Wednesday, May 20, 2009


A few times a year, I sigh with relief as we pass through a rough period towards better times. Besides the lead-up to the holidays, the second half of May marks the end of the awful first part of the year, with few releases, the highest annual "gotcha" expenses like taxes and landlord "adjustments", along with a smaller customer base primarily composed of regular hobbyists. From this point forward, game companies are bringing out their Summer releases and customers are finishing up school or gearing up for Summer projects. Better times are ahead.

When I'm in a good mood, this time of plenty is what I like to think of as "normal," but good months are only half the year, so I can swing either way. I let my pessimism show itself yesterday on the game industry forum in a thread about game store survival in this current economic environment. Part of it is that I follow the economy a bit too closely and I think we've got another year of hard times, at least. The other part sees how much work running a game store can be, and how running one well nowadays doesn't seem to be enough for success. It requires a variety of "tricks" like auctions, convention sales, online sales, or extremely well managed events. At least that's what I think. There's a very good chance I'm wrong.

It's hard to tell what's really required to run a game store, mostly because they're all different. If your store isn't working, the nebulous subjective choices get analyzed first. Perhaps the culprit might be you. Perhaps you're no good at it or don't understand what you're doing well enough. Next are a variety of business decisions cut in stone, primarily location, both in demographics, cost and visibility. You can be a brilliant businessman but pick a doomed location. Nothing will fix that, not even selling your business.

Finally, you've got your business model. Too much game space? Not enough? Free or membership? Diversification or straight games? Longer hours or close early? Focusing too much on these kinds of subjective choices is a trap. Besides the self-doubt that eats away at you, it's not like you can do much about these decisions. They either work or they don't. That they're immutable is probably why our brains jump to them first.

The only real choice is to analyze the business itself, the day to day operation and expenses. In other words, doing the job. After that, it's about creativity. I think "doing the job" will get you to survival mode. You won't be able to save for expansion or new inventory. You'll just get it done. Creativity is required to thrive. Innovation and the obvious hard work pushes a store into profitability. I mentioned some of those creative ideas above.

I once complained to one of my Buddhist teachers that my job, with lots of travel each week, left me feeling disoriented. His answer: Don't get oriented. Perhaps a lot of the complaining and talk of exceptional measures is because we haven't accepted that this is now normal for running a game store. Many retail stores are required to have that something else. Why do bookstores have coffee shops? Why do hardware and craft stores teach classes? Those who entered retail because they thought it would be a relaxing way to make a living from behind the counter are sorely mistaken. Those times are long gone. I have to admit I was one of those people, working hard trying to get oriented.


  1. "Those times are long gone."

    I don't think they were ever really there. I'm reminded of my now long ago retail experience with Comics. Everyone tended to call the store Rock Bottom or Rock Bottom Comics, but the actual name of the store was Rock Bottom Used Books.

    The owner never planned on selling comics. She didn't know anything about comics except what she learned over time. Comics and magazines became her "trick" to keep the business successful. In her case the comics actually ended up becoming the business, but that's another story.

  2. @Fulminata - There is a chain in the Boston area called Newberry Comics. They started off as a comic shop, but quickly added indie/punk music in the late 70's early 80's. While they have always had a comic section, 80%+ of their floor space has long been devoted to music and then DVDs, and they are really more like a music store. That said, my guess is the comics is what differentiated them from Wherehouse or any of the other music stores that have come and gone.

    @Gary - you ready to open that adjacent restaurant yet?

  3. Yeah, I think the lesson is that when you get into the retail business you're getting into the retail business, not the comic business, or the game business, or the music business, or whatever it is that you put after the word "retail" when you start your store.

    One way to be successful is to be flexible and go with what sells, even if that turns out to be something different from what you thought the focus of your business was.

  4. My real issue is with the circus leader events necessary to keep a retail store profitable. Swapping around inventory and gauging demand is standard for retail, it's the extra stuff that I wonder about. Events and online sales that used to be things exceptional store owners were involved with are now basic survival tools. It makes me wonder if a basic store devoted entirely to *just selling stuff* is even viable any longer. If that model isn't viable, it says a lot about how we think about the industry.

  5. No game store has survived long term around here without events. When Gallery of Champions was a 10' x 10' hole in the wall, it sponsored regular Magic tournaments at other locations. That's going back to the mid nineties.

    Even the very first 'game' store in the area (that I'm aware of), Hobby Craft and Frame Mart, had game nights for RPGs. This was back in the early eighties.

    I never really thought about it before, because I never really attended any of these events until BDG, but every game store around here that has lasted more than a year has had regular events.

    Maybe 'just selling stuff' has worked for some people in other areas, but I don't think it ever worked for anyone here.