Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Unsung Heroes

I've found one of the economic necessities of running a game store is a legion of volunteers. If your store is in a region with relatively low expenses, you can use staff to perform the various tasks for which we use volunteers. Sales levels in the Midwest might allow for several full time employees, rather than a couple part timers, like expensive California. The other option is to work extremely long hours doing the job yourself, something that many game store owners do out of necessity or the inability or unwillingness to delegate. If you have control issues and think you can't run a quality store by hiring employees, imagine what you think will happen with volunteers, without a paycheck to seemingly drive their performance.

Bringing in volunteers is an act of faith. Surprisingly, they do a wonderful job, despite slim to no material compensation. Enthusiasm for a game or belief that the store is important to the community drives them to work hard. We have very few problems with them, provided we carefully define their boundaries (what we want them to do) and their interests (what they're willing to do).With a balance of freedom in how they run their event and responsibility in what they need to do, they usually do a fantastic job, needing no more direction than an employee.

Event Volunteers. Nothing can match the enthusiasm and in-depth knowledge of our event volunteers. I won't name names, but these folks keep our events running smoothly, provide us with information about their game, and maintain community interest. There is simply no way our staff could run all the events or even maintain knowledge about all their games. Stores without these types of knowledgeable volunteers often make the decision to not support these games, since they neither understand nor wish to personally run events for them. However, we run a business, rather than a club house and as the only full spectrum* game store in the county, people expect us to support any viable hobby game out there, which we do. By the way, If you think our store inventory is an inch deep and a mile wide, well, that's my general feeling about the Contra Costa County gaming community. I sometimes look with envy at urban stores with specializations.

The bottom line is we support the games people play, rather than our personal agenda of what we think is worth playing (which changes all the time anyway). If there's enough critical mass for an event, enough fans who want to volunteer and get behind their game, the game tends to do well. At times, I'll step in and pay staff to run an event that I think should be getting more attention, like Flames of War or Warhammer Fantasy. If this doesn't jump start interest, I step back and wait for that community to materialize. We're always looking for more volunteers to run an event, which often requires as little as showing up at a particular time each week to play. However, I accept that some games won't get on the schedule. With the volunteer model, I don't feel it's my responsibility to force the issue, something I recently argued about with one game company. If I were to just put the work into their game, I could be successful with it. My response: That's true about anything, so why you?

We have event volunteers for Warhammer 40K, board game night, Pokemon, Magic, Dungeons & Dragons RPGA, Pathfinder Society, Yu-Gi-Oh and Naruto.  I count twelve total, but I'm probably off. Without these volunteers, most of these events wouldn't happen.

Store Boosters. Besides event volunteers, we also have a loose group of store volunteers. These are boosters of sorts, who can be called upon to help us with big events or to just stand at the counter and look official while I run to the restroom. If a customer has a question about a game, it's not uncommon for me to "tag" a knowledgeable booster to provide some detailed information. Our store volunteers can be relied on to help us set up auctions, unpack giant shipments, or run specialized events like mini-cons. Some of them are event volunteers, but they tend to transcend that role, often acting as informal advisors, consultants, and "man on the street," taking the pulse of our game center population. Some get emails requesting their opinion about new games or events. Joe and Dave are our longest running boosters. Some end up becoming investors or employees.

What does this mean? I have a hard time thinking of a business that relies this heavily on volunteer effort. Volunteerism is common in community organizations and non-profits. It's the need to form up in groups to do what we enjoy that drives a store like ours to create this type of structure. To me it stresses the importance of events, but it also indicates that as a business model, the event focused game store is on some shaky ground. If you think the job of omnisciently managing inventory is difficult, try keeping staff and a dozen volunteers happy.

I take it for granted sometime, but this is also the real strength of an independent game store. It's what keeps the Wal-Marts and Targets of the world from eating our lunch. Why? Because it's too hard. It's bad business. It's passion over common sense. It's hard to quantify and measure. It involves elements out of our control. There is unforeseen risk. Both the cost and benefit are difficult to measure.

On the plus side, it's the reason for our existence. We support the community by providing a place to play and we're rewarded accordingly. The community in turn supports us by making purchases from our store. Events don't make money, they drive sales. There are actually far more people who shop at our store than play at our store. They will flat out tell me that although they don't play here, they support us because we provide that opportunity. It's what keeps them buying local rather than purchasing everything online. My guess is about 20% of our customers use the game center. Heck, of those who sign up for our events email list, only half ever open the message. Yet, our early sales numbers from a few years ago showed that having the same inventory in our new store, but with running events with longer store hours, boosted sales 60%.

I will often tell people that keeping the events going is the bane of my existence. What I really mean to say is it's where the work is. Every job seems to have that element. I enjoy purchasing and finance and even some of the marketing, but events are hard. I rely very heavily on my staff to coordinate them as well, since I'm not there in the evenings. Luckily, they understand the needs of the store and do a fantastic job of both managing volunteers, and devising a patchwork of various schemes to keep them all happy. They may get paid, but my staff go above and beyond in managing this circus. They're unsung heroes too.

* full spectrum. The term that used to be define a good game store was full line. Full line means you carry every game from every line you carry. For example, you would carry every Rio Grande board game or every Warhammer Fantasy model. Most game stores can't support full lines, at least not of everything, since this would require a huge amount of money. I like the term "full spectrum" as it denotes a wide range of game categories: board games, miniature games, role-playing games, collectible cards and miniatures, and classic games. It's a best of breed approach. Few game stores are full line anymore (and nobody would ever build one nowadays), but I think a good game store should strive for full spectrum.