly changing, I'm fairly confident I can weather most storms and continue running a store in some fashion.

I say in some fashion because I've gotten a lot older over the past 14 years and I need to consider retirement options, which might mean a second business, getting another job, or reducing my costs, like living someplace cheaper while running the store remotely. It's either that or keep doing this thing for the next twenty years or so.  If I had been working in IT over these game store years, I would have a million dollars in the bank easy, just in salary differences. Instead I have an economic engine that doesn't always need me, but it's a volatile engine running on moonshine and false promises. If you can't decide which is better, let me suggest you take the million dollars.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Rising Cost of Goods (Tradecraft)

I've been tracking my cost of goods every day since I opened my store in 2004. I wasn't really sure what I would do with these numbers on day one, but I thought they were important. I can't stress how ignorant I was about retail back then, but I knew from working in IT you couldn't over measure.

The numbers I tracked were the COGS I actually got on the sale of merchandise each day rather than what I bought the product for. It doesn't include some tiny categories like used products and card sales, so it might actually be a point or two higher. This was all tracked on my Open to Buy spreadsheet, which today is on line 5,053.

I might have bought a $50 board game for $25, but if I had to clearance it for $30, that's reflected in my numbers as higher COGS. As margins shrink, especially with the recent announcement Wizards of the Coast is reducing margins on Magic the Gathering for a second time, rather than raise prices, I've decided to attack low margins head on.

Usually low margins have historically meant inefficiency. When I'm growing quickly and taking a lot of chances, I make more inventory mistakes, which is reflected in a higher cost of goods. It's like how geologists can look at a cross layer of rock to discover historical events, like volcanic eruptions. Yep, that rise is when we moved and guessed wrong on product. That low point was when we were saving for construction and not taking any chances. For the last three years, cost of goods have risen steadily and margins have shrunk, and with Magic about a quarter of our sales, I can't imagine it not moving a point or two higher next year.

There are a few tools you can consider for addressing low margins. In the past, turn rates have been all I've cared about. If a product moved fast enough, the margin was far less important. I don't think speed is making up for low margins, as the industry margins seem to be shrinking overall. Turn rates are about opportunity cost, and we have limited money, limited opportunity, to pay our bills and be successful. For the first time, I'm running margin reports.

Most point of sales systems can't run a margin report, much like most can't do turn rate analysis. To make your own, run a report with prices and costs, dump it to a spreadsheet and create a new column with a percentage comparing those numbers. Now sort. The first think you'll probably notice is errors, which should be fixed. For me, there are items with no COGS noted. Then look at your lowest margin items. Like working with turn rates, perhaps address your lowest 20% performers.

I've delegated entering data into our POS, so sometimes low margin items get past me. Some companies, like Ultra Pro has laughably low margins, if you use their MSRP, for example, as do some direct accounts where we pay shipping. These are easy to fix.

When I looked at Magic a year ago, I saw how it had shifted from pack sales to box sales and singles over the years. In 2004, it was inconceivable I could sell a box, which I sold at full MSRP ($133). It's 2018 and we're selling them hand over fist at $120 (like $92 in 2004 money). These are inherently lower margin sales, and combined with low margin draft events, Magic doesn't look so hot. Our solution in the case of Magic is to increase our discount prices to less of a discount for these things. Event fees will go up a dollar, box sales by five. If the market won't bear it (customers have shown tremendous understanding), we'll shift.

So now is the time to raise prices, set items not to re-order, or maybe even clearance entire low margin product lines to free up cash for other areas. You might combine this with a turn rate threshold: 50% margin needs to turn at four times a year, 45% turn at five times a year, 40% six times, and anything lower perhaps ten times a year. We're using multiple tools here to get results. There is no impossibly low margin, if performance is good enough. I'll take a 10% margin, if I'm buying a product on Tuesday with a guaranteed buyer on Wednesday. New car dealerships make their living on low margin, near guaranteed sales of 10-15%.

Like turn rates, blowing out low margin items is about opportunity cost. You need to have a better place to put your money when you do this. If you don't have a better place, you're better off leaving well enough alone. In a small market, low performance may just be your lot, and a Subway franchise may be in your future.

Another option is to use GMROI, which I talked about in this blog post. Gross Margin Return on Investment is the perfect tool for calculating inventory performance when margins are all over the board. You'll definitely see under performers using this tool. In my example from that post, I beat up on toys for not performing. After I wrote that post, I ditched toys. Classic games also underperformed, and we streamlined that department, treating it as a seasonal department.

Here in California, inflation is a staggering 3.6% and wages are rising around 10% a year. We're being eaten alive by expenses while cost of goods is going up, and we're seeing a re-alignment in our product mix, resulting in lower board game and CCG sales. It only makes sense we look deeper at exactly what we're doing and make some hard choices.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Facebook Marketing (Tradecraft)

Here are my three stages of Facebook marketing:

1. Pay to attract local people to my Facebook Page. Here is where I use my age demographic, both genders, a 15 minute drive time, and a bunch of different hobby game interests. These ads are ongoing. The interests need to be updated regularly as Facebook changes. 15 minute drive time is probably a little high, with 10 minutes being more reasonable, but at this stage in my store life, we need to pull farther out.

We currently have 7,773 people following our page, which is far more than a normal store should have. It's one of the top followed store Pages. I used to track that when Pages were new, but I've realized it's more a curse than a blessing. Marketing to a Page with a lot of people not interested in what you're offering locally, just causes problems.

2. Pay to attract local people on my Page to my Groups. If you're on my Page and local, I can assume you're interested in my store. Although I recently had one woman angry about "ads on HER page," after she somehow saw one of our Ding & Dent posts. People are weird (I just ban those people, in case you're wondering about my response).

We have eight special interest groups with 1,663 members. There is a lot of membership overlap, so I can't tell you how many unique customers we have in Groups. I do not allow non-local people in these groups and I'll cull the herd if I find them. "If I wasn't 1,200 miles away, I would totally jump on that." Cut.

3. Relate to Group members. I could say market to group members, and there is some of that, but having people in Groups allows them to have a place to discuss stuff. I'll interrupt their socializing with new releases, event information, interesting articles I find, or even what I'm doing in my game. As we know from social media marketing, being all business all the time drives people away. Add value to their lives, not just your store. 

One of my jobs during receiving is taking photos of new arrivals and posting them to each of the related Groups. By lunch time, some of that stuff is usually sold. It's a powerful tool. Of course, everything in the bubble, stays in the bubble. Asking people to spread the word isn't an option in a Group. They have to copy and paste and do their own social media marketing, which rarely happens. It's a big reason why we have difficulty building some of our sale events.


I spend less on this system. When I was focusing exclusively on Page likes, I was spending twice as much money and getting worse results. I've spent about $50,000 over the years building our Facebook community, with none of that aimed at outside systems, like our decrepit web page. It's still nothing like when I would spend 2% of my gross on advertising on cable TV, print, and radio. It's more like half a percent. I think you need to be ready to walk away from Facebook at a moments notice. Good luck with finding a plan B. 

I have privacy. I have store owners and other industry professionals following me on the Page. They tend to question every move I make, often publicly. "You put that game on sale? We sell ten a day." Yeah, whatever, go away now. The intimacy of Groups means I can be more frank with customers without the scrutiny of my entire profession. I don't have CEOs of companies calling my twenty minutes after I make a statement about a game line. Yes, they do that.

Where to Begin. Start with your Page. Spend money to get people to know your business exists as a basic marketing exercise. This may be as far as you go if you've got less than 500 or so customers on your Page. Break them out into Groups as needed. There's no need to start a new Group just because someone asks for one. Do it based on need, like when we got far too many photos of painted CMON miniatures in our board game group. I have some Groups with 20 people in them that should really be brought back into the fold, but those ones have their own co-administrators doing the work, so I don't worry about it (never give up control of your Groups).

Finally, don't put all your eggs in this one basket. People are regularly fatigued by Facebook and move on. Cultivate other marketing methods outside the walled garden. Consider Twitter, Instagram, and supporting local causes, like placing ads in school papers. Have a marketing budget and understand it can take weeks or months for efforts to pay off. If you're certain something doesn't work, don't feel like you're a slave to the budget; cut it and find something else. One day it may be Facebook.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Labor and Work

Happy Labor Day!

I wanted to pontificate on work for a moment, since I've been talking about minimum wage. There is no job inherently undignified or beneath a person when it comes to work. I've worked many a minimum wage job in my life, from my first job cutting up chicken at a Japanese take out restaurant to cashier at Carl's Jr. All work can be dignified, and from my perspective, has inherent value.

I did these kinds of jobs for eight years while in school, and I look back fondly on my car washing, chauffeuring, word processing, process serving, chicken cutting, and security guarding. Bills were often late, I could never afford a full tank of gas (or a car without problems), and upcoming rent was often a motivator. Work can even have a spiritual dimension, with the Zen advice of "Chop wood, carry water," turning daily life into spiritual practice. With the right perspective work can be uplifting.

The problem with our economy is not work and wages, it's mobility. You can certainly cut wood and carry water in the intentional, simplified life of an ascetic, but that's generally a choice, if not a means to make misery more palatable. Most people in minimum wage jobs, once reserved for teens on their way to bigger and better things, are adults. Nearly half of American workers make less than $15 an hour, which is still pretty low, sometimes at poverty levels. It's one thing to work a low wage job while in school or while you write your business plan, or even in your small business, but it's another thing when you're stuck and mobility is out of reach.

It's no wonder people are hitting the road, living in vans and tiny houses, considering a move to Mexico as a retirement plan or actual retirement (that's me), while turning their backs on the economy. Over a third of adults have no savings whatsoever, and 78% are extremely concerned about retirement savings. Checking out of a no-win situation is a sensible alternative, even if it means your address is now a U-Store-It. We watch our expenses soar while our incomes stagnate.

I'm 50 this year, and my 50 year old friends and I have different means but often similar problems. We are all in various stages of considering retirement or semi-retirement. In all of our cases, work is a critical component of retirement, work by choice. Some could quit their jobs now, but then what? Retirement when your mind and body are still sound is literally deadly, so meaningful work becomes the answer. But if you haven't found meaning in the work you're doing now, finding it doing something completely different is a challenge. Still, that's a life of choice and good fortune, compared to those who must work just to get by.

Finally, making work out of reach and paying people to do nothing with an alternative income scheme is really only valuable to them if they have something better to do. If you want to become a productive artist or build houses for Habitat for Humanity (what President Jimmy Carter does at 93), I'm all for working a little harder so you can contribute and follow your bliss. If you want to sit on your Xbox all afternoon, I'm going to be less inclined. I already have one of those in my life.