Sunday, June 7, 2009

Where's the Stuff?

Distributors have done a very good job over the last couple of years explaining why they don't have something. It used to be just "gone" or a vague rumor that a company was out of business. They would relay this to store owners, making both look like idiots. Now they make a concerted effort to explain exactly why they don't have a product. It's OSM (out of stock at the manufacturer), OOP (out of print), LTD (limited), or NYA (Not Yet Available). A lot of time it's just not there and it might require a more detailed explanation, anything from a sad story about an extortionist Chinese printer to the fact it was ordered two months ago and the company hasn't sent it yet. The Alliance distribution order system will often list something as coming out in 2013, shorthand for "who the hell knows?"

I respect this, but as someone who does the same equivocating with my customers, it's really about deflecting blame. If you were omniscient, you would never be out of a product, as you would order enough to fulfill all demand. Omniscience is a pretty high standard, but it's one customers expect of their stores. Online stores often lie about their stock on hand, buying from distributors when the online order is placed. For a brick and mortar store, there's no getting around physical reality.

As a store owner, I try to explain exactly why something is gone. I also make a concerted effort at omniscience, such as stocking up on product that's rumored to be going out of print (Pandemic), or that has production problems (Munchkin). This puts me ahead of the curve, but in a purchasing hole. For the most part, I rely on the patience of customers to allow us to special order or seek out alternate suppliers. Some will be patient, while some have no patience at all. I can't entirely fault the second crowd. At least they're shopping at my store first rather than filling a digital shopping cart.

Often I'm told I must be mistaken, because the store across town has it. We'll sure, he was just slightly more omniscient than me. Or perhaps the store across town was selling that $4 booster pack for a dollar, and the customer was looking for $1 packs from me. Why do you think the other guy was selling it for a $1? Perhaps he wanted it to go away? The most frustrating thing is when someone is waiting for additional stock to arrive that will never come. For example, they want to buy two Flames of War Panzer III's, but I only have one in stock. If I only sell one a year, I'll never, ever have two in stock. The computer is set up to prevent such madness. Yet the customer waits, like a bad remake of a Samuel Beckett play. Want two? Special order it or buy the one and come back next week when it's restocked. No, he'll just wait.


There is a sharp contrast between modern stores like mine and the old school game stores. Old school stores existed before eBay and often have a shock & awe strategy of stocking. The up-side is you become the go-to store. The down side is you've got a million dollars of crap, like hardening plaque in your arteries. A modern store will never be a shock & awe store. Those days are in the past. What makes a modern store successful is that the customers accept the limitations of the modern store and work with the store to get what they need.

A modern store needs to be vastly more customer service oriented. There's an admission that they are incomplete, that they are not "full line," that they will never have all the stuff. I think there may be an arrogance that comes with shock & awe. As in, "If you can't find something to amuse yourself in this million dollars of crap, what the hell's wrong with you?" Perhaps there's also not much need to develop customer service when you've hit this critical mass of stuff. You've got a take it or leave it attitude as your store bursts at the seams with product.

The modern store will endeavor to have an awful lot of popular, good stuff. A modern store's inventory is like a finely tuned race car engine. It must work to get the maximum horsepower from the smallest displacement. This contrasts sharply with the inefficiencies of shock & awe. Who doesn't want to drive the inefficient muscle car on occasion? I would love to have shock & awe, but there are hard limits of capital that prevent shock & awe from ever occurring.

The modern store needs to bridge the gap between that fine tuned inventory and the vast ocean of available product. They need well trained employees that know to offer to special order, that thrive to special order, that encourage and train the customer to work within these limitations. "Next Day Delivery" should be on the tip of their tongues. They are competing not only with the regional shock & awe store, but the ultimate shock & awe, the Internet. They need information systems that take advantage of restock triggers and just in time delivery. Absentee owners don't work well with modern stores, but it seems the norm with shock & awe. These are the advantages and base requirements for a modern store. By the way, add modern practices to a shock & awe store and you've got something really special.

Shock & Awe is a dead model. Nobody builds a game store with a million dollars in inventory, on purpose, in the Internet age, in an industry without much growth. It's either a relic from the past or a wildly successful owner that wasn't paying attention over a very long period of time. You don't accidentally find yourself with a million dollars in the game industry, as the joke goes, unless you started with two million.

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