Thursday, September 17, 2009

Some Store Trends

The most obvious trend I'm seeing is an overall return to spending by our customer base. It's a mixed bag. A New York Times article writes about concentrating economic pain. Those who have jobs have gotten pay raises and have been adequately compensated over the past year. Those who don't are out in the cold. So although the unemployment rate is high, those with jobs are starting to boost spending. So the most obvious trend for us is a double digit sales increase this Summer. Lets look at what people are buying.

The interesting thing about running a diversified game store is various game genres are cyclical. While one department may be going nuts, another is languishing. I'm not sure how less diversified businesses survive. I suppose they sock away cash when the times are good for when their cycle is down. For game stores, traditionally, you never really make much money, but if you're running it well and it's diversified, you probably won't have many catastrophically bad periods.

Luckily for us, the winners this Summer outnumbered the losers. The most obvious "cyclical" trend breaker for us is the death spiral of the collectible miniature game. For the last few years, collectible miniatures have dropped 50%, year over year. This Summer was no exception and the imminent return of Heroclix is not exactly cause for celebration; more of dread. I hate telling customers no, but Heroclix and several new breeds of collectible miniatures will likely get that response. "Nothing to see here; move along."

The most obvious big winner this Summer was collectible cards, as we became the local place to not just play Magic (you can do that anywhere), but also Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, Naruto, Battle Spirits (nobody else even sold this game in the county!), and Game of Thrones. How can the collectible miniatures market be so dead and the collectible card market be so hot? They both feature blind purchases of boosters. At least with miniatures you get a neat piece of plastic, right? My guess is the miniature game play lacks the same engagement as cards.

Most of the collectible card game credit goes to our excellent organizers, especially Matt and Anna for bringing Yu-Gi-Oh back in force (without plunger duels in the game center) and Mark for his persistence in getting Magic back on track. Magic takes a stupid amount of coordination for what it provides, but it's worth it. We also capitulated and decided to do card singles for both Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh. It's growing organically, but customers are glad to have the option to buy and sell single cards.

The losers of the Summer were my personal favorites, both role-playing games and miniature games. There hasn't been a lot of excitement in the world of miniature gaming of late. Games Workshop has had lackluster new releases this year and Privateer Press is in transition with their new edition of Warmachine. Surprisingly, Flames of War had strong sales this Summer, due partially to our Summer league and also the mild success of Mid-War Monsters. Infinity is doing well for us too. I think miniature games are perceived as expensive, and lacking the value of other games (I disagree), so perhaps they're out of fashion for a time, kind of like the Lamborghini drivers trading in their cars for Mercedes, because it's gauche to be so ostentatious during a recession. Lately, however, this seems to be turning around with a lot of new Warhammer armies being started (fantasy and 40K).

Gencon this year was completely invisible to us as a role-playing release event. Nothing stood out for us that was released at Gencon. Pathfinder sold a modest number of copies, suffering horribly from product outages as Paizo hedged their bets (we have it now). It is being played in the game center, however, so perhaps I should be more optimistic. Other big new releases haven't materialized yet. Where is Hero 6? Where is Rogue Trader? Where is Dresden Files (Ok, I couldn't resist)?

Role-playing sales are down this Summer and some game systems may be given the boot soon, as we gauge whether we've seen some permanent shifts among local gamers. Dice and miniature sales are up subsantially, however, which makes me scratch my head. These are usually RPG add-on sales. It makes me wonder just how many people use the Dungeons & Dragons DDI software instead of books. Or how many just download books illegally. The other news in RPG sales is the market share shift, with D&D gobbling up about 75-80% this year. It's not the success of D&D as much as the malaise of the other systems.

Another big winner is board games. I think the big Gencon releases this year were in board games, not role-playing games, and I'm talking Fantasy Flight. Chaos in the Old World and Battlestar Gallactica Pegasus flew off the shelves, with rumors and talk of greater things to come. The Dominion Intrigue expansion is also a huge seller, as you could see by our Top 100 board game list (keep in mind the time it has been out and the placement on the list). Our board game sales are up around 60%, easily off-setting role-playing and miniature games. Imagine the pain if we weren't diversified into cardboard.

And finally, the last set of losers are muggle games: classic games and toys seem to be the bell weather of the general public. Chess sets and Hot Wheels. No love. I sometimes think this is an insight into the general retail economy. Or maybe it's our lack of enthusiasm.

My usual disclaimer: This happened in the past. It's based on the idiosyncrasies of our store, it's employees and its relatively small number of customers and volunteers. Sales and stock evolve based on demand, rather than a formula or "what I want." It's organic and can't be replicated, which is why I don't mind sharing (although some will try anyway).