Saturday, June 28, 2014

Expensive (Tradecraft)

Expensive means you don't think it's a good value.

Perhaps you don't find its utility high enough to justify the price. Perhaps you can find it cheaper elsewhere.

Expensive does not mean it costs a lot of money. A high price tag has nothing to do with whether something is the value judgment known as expensive. A Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport for a million dollars is not expensive, it's a bargain at half the MSRP. Whether you value it or not is another issue.

Expensive also has nothing to do with whether you can personally afford something, although carrying a high priced item is something a retailer needs to take into account.

From a customer perspective, this "expensive" personal problem nonsense rubs me the wrong way. Too expensive compared to what? How are you measuring that value? From a retailer perspective, we, as a group, tend to avoid high priced items for fear of it being "too expensive."

This is reinforced by the price pressures put upon us by the Internet. My feeling is the higher the price, the more likely a customer will seek it cheaper online. There is a sliding scale in my mind. I see this continually at the low end, as we sell card sleeves to people who have never bought a Magic pack from us, or when I sell far more of a $30 expansion than I sold of the $99 parent game.  This, quite frankly, is soul crushing if you think about it too much.

We should, I think, have a broad range of prices for our broad range of customers, but man, the negative reinforcement is huge. High priced items try my patience, as I deal with customer astonishment. It's one more reason why we can't have nice things.

It's an especially good reason to market your store up market. There will be customers who are not happy shopping "The Gap" of games, which is what we've been called, who would prefer The Android's Dungeon. That's fine, there's a dungeon for them somewhere. You want the other customers. Plus most Dungeon customers will put up with that annoying smell of Pine Sol and smiling staff.  If there is a shrinking middle class, retailers may need to choose sides.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Events (Tradecraft)

Lets take a really basic look at in-store events.

Do you need events? 
The short answer is no. You can run a straight retail store. That store, however, will need to be a highly disciplined, highly diversified affair that caters to the broadest selection of customers possible. This is significantly different than an event driven store, since events tend to super charge certain games while appearing to marginalize others.

When I opened my first store, there was no event space. Ten years ago, having no event space was a reasonable thing, so the advice I got was you don't need it. Everything sold equally well. No category was more than 10% of my sales. RPGs and CCGs were equal. There are advantages to a no event space store.

For example, you can close up and go home early. You're a retailer, not an event coordinator, so when it gets dark, go home and be with your family, or go play games as the gods intended, at your kitchen table. If you have trust issues, if you can't have employees there without you getting an ulcer, if volunteer event labor makes you nervous, this is a model that can work.

Consider a slightly higher profile store location to take advantage of casual walk in customers. Be in a resort community, a college town on a main street, near a military base, or by a convention center.

If you don't have events, you absolutely must, without a doubt, master retail. You must use open to buy, turn rate analysis, sales per square foot analysis, and you must carefully monitor product demand online, as your best source of information, customers, will be a weaker amplifier than in an organized play store.

Events are also messy, figuratively and literally. Besides the literal mess, the stains on carpet, the bathrooms in need of plunging and constant cleaning, events bring human emotion into the mix. You must deal with sportsmanship, customer on customer crime, and the heightened sense of entitlement we're all used to seeing nowadays. If this sounds intolerable, events are not for you.

The good news is if you can do this, if you can master retail without events, if you ever do have events, you will be head and shoulders above your peers (provided you apply that same discipline to events). I've seen it many times and talked to other retailers in this boat.

In zen archery there's this thing called karabiki, shooting the bow without an arrow and learning technique and care for equipment until your teacher says you're ready. Zen retailing is selling merchandise, focusing on fundamentals of retail management, working to keep your store clean, well lit and safe, without events. I talked about vacuuming one million square feet before moving on to my event based store. This pays off later. Those who do this are better retailers because of their training. When all you have is inventory and space to manage, you master inventory and space.

Why you should have events
Event space is expensive. My store has 1,000 square feet of space which costs me $2,500 a month. Do my increased event based sales justify $2,500 a month?  This is a third of my rent, and rent is a third of my expenses, requiring a roughly 23% sales increase when we take into account cost of goods. Does event space increase my sales more than 23%?

When we moved from our nearly no event space store to our custom built event space retail store, something interesting happened. I figured we would need to increase sales 60% to cover the additional costs of the location. I did what any straight retailer would do, I figured out the income I would need and worked backwards through turn rate analysis to the amount of new inventory necessary to hit that number. And then I failed miserably.

The new inventory I purchased was an attempt at diversification, a dangerous activity when you're not entirely sure of the demand. My 60% increase in inventory bombed. Dead. The first year it turned at a staggeringly low, one time. Year two was one point five. It took me three years to cycle it all out. A lot of it got shipped back on a giant pallet. But I was still in business. Why? Because my event space drove sales well over 60%. Profitability came when that dead inventory was turned into useful stuff, which took time, but it was the events that kept the store in business.

Third place theory
Third place theory studies the social environment between home and work (or school). Third place psychologically allows individuals to find meaning and decompress in this in-between zone. Making your business one of these third places is deciding to assist these individuals, build a community and put up with a lot of "third space" variables that don't exist in a straight retail environment. It's an ideal place for small business, as big business is weak on these soft skills and can't possibly deal with them.

Check out these variables from the Wikipedia article on third space. You'll see they typify the good game store with event space: 

  • Free or inexpensive
  • Food and drink, while not essential, are important
  • Highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance)
  • Involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there
  • Welcoming and comfortable
  • Both new friends and old should be found there

These are the fundamentals you want to foster in your store for that 60% increase in sales Remember, I only needed 23%, so there's profit in there somewhere, profit you can realize if you manage your inventory properly and have well managed events utilizing third space principles.

Again, if you're a misanthrope, if you've got a social anxiety disorder, or if you can't delegate because of trust issues, event space is not for you. You may go home early and turn off your phone. You win at retail, at the lowest tier.

For everyone else though, not only does it drive sales, but it builds that third space community. This community builds itself for the most part, provided you're doing all your retailing correctly and you follow the guidelines in third place theory (either intentionally or not).

Just a side note, third place theory traits are the same traits game retailers discuss incessantly at the expense of retail fundamentals. Why can't we monetize our space like a bowling alley? Snacks and drinks are so labor intensive (or our only profit center), can't we skip (or rely on) them? Why can't I put my Magic warehouse store out in the boondocks by the car dealers? Customers complain about "regulars" talking to staff at the counter, what should I do? What do I do about cliquish behavior that creeps into various events? How do I get the freeloaders to leave/buy or more new people to come? Then there are the fine tuning elements of third space event management, like reporting events, pricing, and many other variables.

Events and third space theory can absolutely dominate game trade conversation, trade show seminars, and the general consciousness of retailers. Personally? I find the skills to be soft, the problems to be confusing, and my ability to quantify and maximize them to be maddeningly difficult. Big box retailers agree with me, which means it's a small business opportunity.

I delegate my events. It's the area of my store I have the worst grasp on, the area I have to rely on good staff to manage. When everything is in order, but sales are down, I start asking a lot of event based questions. What have you heard? Why aren't they showing up? Are we priced competitively? It's also why when our community responds to our needs with overwhelming support, I'm both stunned and enormously grateful.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Our expansion Kickstarter funded Monday night! We raised $28,493 from 224 backers. We will net about $19K when it's all done. I can now focus on the store again, after 60 days of digital pan handling. That's the amount of time the entire staff focused on this project, time taken away from core store issues. Most stores, including ours up until a couple years ago, are not on a program of constant improvement. When we take a long break from that, I can feel it.

The potential failure of the Kickstarter weighed heavily in this regard, a massive distraction from the core business mixed with potential "brand erosion" as we hit up our customers for money with no guarantee of success. Brand value and brand erosion were real factors in this Kickstarter. You can read about it in this article about our project, by Scott Thorne. I should also mention we have a great deal of respect and gratitude for our customers, including those who didn't pledge. You are still our focus, something this sideshow distracted us from.

The project was expensive. There were $6,000 in sunk Kickstarter costs and $10,000 spent on exploring the construction, a project ongoing since last Summer. Failure meant we had lost $16,000, some of that debt. By succeeding, hopefully the distraction will be forgiven when we launch our new event space. The money will sort itself out too. For a while, I was considering how to disengage from this project, selling my car to get out from under the construction loan if the Kickstarter hadn't worked. Thankfully I'll be keeping my car.

There was personal soul searching as well. After ten years, I decided I was ready for the Next Thing. That Next Thing would be this expansion. If the Kickstarter failed, the logic went, the customers were voting against expansion as the Next Thing. That meant I would need a new Next Thing. So mid Kickstarter I was considering all kinds of alternatives, mostly in the realm of a second business or second store.

While in the Kickstarter doldrums, I pitched a new business plan to a good friend and business partner of mine. With much love and care, he told me to stop, talking me off the ledge and putting me on the path of fund raising. While most Kickstarters are Internet based and use that medium to raise funds, we had backers I knew, with phone numbers, and existing relationships. The active fund raising resuscitated the project and changed my attitude. When my friend pointed out that fund raising was inherently political, it all started to make sense. The Kickstarter, personally, was a re-election campaign.

Nine backers pledged at the Game Store Rescue: Blog level. Once the funds are reconciled, I'll be contacting those nine people to figure out what they want me to write about. When I've asked people to submit topics in the past, I usually get wildly interesting ideas, both specific and general. I look forward to this.

We also sold all five of our Game Store Rescue: Remote Consultant tiers, along with one On Site pledge. I'm looking forward to helping those stores and the insights I'll gain from the experience. You'll also see some game stores listed on our Order of Knighthood wall as well, when that's up, including on of my favorites, Gamescape North.

A good number of publishers will be up there, including our largest donor, Paizo (Pathfinder RPG). I owe Lisa Stevens and Erik Mona a special thanks for their support. Atlas Games was a big contributor. Wolfgang Bauer at Kobold Press, was essential in helping hunt down an author for our Pathfinder adventure. Amber Scott is busy writing Into the Pit right now. Gabriel Vega's Pacificon had a clever matching fund marketing program.

As a blog side note, we hit 1,000,000 page views this week, a number I've watched creep up for years. It's meaningless really. Nowadays, page views are primarily spam based, which is unfortunate. I removed the "top posts" link, since it had become largely irrelevant.

Thanks again!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Getting "Into the Pit"

Guest Blog post by Amber Scott

When Gary and Wolfgang contacted me about writing an adventure for the Black Diamond Games Kickstarter, they didn't have to say more than "adventure" and I was hooked. I love writing adventures. There's something about creating an exciting plot and filling a dungeon with monsters that I can't resist. I jumped at the chance to help out on this project. 

Gary sent me the information he had on his homebrew world and an idea for an adventure he had already outlined. I loved the concept--a black salt mine full of dangerous denizens. Salt mines in real life are eerie and beautiful places, and of course the valuable black salt itself was like "black diamonds." The world itself was a fascinating place and the characters and societies Gary had come up with were wonderful. My imagination fired up and I started outlining. 

My first step was to come up with a series of locations for the adventure. I wanted INTO THE PIT to be more than a straightforward dungeon crawl. I developed a list of plot hooks and two overland encounter areas before the mine, then broke up the mine into three levels, each with at least one significant NPC or roleplaying encounter and at least one "boss monster," or challenging battle. I forwarded the outline on to Gary and he liked the structure I'd given his ideas. I had the green light to go ahead. 

By this point I had realized that I was more than a writer on this project. This is the first time I've worked without a publisher and Gary needed some help finding an artist and a layout person for the project. Artists I was sure I could find but I'd never had to worry about layout before. So I hopped online and emailed my friend John Ling, a fellow freelancer who works for Frog God Games. Did he, perchance, do layout work? He did not but he knew someone who did. That's how I met Marie Small. 

Marie has been a huge help on this project. Not only could she prepare the final PDF for us, but she made valuable recommendations on how to format the art, how to design the pages formats, and how to handle the OGL requirements. She brought up points I'd never had to think about. "Do you want hyperlinks within the PDF?" she asked. I replied, "Um...yes?" Yes, she confirmed, in-text links would help organize the piece and make it more useful to the GM. When I told her I had an artist, she coached me on what resolution and format to provide the art in so that it would be easiest to format while having the best appearance and most utility to the purchaser. Since my experience has been mainly limited to MS Paint, I forwarded all her comments on to the artist and left them to it. I know the final product is going to be a fantastic, polished piece. 

With Marie's help secured I turned to the matter of an artist. As it turned out, the one I had in mind was booked up through July and we needed the cover art ASAP to help drive interest in the Kickstarter. I wracked my brain for anyone I knew who could help. Then it hit me: until recently I worked at a paint store and my manager there, Caitlin Bauer,  was a talented artist. She had had a small exhibition in our city and sold some pieces but hadn't done freelance work before, despite being a huge gamer nerd like me. I reached out to her and thank goodness she was willing to help. 

One of the boss monsters Gary had come up with and I had run with was a salt drake. I told Caitlin that an image of the salt drake hungrily waiting for tasty adventurers to enter the mine would be a compelling image. 

"What do salt drakes look like?" she asked. 

"That's the beauty of it," I said. "Because I'm writing the text, you can draw whatever you like and I'll just write it to match!" 

Caitlin let her imagination run wild and the final image is even better than I expected it to be. After she sent me the initial sketch I told her we should name the beast to give it some personality. 

"How about Na'Kriss?" she asked. "I've always been of the opinion that creatures with no lips shouldn't have names you can't say without them."

So that's how Na'Kriss, the mutant salt drake, came to be, and how the adventure was designed, and how we acquired a layout manager who is going to make the PDF look fantastic. A $25 pledge is all it takes to receive a copy of INTO THE PIT and help Black Diamond Games reach its goal, so spread the word!

You can see more of Marie's work here: and
You can see more of Caitlin's work here:
You can follow me on Facebook at Amber E. Scott (Author) 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Saying Goodbye

Shortly after I opened my store, nearly ten years ago, a teenaged Michael Parker came in and told me he was doing a report on the game trade and wondered if he could interview me. I thought that was a bit odd, but why not? Fast forward three years and that same kid, now an adult, offered to help me move the store to our new location. He was so organized, logical and forward thinking, that I made him employee one at the new store.

As I brainstormed ideas with Michael, trying to wrap my head around our larger venue and the enormous logistical task of event planning, it was clear he was ready to handle more responsibilities and tasks I didn't want. I made him my manager and event coordinator, a job he completed yesterday after seven years.

What I am losing is a partner. Michael knew my mission objectives, my strategy and intent, and could translate that down to tactical, in the field, ideas and actions. In other words, he could read my mind. I didn't ask him to do this, it's what he does. As I watched him go through college, getting a business management degree, I got to see him deploy increasingly sophisticated tools to our problems, helping make tough decisions and cutting to the heart of the business case of various issues. That incisiveness was not only helpful in knowing what to do, but more often in knowing what not to do.

Personally, having him on staff meant I could avoid burn out and have some semblance of a normal life. With a family, that's especially important. I was able to start taking weekends off, something nearly unheard of in retail small business. The goal was and still is to be dispensable in the business, for me not to be needed, and Michael helped develop the various processes that allow others to run the store as well as us. A good small business is all about processes, while still maintaining high levels of customer service.

Michael held the line, made tough decisions, bucked stupid game trade trends, developed better ones that we deployed, some of which are used across the country now, and took blame, when he was told to push it up to me. If you had a problem with Michael, you were probably wrong. At least as it pertained to the businesses best interests. He is such an integral part of the success of Black Diamond Games, and it is a success, it's unclear what exactly will happen with him gone, where the Parker ends and the BDG begins.

Besides having freakish encyclopedic knowledge of nearly all things games, his Ipod perpetually playing gaming podcasts even when you're trying to talk to him, Michael was a good friend.  That is almost a necessity in small business where wrestling your personal life from your business life can be an enormous struggle.

As much as I wanted him to stay, he needed new game trade challenges, not retail. He knows retail and was smart enough to move on. He gave me something like two years notice that he planned to leave, which gave us time to groom people to fill his role, not that it was a realistic possibility. He'll be working as a buyer with ACD Distribution, my main distributor, and a part of my business family. I'm very happy for him and I'll take the credit for forwarding Michael the job opening. Even though he's moving to Wisconsin, with Michael at ACD, it won't feel nearly so far away.

Michael on the right at our grand opening in 2004. Hippy.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Make Me A Sammich (Tradecraft)

Running a store is not like a relationship, it is a relationship. The saying the customer is always right is a a rough attempt at goading the unresponsive into considering customer service. The reality is the customer is often wrong, unreasonable or simply not really your customer. When the customer is wrong, the customer is generally not happy. That's just part of the relationship, but it absolutely is a relationship. Don't mistake that.

Unhappiness is a misalignment of expectations. Nobody is unhappy about something they don't care about, a business or person that isn't highly relevant to them. They're unhappy because the potential for more is there in the relationship, but it's unfulfilled. Your business is not living up to the relationship expectations you've both agreed to. Sometimes this leads to a break up, which is fine, but more often than not, it leads to a simmering, unhappy, begrudging courtship. Again, this means you're still relevant in their life, you're just not making them as happy as you once did. You can feel it in customer interactions, where your Venn diagrams are just not overlapping.

A store owner has many considerations in customer happiness, the biggest being stock and in the game trade, corresponding events. Stock is going to change. Games will come and go, wax and wane. That's just part of business and if you don't monitor this, you will absolutely fail or flounder about. Not stocking what the customer wants leads to unhappiness, and because we're in a relationship, the accusation that you don't care.

Caring about stock is actually dangerous, and I've made plenty of bad decisions based on personal attachment to inventory, both new and stuff that just had to go. But the customer is not talking about your relationship with your stock, they're talking about the emotional connection you personally have with them, expressed through your inventory practices. I almost said inventory choices. What they don't understand is there are few choices, just practices. You may love 40K, but if you can't sell it, what choice do you have? None, really.

So we're stuck with this accusation of no love based on stock practices. Imagine your wife stops making you sandwiches because she realizes it's not something she wants from the relationship anymore. You need to make your own sandwich, she has work to do, and it's no longer in her best interest after ten years. She still loves you, but no more ham and cheese will be forthcoming in a between bread format. So you make your own sandwich and eat it in the corner, pouting about how you're no longer loved. All stores have customers like this. They don't go away, they pout. We still love them. They don't believe us.

Does this make sense? That I should be expressing my love for you based on inventory management practices? Of course not, but it's where we're at with relationship marketing. If someone else were willing to make a sandwich for you, provided the relationship was otherwise the same, they would be out the back door in no time.

Run a store long enough, and believe me, your customers will be complaining to their "other woman" on a regular basis. I know this because every ... single ... game store in the San Francisco Bay Area has been brought up to me with customer complaints about how they had their feelings hurt, or how there were no more sandwiches. I often defend the "other woman," mostly because I know I might insist they go make their own damn sandwich one day, plus I'm sure my sandwich practices are being discussed as well. However, they will hear none of it. They sniff around, settle in, and our relationship begins.

Personally? I want everyone to have sandwiches. I want to serve all the condiments. I want to run a store that doesn't have to worry about inventory management, or whether players are using space to play games while buying models across town or online. I want to live in a mythical world of 80's game stores where I set the tone of the demand and supply, and customers follow my lead and there are sandwiches for one and all. Sandwiches of my choosing, which will all be delicious (because I like them). That world just doesn't exist though. I use metrics and trends and am either on my way into or out of a game at any given time, and the number of true, exclusive customers is shockingly small.

So what should you do about this sandwich situation? What can you do?

Developing an Adventure (Kickstarter)

A big part of our expansion Kickstarter (currently a bit behind in funding at around $10,000) is producing unique gaming products for our supporters. The project I've been assigned to handle is tentatively called The Pit, a Pathfinder adventure by Amber Scott. I went over how it developed in my last post.

There are an enormous number of unpublished Pathfinder adventures floating around out there that we could have picked from the ether, but we wanted something special. The trick was to come up with a solid adventure that also had an experienced writer at the helm, along with a theme that tied in with the store (however loosely).

I will admit we contacted several veteran authors first. As you might expect, these authors are booked out for months, which is great for them, but it was impossible to get a commitment for this project, which is tentative at best. They, Wolfgang Bauer in particular, led us to the up and coming writers, and the one that stuck out for me was Amber Scott. I enjoy her writing and jumped at the chance.

There are a number of moving pieces in such a project with various costs. Experienced authors, if you can find out (it took me weeks) get between 7-12 cents a word. If we were going with one of those no name, off the shelf adventures, floating around, it would be somewhere in the 3-5 cent range, with some new authors getting paid as little as a penny a word. Here's a good article on how little authors are actually making. You should really cut them an enormous amount of slack.

After the author, there's artwork. Our cover art is still in progress, but it will cost in the $300-500 range. I'm including an initial sketch of the cover here. We'll have some smaller, internal graphics to break up the text as well. As you know, we don't actually pull the trigger on completion of any of this stuff until the Kickstarter is successfully finished, so we start with sketches and move forward once the Kickstarter is successfully over.

Besides artwork, there's about an equal amount of money to be spent on maps. My overland map I posted in my last update, was one I had commissioned a while back, and will certainly be in the final product. That map alone, created by Ben Monroe, took dozens of hours to conceive and produce. There is a dungeon, of course, which makes up the bulk of the map budget, but that gets done towards the end.

Finally, a layout person will need to make it into a respectable product, with proper formatting, tables, and the like. This will not be a PDF ripped from Microsoft Word, but should look the part of a professional adventure. As I mentioned before, I'm tempted to formally publish it and sell it in the store, but this will be strictly reserved for our Kickstarter supporters.

Thankfully, Amber is managing this project for us, as I certainly don't have the contacts or skills. All said and done, you can figure this adventure will cost a few thousand dollars to produce. So although we're digital pan handling for your contribution, there are some considerable costs associated with our project, an investment that will hopefully entice not only our customers to help us out, but those who might just want a cool Pathfinder adventure that had a huge amount of love added to its labor.

 And now for something completely different. 

I wanted to write a narrative derived my home version of this adventure. I know it's a bit like telling someone about your character, but you might find it interesting if you're interested in this adventure.

Getting to The Pit, the salt mine the PCs are planning to explore, requires skirting through Silent Stalker territory:

Smoke Talker crept silently along the shadowed Valley of Pillars. The craggy cliffs were both his protection and a curse, infested with foul harpies likely to pluck him up at any moment and dash him against the pillars for amusement or dinner. As with all members of his tribe, he had learned to feel tremors in the ground with his feet, a boon against the armored land sharks that prowl underground. That let him focus his eyes on the sky, scanning for his winged enemies.

He heard nothing. As with all in the Silent Stalker tribe, Smoke Talker had his eardrums perforated at birth. While outsiders found this barbaric, there was no other way to survive the call of the harpies in the vast badlands. Even now, as he hunted for slaves with his men, it was unlikely he would find many survivors this close to the cliffs. Most are snatched up by the harpies before finding their way into the Valley of Pillars, along with the unfortunate who sail too close to shore. The smart ones use ropes to tie themselves in, although even that is no guarantee of survival, based on the torn corpses with trailing lines he often came across. It was the villages main source of rope in the barren badlands.

The real cruelty was not from the harpies, who he vaguely understood as creatures of prey. No, real cruelty took the form of  He Who Waits, the maruf genie who insisted the village of Khu Sim Sim collect slaves for his palace, in some far off land. The giant brute appeared in the standing stones each moon and took his prisoners. Smoke Talker was assured such slaves lived lives of luxury, an existence far easier than with his own tribe, who would sacrifice one of their own if a captive was not forthcoming. That life of luxury is what kept his men from despairing at such a despicable act and allowed their loved ones to be taken off when they failed to bring a captive. The more naive tribesmen had to be kept from mistreating their captives, out of a sense of jealousy over their better lot.

One day Smoke Talker fantasized, one of his men would defeat the maruf in combat and free the village. Occasionally, challengers emerged, but it had been a long time. Maybe one of the boys from the next generation.