Saturday, July 4, 2009

The 500 Pound Gorilla and the Elephant in the Room

I have no problem discussing how I think things should be done in a game store. Small business owners do their own thing because they don't like working for others and want things done their way. They have very strong opinions generally. As for discussing individual stores, I rarely do this unless I want to contrast something valid they're doing with something I'm doing. There are a lot of great game stores in the SF Bay Area, more than most states or regions of the country could ever possibly match. There are plenty of failures as well, and they have nothing to teach us but cautionary tales. Their stories are so similar in their failings that we don't need to name them.

I also won't talk about those stores because there is no sense in bad blood. Despite what some think (including what other competitors have told me), stores gain customers on their own steam. Customers are not generally stolen or acquired through trickery or guile. If you've got something legitimately special, there is a certain cross-over, but it's not a high percentage. So there is no point in bad-mouthing someone elses livelihood. In the end, it brings everyone down. Bad mouthing one business for the sake of another is not guerrilla marketing, it's just being a dipshit. It helps nobody and makes you look foolish.

I'm also not strategically in a position to slam the smaller guys, for those of you who like games. The mouse can pick on the elephant to it's hearts content, because when the elephant stomps it, it looks like bullying. The guerrilla marketing principle is you can always bash your bigger competitor for fun and profit (says Guy Kawasaki). Be a thorn in the tigers paw. I can trash Wal-Mart for loss leading board games, or Amazon for eroding the value of role-playing books, but if I attack someone smaller, I'm the bad guy. America loves the underdog and hates a bully. I know this because I've been the small guy for years, and for most of the world, I still am.

The other reason to keep things cool is because businesses fail. They fail because of many reasons: they run out of money, they lose their lease, partners begin to despise each other, the owner retires or their business practices are just plain crap. When these businesses fail, a small percentage of customers will migrate to the new store. I know it's small because I've seen this happen to five local competitors in the last five years. It's a small gain, not a tidal wave.

I also know this firsthand because a lot of the annoying customers who we're dealing with online now (exemplified by anonymous), migrated from other failed stores to ours, and they'll do it again when their current store fails or decides to change policies to discourage them from their various asshattery. They'll migrate with a shrug and five minutes later that previous store and the owner that devoted their life to it will be a vague, distant memory. They'll be bitching about the music, the decor or the price of a Coke. In any case, it makes no sense to irritate them further. They could be a future customer at best. At worst a thorn in my paw.

Likewise, it makes no sense to irritate supporters of my store, because if I run out of money, lose my lease, am found lynched by my partners, begin to run a crap store or decide to retire, it's likely going to prevent many of my good customers from migrating to this troublesome competitor. In other words, there's no need for this animosity and it only drives people away. It is a destructive force, not a creative one. We saw this in Vacaville a few years ago between two stores. Both are gone now.

Good, true competition rises all boats. It builds communities of local gamers who involve their friends and families in their exciting hobby. This concept of store loyalty applies to a very small percentage of people. The vast majority shop at one store until that store disappears and they're forced to do something else. They just have no desire to hunt for more of the same once they've found what they're looking for. We're still getting new customers from Games Unlimited, over a year after they closed! Advertising is maddeningly difficult and if it was as easy as making a flyer or running a TV commercial, everyone would already know about us.

Besides this vast base of regulars, a smaller percentage of very active customers will shop everywhere, and a small percentage will be "loyal" to one shop, regardless. I would guess the ratio is something like 90-5-5. When there is a strong local community of stores, without animosity, both stores are stronger. There can be cross-pollination between that 5% of promiscuous customers, usually important "influencers", that can grow the gaming community for everyone. This is a positive and inevitable result of good relations. Bad relations only puts up barriers and hurts everyone.

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