Monday, July 16, 2007

Doodoos and FooFoos

We took my two year old son, Rocco, to a couple of toy stores yesterday. As I had hoped, he spent most of his time with the product lines I had just ordered. Yes, I've been using him for market research.

When I realized the store needed to diversify, there were a number of mostly bad options. Video games, which we tried, just didn't feel right. I still can't figure out the business model for LAN gaming, it seems like the numbers don't add up. Straight games was all about diminishing returns. Comic books definitely wasn't it either.
We're doing comics in the new location, but only dabbling. The comics business is the most idiosyncratic, backwards, monopolistic one I can imagine and I wouldn't touch it if there wasn't such great demand for it. Why do magazines (including comics) come out on Wednesdays? Traditionally, the horses that pulled the ice wagons were free that day. And we just kept on doing it that way.

Toys was not exactly a shoe-in. I'm a game guy. I don't know jack about toys. However, I have a subject matter expert (SME) that I live with, and thus I have learned a lot about toys in the past couple of years. The first toy line I'm bringing in is one I tried to avoid, but eventually it seemed obvious: The Thomas Wooden Railway System. I literally wake up in the morning with Thomas. Occasionally I'll wake up on a Thomas that Rocco brought to bed with him the night before. He calls trains "foo-foos," and he literally can't get enough of them. Despite the lead paint issue, this is a solid gold product line that every two year old must have. It's sold at every worthy toy store and all know it as golden. It's the Dungeons & Dragons equivalent in the toy world; something you obviously carry if you want to be taken seriously (and make money). We're starting with about a third of the Thomas line, as well as a ton of compatible accessories from Melissa & Doug.

Below is the Thomas recycling center, a toy, I'm told that children don't really care for but some adults insist on buying

Along with Foo-Foo's we're getting racks of toy cars from ERTL. ERTL makes inexpensive, basic die-cast vehicles that young kids eat up: school buses, taxis, Hummers, muscle cars, airplanes, you name it. ERTL has been in business for decades making these things. They're in various scales and young kids could care less. Put a giant car on a tiny flatbad truck. Who cares?

Schleich is another company like RC2, who makes Thomas. Every store worth a darn has a bunch of this stuff, and I personally geek out over it. It's for older kids; Rocco doesn't care. They've got a line of medieval figures, fantasy, old-west, and animals.

The next level of toys we're bringing in are various science kits for older kids from the John Hansen folks. You can build a crystal radio, create slime or a volcano, or learn about the weather. Also from Hansen are those goo-gaws you just expect from a toy store: kazoos, frisbees, slinky's, etc. These are also the things that embarrass me with their kitsch.

Finally, we filled in our gaps with Melissa & Doug. This is one of those companies known mostly to mothers of small children. They make high quality, low cost toys that are practically ubiquitious. For us, we bought: doll houses, puppets, kitchen sets, puzzles, stuffed animals (Doo-Doos, as Rocco says), craft kits, train accessories, and much more. The M&D stuff I took mostly on faith, as I have no idea about what most kids play with. Luckily M&D offers to return anything that doesn't sell for you in exchange for stuff that does. We've tried some of it in the store already and it does alright.

So how does this work from a business perspective? We bring it in, try to figure out how best to merchandise and sell it, and then fine tune. Maybe the toy farm equipment does really poorly. Maybe there's a toy the Hispanic community digs on, as Concord is a quarter Hispanic (compared to the three guys who live in Walnut Creek). The hard parts will be:

  1. Actively selling it. Have you ever seen anyone actually sell a toy? Sure, they have them for sale, but that's not the same thing. We'll have to learn how to sell toys and overcome any personal issues surrounding that (a problem with some game people).
  2. Containment. When you diversify like this, you need to keep your buying budget and your floor space separate. It would be easy for game sales to eclipse toy sales during some parts of the year and vice versa. You don't want to be heading into Christmas, only to learn that your game inventory took over your toy section and you now need to spend $20,000 on toys.
  3. Advertising. We spend a lot of money on advertising games, but what about toys? If it's only a quarter of what we sell, how much effort do we put into advertising it?


  1. Comics do seem like a hit and miss deal. I know the last game store in the area that did comics too didn't last all that long. Two years maybe.

    LAN gaming is a funny thing. You would think it could work with certain first person shooters, rpgs or even racing sims. The thing is that people can do that sort of stuff at home. I could see tournament stuff, but how often would that come up?

    Wizards of the Coast used to have computers set up at the mall, but I never seemed to see anybody using them. It is a tough nut to crack and I can see why you'd stay away from it.

    Kids toys will probably work out pretty well. It helps that you have a market researcher of your own : )

    As for RPG Gaming, the one thing I see missing is basic gaming. Perhaps I'm just a minority on this issue. Wizards doesn't seem to concerned. The Troll Lords are addressing this issue. Kenzer says they will be doing it in the future. Otherwise, Goblinoid Games and Basic Fantasy seem to be the only others.

    Seems to me that there may be some people interestined in trying this stuff out if you had a Basic Game that you could actually play with just the one box. Not the one Wizards has that lasts for a session or two, but a real Basic set like Mentzer or Moldvay Basic D&D from the 80's.

    There is something to be said for simplicity. The regular stuff that's out there is good, no doubt. But, it's thick. Lots of rules, lots of books to buy and lots to learn. A newcomer can look at that stuff and just turn and leave, if they even get that far.

    That game that takes the one box, like the old days, or just one book can hook newcomers. It did with me. Subsequent modules could be sold for that version. Some will stay with it and others will move on to the bigger product. That's the way I see it. As I said, it looks like a few companies may be addressing that issue soon.

    Guess I have nothing else to add other than it sounds like you have a good plan in place for the future and I wish you luck. When some of that basic stuff eventually comes out, you might want to take a look at it.


  2. Hey Don,

    Wizards has made a deliberate attempt to avoid having a "basic" game like in the old days. The problem is that they were forking their games. You would learn Basic D&D and then you had no place to go with it. Expert D&D was different. Advanced D&D was also different.

    The Basic Game box set they have now is supposed to be a subset of the current D&D game with enough stuff to get people to around third level. It should take 3-4 4-hour sessions. The goal is to give them a taste of D&D and then graduate them to the full game.

    As for other basic gaming, the "story game" or "indie press" games have a lot going for them. They're relatively simple, rarely taking more than a book or two. They're story driven. They're not intended to be huge commitments. For example, Spirit of the Century is an excellent game with simple rules that can be learned in about 10 minutes.

    Unfortunately, there's just no energy left in old-school basic games, like Tunnels & Trolls. You might check out the new edition of Castles & Crusades out this week. It's a definite old school feel with a small but stable player base.

  3. Yeah, I kinda figured that was Wizards stance. Gaming has evolved. Still feel they are leaving something on the table, but I'm probably in the minority on that. Perhaps they may even address the issue in the future as others make their attempts.

    It actually took TSR a while to figure out what they were doing, but I think it had something to do with certain issues best left undiscussed. Moldvay/Cook was perfect. Basic & Expert and several Modules. Levels 1-14 are covered. That's what I'm talking about.

    Mentzer took it to a new level by adding Companion & Master books that went beyond 14th level to 36th. He even sneaked in an Imortals Set that I still haven't made sense of.

    The Rules Cyclopedia brought it all together in one book, and by that time you had several dozen modules and other accessories. You had Basic for those who liked it light and simple and Advanced for those who needed more substance and more options.

    Ah, the good old days.

    C&C definitely emulates AD&D from everything I can see of it, and the Trolls are working on a Basic Game in a box like the old days. It may be unveiled at Gen Con, but I think it might be behind schedule. I look forward to getting this one and checking it out.

    Kenzer will have a Basic Hackmaster Game from what they have said, but it may be a couple years off. Sounds like they will have a Module for it called Frandor's Keep too. Can't wait to see what they come up with.

    Labyrinth Lord by Goblinoid Games is due any day now, and I'm curious what he's come up with. I want this to succeed, but something about those guys at OSRIC still concerns me. Wizards isn't saying much now, but they could always sick the lawyers on them at any time.

    Saw a copy of T&T the other day. Neat game, but the rule book could use a reworking. Still, it was nice to see that those guys are still in business.

    Sorry to ramble on so much here. Hope you don't mind. I like the blog.


    Need to get back at the table to do some more d20 slinging one of these days.

  4. The Melissa and Doug Stuff is great. Lots of play was had by our kids with pretend:

    Breakfast Tray

    and numerous others.

  5. We've already had some surprise hits in the store with what little Melissa & Doug stuff we stock.

    Top sellers include a stacking toy train for two-year olds and a little tool bench for, I believe, 3 years old and up. Whenever they sell it's often a head scratching moment, especially when accompanied by a game product.

  6. Hey Gary -

    Get in touch with every PTA in your area and offer them a fund-raiser night. How it works:
    Customer comes in and purchases. They say "I am with Washington school". Every purchase connected to Washington school, you send the school 10-20% of the gross proceeds after taxes.

    Keys to this process:
    - Try to do it early in school year, so that you will see benefits at the holidays. Which means:
    - Don't do it during months of Nov/Dec.
    - Do only one school a night, preferably on a slower one of your nights. You don't want to get confused.

    Yes you might be giving away 20% of your gross (40% of your gross profit!!). However, I believe that the amount you give to the school is tax-deductible if you are a sole proprietor, and there may be tax benefits as a S-corp or C-corp as well.

    However, the discount won't be given to the end-user - they will pay your retail, and expect to pay that all the time.

    And be sure to harvest name/address info for your database.

    I don't think this wouldn't work for a traditional hobby store, but with your new product lines, I think it will work great.

    best -

    chris shorb

  7. On the issue with basic RPGs. As I understand it, the main reason that TSR kept D&D around was to avoid paying royalties to Dave Arneson for AD&D.

    When Wizards bought out TSR one of the things they did was to finally settle matters with Arneson.

    At least, that's the story I've seen given a few different places over the years.