I like to visit other game stores, often traveling long distances to see them. It provides me an overall insight into what the industry is doing. Writing about the industry is by nature to generalize, and the more overall breadth of experience I have with stores, the better my analysis.
I am open to suggestions and other ways of doing things, but I don't visit stores looking to take anything. I'm genuinely curious. I get more out of touring stores than visiting a trade show at this point. This is a very expensive way to educate myself, so we like to combine our game store tours with things like national parks and monuments, making it a game store tour vacation of sorts.
I've been to hundreds of stores at this point. I've been doing this long enough to get value from visiting the same store more than once, especially after a move. I visit stores with my 16 year old son, something we've been doing since he was in a stroller. I used to report on aisle widths and whether I could make it through the store with my stroller.
We've visited stores throughout the US, Canada, Mexico, and Guatemala. My son will now give me an executive summary of each store when we get back in the truck. I've been to stores in Europe to a smaller extent: Germany, France and Italy. There are write ups of these store visits on my blog, as well as on my personal Facebook page. Yes, this has been called game store porn.
Let me be the first to say there are a lot of bad stores. The barrier to entry in any local market is essentially the lowest commercial rent rate. You'll see the most "bad" stores, undercapitalized, unprofessional, unwelcoming club houses, in areas with super cheap rent. Visit the Phoenix area and you'll see a grid of commercial building going off into the desert to infinity. Where there are no geographical constraints, there is cheap rent, and there are a lot of bad stores. An SF Bay Area bad store is a middling endeavor in most markets, due to the cost of rent. $18/square foot (annual) is the basement. Where there is construction or malaise, there are bad game stores. However, we focus on the good stores, and that's my advice to the industry. Look at the good ones. There are a lot of them.
There are many variations of stores I could chose to visit. I often take suggestions before I go, but I'll look at reviews and try to hit the store with the most good reviews. A lot of reviews, mostly good, in each market. In some markets there are no apparent good stores, but we'll try to visit at least one anyway; I'm often surprised. Sometimes not (Flagstaff). Unusual stores are also on the list, like an unusual gaming cafe, a video game store we visited yesterday in a basement, and strange hybrids. If you've got a game store-pet store hybrid, I want to see it. Interesting retail that is game store adjacent are on my list too, like the amazing Last Bookstore in Los Angeles, built intentionally as experiential retail in 2005. How many game stores do you know of with a Wikipedia page or that make it into music videos? I was once approached to use my store as a porn set, but I declined.
All stores are reflections of their communities, thus all good stores that reflect this are worth visiting. There is no store that is too small, too weird, or too diverse. If you're profitable, and you're a legitimately good store, I want to see what you're doing. I'm also not interested, nor do I know anything about a stores profitability. So everything is taken with a grain of salt, and longevity sorts out what works from what doesn't. I can say I know what a solidly profitable game store looks like, although I love to see variants.
Communities get the game store they deserve. Deserve is a harsh word, but in this context, it's where demand meets supply. You might want one type of store, but your community will let you know what they need with their money. "Build it, and they will come" requires you to adjust your store to the needs of the community. You can't astroturf a store. I went to one new franchise store on my most recent tour that had an amazing miniature and paint selection, just like most stores of that franchise. But they had few miniatures customers. That niche was filled before they got there. They are a board game store, but it has taken them a couple years to realize this. Do they continue to flog their miniatures and hope to attract new customers or do they dump miniatures and become the board game store the community wants (deserves)? Time will tell. I'm just there to observe. This is where asking about how long they've been there is important.
Here is how I visit a store:
Let's talk about my attitude. I park outside and take a photo of the store front, trying to get the best angle. I like to put stores in their best light. This isn't getting published anywhere, but I would like to write up something that store owner would be proud of. This is an important element of how I visit stores. I have no desire to put down stores and would prefer not to visit, if I know a store is bad. If a store is bad, and there's nothing to be gained from the trip, I'll generally visit, but not write it up, or put it on my personal page and mark it friends only. I'm not trying to "get" anyone. This is someones life work. Remember that every time you give a business a review.
I try to avoid disruption. After I go inside with my son, I wait until the staff member at the front counter is available, or if it's nuts, I'll stand in line. I introduce myself and hand them a business card. Often the card can turn the mood one way or another, but it's almost always positive. Game store staff are inundated with sales people and useless individuals handing them business cards. If you've never been visited by another store owner, this might be confusing for you. I have just a moment to explain myself to set the mood.
I ask the staff for a business card and they almost always have something to give me, even if it's not a business card. A customer loyalty card with the address will do. I've got a mini flyer from one this week. If you're a store owner, please have business cards on hand for your staff. I used to take cards to keep track of where I've been, so I can write up my impressions later, but now I write up a quick synopsis in the truck, which irritates my son who has to wait. Back in the truck, we tape the business card into my mileage book, something we started with the new business truck. I give out a business card different from my store cards, with my name and information, created specifically for giving out to other store owners and for trade shows. I'm going to publicly talk about your store and I'm letting you know my name and cell number. I'll stand by what I write. Literally call me out if I'm a jackass.
Ahh the truck. In case you're wondering, yes, there is a business related expense to these trips. Until recently, there were "unreimbursed business expenses" you could claim on your personal taxes, and my trips would fall into that category. That's gone now, and with investors, I don't write off game tour expenses. I do get to claim the business use percentage for the truck though, which is especially important this first year of truck ownership (one day I'll write about Section 179, when I'm confident I understand it fully). The truck is a 2022 Ford F350 Lariat, known as Owl. Bear, my travel trailer, comes in 2023. I've also referred to the truck as the Iron Pig, and this damn truck, as in this damn truck won't fit in the parking garage.
After the transfer of archaic paper cards, I ask permission to wander and take photos. I almost always get permission. Maybe one in twenty will tell me I need to ask the manager or owner, which I will do. Nobody has ever told me not to take photos, although I was asked in advance not to visit a store once, by a friend who wasn't ready. I used to be squeamish about taking photos with people in them, but not anymore. People will occasionally tell me they don't want to be in the shot, or assume they're in the way (they're not). This is not photography class, I take up to 25 photos very quickly. I photograph stuff I find interesting or amusing (because nobody is paying me to do this).
I don't need special treatment. Some stores will give me the tour, which is not necessary. However, it does allow them to set their own narrative and learn more about me. If you're afraid of the dude with the business card, talk to him. I show up unannounced, even when the owner is a friend, so I don't expect anything special. I don't need to hang out or get lunch, although we had a wonderful impromptu lunch recently with a store owner friend.
If I get a store tour, it's an opportunity to compare notes and shape my narrative. In one store this week, we saw a tremendous amount of independent miniatures and paint with a thriving miniatures community. I mentioned how my store can't support that product and the owner offered to hook me up with communities in my area who play regionally. Neat! Neat, but not necessary.
I always buy my son Rocco something in every store, usually spending $15-20. This rewards him for his patience (and now research), but it also gives me a ton of useful insight into how they operate from a customer perspective. This also makes me an unusual customer, rather than just some industry weirdo taking photos. I can learn a lot about the store from this interaction. Rocco is also learning what it means to have a quality store, whether he follows in my foot steps or not (hopefully not).
That's what I do! I'm not the only one who does this. I know industry groups that go out to willing stores as an analysis mob. My store has been mobbed in this fashion and I got some useful feedback. I am not a secret shopper, but throw some money at me, and I'll be happy to visit your store and write up something more analytical than funny signs and goofy photos. Although I would prefer you just buy my book.
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