It can be hard being a good competitor as time goes by, because most stores started as the scrappy underdog. Being a good competitor is really being a better store. You may have become your local market leader, and you got that way by acting small. Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines had a saying, “Think small and act small, and we’ll get bigger. Think big and act big, and we’ll get smaller.”
Game stores start so small, they often aspire to not just be more professional, but legal. I had a friend who started a game store and aspired to pay his employees through a proper payroll service with proper insurance. Most people would be aghast at that, but for a lot of store owners, survival means doing what's necessary until they can afford to do what's right. In cases like this, you should act a little bigger to get a little bigger.
Here's a list of areas where I think everyone could work harder to be a better competitor:
- Know Who They Are. Who is your competition? Most customers assume our competitors are stores 30-90 minutes away and they'll posture and act tribal, assuming we're in economic combat. My competitors are within a 10 minute drive time. Everyone else is a regional competitor who I'm happy to befriend and share advice.
- Follow The Law. Like the example above, we should be paying our payroll taxes, remitting our sales tax, buying the proper insurance, and following building codes. It's common practice to stuff as many people as possible into an area zoned for retail rather than assembly, which also means HVAC and bathrooms are not to code. It's the cliche dirty, stinky game store. We should all be better, for ourselves, our community and for our industry.
- Keep Street Dates. There are too many street dates, and I've been known to be lax with the less important ones. This year I've created a new process in the store for making sure we keep them all. The problem with street dates for a larger store is process: the person who ordered the game, the person who received the game, and the person selling that game, could be three or more different people and they all need to know street date status. That's fine with a big Magic release but when your one-off board game has a street date, it's easy to mess up. We're working on that and it should make us a better competitor.
- Avoid Event Bombing. You don't need to coordinate events with competitors, and in fact I find the idea distasteful. I also have yet to see regional events make financial sense for stores, although some customers love them. I am event agnostic, in that I don't look at my competitors event schedules. We do what we do. Now, if I start questioning why an event isn't firing, only to learn my competitor has a similar event at the same time, I would certainly consider moving it (or just canceling it). There are events we cede to competition, often with customers we would also like to cede. We don't need to be all things to all people. And we don't need all people.
- Fill in the Holes. A good competitor finds under served markets and serves them. There are a number of games we've given up on, and sometimes those games are viable at a very low level but we can't be bothered. It's a common inventory practice to drop the bottom 20% of low performing products. That's prime territory for a scrappy competitor. My competitor regularly picks up those games and runs with them. Good for them.
- Speak No Evil. I used to know a guy who had a "Who List." If you got on his bad side, when people asked him about you, he would say "Who?" This is another way of saying speak no evil about your competitor. If you can't say anything nice, say nothing at all. I tend to say nothing at all. We keep a list of other stores that sell things we don't sell and we share this information with customers. I don't speak ill of my competition but they don't go on my good list either.
- Leave Them Alone. I had a competitor who would come by my store, check out my operation,
- Poaching Employees. I always find it amusing when other stores attempt to do this. The truth is I would almost never hire another game store employee, because I know the shortcomings of all the other stores. I have different shortcomings and I don't need new ones. Store owners who try to steal my employees permanently burn our relationship (Littlefinger tried this).
- Maintaining Value. If you have only one tool in your toolbox, the tool is you. Discounting doesn't always lead to a quick failure, but it usually does. I personally wouldn't want to have a store in a market where it's possible to somehow get away with this, because I like nice things like a house, college savings and retirement. The worst competitor salts the earth and sets a permanent standard for discounting that generally means all the stores in your region are kind of shitty. Forever and always. It takes money to have a nice store, pay employees, and not die of a heart attack at the register in your old age.
- Decorum. Competition is a fact of life and talking about dancing on the graves of the fallen or otherwise humiliating, spreading rumors, gloating, complaining, or likewise behavior just makes you look bad. Over time, competitors come and go and I'm often too tired to do a grave dance. You hear of a new competitor and their entire life cycle flashes through your mind, because most are under capitalized, mismanaged, and market blind.
There you have it! When a new competitor shows up on the scene, my general feel is I hope they're either good and lift all boats or they're bad and poor so they'll fail quickly.