Monday, December 31, 2007

Top Games of 2007

  1. Warmachine/Hordes
  2. Warhammer 40K
  3. Magic: The Gathering
  4. Wizards of the Coast D&D
  5. Flames of War
  6. Star Wars Miniatures
  7. Rio Grande board games
  8. Fantasy Flight Games board games
  9. Mayfair Games board games
  10. D&D Miniatures

As an FYI, there is a huge difference between the new store and the old store which tends to skew these numbers. For example, Warmachine/Hordes falls to number three if we look at sales since we moved.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Convention Fatigue

After three years of going to every game convention I could find, I'm finally taking a break. You'll still see Black Diamond Games at Dundracon and Conquest, you just won't see me for a while. The bottom line is that it's just exhausting. It makes me feel old. I've lost that loving feeling. Time out for Gary.

Conventions got us through some lean months over the past few years, and the money we made was unbeatable. I also enjoyed working in an environment with other vendors, seeing what they had to offer and learning about what they think is hot. The customer too were fun to talk to, although they could often be rather mercenary at times. There's no relationship to build or maintain at a convention, so it's all about what you can do for them right now.

Trade shows, on the other hand, are where I'll be focusing this year. The San Francisco International Gift Fair is in February. That's where I've found things like the pirate bandaids. It's free and close and I can do it on my day off, so it's no big deal. As an aside, it's also the largest concentration of women I've seen since college. It's a shock considering I'm surrounded by guys in their 30's most of the time.

The Gama Trade Show is in April. Last year I skipped it and had an unbeatable experience at the ill fated Games Expo, or Game Sexpo as we call it now, since their website turned to porn. Low attendance meant great service from the vendors. Usually they're too busy at GTS to spend much time with you.

I've never been disappointed overall with what I've found at GTS. One year I quantified the sales of stuff I learned about from GTS and found that I at least broke even by attending. This is the hobby game show that everyone in the industry attends (except Games Workshop). It's in Las Vegas and the only question is whether to go for two or four days (probably two). Forget trade journals, websites, the "GIN" forum, it's what you learn at GTS that determines if you're in the know for that year.

After GTS, there's always the question of Gencon. Gencon has become a combination trade show, game convention of sorts. Many products debut there instead of at GTS, especially RPG products. I think I would only go if I found a friend to come with me; it's just too much of a social experience to go it alone. I've never been to Gencon. There. I said it. Shame me now.

Finally, we're having mini conventions of our own each month. I'm hoping to spend more time playing in them rather than being ringleader. We've got a boardgame and miniatures mini-con on January 19th-21st, our "Non-Con" on February 16th, coinciding with Dundracon weekend, and a war games mini con on March 15th. Every month will have a mini convention of one kind or another.

Holiday Hits

Here are a few surprise holiday hits:

Felix: The Cat in the Sack

What it's About:
With their mice, the players attempt to grab the famous cat in the sack. In the sack, there are both good and bad cats. Each player can also put a dog or rabbit into the sack instead of a cat, allowing players to bluff one another. At game end, all positive cats and mice count plus points, but negative cats count minus points.

Why it was Popular: This quick little card game from Rio Grande was created by Friedmann Friese, creator of Power Grid and many games with the initials "FF". That name alone sold a game or two, but it was playing the game in-store that tended to sell it best. Just about everyone who played it bought a copy and some bought multiples as gifts. It's now out-of-stock at distributors, so I don't think we're the only ones who found it a fun little game. Rio Grande card games are hit or miss, but this one will be around for many years to come.

Wizard's Presents: Races and Classes

What it's About: This lavishly illustrated book gives roleplaying game fans a unique, behind-the-curtain glimpse into the making of the [4th edition] Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. The book contains essays and asides from the game's premier designers, developers, and editors. Through words and illustrations, it explores some of the D&D game's most iconic races and classes, sharing insights never before revealed in any previous game product.

Why it was Popular: While D&D dorks everywhere (myself included) analyze every quote on Enworld and in game developers blogs, the rest of the D&D crowd waits patiently or honestly doesn't give a damn about the impending release of 4th Edition in June. Those who were curious picked up copies of this book, much to everyones surprise. There's no crunch in the book, no rules content, it's all essay. We sold twice our original order and distributors ran out. When it first came in, I was convinced I had made a huge mistake in ordering as many as I did. We talked in the store about how nobody would ever buy it. Every once in a while I declare that my coffin will include copies of a particular overstocked game.

Warhammer 40K: Imperial Guard Baneblade

What it's About: The Baneblade Super Heavy Tank is the primary super-heavy tank of the Imperial Guard, and one of the largest and oldest armoured fighting vehicles in Imperial service. Massively armed, the standard Baneblade complement includes a turret-mounted Mega Battle Cannon with a coaxial Autocannon, three twin-linked Heavy Bolters (one sponson-mounted on either side, and one turret mounted on the front hull slope), two turret mounted Lascannons on either side, directly above the side sponsons, and lastly, a fixed-forward hull-mounted Demolisher cannon.

Why it was Popular: Well, it's really cool! It's the coolest 40K model I've ever seen and it makes me want to play 40k, if I could find something else about it appealing. Everyone wanted one, and several people bought multiples. Our 40K organizer bought four to show off, so that might have helped. I might buy one just to paint after I get my ogres done. Note the photo I nabbed with the box on someones carpet. One of the nice things for retailers is you're not allowed to use trade photos if you sell GW online. They do their best to keep sales to themselves and game stores.

Pirate Bandaids

What it's About: Arrrgh! Treat yer minor cuts, scrapes and scratches suffered while commandeering a ship with the incredible healing power of pirate bandages. And if a fancy bandage isn't enough to dry up yer tears, how about a FREE TOY! Each 3-3/4" tall metal pocket tin contains twenty-five 3" x 3/4" adhesive bandages and a small plastic trinket to help make even the ouchiest owies feel all better in no time. Ages 3 and up. Contains natural rubber latex.

Why it was Popular: You're rolling your eyes, but these fun little items were perfect stocking stuffers for the holidays. I've tried to make the new store fun with little items like this, trinkets and point-of-purchase stuff that adds to the wonder. Other new things that sold well: Jesus action figure, Nun-chuks (hurls nuns across the room), light prisms, slinkies, and science kits that let you build radios or electrical kits. The gamer purists scoff, but I like that we've got fun stuff for all ages. Oh yeah, and so far I've only found one person who finds it disconcerting that pirates are so popular, despite their history of rape and murder.

Other things that sold well: Cthulhutech RPG, Race for the Galaxy board game, Cuba board game, the new Settler of Catan, all things Warhammer 40K, Warhammer Fantasy sold better than Warmachine, Melissa & Doug toys (but not Thomas the Tank Engine), Magic the Gathering, but no other CCG's in relevant numbers. Dungeons & Dragons sold just fine, despite 4th Edition news. Core books, like the PHB, DMG and Monster Manual sold slowly but supplement books sold just fine. Party games, especially Wits & Wagers sold well, unlike in previous years. They were more prominently displayed and I learned a bit more about them.

Surprisingly Soft: Blokus sold poorly compared to previous years, I think because I had less sales interaction with customers due to the store size. I've noticed that Warmachine has relatively light holiday sales compared to Warhammer 40K, possibly because the players are adults and don't get as many presents from family members. As I mentioned, Warhammer Fantasy outsold Warmachine, which was surprising. Battlelore sold poorly, with almost no customers I pitched it to buying one. I'll have to work on that. Thomas tanked, so to speak, and a 40% off sale helped only a little.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Online D&D

Here's a link to a Marketplace article and radio broadcast about some of the digital features of D&D 4.0.

One of the biggest problems with roleplaying games is getting a group together. Everyone is busy, and often in different places. Most people stop playing because their group falls apart. Someone moves or goes away to college or perhaps family commitments keep them at home.

Fourth edition still looks to be a fantastic upgrade from third. I'm eagerly awaiting June so I can start a new campaign (my old one continues in two weeks). From a store perspective, sales are soft for D&D right now, but many customers who know of the fourth edition developments are excited. The new preview book, Wizard's Presents: Races & Classes, has sold twice as many copies as I expected. I've scrambled to keep it on the shelves and distributors ran out early, apparently also a bit surprised at the demand. Industry people joked about how lame it would be, a book of essays about fourth edition design without any rules (aka crunch). There is a hunger to know what's going on and the development process is intriguing. Not everyone has time to camp out on Enworld to learn the latest news.

Out of Sync

One of the strange features of the game trade is the holiday season. Everyone plans for it months in advance. Manufacturers ramp up production. Distributors attempt to gauge the economy and retailer demand. Retailers stock up, going heavily into debt in hopes of a bright holidays season. Then, in the midst of the frenzy, suppliers go home. The manufacturers shut down, distributors go on vacation, and they wish us retailers a happy holiday season, leaving us with no chance of a re-stock.

Maybe I'm a greedy, soulless business man, but it seems unwise to walk away in the ninth inning of a game. We all want to spend time with our families during the holidays, but this is retail. We need all the troops fighting this final battle, a battle that doesn't end until the end of the year at least. I used to find this situation shocking, but now I know to try to prepare for it. It's a given that retailers will lose sales because of it. There's no way to anticipate demand for everything over a two week period. This is the period where all the regular hobby customers finally have money and return to the store to find .... hopefully shelves with some product on it.

To their credit, I've had several companies stay later this year, allowing me to re-stock my shelves. Battlefront, Alliance, and GTS could have gone home, but they stayed. They made extra money on me this season because of it. Some retailers have told me the job of these folks, is in fact, over, but the reality is that through mid-January, we're getting daily shipments of new product at the same level as in December.

I personally think this is a sign that the hobby game industry doesn't take itself too seriously. Yes, we do business, but we want to have fun too, right? If it was all work, we would be in cubicles or selling computers, right? It's a when push comes to shove situation, an acknowledgment that there needs to be benefits or perks that make up for the shortcomings of the trade.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Gaming Thoughts

I've been thinking about my own gaming of late. A few observations:

Painting Shrine. If I leave a clean bowl of water in my painting area, it's a sort of shrine to painting, a living reminder that I'm still in process. This somehow makes it easier to sit down for a few minutes and start painting without a long ritual of getting everything out and beginning. Painting in short increments is especially helpful for models I need, but don't really want to paint. I've got an ogre hunter that I really despise as a model, but I want him for his contribution to the army. I can't spend more than 15 minutes on him before I want to do something else. It's enough time to do a single color and then quit for a while.

Exercise vs. Performance. I've noticed I have a resistance to playing new board games. I think it's because it feels like exercise. Exercise is one of those things you resist doing, but when you finally do, you really enjoy it and wish you could hold on to the memory of that feeling for the next time you're reluctant. Role-playing games feel like performance, rather than exercise. I don't feel the reluctance to get started, although I do feel the reluctance to re-commit to long campaigns. There's a creative, emotional energetic commitment to role-playing games, whereas board games just take up some of your mental CPU cycles.

Rules. For some reason I'm comfortable with the fuzziness of role-playing rules, but that fuzziness bothers me when it comes to miniature gaming. Maybe it's the commitment to building an army, or maybe it's because miniature gaming seems like a complicated version of a board game, which generally has well-defined rules. I can see why gamers gravitate towards board games as they get older.

Dice. I've picked up the habit of dice as accessories, requiring a new set for each army/character with a matching bag. It makes me feel pretty. ;)

Ogre hunter with sabretusks

Grandma Money

The day after Christmas is the beginning of Grandma Money. This is when my regular customer base comes back with holiday cash and gift certificates. It's always odd watching a gamer who has to spend money. It's completely lacking in the justification, self-effacement, and the warnings of how their spouse is going to kill them when they get home. The return of my customers also means most of the actual selling work is over for me, as regular customers know what they want for the most part. The muggles are finished with me for another eleven months. Now it's a matter of having the gamer items in stock after the distributor warehouses have been emptied.

The post-Christmas seasons lasts about two weeks, finishing up at the end of the first week of January. That's right, we're still in the midst of holiday sales for another two weeks. Then begins the first quarter malaise, a period of scraping by, using eBay, pimping at conventions, and general hard work with little reward. It's when I start to lament that nobody is ever coming back to my store, a condition described by one of my mentors as being on the ledge. The new store should smooth this out, with new releases turbocharged with in-store events. We've got auctions, mini-conventions, and various painting events to get all those people who bought models for Christmas actually assembling and painting their armies.

Tomorrow will be our first big Christmas re-stock, with 15 boxes scheduled for arrival from UPS. This will tide us over through grandma money time. After that we'll be burning down our inventory levels, hopefully making room in the budget for new general releases starting in February. I'll likely be going to the GTS tradeshow in April to see what's new and the San Francisco Gift Show in February to check out toys.

The bottom line for us is that our sales are up 44% and we'll be able to pay off the invoices for our added inventory from our expansion.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Lies, Damn Lies and POS

I come from an IT background, so let me tell you, retail information technology for small stores is not the greatest. It's mostly what you can cobble together yourself, often patching off-the-shelf products to work with each other. When it comes to sales data, I've got three sources to look at, each with varying degrees of misinformation. I'm sharing this mostly for the potential business owners out there. I spent my first six months or so obsessed with the tools that showed me the rosiest data, ignoring the one tool that showed me what's important, the bottom line.

My point-of-sales system is my worst offender. All purchases go through the POS so you would think it's this font of knowledge. No, it lies! It lies like a rug! For example, it counts gift certificates as a sale, then it counts redemption of gift certificates as a sale. It double dips, inflating the numbers. Each day it generates a "Z-Report" a retail term for an end-of-day report that provides some raw data. I used to consider it very good data, now I know it's raw. I'll use this data for my next two sales data tools, extracting certain information like credit card sales, and removing certain data, like backing out gift certificate sales. It also has various ways to fool yourself with reporting. There are ten different ways to look at your sales, but after a while you prefer to look at them in ways that reinforce your view.

The second sales tracking tool I use is an Excel spreadsheet. I call it my Open to Buy worksheet. Open to Buy is a retail term used to describe how much money you have available to spend on goods. The spreadsheet takes sales data entered from the Z-Report, including cost of goods sold, and creates a magic number that's my budget for spending. As the store grows, the data is becoming harder to manage. One magic number isn't very useful, especially in hot departments like miniatures. If you aren't careful, your inventory dollars naturally shift to what's doing well. I also use this spreadsheet to track sales data, rather than relying on the lying POS. The sales data I track is better in the Excel spreadsheet and it makes pretty graphs, but it's still suspect. It tracks sales, but mostly gross sales, not net sales, since it only has part of the equation. The final tool is the bottom line.

Quickbooks is king. Quickbooks could track my inventory. It could track payroll. I use it only for the check register, manually entering daily sales number by source. The POS system is supposed to be able to do this through an automated function, but it doesn't do it the way my bank reads it, so it has to be done by hand. It took me a while to understand that the bottom line is king. It cares nothing for cost of goods or gift certificates, it just tells me if the payroll check will bounce and whether I've been mentally inflating numbers with sales and discounts. There's only one day a month I really trust it, when I reconcile the account, but it's generally the truth teller.

There is a Quickbooks POS system that links with Quickbooks, but my research said is wasn't as good. There are also Open to Buy wizards for Microsoft RMS (not Quickbooks POS), my POS system, but they're expensive. So far I haven't found a tool that integrates all these tasks together.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone out there. I do enjoy this season, especially having a family now. My son might not have a fat college fund yet, but he'll be benefiting this morning from his daddy's owning a toy store. Thomas Wooden Railway stuff makes up a lot of what's under the tree (it barely budged this season), along with a couple cool Melissa & Doug items, like a latch board and play food.

We had a phenomenal holiday season at the store, with most of our customer base finding us again at the new location. Sales of board games represented general public sales, and those were flat last time I checked, which tells me we probably lost some annual shoppers in the move.

Below are the latest retail articles that say a huge surge over the weekend before Christmas saved the day. It certainly worked well for us, with Friday being our best day ever and Saturday being our second best day, missing Friday by a couple hundred dollars. Christmas Eve was insanely busy too, something I haven't experienced before.

A couple trends: First, major retailers gave big discounts the weekend before Christmas, which may have boosted their sales, but will hurt their bottom line (like me with Thomas at 40% off). They'll report that news in January and my guess is it will be mixed. If you're only up a few percentage points and your discounting, you're not as healthy as you think.

Second, come January they'll also be reporting their gift card purchases. We had stratospheric gift card purchases this year, and the national trend is that it's increasing. This might offset their lower profit numbers due to the early sales. Sales numbers lie, it's the money in the bank that's important.

U.S. shoppers hit stores over Super Saturday weekend
The Super Saturday sales numbers indicated ShopperTrak's forecast of a 3.6 percent gain in holiday sales is "right in line," Martin said.

Late surge may keep retailers out of red

Those dour predictions that Santa Claus would detour from providing his annual goodies to the nation's retailers seem to have been off track.

Last-Minute Buyers Give Retailers Relief
"...the nation's retailers got their wish — a last-minute surge of shopping that helped meet their modest sales goals, according to data released late Monday by research firm ShopperTrak RCT Corp.... Toy sales are expected, at best, to match business from a year ago."

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Squeeze

The squeeze by distributors continued this week. GTS Distribution announced that their current prices will reflect a cash discount starting January 31st. Those who use credit cards, like me, will have to pay an extra 2% or we will have to figure out another method. Unfortunately, all the options add costs on my end. This comes as distributors are attempting to figure out how to deal with rising shipping costs, due to fuel prices. Distributors receive the smallest margin in the three tier system, so they're the most sensitive to changes.

Here's how it's normally broken down: The manufacturer produces a board game, for example, with a retail price of $50. The retail store gets half that, or $25 (the margins are shrinking though), the distributor gets 10% or $5, and the manufacturer gets 40%, or $20.

In the toy world, that $50 game would be around $55, an amount the retailer would tack on to cover the shipping, a charge the retailer almost always pays. The game world comes from a tradition of free freight on orders of a certain amount. Ask someone outside the game world for their freight policies and they'll look at you funny. This free freight is where the problem lies. As the cost of shipping increases, the free freight model breaks down. What was once free freight with a $350 purchase might now be free freight with a $1000 purchase or free freight plus a service charge.

So far, all but one of my distributors (Alliance), along with Wizards of the Coast, have increased shipping costs to the retailer to get the goods to the store. Nobody faults them for trying to recover their costs, they have a business to run too. The issue, as I see it, is that retailers can't be expected to bear all those costs without passing them on to the consumer. It's inflation 101.

Unfortunately, the industry is a bit peculiar in its methods and isn't set up to do it any other way, so retailers will be forced to make decisions or perish. Most who perish probably won't know why. It's usually a combination of rising costs that does in a business. Growth for most retailers is small, probably a few percent a year. Adding a couple percent would kill off distributor, with their thin margins, but it's a slower life drain for retailers, something that could close their doors if the economy were to falter and their regular growth stopped.

Retailers have a peculiar response to individual product line increases. Some simply draw a line in the sand and decide not to carry games with a margin below their baseline, possibly 45%. Others, like myself, stock those games but don't put effort into promoting them. I would much rather you play Warmachine (50% margin) than Warhammer (45% margin), and absolutely prefer you play either of those over AT-43 or the new Confrontation (40% margin). If I can create events, specials, or overall excitement for the better margin item, I will. I could decide I don't want you to have the choice and not carry the lower margin products, but I don't control what my customer buy, I only have an influence on whether they buy it from me.

Product line price increases are easy to decide upon compared to this new problem. What do you do when all of your goods are going up in cost? From working with my toys, shipping is about 10% of the total cost of an item, a cost that has been subsidized by the distributors, who are also drawing a line in the sand and saying any more expenses will be born by someone else. I don't see any way out of this other than to raise prices beyond the MSRP, an idea wildly unpopular among store owners.


I put a link on the side of the page for the Obama for America site. I'm probably more libertarian than anything else, and Obama has said a stupid thing or two that I've mentioned here before (hey, I say stupid things daily!), but I'm really hoping we can avoid the slime, pessimism and opportunism of Hillary Clinton. The Republicans sound like their running for pope, not president, and I'm hoping they go into the desert to find themselves while they're out of office for the eight years or so following this election.

What it comes down to for me is the attitude. Imagine you had two equally qualified candidates for a job at your company. One was slick, a little cagey but had been around for a long time, while the other was reasonably qualified, a bit young but optimistic and forward thinking. You agree with roughly 80% of what each believes their job involves, but life is this way. Who would you hire? Who would you want to work with? Who would be more likely to rise to the occasion in uncertain times? I've faced that question as manager before, and optimism and energy wins every time.

My main concern with all Democrats right now is their tendency towards protectionism. My main concern with Republicans is their borderline reality disorder that puts them out of touch with reality in fundamental ways. I'll take protectionism any day if those are my two choices. Heck, hand me a hammer, I'll help build the fence.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Just Good Enough

After traveling to Europe earlier this year, I figured out what it was about my country that kind of bugged me. Everything was just good enough. The roads are a mess, but they're just good enough. Roads fall down during earthquakes, melt in fires, have potholes, and are often too many decades old, but they're just good enough. The food is just good enough. It's cheap and affordable and generally doesn't kill you when you eat it. The obesity problem in this country is not from eating tasty, high quality hand-made food, it's from eating too much crappy, manufactured food, usually comprised of cheap, subsidized corn products. The schools are the same way; not great, often not very good, but adequate and just good enough. Our national program for schools, for good or bad, is a plan to make sure they're all just good enough, not good or great. This brings me to shopping.

What Americans have been trained to do over the past decade is to shop for price, based on what's good enough. It has resulted in a boom of material prosperity for Americans, with even the most impoverished sporting large screen televisions and fancy cars (often leased, terms which are just good enough). Quality is something you demand but don't want to pay for. Quality is part of the just good enough equation, as all goods are expected to have a minimum level of quality as part of their value. However, somewhere down the line, the demands for cheap, just good enough products hit a wall. It's what happens when companies squeeze their suppliers too hard. One too many corners gets cut. Lead paint, for example, is two-thirds cheaper than regular paint, so when Wal-Mart or RC2 demands cheaper manufacturing, it's not a difficult decision, especially when your government looks the other way.

So when we begin to hand out poisonous toys to our children, we've crossed a very, very thin line between just good enough and dangerously bad. It's very thin. We've already seen movements in food and other products for higher quality. We have organic products in food, although that standard is being slowly eroded. People often shop for cars nowadays not only on quality, but based on crash test results, I know that's a major part of my decision making, along with passive safety, like airbags and traction control. However, I think these personal standards are for the wealthier among us, and definitely the more educated (i.e., better able to inform themselves).

My big question, will we get to a point where Americans will accept less quantity for higher quality? It's the way it works in Europe. I would personally give up half my possessions if everything I had was high quality, there were social safety nets, and I had the choice to increase my prosperity through my own effort. That last one is where the socialist world falls flat. At what point will the quality of goods overshadow the sheer desire to possess them?

There is interesting reading that says that might be a trend of the future. The book Futureshop suggests that we can increase our prosperity by essentially becoming a leasing culture instead of a buying culture. For example, if you buy high quality goods, and then tire of them, you can sell them on the secondary markets, such as eBay and get good value back which you can then use on your next purchase of whatever catches you fancy. It's the same principle that keeps luxury car lease rates low and the trend of "pre-owned" vehicles so popular.

I would be more than happy to sell beautiful, imported from Europe, hand crafted toys that sell for three to four times as much as my Chinese made stock, but only the richest of consumers are willing to pay for them. Most consumers right now are still reeling from recalls, shopping around and looking for "Made in..." labels on their products. Some insist that certain manufacturers, known for quality, couldn't possibly have product made in China, as if overnight, Made in China was a sign of shoddy goods. Others wander the aisles in vain, looking for toys made elsewhere, complaining to me, as if this is a problem I created, rather than a monster summoned by their own consumerism. Meanwhile, the quality toy stores went out of business years ago, killed by the mass market and their just good enough, Made in China, toys.

For now, the middle ground is common sense. Well informed customers know that recalled items are generally off the shelf (some larger stores have left them up there with signs). My hope is that there's enough of a backlash to bring about quality once again, a demand for something better, rather than just good enough.

Loyalty Programs

Friday turned out to be our best day ever, with Saturday a close second. Our sales are up 66% from last December. This can be attributed to a lot of luck. Three game stores and the local Games Workshop store closed recently, and we've picked up a lot of those customers.

Hey, lets look at loyalty cards!

Customer Loyalty Programs

Game stores simply cannot afford to discount. They cannot offer 10% or more off on product like you see online or even at some of the bigger book store chains. Margins continue to shrink and small stores just can't afford to do this. So what can you offer customers? Besides the obvious perks of game space, cold drinks, occasional freebies and your expert advice (yeah right), customer loyalty programs are a way to retain customers without giving away the store (literally).

The concept of customer loyalty is that when customers shop with you, over time they will get a reward based on the money they spend. All things being equal, and this is important, a dollar spent with you is more valuable than a dollar spent with your competitor. If they have a loyalty program, it's the store they're more likely to spend the most money with that gets the benefit.

Our program works with our point-of-sale machine. Each customer is given a "Paladin Club" card with a sequential number. It's funny handing these out sometime; I've noticed younger customers give me the nod because a paladin is the cool character from World of Warcraft, they're only exposure to the word. I chose paladin because of our knight logo.

When scanned, the club card looks up the customer in our POS database. We've gathered an extensive mailing list of about 500 regular customers through this program. This is one of the key values to me as the retailer, I can send mailings to my customer base.

Once customers have a club card, they present it before making a purchase. For every dollar they spend, they get a point. After 200 points, they get a coupon that prints out after their receipt. The point value and the coupon value are variable, but we give a 10% off coupon. We used to give a $5 gift certificate, but our system doesn't track these little slips, making it an unknown liability sitting in hundreds of peoples wallets.

Customers get a 10% off coupon after spending a bunch of money. It probably comes out to a 2% or so discount overall. We're still discounting, but it's not as severe as say, a 10% across the board discount for every customer. We've got about 500 club members, which only includes our regular customers, probably 70% of our total customers.

When we were doing the $5 GC's, we gave our nearly $1000 the first year, or roughly $500 in costs. This is a lot of money, and the only way to justify it is to consider it part of your marketing budget. Most game stores don't do any advertising (which is why they tend to fail), but the rule of thumb for me, according to books I've read and experience, is to spend at least 2% of you gross sales on advertising. An average store doing $200,000/year in sales should be able to swing $500/month in some form of advertising. This would be less than 10% of that.

This small token of appreciation may not seem like much, but if you have the option of shopping at a competing store on something for the same price, or building up your paladin club points, you'll likely want to shop with us.

We have our club cards printed by Duracard and the software add-on is from a company called ADI.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Gift Certificates

This week has been exhausting, especially yesterday. Yesterday my receiving order took seven hours, mostly because I was busy helping customers at the same time. A couple of helpful folks joined me in the process until an employee could arrive in the afternoon.

Today is likely to be the biggest shopping day of my year. Last Saturday was a better sales day than my Saturday before Christmas in 2006, so I have no idea what to expect today. Since I'm actually working, I don't have a lot of time to blog or think about blog topics, so I figured I would discuss a nuts and bolts issue today, especially for those interested in the retail process.

Gift Certificates!

Stores love gift certificates, or at least they should. Customers, usually relatives and friends of our clientèle, come in and purchase this little slip of paper in whatever denomination they want. The printing and envelopes for these things aren't cheap, but the secret beauty of a gift certificate is that a good percentage, about 30%, never get used completely or at all. That's just free money, but with a small catch.

California law states that if you buy a gift certificate, it never expires. If you get one as a promotion or gift from a store, they can have an expiration date, however. For a store, this means you've got a perpetual liability sitting over your head, but the reality is many of those certificates are lost or gone forever.

Another strange accounting thing with gift certificates is that they aren't counted as sales income until they're redeemed. You'll see many big box stores rejoicing in January because their gift cards are being redeemed and they can finally book the sale. For a small store like mine, I don't find much to celebrate in this regard. My sales tracking worksheet doesn't show the gift certificate sale in December, but my accounting software sure as heck shows the money! January is pay-up month, not impress the shareholders month.

Gift bank (credit) cards are becoming more popular. These are a godsend of sorts, but not without their problems. Customers arrive with credit card gift cards that they've received as gifts. The issue with these cards is two-fold. First, they have a denomination, and if they've been used before, the customer rarely knows how much is on the card. I can't tell them. You'll see me standing at the register adding and removing items trying to shoehorn a sale onto a mystery gift card. Second, what the customer doesn't know is that the fees for processing are outrageous on gift cards, sometimes as high as 4%. The store is subsidizing the use of the gift card without many of the benefits of an "in-store" program, like we get with gift certificates. Still, that's the cost of doing business and I'm always happy to see the cards.

Oh finally, the trend is away from paper when it comes to gift certificates. There are third party companies that allow you to accept your own gift cards that they manage for a monthly fee. I've avoided this because I despise anything that touches cash flow, such as monthly fees of any sort, but I've read that customers are willing to buy gift cards in amounts up to 30% higher than paper certificates, so it would probably make sense. A store that uses paper certificates can do the math here: 30% of your current paper gift certificate sales (your increase) times 30% (the percentage never redeemed), minus the program fees. It's probably a smart thing.

I can't issue gift cards in-house, otherwise I would. There's also the option to participate in an existing program. One is called Booksense, a program for book stores. This would allow me to issue and accept gift cards usable at book stores across the country. Buy a gift certificate from me and you could use it in my store or at Barnes & Noble, and vice versa. Managed programs are also best for stores with multiple locations, since the cards can be tracked easier.

I recommend new stores look at gift cards first, and if that doesn't suit them they can do certificates. My point-of-sale system (Microsoft RMS) has a "voucher" option that tracks gift certificates and their balances. Stores can either have them printed professionally, usually for $.50-1.00 each or they can make them in-house. The important thing is keeping the numbers in sequence.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Tis the Season for Board Games

Our top 10 board games this season:
  1. Settlers of Catan (revised)
  2. Ticket to Ride
  3. Hey! That's My Fish!
  4. Race for the Galaxy
  5. Starcraft
  6. Carcassonne
  7. Zooloretto
  8. Red Dragon Inn
  9. Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition
  10. WoW Burning Crusade Expansion
Settlers finally started moving this week. I was beginning to wonder if something was wrong.

The real story is in the miniature games, which are now at 1000% of last years sales, exceeding sales of board games. My board game season is now my miniature game season. If I were to do my top miniatures:
  1. Imperial Guard Baneblade
  2. Space Marine Battleforce
  3. 7th Armored Normandy (Flames of War)
  4. Space Marine Tactical Squad
  5. Warhammer 40k: Apocalypse
  6. Eldar Windrider Host
  7. Chaos Space Marine Codex
  8. Chaos Space Marines
  9. Devastator with Heavy Bolter
  10. Battle for Macragge 40K Str
If I had to point to a hole in our miniatures strategy, it would be the lack of new players, as shown in our small number of 40K starter sets. Our primary goal for 2008 should be bringing in new hobbyists, especially younger kids. We've gotten lucky, now we have to the work to build the hobby.

A Happy Plastic Christmas

The store continues to do well for the holidays, with traditional Christmas purchases of board games and related items flat, but an increase in trading card games, toys, and the big one .... Warhammer 40K. Warhammer sales are off the chart. Thanks for the warning guys. After getting advice to stock up from you folks, I brought in a second Christmas order just in time.

40K is usually bought by the mothers and they don't need a lesson, just help finding what's on their list. If any twelve year olds are reading this, try writing better descriptions of what you want on your list. "Chaos guys," for example, is not a helpful description. The board games require a lot of hand selling, and that's most of the work during the day, along with receiving many boxes.

UPS and Fedex have been surprisingly efficient this year. UPS has learned to rent additional trucks from rental agencies during the holidays. They haven't delivered anything late or anything that looks like it was drop kicked. Fedex actually delivers early by a day or two, relieving some of the Friday stress. Friday is when my Monday through Wednesday orders from Games Workshop arrive.

The two big game distributors ship out of the Central Valley, so they're a next day delivery, while GW ships out of Tennessee, if I believe, and Wizards of the Coast out of Texas. Battlefront ships out of Delaware (grumble, grumble) and we've had some late arrivals of new items from them. They're still getting settled in their new offices.

That review article continues to pop up. I see customers shopping with the pink pages under their arms. They also call looking for some of the games on the list, such as the lackluster, but well reviewed in the SF Chronicle, Fiji (BGG 5.9). I've managed to stock many of the top reviewed items, but after talking to customers who are interested in a little input, they usually go with something else more suited to their needs. That's a good thing and I always hope we can recruit them for Tuesday boardgame night.

Most people don't seem to be finding us from the new phone book. I'm getting a lot of referrals from various Internet sites and Holiday customers really do seem to be doing a lot of research online. The TV commercial is bringing in regular customers who thought we may have gone away. That was the intent of spending a bunch on TV, so that makes me happy.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Holiday Retail

Apparently holiday retail sales are disappointing so far for retailers. Of course, nobody asked me, because real retailers are comprised of those mega stores that do 40% of their sales this season. They belong to retail trade groups that throw around these numbers. If you did ask me, I would tell you our sales are up around 40% from last year, due mostly to miniature games and our new toy section. We're doing very well.

There's a good article on retail here on the New Yorker financial page about how difficult it is to make a buck in retail. It talks about reference prices and how the Internet fixes the information asymmetry that used to allow stores to make more money. For example, although only 3% of purchases are made online, many people spend hours online researching what they'll buy, including price. If everyone has an item at 30% off, the "reference price" is that 30% off number, something I referred to as the "de-facto" price. For example, if eBay and my competitors are discounting $145 boxes of Magic cards to $85-100/box, the "reference price" is that $100 price point. Nobody who knows any better will buy them at $145, and nearly three quarters of consumers know better.

One factor not mentioned is that nothing can ever be hot again. There will never be another Pokemon craze in which game store owners were buying new homes or retiring early. The Internet with its various discounters and secondary markets like eBay acts as an escape valve for product demand. As long as there's supply available to anyone, anywhere, prices are kept in check. Some older game stores were sticking around in hopes of such a craze, a return to the good old days I suppose. Without the potential for a craze, retail seems a bit dismal to them, it's actually hard work and slim margins with no hope of a big bump. As I've only been open a few years, that's my baseline understanding. It must be hard to keep going knowing the best days are behind you.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Painting Minis: Craft and Culture II

So what's involved in the craft of miniature painting? Some supplies and some knowledge.

The knowledge is available everywhere online and in several good books we have in the store. There's the Darkson Designs Painting Guide, How to Paint Citadel Miniatures and How to Paint Space Marines, the last two by Games Workshop.

The basic techniques are pretty simple. You need to prep your miniatures, usually meaning you wash them if they're metal or remove them from their sprues if their plastic. You file off the flash and mold marks, and you prime them with spray primer. After that you need a basic base coat of paint, meaning you paint the model with the correct color in the correct places. Pants might be brown, shoes black, nothing fancy.

After base coating, you can call it a day if you like and claim you're done. You could also learn the various techniques of dry brushing, washes, stippling, or whatever, but generally, the key to this craft is that you decide when you're done. You can spend eight hours on a model, something I do with my single Dungeons & Dragons character miniatures, or you can base coat a unit of figures and call it quits. If you're truly done, the last step is some non glossy varnish to protect your work.

What about materials? The secret here is that there are no right or wrong materials, within reason. I know award winning painters who use every variety of paint we sell in the store, and cheap craft store paint. All of these people have won regional or national awards using these paints, so there is clearly no wrong paint choice. Sitting on my painting table right now are paints from Reaper Master Series, Vallejo Game Color, Vallejo Model Color and one bottle of brass P3 paint from Privateer Press. It's all good.

Primer is the same way, we sell three varieties: Games Workshop, Armory and Testors. I personally have two bottles of Armory, a bottle of Testors and a five year old bottle of Games Workshop sitting on my painting table right now. It's not that big a deal.

Brushes are similar, although a good brush is more important. I use three brushes: a large brush, a small brush and a wider brush for dry brushing. I've got twenty or so brushes, but that's only because I refuse to throw worn out ones away. All brushes are fine, but you'll be much happier with a hobby brush as opposed to cheap art store brushes, which wear out faster.

Let me stress again, that you are done painting when you decide you are done. Nobody can tell you this, it's about your commitment to the craft and how quickly you want to start playing. I personally need to have my models base coated as a minimum, or it feels kind of lame to me.

I paint my bases to differentiate models that are finished with their base coats

It's also perfectly acceptable and expected that you'll be playing the game before your army is fully painted. There are those out there that look on painting as performance and won't reveal their army until it's completely finished. I think they're missing out on a lot of fun, but we each decide when we're ready.

Our local Warhammer Fantasy game doesn't allow unpainted models in play, although painted is a subjective term as you can see by my guys above. I've been known to hire out the game room residents to paint a few ogres for store credit when I'm out of time. If I've got a campaign battle to play and the units aren't painted, they aren't allowed on the table by our own rules. This can be a shortcoming of the GW painting rules. Many people want to play, but because of the craft culture, they have difficulty committing the time and resources to painting. Ebay then becomes a source for painted armies. I also see this as a big reason why AT-43 pre-painted miniatures are doing so well for us.

My bare minimum painting regimen: prep to a small degree, prime, base coat, dry brush, magic wash, base with static grass and varnish.

Painting Minis: Craft and Culture I

Painting miniatures is a craft. The term craft implies skill and technique, as opposed to art, which is not only pregnant with implications, but is scary. Few among us are willing to take on the mantle of artist, but engaging in a craft, by definition takes a little learning and some raw materials. The craft of miniature painting has come a very long way from when I was kid.

The materials are vastly refined and the techniques are well documented. For example, we carry four lines of acrylic miniatures paint in the store, two lines of brushes (soon to be three), three varieties of primer and several "how-to" books on how to paint miniatures. Compare that to when I was a kid and you would have seen one line of crappy enamel paint, art store brushes, no primer and no idea what the heck we were doing.

Culturally we also have a bit of a divide. Games Workshop has created a sub-culture among their hobbyists. First, the word hobby is everywhere. You won't find this word used outside of the GW universe when it comes to games. All other games have players, while GW has hobbyists. This hobby element, which stresses craft, is reinforced with their organized play. For a long time, you couldn't play in their store with unpainted miniatures. This is to stress the craft element of the hobby. Also, when you play a tournament, you are scored based on a number of factors. Sportsmanship is one everyone is familiar with, and that's great, but you're also scored on how well your army is painted. You win partially based on your proficiency in craft. These are also the hobbyists most likely to build terrain and modify their miniatures. Stores that sell a lot of Games Workshop product often sell thousands of dollars each year in "bits," individual parts needed to modify their models.

The stress on craft has two key economic elements. First, it sells the heck out of craft supply, but most importantly, models look good when they're painted. Well painted models bring new people into the hobby when they see them in play. They want to be part of what looks cool.

When it comes to sales of Games Workshop product, you've got core models, special order bits, and their own line of paint and hobby supplies under the name Citadel. They carefully reinforce their paint lines by stating on the box which colors are needed to paint the models as shown on the box. Reinforced culturally with their tournament rules and previous no-paint, no play rules, Citadel paints sell tremendously well in stores that support the game. If we counted Citadel as a separate game, it would be in our top ten. Right now we sell more Citadel paint than Dungeons & Dragons.

Lacking this subculture of craft, other paintable miniature games are often seen on the table unpainted. These silverfish, as they're called, draw quiet scorn from the GW gamers. Of course, I would prefer they paint their models because it would add excitement to their game and increase my sales of models (because of the excitement) and paint supplies. This month I sold as much Citadel paint as I sold of Warmachine, one of my top games. Before I carried Citadel paints, I lamented that it had to be bought in six packs. Now I understand. Warmachine does not reward painting skill in their tournament play. In fact, the general impression many of us have of the game, is that it would do extremely well as a pre-paint game, since so few players are interested in painting their models.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Confrontation Video

Watch this new Confrontation video and tell me your heart's not racing.

Friday, December 14, 2007

2007 Game Trends

Here's an update on some of the new trends of 2007.

Pre-Painted Miniatures. Here we have some clear winners and losers. Pre-painted Reaper miniatures were the big news earlier in the year. Sales for us have been about equal to sales for their unpainted tin models, which is a bit disappointing. I'm really surprised.

Battlefield Evolution from Mongoose was put on hiatus recently. This modern, 28mm pre-painted miniatures game had a lot going for it, but was critically mishandled from day one. It could have been a contender.

AT-43 has caught on. Some stores meander along with this game, but it's been doing extremely well for us lately. Wishing it into the cornfield has not helped. The new Karman book has everyone excited. Who wouldn't want to play gorillas strapped with rocket launchers? The new pre-painted Confrontation is due out this month sometime. It's supposed to be based on the AT-43 rule set. We received a half-dozen promo figures and they look well done.

The Mongoose Starship Troopers pre-painted miniature game was supposed to be out in April, but I haven't been able to find out what happened to it. Anybody know?

CCG's with MMORPG Tie Ins. The World of Warcraft CCG was on fire this time last year. It remains a viable game for us, even though most people were initialing buying it for loot cards. It's a living game for us, with organized play on Thursday nights. This was an example of a CCG taking advantage of MMORPG hype.

Several new games this fall have online components built from scratch to coincide with the card games. Chaotic has crashed and burned in the game trade already, even though it's about to go mass market this week. It suffered months of delay which killed the hype and by the time it came out, the buzz was dead. We've nearly sold through our initial box of starters and boosters and have no intention of re-ordering.

Maplestory is a maybe for us. We've sold it well but the initial buzz has died down. It suffers from starter packs that are out-of-print, curtailing the possibility of developing a larger player base. Big mistake by Wizards of the Coast. I think this one won't make it much farther, but I hope I'm wrong.

Bella Sara staggers along, not really delivering on the promise of bringing young girls into the store. The daughters of gamers are the sole customers of this game and sales are negligible. Like Yu Gi Oh, the player buys buys a booster per visit. There's an entire online world of horses to explore here, or so I'm told.

The Eve CCG is based on an MMORPG but lacks any integration. It was alive for us long after it died elsewhere. It's dead now.

CCG's are a difficult nut to crack. I honestly feel a little sorry for CCG customers intent on finding the next cool thing. I hope they find value in all the roadkill they accumulate, one booster pack at a time. At least with a miniature game, you've got something to show for your effort, even after they game is dead and gone.

I've been told by other store owners that an area can support three to four CCG's. Beyond that, and you've got diminishing returns. I would say our four solid games include: Magic, Naruto, Yu Gi Oh, and World of Warcraft. Still, we've got Game of Thrones players, the occasional Pokemon purchase, and the slow death of the new games for 2007.

Big Box Games. It's kind of a trend, it's the uber large expensive board game. Fantasy Flight continued it with Tide of Iron and Starcraft in 2007. Starcraft had a bunch of negative buzz and a monstrous delay while Tide of Iron was the savior game. It turned out to be reversed, with lots of disappointed Tide of Iron players, unhappy with game play and upset about the delay. Starcraft was apparently worth waiting for. Early play reviews by our game room residents ensures me it's a very good game. Good sales followed. Dust has also begun to do well. Stores in the MidWest have been complaining about the price points of these games, usually in the $80+ range, but they do fine here. Back list games like Twilight Imperium, World of Warcraft and Descent (out of print for the holidays thank you very much) have been selling well this season.

Collapse of the Miniatures Market. There has been this feeling of impending doom for various miniature games. Warhammer 40K may not be as hot as in the past, but it's going nuts for us now. Warmachine and Hordes have slowed down tremendously for game stores who have been in on the ground floor of these games, but we came a bit late, and they continue to be hot. Flames of War was revived for us after some clever organized play activity brought more people into the store. Still, Battlefront is disappointing on so many levels. This weeks releases will be out next week, in case you were wondering.

Beyond that, I have to say I have little interest in adding additional miniature product lines. I've seen Infiniti at various miniatures oriented stores, but the price point and margin have kept me away. It has also kept away distributors who won't touch it. The Anima game came out hot earlier in the year, but we've backed away from it as interest waned. Confrontation is thankfully dead and I'm glad I kicked something to the curb that I didn't regret later. Confrontation is dead, long live Confrontation (pre-paints).

If anything, I'm reluctant to do anything cutting edge in miniatures at the moment. No Infiniti, no Micro-Armor, no Battletech, no Crocodile Games. I'll be waiting for Confrontation and the Next Big Thing from Battlefront. The last thing I want to see is the miniatures market look like the CCG market, with various folks throwing crap against the wall to see what sticks. The war is over, check the slatwall for the winners.

Small Press Roleplaying. This was really the year that small press took off for us. There are not a lot of big hits here, but they have finally begun paying off. Spirit of the Century remains the top seller, vindicating the model. I think they're very close to hitting a critical mass of worthwhile products, and when I say that I'm talking about Indy Press Revolution and their minimum free freight model. Once the average game store can purchase $200 at cost of solid RPG's, there won't be an excuse not to carry small press titles. This is all happening while the "mainstream" role-playing industry has been nose diving.

The (near) Death of Collectible Miniatures. Wow, a complete and utter collapse in this market segment for us. It's still doing well in the rest of the country, but the SF Bay Area has seen this segment collapse. Star Wars and D&D miniatures have dropped by 50% and only make our top lists in the months of their release. Heroclix and MechWarrior sell meager quantities, while even Pirates has slipped substantially. PocketModel Star Wars has picked up some of the slack, thankfully, while we've also had a revival of Axis & Allies, both land based and War at Sea.
The new Pokemon miniature game had a lot of promise, but there were supply and quality control problems and now the distributors are flat out dumping it. I'm sure there's a story there somewhere. It was supposed to be the hit of the holidays.

It's not all doom and gloom, but it's down to normal proportions. At one point I sold ridiculous levels of Star Wars miniatures to where other stores accused me of lying about my sales figures. Heck, at one point I sold 72 AT-AT walkers. Oh yeah, and Privateer Press is coming out with a new line of collectible minis that I'm apparently not hip enough to get excited about. Godzilla like creatures or something.

Chinese Made Toys. I know most of you don't care about it, but toys have taken a tremendous blow this holiday season, especially those in the news, like the Thomas Wooden Railway System by RC2. We'll be carefully evaluating what to do about this large part of our store after the new year. The Melissa & Doug stuff, also made in China, hasn't had any bad press and has faired much better.


Another topic I've wanted to write about since starting this blog is adoption. My wife and I adopted our son Rocco several years ago and it's been a wonderful, eye opening experience. He's the best thing to ever happen to me. Not only has it changed my life by being a parent, but it made me wonder why it was so difficult.

Adopting a child is an expensive process, usually costing $20-30,000. It's also time consuming. We were on a list for about eighteen months before we finally got Rocco. Preceding this, we had to complete a home study, which included interviews by a social worker, fingerprinting, background investigations, basic financial analysis to make sure we could afford a child, and CPR training. The whole process took several years with no guarantee of success. You could spend the money, do the work, and still not find an available child. The obvious thing you wonder when going through this process is how useful something like this would be for prospective natural birth parents.

The difficulty of adoption has a lot to do with supply and demand. There are not enough newborns out there for the parents who want them. Figure that we've got about a million terminated pregnancies a year and you begin to wonder why these two problems can't be better solved. I'm not for outlawing abortion, but it would seem obvious that the tack "pro-life" activists might consider is how to encourage reluctant mothers to give their newborn to a loving home, rather than showing them photos of late term abortions or similar scare tactics.

Ideally, those against abortion should find a way to allow themselves or others to adopt not only the newborns, but the thousands of children in need of adoption. Over 100,000 children remain in foster care, with about 40% of them never being adopted. There are Christian adoption agencies that keep fees low, and that's a start. Ideally I would like to see incentives to make adoption more affordable, without the obvious problem of people adopting for the wrong reason. About half of adoption fees are tax deductive, but a lot more effort could be made to make this option more desirable and more affordable.

Adoption still has a bit of a stigma in this country, and a focused positive adoption campaign would go a long way towards getting prospective parents and birth mothers to accept the process. Just look at the insane amounts of money people spend on IVF so they can have a natural child, and you'll see how desperate people are to having a child they consider their own, something adoptive parents know happens immediately with their adopted newborns. Half a billion dollars a year is spent on IVF while children wait to be adopted and a million abortions are performed. It seems counter-intuitive. IVF is also denounced by "pro-life" groups, so I think we're on the same page here too.

Personally, if I saw some effort by pro-life groups to actually facilitate adoption as an alternative to abortion, in a strong and meaningful way, I might find their motives less suspect. Rather than trying to control other peoples behavior, this would be an excellent opportunity to solve two important social problem at once. Most of the major "pro-life" groups claim to support adoption, but their help equates to little more than a referral service to adoption agencies. When have you ever heard the word adoption mentioned in an abortion debate?


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Religion in Politics

This is another one of those non-game posts that have been banging around in my head for a while. Lets knock this big one down with a rant. Who knows, maybe I'll write about sex next? The game world is all about sales right now with not a lot of thought about other stuff (I think). So, something else:

In graduate school I did my thesis on a figure who founded the school of Soto Zen Buddhism named Dogen. This leader was warned by his superiors to stay out of politics. Religion and politics became so intertwined in Japanese politics of the 12th century that the government actually moved the capital to avoid its influences. Those religions who exerted power on government tended to be persecuted, marginalized and generally gutted when the tide of politics turned.

This is something I've had in the back of my mind since the beginning of the Bush administration. You can have your religion in government, but tides turn, the view of your religion will rise and fall on your political fortunes. Expect backlash and potential ruin to follow. Now I think we're finally seeing some backlash against the evangelical movements involvement in politics. It mostly takes the secular form of greenbacks, dollars to Democrats.

Still, one poll reports that 53% of Americans wouldn't vote for a qualified presidential candidate who didn't believe in God (God with a big G). We're not a secular nation by any means. Nevertheless, Mitt Romney has annoyed a good number of people, myself included, with his indivisible declaration of church and state:
"Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."
What a bunch of crap. The highly secular democratic people of Europe would strongly disagree with this. Just because religion played an important role in our own country's founding doesn't make it true for everyone. The logic doesn't follow. It's like declaring that enduring freedom requires the wearing of powdered wigs, because our founding fathers were so inclined. And why do you think Europe is so secular today? It was the constant meddling of religion in politics. I think that's the fate of the US in years to come. Religion will be for old ladies with head scarves as everyone will know its societal perils.

I feel the level of annoyance and concern over religion in politics is beginning to rise. As an Economist article pointed out, there are roughly ten times as many atheists as their are Jews in this country. It's their lack of organization that keeps religion in politics alive. Nobody courts atheists, in fact, it's a dirty word in this country. I'm not claiming atheism is the answer and I don't mind religious holidays or Christmas decorations on public property, or other public acts of religion. The country is mostly Christian, I accept that. What concerns me is the crusade that Republicans find themselves on against their foes, both in their culture war and abroad. As one of my professors once told me, Buddhist-Christian dialog is open discussion to avoid the Christians from killing the Buddhists. You have to watch these people.

Perhaps the Republicans know their time is over for a while, so they pander to their base, knowing they have no chance of being elected this time. Democrats aren't exactly seizing the day, however. Rather than taking a strong stand for a separation of religion and politics, the Democrats have cleverly moved to the religious center, even holding a debate on their own religiosity. I would hope that they could instead shine the light of reason and common sense on the acts of an administration that seems to lack both. Then again, that 53% number keeps popping into my mind. People get the government they deserve in a democracy, according to Tocqueville. Unfortunately, individuals are smart and reasoned, while people are idiots.

Click to enlarge for some OOTS fun

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Oh, the things I do to avoid painting ogres:

Supernatural. Despite the fact that everyone in this series is far too good looking, I enjoy the story lines. Two brother fight the supernatural, and often themselves, in a matter of fact, male Buffy kind of way. I feel dirty.

The Economist. Still my news source. I've been reading the articles online lately, since the afternoons are a bit slow. It has a great calming effect. British news never gets too emotional or sensational.

The Dresden Files. I'm reading the first book, Storm Front. Similar to Supernatural, it's a mystery-fantasy modern day story. I found the TV series entertaining, and the books are equally fun. I'm told they get even better after the first three.

The Wire. Season 4 is on Netflix finally. I was able to watch the first disc but now the second is unavailable. This season is about how the kids and schools fit into the drug crime equation. It's good watching, but not as compelling as the first two seasons.

Sopranos, Season 6.5: Also new on Netflix. Some fun stuff with the various characters, but again, the thrill is gone.

The Office. This one took a while to grow on me, but man is it compelling after a while. Every character is interesting and the inter-office love affair had me consuming vast amounts of "Watch Instantly" programming like a wussy couch potato. I watched everything available on the American series and now I'm starting the British version. Unfortunately, the US version lifted many of the plots, so the British one is less enjoyable. Plus I think I may need subtitles which I can't get online.

Sim City Societies. It's sad, but I spent all day Sunday playing this game. I got hold of some bad milk the day before, so I was feeling sick. I attempted to re-create Las Vegas. It worked, except that I couldn't get the crime under control. No amount of police power would put those pesky sims in line. This game is just less fun than other sim city games. It's more of a simulator than a good game. It's just too easy. You want to make an artsy happy city? Great, you do it. You want to make a crime ridden hell hole? Great, here you go. Where's the game? It didn't keep me from blowing a day off though.

New Games. I learned to play Alhambra last night. It seems like a fun, light game similar in appeal to Carcassonne, but a little more difficult to explain. I'll need to play a few more times to get a better feel for the mechanics. Last week I had fun playing Cutthroat Caverns, a cooperative dungeon delving card game that requires you to come together as a party while trying to back stab your buddy. You can't win without them, but you need to come out on top. Fun.

Holiday Sales

Our holiday sales are going as expected, with a few nice exceptions. Our miniature games continue their stratospheric sales increases, up 500% from last December. We're expanding 40K as fast as possible, and even more obscure items have become regular sellers. It looks like Games Workshop is officially a success in the new store.

Toys are slow growers and will likely remain so until customers learn we have them. They'll need to be pruned and the mix varied over time. Sales of toys are up 1000% from last year, but we had a meager selection back then. Melissa & Doug remains the big seller, with Thomas being completely and utterly lead, urr I mean dead. I may be liquidating a large portion of Thomas in 2008. Despite big increases, the toy department has sold only a third of what has been sold in the miniatures department, using the same amount of space. A nice start, but not great.

Board games remain even from last year, which is probably not a bad thing. There has been a lot of concern that the Euro game "revolution" may be nearing an end. I've got 30% more board games than last year, which should result in more sales, but at least there's no decline. I'm definitely feeling there's a glut. The hot new board games right now: Zooloretto, Race for the Galaxy, Red Dragon Inn. Surprisingly, the new Settlers of Catan is a very slow seller. In fact, Catan sales never returned after we moved. I may need a sidewalk sign like we used to have. Other good sellers are the perennials: big box Fantasy Flight games, various Ticket to Rides, and Hey That's My Fish. We're also selling Hasbro games again, something we haven't seen for a while.

I think the Hasbro thing has to do with the store layout. The new store is less intimate than the old store. Even if you were just browsing in the old store, we could still strike up a conversation since the place was so small. I really, really miss that. Now customers are often y on their own, and they make choices with little input from me. I'm sure this results in lower sales conversions, but the extra space makes up for it in other ways. This gets the credit for the variety of sales.

Classic games are part of any good game store. These include chess, backgammon, cribbage and fancy playing cards. However, I've been thinking a lot about them lately and I'm debating on whether they're seasonal or not. In other words, I don't think they justify their space in the store during most of the year. I'm told you need to carry some of them during the year to establish your presence as a classic games store, but I honestly see them as a nuisance.

Chess sets for example are difficult to stock as they're as personal as clothing. People want certain materials, certain sizes, certain styles of pieces - Staunton or Russian or worse, Simpsons or Harry Potter. When it gets down to analyzing sales and floor space, classic games are window dressing unless you go whole hog, in which case they're just a slow selling department. I haven't given up on them, but I'm more likely to stock boxed classic games rather than games that need to be displayed, taking up valuable space. Wood Expressions has a new line of games like this, classic games with nice photos of the game on the box, rather than a plain white box that needs unpacking to display the set.

Role-playing games languish. They're down 30%, due to the weak releases from Wizards of the Coast and a general lack of anything new and interesting. The new Conan is moderately successful, and the new Cthulhutech book has me wanting to play -- it's MechaCthulhu. Who doesn't like giant robots and mind crushing alien beings? Most of the sales are back stock, customers coming in and buying the books that came out earlier this year.

People are coming in to shop later, which is surprising. We're open until 10pm each night, and my sales reports are showing strong holiday sales between 7-9pm, when we would have been closed in the old store. Longer holiday hours make sense in this new location. During the day it remains pretty slow, with hours of no activity. The evenings are pretty busy. Last night we had to steal a couple tables for board game night. There was enough open gaming to fill the game center.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Your Psychic Friend

As predicted a few things happened this week.

First, Blackhawk, one of the game distributors, tacked on a $5 handling charge on shipments. This is the three tiers of the game world looking around as to who should pay for increased fuel costs. Yep, it's the disorganized game store tier.

Again, the solution is to raise prices and accept the reality of inflation, rather than to put your head in the sand and squeeze other businesses. Fuel prices aren't going to be dropping significantly anytime soon. Game stores are terrified of passing on costs to customers, since they face such intense price competition.

We should drop the free freight concept and net price everything, like every other industry in the world. With net priced items, the store pays freight and just tacks that on to the cost of an item. It's probably a 5% price increase or so, but it's going up. All toys, for example, work this way.

I also wonder with globalizations cost for fuel, how long it will be before "Made in America" is something the far left of the political spectrum starts looking for like the far right. It certainly won't be profitable to produce things here unless fuel costs really go ballistic, but I could see it as a value demanded by consumers. Unfortunately, it's probably too late for that. I have customers coming in regularly asking if something is made in China. I want to ask them how much more they would pay for something not made in China, two to ten times as much? This country got itself dependent on cheap, Chinese made goods, much to the detriment of small business. They can't suddenly wake up one day and expect everything to be made in freakin' Detroit.

Second, the first newspaper article on board games for the holidays came out in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday. I had a heads up from the author, the Chronicles music critic, who sent all the local game stores lists of games he was going to review. What he didn't send were his actual reviews, which are dubious. Several games, like 10 Days in Asia, haven't been released yet, which gives me the impression he was reviewing what he was sent by publishers. Some negative reviews were of highly acclaimed games, such as Zooloretto (2007 German board game of the year), Pillars of the Earth (2008 Games 100 Game of the Year) and Race for the Galaxy (a new game, currently with an 8.0 on boardgamegeeek).

It sounds like the author, Joshua Kosman, actually played these games with friends, which is a good start.Perhaps they just didn't like them. A couple points though: First, there are enough other reviews to look at that perhaps he might want to see if a game is bad because his particular group doesn't care for it, based on theme or mechanics. Zooloretto, for example, is a great family game, but I personally don't find it to my taste. It doesn't make it bad. Second, there are so many new games this year, does an article with limited space really need to list so-called bad games too? With so many new games out this year, I could easily write a long article on just the good ones. These little men with hats jumping on their chairs are fine for movie reviews, I suppose, but there really are some great new games that could have been mentioned.

Anyway, customers came in looking for some of these games, a couple made big purchases of the ones on the list and other games I steered them towards (including Zooloretto, yeah for me!). The real value of the article was introducing new people to Euro games. I had enough time today to talk to these new customers and explain to them the concept of the Euro games (and these lame holiday review articles). I'm hoping a new world opens up for them.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Cars in Europe (Photos)

My first Euro Delivery trip was with my friend Jeff. He picked up his 330i in late October, 2001. This was only a few weeks after 9-11, and the police were on high alert. We were pulled over when we tried to drive over the German-Austrian border. They pulled us over again when we came back into the country from Austria. Unlike what I found in France, many Germans don't speak English, especially the police. There was a lot of pointing and gesturing and luckily we both had international drivers licenses.

I have to tell you, the level of goodwill from people in Germany and The Netherlands was astounding. They were all with us back then. That goodwill was long gone on subsequent trips.

This was taken with my wife at the European Delivery Center in Munich. European Delivery is kind of interesting. It works like this: You order a standard US spec car (no exceptions), but rather than have it delivered to the dealership in the US, you go pick it up in Germany, drive it around for a while, and drop it off at a designated drop-off spot somewhere in Europe.They ship it to the US dealership for you. On my first trip we dropped off Jeff's car in Amsterdam (what happens in Amsterdam....). On this trip, we drove through France and dropped it off in Nice. BMW then exports it as a used car and saves some money.

The list price for Euro Delivery is about 10% off. The real savings is in negotiating. BMW dealers get so many cars to sell each year, called their allotment. European Delivery cars come straight from the factory and don't come out of their allotment. This means it's free money for them. They're going to sell every one of their allotted cars, so there's no incentive to negotiate. On the ED car, it's free money. They make a thousand dollars for doing some paperwork. I saved about $7,000 on the 330i over list price.

We just missed a January snow storm when I picked up the car in Munich. This was kind of important, because the 330i had summer performance tires. It would have been useless in the snow. There was still snow on the ground when I drove it out of Germany and we headed south to warmer areas of France.

You can see my fancy birch trim, available only in Europe. I was a phone kit fiend, I always had to have my phone wired through the stereo system. The Dodge Magnum had Bluetooth and could accept voice commands to make calls. Very cool. Very expensive and unnecessary for the most part.

Our incredibly overpriced 4-star hotel in Nice. I remember paying something like $14 for a ham sandwich that made me sick. They parked the 330i in front. By European standards, this was a pretty fancy, high performance car, especially in France.

"Shoot them. Shoot them both." Major Toht, Raiders of the Lost Ark
He's even got the bandaged hand!