Monday, February 18, 2019

A Tale of Two Publishers (Tradecraft)

When I was building my Jeep, I was pricing bumpers when I noticed some companies, like Smittybilt were priced all over the map. Buying anything from that company made me feel bad. I always felt there was a better deal somewhere out there I wasn't aware of. Their products were middle of the road, with some very good and some very bad. I would buy things from them, use them for a while, and quietly take them off. Their reputation was ... mixed. Their shotgun approach to sales and quality are infamous.

Meanwhile there was AEV, American Expedition Vehicles, a high end company started by Jeep engineers that sold a narrow range of products, all highly engineered, and never more than a dollar or two difference between suppliers. One customer complained in an online review about how retailer prices were so similar. A retailer explained if they were to sell AEV products for a dollar less than their agreement, AEV would cut them off. So at the most competitive level, all product was sold at nearly an identical price. That's the difference between no brand value protection and brand value protection.

The advantage to the retailer is clear. If I'm selling a bumper, I would rather sell the premium product for $1,400 rather than the squirrelly discount product for $700, or $600 or whatever the market will bear that day. The manufacturer of the high end product is partnering with me. The higher priced manufacturer is maintaining value in their supply chain, maintaining a strong reputation, and thus selling to a well heeled clientele rather than a bunch of mud boggers looking for the lowest price. They make more money, which allows them to engineer quality, and the cycle continues. As a retailer I can decide what products to sell based on where I place my store in the marketplace. I can build a high end store and sell high end products at higher prices or I can sell everything, good or bad, and be the Smittybilt of retailers.*

Wizards of the Coast just dropped their MSRP on all their products going forward. If there is no price, there is no need for price protection. Ironically, this is exactly what I've called for many times in this blog, yet I'm disappointed and a little worried. What I was hoping for was possibly a bit utopian. I want to run a retail environment where price is inviolate and off the table, where I can focus on customer service, and events, all the various joy producing activities with the assumption customers will judge me based on my joy production, rather than my prices.

I would rather sell packs of stuff at a price than a shiny piece of card stock of subjective quality at a constantly fluctuating price. Yet the ability to sell the packs has fallen while the sales of the variable shiny has risen. It requires expertise and a fiddly system to sell variable shiny while it's much easier to sell new packs at a set price through my retail operation. And because it's so much easier, absolutely everyone can do it and I'm losing that battle. One reason stores close we don't discuss is they can't run the kind of store they want, and this is one example. They want it one way, but it's the other.

Asmodee has brand value protection as does Games Workshop. They're still competitors with retailers, but there are price floors that help me sell their goods. My initial reaction is to shun Wizards of the Coast and embrace Asmodee and Games Workshop as best I can. Their strategies are retailer friendly, while Wizards of the Coast feels predatory, the game trade equivalent of the soy bean king, selling their products as commodities. I have heard the next step may be dropping pre releases, and that right there is an exit strategy for quite a few stores that aren't Magic centric. We run events to get the cool stuff. Butts in seats! If you're going to drop events, you've removed our golden handcuffs. Don't get me wrong, I like gold, but the disconnect between "go buy on Amazon, but play at your FLGS" really pisses me off. Watching it all burn has great appeal.

This is all overly dramatic. The reality is nothing will really change. The offroad store will happily sell me that $700 low end bumper or the $1,400 high end bumper and they'll happily agree with me when I mention the value of the low end product or the superior engineering of the high end product. There are few retailers who get to truly pick their market position. Likewise, I'm not going to shun Wizards of the Coast any more than I'm going to turn my game store into AsmodeeLand. I will serve up both to the best of my ability. I will do my best to attract the Asmodee customers but I won't turn away Magic money probably ever. Taking stands is for politicians and priests. I have no such requirements for ideological purity.**

In the end, there's a lot more going on than my own needs. These brand value protection schemes are delicate flowers. Hasbro just discovered this when they were sued for instituting brand value protection in Europe. The larger the company, the harder it will be to institute brand value protection policies, as they conflict not only with international law, but laws between states. There is also the problem of brand value protection schemes holding independent retailers to a higher standard than mass market retailers, which is inherently unfair, even if we do cause most of our own problems. It's no surprise the consensus at WOTC was to have a consistent message on pricing. Do what you want.



*This is the same argument I've made for industry wide net pricing, by the way.
**But if you gave me a bucket of money, I would diversify away from the game trade.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

13 Bits of Advice for the GAMA Trade Show (Tradecraft)

Are you going to the GAMA Trade Show this year? I'm skipping this year for various reasons, but I've been many times. As an introvert, it's difficult to fully experience these shows, but I have learned how to get the most out of them. Here is my advice.

  1. Occasional Attendance. You don't need to go every year, so don't feel obligated. I think every other year is fine, and for my managers, I really want them to go at least once. One time is the best bang for your buck, and for many retailers, once is all they'll ever do.
  2. Stay at the Show Hotel. Some retailers are cheap by nature and take great pride in saving a small amount of money by staying offsite. When the hotels were connected, like with Ballys, staying at Paris was a nice upgrade with a reasonable walk. You'll be commuting if you do this in Reno, and that's a waste of time. Plus Peppermill is a nice hotel, so just enjoy it. Heck, when was the last time you've been on vacation? Consider a room upgrade.
  3. Leave the Family. This might feel like a working vacation, but it's not. Wheeling around your baby stroller on the show floor is just unprofessional and bad form. When the show was in Vegas, it made some sense to bring the family and let them entertain themselves during the day, but Reno? Maybe if your spouse likes snow boarding and strip clubs. You'll also feel obligated to spend time with them in the evening, and there are better uses of your evening time.
  4. Go to the Retail Seminars. A lot of brainy retailers have poured their knowledge into teaching the intricacies of the trade through seminars. I can credit these seminars for my initial survival, and a chunk of my own seminars are distilled and modified versions of seminars I've attended. There is powerful institutional knowledge out there and this is your chance to tap it. I go to seminars as much as I can, even after many years of this. Network and try to find out which are the best. The best for a first time show attendee is unlikely to be the best one for me (thus you can go multiple times and gain value).
  5. Pick Publisher Seminars Carefully. You deserve to hear from a human with compelling and interesting information along with the ability to ask questions to someone who knows things, not a website rehash from a powerless intern. That might sound harsh, but some publisher seminars are worthless and some are fantastic and helpful. I once went to a one hour Wizards of the Coast meet and greet. How exciting! There was juice on the back table and we were instructed to talk amongst ourselves. That was the whole seminar. Ask around and figure out which seminars are valuable, and don't be tied into a waste of an hour of your time for the promise of a free googaa. After going to many of these shows, I tend to skip about 90% of publisher seminars. Publishers need to figure out what critical bit of themselves they can transmit in a seminar and focus on that. Some are so afraid of giving out confidential information, they provide no useful content.
  6. Network Network Network. Go to the meals if this is your first time. Go out to dinner with like minded people, if you can't handle one more cold cut sandwich. Go to the after hours gaming events and learn new games and meet new people. Find the smart people. These relationships will grease the wheels and help you form community, things you'll appreciate when you're back home in your Fortress of Solitude. This is also a good time to develop relationships with publishers and distributors, so break out of your retailer bubble.
  7. Bring Extra Socks and Good Shoes. This is an old convention trick, but along with comfortable shoes, bring an extra pair of socks and when you're getting tired walking the trade show floor, change them. It's better than a Red Bull. Under packing is generally a good thing for these shows. Speaking of packing, vendors will wish to burden you with flyers, samples, and a lot of useless junk. If you don't want these things, politely decline. 
  8. Trust Your Instincts. This is hard, but I generally know if a new game is something I want or if it's a turd. I've always known, really, and my buying expertise has mostly been about trusting that knowledge and removing my own ego and interests from the mix. Trust your gut. Also avoid back filling, as this is the time of year your purchasing budget may be flush. This is a forward looking, "front list" industry. Look for things coming out, unless you're hoping to diversify into a new department. 
  9. Ask What's Hot This Year. Talk with other retailers, because you've been networking, and get a consensus about what's hot at the show. Touch and experience that game or item and see what your instincts say. The herd is generally right. Sometimes there's nothing hot, and that's alright too. Last year nothing was hot. When I look back at the items I discovered at the show, their profit always equals or exceeds my costs for attending the show.
  10. Don't Be Afraid to Buy. GAMA used to ban writing orders at this show but that rule is gone. If you see something you like, buy it. The big publishers won't do this, but smaller publishers will be happy to take your money, although for some you'll need to twist their arm. If they say they don't know how, task them with finding out and come back the next day. I've gone to many shows, found things I've wanted to buy, and have been unable to acquire them later. It's ridiculous, but give them a credit card number at the show, and your chances of every getting that stuff go up tremendously. Good examples? Everything you see at the Chessex booth, giant dice, tiny dice, weird dice, stuff distributors won't carry, are available to order -- and it all sells.
  11. Open Distribution Accounts. It takes almost no time, but be prepared with your own information handy to start new distribution accounts. Fill out the form on the show floor so you don't forget. It costs nothing and opens you up to a better fill rate and possibly better terms. I resurrected a distribution account this year I hadn't used in ages and now do an order a week with them because of their better prices (Magazine Exchange).
  12. Be Firm But Polite. You want it one way, but it's the other. Too bad. When dealing with publishers in seminars, it's fine to discuss broader issues and insist they act consistently and professionally (cough, Pokemon USA), but nobody needs to hear your personal anecdotes. Nobody cares. We all have stores and problems and unless your issue relates to a large number of us, share it later, one on one. Also, there are no participation points. You don't need to add your story to our pool of misery. Listen and learn. Everyone is a petty king of a tiny kingdom, used to giving orders and running their domain with an iron fist. Together we can solve problems, but as individuals, retailers have a reputation for being rude and provincial. Use your listening ears.
  13. Have a Good Time! You're in Reno. Grab a steak. Take a walk outside and get some fresh air (there's still some cigarette smoke). Caffeinate at Cafe Espresso. Eat at the surprisingly good Flavors of India, which looks like the house restaurant for an Econo Lodge. Enjoy! 

Friday, February 8, 2019

West Marches Style D&D

I was in Mexico on vacation thinking about retirement and realized what I really wanted was to step up my Dungeons & Dragons game a couple notches. I've been running at home for my regular group for years, but I needed more. That's when I discovered the West Marches style online. It seemed to be exactly what I was looking for, as it requires the players to bring the motivation to explore your world. This was also while I was studying Matthew Colville videos, so sharpening up my GMing skills seemed to be a good fit with this style of gaming.

The problem with running a game for years for the same group, is they get fatigued with your schtick. They're excited at first, but after a few months, they show up to the game to be entertained. They show up because Sunday is game day. You as GM are therefore in this position of needing to provide continual, free entertainment to a group of individuals, pretty much in perpetuity. This is why GM burn out is a real thing, which for someone who considers this their primary hobby, feels like a terrible sports injury ... of the brain. Before this campaign idea, I built an entire world, wrote a player's guide, got player buy-in, and trashed the whole thing. The campaign setting was not the problem, it was the format of play.

So I moved forward with West Marches at the store, while running the same campaign at home in the usual format. As a store owner, I have a pool of players to draw upon, thankfully, so I queried our RPG Facebook group and started a West Marches style group. I needed at least 10 players to ensure it didn't fall back into a standard campaign format. Up to five players form an intention to explore something in my world, they query me about my schedule availability, and we do it. Five is the perfect number, because we can still play with four, yet six is too big. Group fault tolerance.

We're on the second session of this campaign, where there are now two groups exploring the same world. Somewhat in parallel with my home group . My home group is an elusive group that are never quite around. So really there are two player groups of adventurers and essentially an NPC group of adventurers (my home group). This creates yet another layer of verisimilitude. The world is very much alive and doesn't owe you an explanation. Things happen, get on it.

I'm thinking I would like a few more people in the pool, because my biggest concern is one group falters and we end up running a conventional campaign at a set time, which is fine but ends up with the same motivational pitfalls that West Marches attempts to overcome. The first session adventurers gave themselves a name, and I'll need to talk to them about not doing that. The large group are on the same mission. They are required to share information, including a magical map, and are not intended to be competitive or even separate. There should be flow between groups, with no individualized "groups" to speak of, although scheduling might result in this, as most players seem to want a set night. Perhaps when they're motivated to go on a specific adventure, they'll be willing to change their personal schedules to come on an off night.

So what am I running? The Colville style would be to have a large sandbox with some preset towns and adventures out there, often of the store bought variety across every edition. I will do that one day. Instead, I've got a hex crawl where most adventures are short and either home made or modified from one shot adventures. I have a lot of experience with hex crawls and understand their pitfalls and limitations, and so far it's going well. My concern with long adventures is groups go down rabbit holes and now they're by default a member of a separate group, as they're out of commission for weeks of real time.  My hex crawls tend to be intricate webs of interconnected groups, all of whom think they're the hero of the story, yet none are very heroic. There's a lot of politics interspersed with monsters and treasure. This grayness means picking sides is not so easy, and defeating one enemy is to by default choose to side with another.

The campaign goal is to colonize a region inhabited by indigenous peoples, bandits, and monsters, at which time they'll use Colville's Strongholds and Followers to hopefully defend themselves from an angry empire from which their new colony is seceding. All of this implies a timeline of various political actors and it will be interesting to see how that interacts with the various adventurers who are often doing different activities at different times. In my (second) session this evening, there will be fallout for a new group of recruits based on actions of the last group of adventurers, which may be directly related to their actions or just a timeline event based on their just existing in the world for a period of time. Meanwhile, my home group moves forward, leaving echoes of their activity in the world. Who are those guys!?

Another down side I see with West Marches is the campaign isn't tailored to the characters as I would do (and am doing) with a home campaign. There are eleven players with eleven backgrounds and I honestly can't put a lot of that information into what's essentially a pick up campaign. What I need to do, and I haven't expressed enough I think, is attempt to get them to align their characters with the world, rather than the world somehow serving their back stories. If your back story doesn't match the world, perhaps it's not a good back story? Or as Colville would recommend, keep character back stories light and be on the look out for a concept or issue to glom onto as your motivation. It's much easier to decide you're a revolutionary with the colonists than insisting the DM allow you to find your missing sister, kidnapped by hobgoblins.

Wish me luck! There is plenty of time for this to go off the rails.


Thursday, February 7, 2019

WizKids D&D Miniatures

As a store owner, I'm always curious to see what D&D miniature customers are buying. Are female miniatures languishing on the shelves? Are there races rarely played? Nobody really knows for sure who is playing what, and the manufacturer was polling retailers after the first print run trying to get a grasp on what was actually selling. So just for fun, here are my numbers.

These are in percentages to avoid the inevitable measuring of our retailer prowesses. It only includes the character models, of which we have every one. We have been good about keeping these in stock too, often ordering multiples to avoid outages. I can't say that about Reaper Bones, which I'm less excited about. Overall, in the last year, we've sold about 800 character models. Here's how it breaks down.


With an almost even split, I think this represents a change not seen in previous years, many more women playing Dungeons & Dragons. 


The human centric party is no surprise here, as we see them take top billing in the rules. I'm a little surprised to see Dragonborn so high up. Half elves can pass for elf or human, so it's no indication of a class choice to see them last.




The wizard edges out the fighter, and the rogue is up there, but where is the cleric? I had to go through the data a couple times to be certain the cleric was a poor seller. The four archetypes certainly aren't reflected in sales by class. The arcane spell cards sell twice as many as the cleric, by the way.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Teeter Totter



There is an odd balancing act specific to game stores in which customer satisfaction vies with retailer profitability. This is unlike other retailer relationships because game trade retailers often see product as a function of service. Most game trade retailers know nothing about retail and a tremendous amount about event management. They are party planners with gift shops for the most part. When Wizards of the Coast marketing asks us about our customers, they say players, because to them, we are in the business of "butts in seats."

This model is a teeter totter, in which retailer profitability decreases as we give in to perverse pressures demanding customer satisfaction. A great store will have strong customer satisfaction and profitability, and we're not talking about that. This is a model of a broken store and in many cases a broken community, where selling things profitably and running events is simply not enough for the customer base. They demand more, be it even lower prices or free or close to free events. Let's take a look at each side.

On the retailer profitability side, the downward pressures on top result in decisions leading to higher profitability. Rising costs often result in higher prices or at least holding the line on prices. Labor, for example, is rising in many states with increased minimum wage and the decrease in Magic margins results in many stores increasing box prices and event prices (you would hope). These things are seen as greed to customers, thus the same activity in green for retailers is seen differently, in red, by customers. If you ever hear a customer talking about prices over MSRP, it's likely they are comparing online.

On the bottom of that retailer model are reasons why profitability declines because of retailer decisions, often with the goal of increasing customer satisfaction. There is a certain level of holding the line or even reducing costs to attempt to delight customers. Most weekly Magic events, I guarantee you, are poor margin events designed more as customer appreciation than profitable endeavors. That these weekly events have been declining in many markets means even this is not enough. Our Friday Night Magic is in the 25% range and even that decrease in margin isn't enough to attract large crowds anymore. I know there are areas of my store where I keep prices low to attract customers, such as card supplies. Some of these customers I know only buy supplies from me and buy their main game online, so I want something from them.

Also on the bottom tier are the monastic sycophants, the retailers who claim they are there to serve the community, like some monk choosing a vow of poverty, so some 20 year old dude can have a place to play Magic the Gathering. We are about the people man! I know I won't be insulting them because they're off on a Magic blog learning about some new mechanic and could care less about business.

On the customer side, on the top, we have pressures that push down profitability in exchange for customer satisfaction. Unrealistic expectations are what we get with the likes of Amazon, which has a net profit margin of around 2%, when it makes any money at all. Take your current personal income and divide it by three and ask yourself if you would still go to work today. That's how much you're asking retailers to earn in their business, selling games and running events for customers.

Customers come in truly believing and spouting their truth that the Amazon price is the price. Retailers may not set their prices at this unrealistic level, but the pressure means they're certainly not likely to exceed it. Thus happiness is decreased and retailers look for other ways to make customers happy, like low margin Magic events and a store clogged with D&D customers who buy their books on Amazon at wholesale. Retailers are increasingly looking for ways to turn their retail environments into service environments due to this pressure and many of my retailer friends can't move to this model quick enough.

Retailers call most behaviors related to unrealistic expectations entitlement, but as capitalists we see this for what it is. A large, multinational corporation is using retail as a loss leader to dominate market share while propping it up with outside services all backed by Wall Street against Main Street. Brilliant! Unbeatable! Customers on that march care nothing about the realities of rising wages and decreasing margins. When your store closes as you accept their entitlement, they'll rattle the door once or twice and drive across town. Your store closing will be the topic of conversation at the pauper event, for at least five minutes. For the entitled, the struggle about income inequality, higher wages and a strong middle class is a personal challenge, not something out there.

It took a couple minutes to think of examples in which customers improve store profitability through their actions, but they exist. Only 20% of our customers use our very expensive game space, but when I polled customers, 80% of them buy in our store because we support the gaming community by having space. I was blunt in these conversations and many said they wouldn't shop if we didn't have it, even though it didn't benefit them directly. Community support is a very real, and irritatingly intangible force, keeping stores in business. It lives in a strange psychological limbo where "word of mouth" and the shifting demands of tween girls resides.

Blind loyalty is on the dark side of community support. These customers will support a store because Bob is really trying. Loyalists spread their money around to every store in town because they want a vibrant, diverse community, rather than voting with their wallet for the best store. As store owners, we're in this death match of competition, working hard to delight customers in the face of rising costs, yet there are customers who won't reward our efforts, embracing a kind of game store socialism. The blind loyalists are a small crowd that can't be cracked, although I certainly try.