Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Cirrrrrcle of Life

Selling a game line in my store works like this: A customer comes in looking for a hobby game, and I attempt to sell them on this game, not as a one time purchase, but as an ongoing hobby. It assumes I have a method and product line both to initially engage them and subsequently keep them engaged over time.

The old Games Workshop model had a new customer spending $600 their first year and $300 in subsequent years. I've heard those numbers have nearly doubled from a decade ago. Their old strategy was to capture that first year customer, the cream, and shove off the grumpy veterans, the difficult crowd to support, on to independent game stores. Their approach was the hard sell for the easy money and then we would get the complex, expensive, logistic nightmare of support. It's far easier to sell you a thing than making you happy after the fact, especially when "making you happy" is expected to be supplied nearly free of charge. 

The sales process begins with a key question: Who will you play this game with? Game stores like mine need to answer that with an internal solution, as opposed to every other country on the planet, who seem to have a population who own kitchen tables, have friends and don't fear their neighbors. So my internal answer is "Why, you'll play that game right here, of course." We've got 14 events each week for this purpose (why the system does not actually support doing this properly is another post).

As I'm selling a game system, that initial sale is not nearly as important as hooking the customer into an enjoyable pastime, so "getting it right" initially is critical, while that initial sale actually takes a back seat to this. If I sense a customer is not going to enjoy the game or is not ready, I would rather not make the sale that day.

This system breaks down when the sale of the product and the events we provide to support that game don't align.This has been especially apparent with our miniature games, in which a larger than usual, or at least a more perceptible percentage of customers, use our facilities but don't buy product from us. This happens because our community is simply the best. It's big, vibrant, with diversity of play styles, and all our local competitors have failed at it, so we're the last man standing.

These folks (they're not customers) buy a small gift certificate to play, but that's a token sale that doesn't make up for a failing product line. The key to game space is it greatly increases sales, so any token purchase is really an illusion that doesn't support the model. We can't continue to sell an expensive miniature line on Mountain Dew and Pringles alone.

Getting back to the problem, there are several reasons they don't buy: some are price, some convenience, some out of protest, of all things for not properly supporting their game, a counter intuitive argument for sure as they're standing in my store playing with customers. Some, as we work hard to educate during the holidays, don't understand the difference between buying from us and buying from another store. They are brand aware but not store aware. This is especially true with Games Workshop customers, who have been trained to only by GW, and where is not important.

The bottom line, in our problem scenario, is they don't buy from us and the lost sales send signals. It's not that we actively perceive their actions, it's that the sale of certain products in the line begin to lag. The previously vibrant game is now a loser in the metrics, even if it's being played excessively in the store. The herd has some sickness. What do you do with sickness in the herd? Cull it. Take those dying products and turn the inventory dollars into something else, in our case, things like board games and the ever hungry appetite of our collectible card game community. It's an ongoing process. It becomes difficult to promote that ongoing experience when we begin losing cohesion in the herd. Miniature games are especially susceptible as there should be certain patterns that don't exist in other games, such as core and ancillary products that need to be carried at certain depths and breadths.

The inventory tweaking results in immediate repercussions to how we operate. When the herd is sick, we tend not to talk about it. In other words, if a game is not growing, if there are holes in the inventory, or we only carry "core" product, it's far more beneficial to us to promote another game that is growing instead. Why promote a lethargic game like Warhammer Fantasy (Only 21% of GW's sales we now learn) when a game like Warmachine is not only growing, but has excited champions for it?

You can certainly spend time shoring up weakness, but it's far, far easier to promote what's working and worry about weakness later, or you know what? Not worry about it ever again and turn the entire herd into proverbial glue. That's what being diversified allows you to do. Not working? Next! You don't want to do this, as you've promised that customer in step one a long term experience, but you often have no choice.

Eventually there is nobody to play this game with because there are no new customers playing it, because we're actively discouraging them from doing so. Events fall off the calendar. We're not telling them not to buy it, but we're not not telling them that. As game stores, we do have a role in what people play in the community, we are relevant, and we do decide which game gets the energy and promotion (if not, why the protest?). Product champions emerge from this community, but we're mostly responsible for that communities existence. Support your local store or don't support it. It's not about what we deserve or what we're owed, it's about this circle of life for a game. Don't expect to play where you don't buy and if you're a store owner, certainly don't provide game space for another store's product line.

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