Monday, April 14, 2008

The Game Store Guy and You

Many people go to their game store to peruse interesting games, gab with their local store owner or manager, and geek out talking about their favorite games. The game store guy (or gal) as gaming resource is an interesting model, one which many people don't quite understand. You, as the customer, probably know more about your game than the game store guy. This is normal and expected.

The game store guy, in his imparting of his business knowledge to you about your game, is usually hoping you will impart some knowledge back to him. In exchange for street dates, product overviews, and suggestions on where you should look next, the game store guy hopes to get your opinion on certain games, possibly inside news, and most importantly, what direction you're taking with your game. Are you interested in buying the next supplement? Are you getting into a certain type of game more than another? In other words, the game store guys knowledge and interests are business oriented. He does not want to know about you character, but he will listen anyway.

But wait a minute, you're thinking, isn't the job of the game store guy to know everything about my game? Actually no. The business of selling games and running a store is a full time job that precludes a lot of that gaming knowledge that you, the customer possess, as well as precluding actually playing games. People who work in game stores learn the intricacies of playing games on their own time and through the customer interactions mentioned above. That is why they are so interested in your experiences. You are the educator, not the game store guy. The game store guys job is to sell you stuff that you want.

Sales people who know games inside and out are actually not desirable employees from an employers perspective. Car dealerships don't hire car nuts and experienced game store owners don't go after gamers as employees. Sales skills are what everyone is after. Product knowledge can be taught later. In fact, "experts" on a product are not usually good sales people without the proper training. Experts tend to impart too much information, well beyond what is needed to close a sale and satisfy a customer. The expert tends to confuse people with too much information and actually impedes sales from happening. The ideal is that every customer leaves the store with exactly what they need, so we're not talking about hard sales, just getting customers what they need based on where they are in their game. The ideal employee, from the store perspective, is a gamer who is a great sales person.

If you happen to find a game store owner who is a font of information, you should consider them exceptional. They have given up their free time and are clearly gaming hobbyists. They have worked outside their job to gain this knowledge. However, in an age where a game store, like ours, has over 13,000 different items, you'll rarely find someone who is a font of knowledge on all things games. For example, my game of choice is Dungeons & Dragons. When the release cycle for D&D books is normal, with a book or two every month being released, I can spend my entire allotment of free time, just reading those books. Meanwhile, dozens of new products will have come out that I know nothing about. Nobody can have personal experience with every game. Point to me a store where they know everything about every game and I'll point out an aberrant business model.

Because of the slow turn, high margin nature of game stores, you'll find a much broader selection of products than most "mass market" stores. For example, a Costco has fewer different items (SKUs) than a good sized game store. The BMW dealership across the street from our store has 40 different car models. After a half hour of research, you'll probably know more about your dream car than the salesperson. Nobody expects a car salesperson to be an expert. Yet, many customers expect a game store guy to know the nuances of their game. Can I stack a shield bonus with the bonus from the Shield spell to enhance my armor class? Can I add a rat ogre to my Ogre Kingdoms army using the Dogs of War rules? How does Carcassonne play with 5 people?

The game store guy cannot possibly know the answers to all these questions, but a good one will attempt to find out for you. As a game store guy, that's all I ask of myself and of my customers. Impart information to me, and I will impart information to you. Ask me questions and I will attempt to answer them or find out the information for you. If you're not getting the information you need, hold your game store guy accountable. Ask them to find out. However, remember that with a modern game store, you are the font of knowledge, not the game store guy.


  1. ...experienced game store owners don't go after gamers as employees.

    Perhaps I'm not an experienced store owner, then, but ensuring that our employees are rabid, passionate gamers is the only single criteron that we insist upon. As for expertise, of course we rely upon our customers (and each other) for product news and knowledge that we have not yet gleaned, but the number one feedback morsel we get from repeat customers and referrals is that we can tell you lots about almost everything in the store - from rules questions to ratings. We try to diversify our staff by section and genre, and make that line up with their own personal interests to yield the best results. That passion and that expertise makes all the difference in the world. It doesn't preclude us from learning more from our customer interactions, but it certainly does catalyze purchasing confidence on an even, regluar basis.

    As a customer, I expect the same of the places at which I shop. From skin care to comics, I won't patronize a local that does not have a staff that is sharp and that knows their product well. Otherwise, we might as well make our own decisions and shop on the Internet for the best prices. And then were does that leave us, both you and I?

    Sales people who know games inside and out are actually not desirable employees from an employers perspective.

    Of course you're right when you say that we're interested in customer experience to supplent our own. But I strongly disagree with the above statement. As a customer, I want someone who knows and has used the product I'm about to purchase. As an employer, I love watching my employees welcome customers into the fold of a game or game system that they, themselves, are nuts about. For us, it makes all the difference in the world and it is a much better sales tactic than traditional 'sales tactics'. Our numbers prove it.

    The problem I have with this entry is that at no point do you say "in my store" or "from my perspective". It's written as a fiat of how it is in the game industry. And I need to say that this is just not the case; not in my store or in many others with which I'm familiar.

    (I hope you take this with zero antagonism, Gary, as I greatly respect your business and your status as a successful store owner. I'm guessing you're posting these thoughts to elicit responses from your audience, hence mine.)

  2. So....

    Can I add a rat ogre to my Ogre Kingdoms army using the Dogs of War rules?

    Can I? Cause if I could... Wow... I'd be unstoppable...

  3. I'm glad you responded to this. Of course what I say is my opinion and doesn't reflect everyone's take on things.

    I'm taking a leap here. I think we both value the same elements for the most part and we both *want* to be a great source of information to our customers. We're are also considered a resource, but there's a big caveat. My argument is two fold:

    1. There aren't enough hours in the day to be that guy AND do all the things required to run a business. We still try, but we ultimately can't succeed at the level of competence to where we would require someone *else* to have that knowledge. Therefore, and it's a big therefore, as a customer you shouldn't expect it. If you get it, it's a bonus, and I endeavor to provide it. I'm not saying I won't provide that information, but keeping up is an impossible battle that other retailers in other trades don't often attempt.

    If you're a novice game player, store employees can certainly help you and they should certainly be able to sell you the next thing you need, determining that by talking to you. They should be able to answer many basic game questions and be able to find the answers to specific beginners questions.

    If you're a well informed customer, you will quickly exceed the store persons knowledge, and I'm arguing that this is normal. The Internet is not my enemy, it is part of life and customers use it without abandoning brick & mortar stores.

    2. Knowing games and playing games is a strong value in an employee, but I've come to the conclusion that it can be trained, while sales training and being personable is much harder. The core value of a sales person is being able to sell things. I don't believe they do this through osmosis or through their encyclopedic knowledge of their game. I've hired gamers without sales experience and they tend to be disappointing. An excellent employee has both sales ability and game knowledge (and I have two good ones), but I value their sales ability over their gaming cred.

    I'm trying to look at this from a business perspective and I don't see a way to have both AND have successful business process.

  4. I prefer someone who knows the product they're trying to sell me, but in a store with as many products as a good game store usually has I tend to find three types of employees:

    1) The employee that knows a little bit about everything.

    2) The expert on a single product or type of product.

    3) The ones that don't know anything about anything.

    If I'm only into Warhammer then chances are I'm going to know more about Warhammer than the first type of employee, but they will still know enough to know what I'm talking about when I say "I'm looking for skaven." They'll also be able to help me if I go "what are all these boxes with the trains on them?" as I look bewilderedly at the board game section.

    They won't be able to answer Gary's rat-ogre question.

    If I'm dealing with the second type of employee, and they are a Warhammer expert, then I'm fine. I'll probably even get the rat-ogre question answered, but if I ask them about the board games, then they're more likely to say "I really don't know anything about that, I'm the Warhammer guy."

    I know that's the case at my current LGS. No one there knows about everything, or even tries to learn. Instead there's an RPG expert, a CCG expert, etc., but only one of them is working at any given time! (They've also got one guy that the only thing he's an expert in is being related to the owner, which is often where the third type of employee comes from)

    It's possible to have an expert that also knows a bit about everything else in the store, and I think that description fits at least some of the employees that Gary has had, but I think the "expert" bit is the less important part.

    BTW, I referred to employees, but the same categories apply to most owners I've known.

  5. I would also disagree on a semantic level.
    A good retail employee is not always a good "salesman" - in fact, a good salesman can make one great sale, but turn a customer off your store for life.
    A better type of retail employee is a customer service person. They help customers to find what the customers want. They guide customers to things that they may want to try. They can either answer questions for customers, or at least point them in the right direction.

    When I sold cars, I was hired based on my experience as a customer service person, but what they really wanted was a salesman.
    It didn't matter what kind of car you wanted, my job was to make sure you left with a car that we had sitting on the lot - particularly one we had on overstock of. If you came into the Mazda dealership where I worked, wanting a brand new green MPV, my job was to sell you the red Dodge Caravan from the used side of the lot (more profit for the dealership and for me).

    When working retail, my job was to communicate with my customers, anticipate their needs (boss, the club players are really interested in upcoming release x, we probably want to order more than usual), help them to find products that they will enjoy (so you used to play 40k, but don't want to deal with the painting aspect? Have you seen AT-43?), find things for them if need be (we don't have that, but I can get you one by Friday), and even send them to someone else to get their questions answered (you know, the warhammer guys are usually here on Tuesdays, I'm sure that Mike could answer your rat ogre question).

    As a retail professional, you should always be thinking of what you can do to provide better service to your customers, and your employer (since I'm not doing anything right now, maybe I should clean the glass in the display case).

  6. Correct about the saleperson vs. customer service person. Nowadays everyone wants a customer service person. I would never hire someone who did high pressure "sales."

    A good customer service person finds a solution for the customer. Besides scuttling a sale with too much information, a gamer with poor customer service skills can also oversell to customers, which is a short term gain, long term loss.


    As for the different type of employees, I prefer they know a little bit about everything. Anything else is something they (or I) do on their own time.

    I could write a whole post on product knowledge vs. direct experience. Product knowledge is part of the job and a requirement, although it's hard to obtain from a part-time employee. Direct experience takes effort outside of the work day and often isn't required to sell a product or answer basic questions.

    I'll often go beyond product knowledge because I have a hard time understanding a game otherwise and, well, I'm still trying to learn as much as possible about what I'm selling. This is why I built armies for Flames of War and Warhammer Fantasy and why I try to attend board game night to learn new games. I'm also a gamer, after all. But if I can't require it from an employee, is it a requirement?

  7. Knowing games and playing games is a strong value in an employee, but I've come to the conclusion that it can be trained, while sales training and being personable is much harder.

    I think that salesmanship and customer service are just as trainable as game knowledge for many people. In fact, I find it easier to train employees to be better salespeople than to enforce the learning of product knowledge through gameplay...unless there is already an innate interest in or understanding of the games, themselves. Hence the importance of hiring gamers as a boon to the store staff. Moreso, it's the passion and interest that has to be there from the start, the very hardest thing to train. Behavior is learned and can be shaped for the context of the workplace. That's where good management comes in.

    It's true that already having a social, personable nature is a plus, but it's completely up to the owner/manager to select from the workforce pool those he deems to be most suited to represent the atmosphere of the shop. In that sense, the sales and product training are an afterthought. Instead, it falls upon the management to train its employees to be the perfect plugs to fill gaps throughout the store - in personality and sales ability. This includes letting their interest in gaming be the main sales tactic for infesting customers. The good manager will be able to see this element in their employee interviews. This is precisely why I *only* hire people who have shopped and played in my store for some time. I feel them out, understand their personality, and make it a foregone conclusion that they are really excited about this industry by the time I train them to be good salespeople, using that interest in games as the raison d'etre, so to speak. This breeds a fantastic staff. I mean, instead of worrying about their ability to sell a game, why not let them tell a customer simply what they love about it and see what happens? This is why our customers will play anything that we pick up. We spout our genuine love for a product and it sells. It sure is idealistic, but it's also an absolute truth over here at ours.

    I've hired gamers without sales experience and they tend to be disappointing. An excellent employee has both sales ability and game knowledge (and I have two good ones), but I value their sales ability over their gaming cred.

    Of course our philosophies and processes are different, but our latest hire has absolutely no retail sales experience at all. And yet his nature is calm, charismatic, kind, and frickin' excited as hell about the games he plays. I feel like the luckiest shopkeep in the world, because not only do I have an infectious, bright staff member, but he even gets me ramped up about things. And from me to you, my brother, you know how important that is to us.

    I'm trying to look at this from a business perspective and I don't see a way to have both AND have successful business process.

    And this is what it's all about. Bouncing ideas off each other, trying new things, winning and losing, and learning from the experiences. That's why I read your blog. But I promise you that just because you don't see the way doesn't mean that it's not there.

  8. I think if you can make good customer service reps out of gamers then you've got a good thing going. My experience as a customer indicate that this is either difficult to do, or that a lot of places don't try.

    Some more problems I've seen with gamer/employees:

    1) Too busy talking about gaming with one customer to help another customer. It's very easy to fall into this trap since it often seems like it's part of the job. In some ways it is, but it's a very low priority part.

    2) Gamers are often very harsh critics of games they don't like. I've seen employees bash a game that I was considering buying something for.

    A topical example of this would be an employee discussing 4th Edition D&D and saying how it's simply going to suck. Not a very good thing to be saying in customer earshot when D&D is usually such a large segment of RPG sales.

    Perhaps it's not so much that hiring gamers is good or bad, but that you have to be sure to hire the right type of gamers.

  9. "2) Gamers are often very harsh critics of games they don't like."

    That used to make me nuts, having an employee evangelist of a game and having them "go native," bad-mouthing competing games or at the very least, not promoting them in favor of their new religion.

  10. That brings up one more problem that can happen with even the best gamer/employees. They might do everything right while on the clock, but once off the clock they revert to the typical uber-opinionated person that most gamers are.

    It's unfair to ask them not to, but at the same time your customers don't generally make the distinction between when your employee is working and when they're just hanging out in the game room.