Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The D&D Pie

I was chatting with a customer yesterday who was wondering how D&D 4 was doing at our store compared to Pathfinder. You know, I said, I think it's all good and Pathfinder may have even increased the size of the overall D&D community. That statement may or may not be true, but I wondered if my sales reflected that. I didn't feel they were bigger.  I knew Pathfinder was getting huge, since we now carry every Pathfinder product, host Pathfinder Society organized play and have most of our staff loving and playing the game. What I got was a bit unexpected:

The 2010 numbers are extrapolated. As usual, remember this is one store, not some grand industry trend, as far as we know. The size of the pie remains the same, but the distribution is evening out. Again, a near impossibility in traditional marketing theory, but not unlikely in the age of open licensing.

I'm predicting D&D sales will grow as the new Essentials line is released. Still, I don't think I can continue the argument that the pie is getting bigger. I hope the pie gets bigger and I think that needs to be the focus of these two companies for the future. Essentials does this and as we were told here, Paizo is planning some sort of introductory product as well. 

D&D Essentials should not only bring in new players, but it promises to liven up the line. As Mike Mearls told retailers recently, Essentials should add a lot more flavor to the player books. The DM books for D&D 4th Edition are very well done with some of the best written ideas in D&D for some time. The player books are just dull in comparison. I used to buy them in 3.5, just because they were fun to read. The new books aren't fun. They're a list of powers for the most part, like reading a Magic deck in a book. I think this dullness is reflected in our sales of D&D, where once player books outsold DM books by quite a bit, now they're at parity. Many have realized it's just easier to subscribe to DDI.

As usual, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Internet Price Pressures

There's this theory with some anecdotal evidence that some customers will shift their purchases from their friendly, local, brick and mortar game store to the online store as the price goes up. They might buy that $30 board game locally, but as the price climbs they flee to the online market to save "real" money. It occurred to me in a dream (yes, I know that's sad) that the truth of that statement might be in the numbers.

My goal was to create cool bell curves of price versus sales, but the preliminary data looked good enough to share without all that flash. Bottom line: the average board game price on our shelves, which includes about 600 games is: $34.65. The average price of a board game sold in the store, since we've opened, is $34.07. That's a very small 2% price difference.

Ah hah, you might say, you self select your inventory based on your sales. If so, it's not intentional. Actually, I'm pretty even in my dispensing of retail justice with my turn rate analysis. A slow selling $20 game is just as likely to get dumped as a slow selling $90 game. I don't think I've ever backed away from a new game solely due to price. What does happen, I'm sure, is that potential price pressures slow higher priced games to where they get dumped, which could be reflected by their absence. In that case, all my data shows is that my inventory is "in tune" with my sales. Then again, the real story may be in card games, with their lower price point and sales quantities at twice board games.

So is that 2% price differential between available and sold a true reflection of Internet price pressures, or is this a case of knowing our customers? In any case, I won't be losing any more sleep over this.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Top Board Games

Once a year, in the spirit of (over) sharing, I like to post our list of top board games. The last post was made back in September. As a retailer I've found other store's lists curious and sometimes helpful. It's one more piece of information to help make decisions.

In the past I've divided board games from card games and excluded expansions. That's honestly just too hard, so here's everything together, from our catalog of around 1000 games. It starts on the left with game number one, the right column starts at 51. It's by profit, rather than quantity sold. Any game making it on the list is by definition in the top 10% of our games and does well for us.

Pandemic Arkham Horror Innsmouth Horror
Space Hulk Memoir '44: D-Day & Liberation
Settlers of Catan  Roll Through the Ages
Finca L-C-R Game
Dominion Settlers Catan-Seafarers Rev
Dominion: Intrigue A Touch of Evil
Endeavor Munchkin Quest
Carcassonne Dungeon Lords
Maori Wits & Wagers
Ticket to Ride Poo  
Pandemic: On The Brink Exp Smart Ass
Dominion: Seaside Expansion Munchkin 2: Unnatural Axe
Munchkin Zombie Fluxx Deck
Small World Puerto Rico
Descent: Journeys In the Dark Tayu
Arkham Horror Bang! The Bullet
Ticket to Ride Europe Talisman: The Highland
Catan: Traders and Barbarians We Didn’t Playtest This At All
Apples to Apples  Qwirkle
Settlers of Catan 5-6 Player  Cosmic Encounter 
Chaos in the Old World  Blokus Classic
Settlers Of America  Agricola: Farmers Of The Moor 
BSG: Pegasus Expansion Battles Of Napoleon: The Eagle
Word on the Street Bang
Carcassonne: Big Box 2 Stone Age
Battlestar Galactica Talisman 4E: Frostmarch Exp
Tobago Game of Thrones Card Game
Five Crowns Talisman Rev The Dungeon Exp.
Warhammer Invasion Core Set Martian Fluxx
Gloom Card Game Talisman Revised 4th Edition
Horus Heresy Board Game Game of Thrones Boardgame
Ren Faire Card Game Guillotine
Zombies!!! 2nd Ed Grind  
Kids of Carcassonne Steam Board Game  
SoC: Cities & Knights Exp Cyclades
Monty Python Fluxx Axis & Allies 1942
Last Night on Earth Battlelore Battles of Westeros
Secrets of the Sea Risk: Halo Wars
Killer Bunnies Blue SD Risk 2210 AD
Agricola Carson City
Citadels  San Francisco Cable Car 
Axis & Allies Pacific  RftG: The Brink of War
Dominion: Alchemy Expansion RftG: Rebel Vs
Fluxx - New Edition 4 Forbidden Island
Wasabi! Chaos Marauders
Lost Cities Nuns on the Run 
Race for the Galaxy Cookin Cookies Lunchbox
Power Grid  Twilight Imperium Shattered Em
Tales of the Arabian Nights    Bohnanza 
Dixit Thunderstone            

Friday, August 27, 2010

Pristine vs. Craptastic

One thing you may notice when you shop at big box stores is the raggedy condition of their stock. The first Christmas season I was open, I shopped a really good Wal-Mart sale for Hasbro board games. These games were marked down well below my distributor cost. When I got them back to my store, I was appalled at how dinged up and damaged they were. They didn't seem out of place back at Wal-Mart, but in my clean, well lit store, they looked trashy. Some were also of lower quality than I was getting through my distributor, apparently designed specifically for Wal-Mart in a cost savings, craptastic level of quality.

This contrasts sharply with the hobby game trade. The game trade works in this wonderful way where stores are guaranteed top quality games in top condition. If I had received that same Hasbro order from one of my distributors, I would have shipped back 75% of them. The distributor would have paid for the entire process.On the positive side, there are small but lucrative business opportunities if you can find manufacturers and suppliers with these piles of dinged and dented games. Thus our fantastic ding & dent auctions that we hold each quarter (there's one Sunday). The game industry has high standards.
I'm reminded of this mass market negligence whenever I receive a Mattel order. Mattel ships their games with no packaging. They stick a bunch of board games in a box and send it out. No bubble wrap. No modest cardboard inserts. Just a bunch of games shoved in a box. Inevitably we lose 15-25% of the shipment to damages. These "damages" are, for the most part, completely acceptable to Target, Wal-Mart or whatever mass merchant normally receives them. Their business process falls short of our level of quality and it's pretty typical of any of our suppliers that ships to "mass." It's not just Mattel, it's any company that primarily sells to mass.

Hobby gamers have higher standards. Our customers envision a new board game in their collection. They want to see top quality board and game pieces and have little tolerance for cardstock quality boxes with dinged corners. Most are willing to pay for this. Perhaps their game will be collectible in twenty or thirty years. Maybe they'll pass it on to their children. In any case, part of hobby gaming is the visceral experience. No hobby gamer wants to play a board game with pink money and plastic pieces, let alone one that numbs their brain.

Talking about component quality and even the smell of a printed product is not unusual in a hobby game store. I regularly tell my story about how the smell of cookware stores takes me back to my early role-playing days. That's where I bought D&D, before there was a local game store. D&D next to pots and pans. Ahh, that unique smell.

Meanwhile, I've seen Target customers shop a game based on price. On price! They'll stand in the aisles with coupons. We'll get Monopoly Horse Feces edition instead of Oranges to Oranges Junior 9.25+ because it's $1.75 cheaper. No wonder muggles raise an eyebrow at board gamers.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Store News Round-Up

We post our news on Facebook/Twitter now, but here's what's been happening:

Foursquare. Facebook Places will likely nuke Foursquare, but the good news is our Foursquare marketing campaign was finally approved after several months. If you're the mayor of Black Diamond Games on Facebook, meaning you have the most check ins, you will receive a free soft drink can when you visit us (one per day). Here's the link to our page on Foursquare. Facebook Places promises to eventually integrate (possibly become) our Facebook Fan page and you can count on us taking advantage of it.

Facebook 900 Coupon. We hit over 900 fans on Facebook (941 as I write this). We're now ranked #3 in the world for Facebook fans, a ranking that I happen to be list keeper for and only I really care about, but I still think it's cool. We regularly give out coupons for every 100 new fans, resulting in a coupon every six weeks or so. This Facebook 900 coupon is a Paladin Club point multiplier. When you refer your friends, you get additional points for their purchases -- quite a few points really. It's experimental and we haven't gotten many back, but it's actually highly valuable if you do the math. It expires at the end of September. Oh yeah, and I really was kidding with that Finland comment (I've noticed a lot of new fans with funny umlauts and diacriticals in their names).

Ding & Dent Auction Sunday. Our ding & dent auction and sale is Sunday. You can bring in your games to sell or auction for store credit or you can just come and find some slightly dinged up games at very low prices. This upcoming auction is of about average size (the last one was probably twice as large). It features a wide variety of mostly current board games in smaller quantities than usual. You can also expect a huge collection of 40K to be sold in pieces. We won't be posting a list, but it's definitely worth showing up. There are some items already out on the floor, including a big tub of Reaper miniatures (German packaging), some Malifaux rulebooks, and some role-playing games.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Is Indie Dead?

The question: Are indie role-playing games dead? For years we've been buying RPGs from Indie Press Revolution. It has been mostly about buying one or two smash hits, with a smattering of slow selling showcase games to round out the order.  Like other small game trade niches, the indie RPG needs a lot of hand holding and game store staff involvement to be successful. I think we represent the average store in that respect. We're not hard core evangelists, but we push the good stuf and encourage play in our game center.

So much of this question is about one industry champion, Indie Press Revolution and their majority acquisition by DOJ. Acquiring titles from IPR was a rather labor intensive process that usually involved loading up on top sellers and bringing in a bunch of smaller titles that were cool, but performed poorly. To make the economics work we needed free shipping, which required more than just the top sellers. These slower sellers got free passes from our tough inventory metrics because of their social value. In other words, they really didn't work as store products. Before the Dresden Files RPG release, Spirit of the Century, one single book, comprised 30% of our IPR sales. Combined with the Dresden Files RPG, that number jumps up to 60%. So for us, IPR has primarily been a conduit for obtaining high quality Evil Hat products (also see "The othe story here" below).

DOJ now works as a consolidator of sorts, similar to industry middle men like Impressions. Where before we were economically forced to get a side of fries with our burger, smaller selling titles with our big selling Evil Hat, now IPR titles come to us through mainstream distributors. We can pick and choose. Our range of best selling indie press titles are now available with next day delivery and without the bundling with slower selling dogs. So no, I will not have fries with that. Don't get me wrong, I'm a believer that indie press titles are RPG incubators from which nearly everything good in the industry emerges, they just don't sell very well. They should go incubate over there. I've got a mortgage to pay. Being a retailer means I'll take calculated risks, not flog myself constantly after a product fails to perform.

What DOJ has done is make indie mainstream. Every game store in the country that does reasonably well with role playing games should stock Dreden Files RPG and Spirit of the Century. Far fewer are now likely to continue stocking the cutting edge indie products that rounded out their previous orders, and that's where there is threat to the model. The DOJ conduit is likely a fantastic consolidator, but the big question is for how long. Distributors are happy to get Dresden and Spirit, but may not be so content in the long term to get the more cutting edge, art project books. So yeah, indie press has broken out, but boo, because the incubator may be in serious trouble.

The other story here, the break out from indie, is the emergence of a system. FATE is hot and you've got a lot of ways to play it via Spirit of the Century (pulp), Legends of Anglerre (fantasy), Dresden Files (modern), Starblazer Adventures (space opera sci fi), and Diaspora (hard sci fi). Anglerre drove it home for me: you can play FATE in whatever genre you're playing now. FATE scratches that indie itch and it's widely available now through all game distributors (with Diaspora coming soon). For me, the story of indie press is the story of FATE. It's about FATE now and it has always been about FATE, at least where economic success is concerned.

Feel free to refute this, educate me, or otherwise comment. I'm hardly an industry expert in this niche and I'm only approaching it from the perspective of your average retailer.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Strategy and Demographics

It might seem that I just can't stop talking about Facebook and how it helps the store, but the insights it provides are useful. The demographics section of our fan page has been an issue of concern and celebration for most of the year. First, I have to think it's representational, since we focus so much marketing effort and money in that direction. Sure, there are a lot of industry people who follow it, but as our fan (customer) base increases, those people become statistically less relevant. Second, I know not everyone is on Facebook and there are plenty of folks who get our Facebook posts via Twitter, but that's a small number of people and I generally know who they are. It's what you learn when you talk to your customers (they've got their own demographic).

So what has been the take away from this?  I call it my life boat problem.  Lots of men, but not enough women and children. Some of this is natural based on what we provide, but I think we can do better. I've mentioned it before, but it's very easy to coast in the game trade. You can play to your adult male base and ignore new hobbyists, especially if you've got activist game stores out there doing the heavy lifting or excellent local conventions. We have none of the first and a varying degree of quality of the second. Without these outside drivers creating new hobbyists, a region can die. There are vast swaths of this country where there are no game stores, where the closest store is 90 minutes away, or where game stores are wretched shells of their former glory (I just visited Southern Calfornia - shudder). That's tragic. It might sound like a sappy song, but the children are our future, both as hobbyists and as a business.

Older gamers often fall away from the hobby so we need the young'ins to enter it. Our biggest success here has been our Young Generals program. It's our kids only 40K event that places an expert hobbyist with a small group of kids. Young Generals is just a start and we would love to have additional programs in the role-playing arena and board games. Our board game group is already family friendly, but a more focused kids group would be ideal. If you know kids that are interested, or if you would like to volunteer for an event like this, let us know.

We're also focusing more on games for kids. Childrens' games are the biggest area of growth for us right now. We've been bringing in high quality games from Haba and we'll continue that trend as we approach the holidays. Another big Haba order goes out this week. Selling kids games is hard without a lot of foot traffic. Hobbyists like to get their kids into these high quality games, but most "muggles" will gasp in shock when they see a $40 board game for a five year old. They're used to low quality (inexpensive) games with ridiculously inane game play and it's hard to break them of that. There are some good "gateway" games, so we'll continue the fight.

We also can't forget Yu-Gi-Oh, which brings in 50-60 kids weekly. They actually have their own Facebook page, since they're primarily "mono gamers." There are about 60 Black Diamond Games Yu-Gi-Oh fans out there too.

Having a store friendly to women is part two of the life boat problem. We do a better job than most. Our store is consciously laid out to, at the very least, not repel women. It's professionally cleaned, the fixtures match, and the music is pleasant enough (movie soundtracks). I don't want to paint women with too broad a brush. There's mom friendly, and then there's female hobbyist friendly. Putting the scary war games and D&D towards the back of the store (it's passe to complain about devil worship, but war is alright), having a mom's lounge with comfy chairs, and having ADA compliant aisles for strollers is mom friendly. Keeping the bathrooms clean and addressing gamer funk is the primary concern of the female gamer.

Our biggest complaint from female customers is not having enough staff for assistance. Most veterans are on auto pilot, whether male or female, and generally need little more than a greeting when they enter the store. It's the new folks, especially the board gamers, mostly women, who need hand selling or else they'll walk out. If we can't provide that, we've lost to the online store. We've actually increased our staff hours quite a bit after these kinds of growing pains. We can't really afford it, but I see it as a necessary investment for the future.

What about older gamers? The big question: Is there a "boomer like" demographic bulge of gamers who started playing in the '70's that will continue to play into their late 40's and 50's? There's a lot of nostalgic interest in the new D&D red box starter set at the store. This is the crowd I'm talking about. I'm in this category and I wonder. Will I be playing with a younger crowd as I get older, or will my friends, now in their 40's, continue to play? We're now playing with their children at the table, which is actually kind of nice. Still, I'm hoping the lack of 50 year old gamers in our demographics is either an issue with Facebook (I think not) or a hobbyist crowd, from the booming days of fantasy gaming, that hasn't reached maturity yet. If it's the latter, hobby gaming might actually be in better shape than most thought.

Have I missed anything important? Is my Male, 35-44 year old demographic clouding my judgement? Let me know.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Little House on the Prairie

I was on a walk yesterday with my five year old when we got to talking about the future. When I asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up, I prefaced it with my recommendations. A doctor? A scientist? No, he said, that's too hard. I want to work at your store like you. When I first started, I had similar sentiments. An old boss of mine fantasized about running a hardware store, and it was infectious. A retail store seemed simple, like some Little House on the Prairie episode. This so-called simplicity turned out to have two problems with it. First, it was not simple. Running a retail store in the modern age is wickedly complex. Perhaps it always was. Second, it turns out I would have been horribly bored in a Little House on the Prairie episode. Slow and easy is not my style. My dream was flawed in every way. Still, there is some truth to the slowness.

Opportunity Cost. At the strategic level of this business model is the intensely slow rate at which you succeed, fail, or worst of all, linger. Back in my IT days, I could do amazing things in 18 months. I could be heroic and then leave town like a sheriff who cleaned up the Old West. In this trade, progress is measured in years, and leases are often good yardsticks, ranging from 3-5 years or longer. We're looking at extending ours soon, so this is constantly on my mind. It's one thing to take a temporary pay cut, but it's quite another to dedicate a decade or more of your life to such a pursuit, while your previous career skills grow stale and drift into your past.

Retailers tend to measure growth in single digits and it takes ages to accumulate enough capital to make a big move, like a second store. Even then, it often takes many months or years to know if your decision was correct. This is the true nature of a "lifestyle job," it's understanding that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Your life is the tunnel. Pick a nice tunnel. There will be no IPO or buyout and you won't be making a six figure salary while you wait.  One frightening statistic is that your chance of failure in year three (once you get over that initial hump) is the same as it is in year seven or year twelve. It just doesn't get any easier. It's not all doom and gloom, however. You do get to be your own boss, surround yourself with the things you love, meet fun and interesting people and generally enjoy yourself, but the cost is high.

Hurry Up and Wait. At the tactical level, a retail store owner finds their job is back-loaded. They do a lot of research on what to buy, spend a lot of money on presentation, such as fixtures and maintenance, and when not trying to come up with ways to make more money against ever encroaching inflation (if you're not growing, you're dying), they spend time nickel and diming their expenses into submission. The garbage bill, the telephone bill, and questioning every dollar the landlord spent on painting poles is a big part of the job. Don't get me started on the pole painting. After the stage is set, the games shelved and the boxes broken down and disposed of, the customers can come in and see how effortless our jobs are. Perhaps they'll want to quit their jobs as doctors and engineers and start a game store.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Summer Role-Playing Sales

I was crunching numbers for RPG Countdown and figured I would share our stats. These are from June until now:

Top 10 Role-Playing Sales
  1. Dresden Files RPG: Volume 1
  2. Pathfinder RPG: Core Rules
  3. PF Advanced Player's Guide
  4. Dark Sun Campaign Setting
  5. D&D - Monster Manual 3
  6. Pathfinder RPG: Bestiary
  7. Dresden Files RPG: Volume 2
  8. D&D - Psionic Power
  9. PF Gamemastery Guide
  10. Legend Of The Five Rings 4E
Dresden was a smash hit; no surprise there. The real story for us is the enormous number of Pathfinder core books we've been selling. You'll notice there is no D&D 4E Player's Handbook on this list. I think this is round two of the transition from 3.5, rather than some exodus from 4E. There would be an interesting story there if you actually had solid numbers.

The Pathfinder Advanced Player's Guide did outsell the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, but it's not exactly apples to apples, and with the Dark Sun monster book and adventure, D&D 4 was a much bigger release. As for Dresden Files, it has been a huge release, but it has slowed down quite a bit. It did very well at Gencon, so we're hoping we see some additional interest from that.  Great game. Pretty book. Check it out.

Top 5 Role-Playing Games
  1. Dungeons & Dragons
  2. Pathfinder
  3. Dresden Files
  4. Legend of the Five Rings
  5. 40K RPG/Rogue Trader/Dark Heresy
Once again, we've almost got a tie for first place, with D&D outselling Pathfinder by about 3%. Our organized play for the two games is incredibly strong, as we witnessed on Thursday when our RPGA/Pathfinder Society group expanded beyond our capacity and were playing in our retail space.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Pricing Experiment (MTG: Scars of Mirrodin)

The next Magic set, Scars of Mirrodin is released October 1st. As an experiment, and as a celebration of the signing of the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, we'll have price tiers for pre-ordering booster boxes.

First, lets be clear on a couple things. A box of Magic boosters contains 36 packs with an MSRP of $3.99 each. That's $143.64 for a full box. I mention this because this is the baseline, a number that many Magic players find alien and unfamiliar. That Magic has become a commodity with a profit margin often approaching zero, is no secret. Therefore, almost every store discounts Magic to some degree, at least those who expect to sell boxes in any quantity. We're not interested in the volume, fly-by-night Internet discount pricing (or our late competitors), but we've learned we need to offer some sort of discount to gain any box sales at all. 

Second, and the point of this experiment, is that the credit card cartels have been squeezing retailers for years with their increasing fees, and when we add their extortionist fees to our sale priced boxes, it hurts us even more. With the passage of the new law, we're able to transparently reflect our fees back to the consumer to some degree in the form of pricing tiers that reflect the cost of various payment methods. I have no intention of extending this very far, but I want to use it to educate our customers that their payment method matters. The difference between using cash versus credit, credit versus debit, and some cards versus other cards is enormous, as we'll show in our experimental pricing.

So here's the deal:

Scars of Mirrodin
Full MSRP:  $143.64

Pre-Order Pricing:
$104.99 American Express / Discover
$99.99  Visa/Mastercard/Debit
$94.99  Cash

Before this law, we were unable to offer tiered pricing based on payment method. Note that some people believe this is bad policy and that retailers will do exactly what I'm doing here. However, notice the cash price. It's the lowest price we've ever sold a box of Magic that wasn't on clearance. The savings in fees allows us to pass it on directly to you, the consumer.
The take away here is that you help us when you use cash to buy things. We will pay more if you don't. There will be advantages if you can help us reduce our costs. Some of these advantages are immediate and tangible, like saving $5 on a box of Magic. Other advantages are less so, like the ability to hire more staff, stock more product, and even stay in business. You have more choices.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Game Stores on Facebook II

I'm out of town this week with a lot of down time with friends and family as we all assemble for a funeral. I was mentioning to my friend Jeff how I manually kept a list of game stores with Facebook pages and how I was just about burned out on the project. Jeff is highly technical, so the discussion inevitably led to how this tedious process could be automated.

90 minutes later he had written a program to do just that. It uses PHP scripting against the Facebook API to grab the Facebook store information. After another hour, he had it sorting, ignoring duplicates and including the logos. My contribution was gathering the store IDs and debugging the input until it worked. The new page is here and it's now a 10 minute update instead of a 90 minute update, which means I'll likely keep doing it.

About 10% of the stores were removed from the list, as the Facebook API doesn't work well with Groups, yet another reason to dump your group and move to a page. Since I had to manually tweak the process for each game store, please take a look and let me know if any are missing. Also let me know if I need to add new ones (game stores with pages that have fan counts over 100).

If you want to get a good idea of what's happening in the retail tier of the game trade, you could do a lot worse than follow the top ten or so stores on this list. 

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Facebook

With Gencon Indy in full swing, and my con jealousy meter in the red, I'm reminded that this is the year that social networking, really Facebook, has become actual social networking and not this aggregator of news about what we all had for dinner or links to your favorite Lady Gaga video (although that can be fun too). Before this year, Gencon was this thing that happened in the Midwest that only lunatic West Coast gamers attended. For the price of a week at Gencon, I could visit Paris or Rome. It was remote and only invaded my thoughts when it was apparent that the game industry had gone to ground for a week. It was more nuisance than anything else. Now it's omnipresent in my mind. I feel like I've missed out entirely. The photos and video reports are just amazing. How could I not be there? That's because of Facebook.

I put a lot of effort into Facebook, both personal and with the store, including shifting just about all of our marketing in that direction. It's a little scary to realize that the whole enterprise of Facebook is one big Beta test. You can't be sure some dweeb in his twenties won't suddenly decide to switch the whole thing around. It's very Internet 1.0 in that way, when browser support and new features could kill a website. Spendng actual money advertising on Facebook is not only a good idea for us, but it feels like a vote for the status quo. Here's some money, now don't move my cheese!

Facebook is also the single largest cost savings ever for my business, as we shift money away from traditional marketing. It's a "money or your life" situation. A business can continue to spend money on unsatisfactory, traditional media, or they can spend their time actually trying to connect with their customer base, engaging with them, and learning about how to satisfy their demands. It's a time consuming, ongoing project that can't be foisted onto the new kid in marketing. It's stupidly inexpensive compared to old media. In exchange for your time, you are directly rewarded for your understanding and effort.

Traditional marketing now feels like poking a bear in a dark cave with a stick. Will the bear wake up? It might depend on the size and shape of the stick. The bear might not be in his cave today. The bear might become offended or might be indifferent. You might not even know if you've poked the bear. Stupid stick. Inscrutable bear. Wretched dark cave. Meh.

So yeah, I am networking socially, which is pretty surprising from a serious introvert. For example, I've openly questioned the relevancy of trade shows, when the value was in new product identification (now done via Facebook) and the kind of networking you can only get over a beer (also a check in the Facebook column, sorry beer). I'm not discounting face to face meetings and building personal relationships, they're very important, I'm just saying that before I spend thousands of dollars on a junket, the trade show value proposition needs to be better defined. Speaking of poorly defined trade shows, this is also the week that retailers formed their own trade organization, the Professional Game Store Association, partly due to the gross irrelevancy to retailers of the GAMA trade organization. You can follow their goings on via Facebook, of course.

Facebook Advice for Game Stores
This is in the category of "what I do and why it works for me." The common Facebook marketing wisdom is that you need to connect with your base twice a day for maximum effect. There are better times of day than others, but generally, if you can find two things that will interest your fan base that's relevant to your fans (not always about your business), you'll be successful. The big question then is how?

The problem with game store customers are they're fragmented. Sure, comic customers might be divided into various categories, but they all like comics. However, a 40K player could care less about a new board game release. There is cross over, and from our marketing research, the majority of our Facebook fans cross over into two or more seemingly random categories. Still, with five distinct categories, even the average fan with two areas of interest will find a post irrelevant 60% of the time. What to do?

We discussed this at length. With two posts a day, you would need to cram two and a half "messages" into each post to be relevant to everyone. That won't do. It became clear that each post should be concise and that meant that two posts wasn't enough. My strategy is to post concise messages in bursts of multiple posts, ideally twice a day. The timing isn't exact, but I tend to store up ideas when possible for these bursts. My own Facebook stream scrolls off the page in only two hours, so although I don't want to be in a customers stream continuously, getting in during peak viewing times seems even more important. I'm also realizing that customers are visiting the page and commenting on older stories more often, something I rarely do.

So that's what works for me. We're at 838 fans, which is the fourth largest game store fan base in the world. Yeah for us! Our page is successful in calling customers to action, when necessary, but I also like to tell them about new releases, industry news, and occasional geek culture. As much as I want to target 100% of our base, it's inevitably about what I think is cool. I really want to share neat things and get feedback. That's often my only motivation.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Office Supplies

"We're out of paper towels again!"

You would think with our fancy point-of-sale machine that tracks 20,000 items that we could keep our office supplies in order. In the back of my mind, I still think I can run a game store like a franchise. This means I should be able to have processes in place that track everything, including office supplies. Then I could just re-order stuff as needed, preferably from a laptop, on a beach, where I don't speak the language. Yes, this is the back of my mind we're talking about. In reality, all I really need is some sort of check sheet to know when supplies are low with an employee tasked to do it once a week. How many different office supplies could we possibly have?

It turns out we have around 50. It's a bit like our supplier list. About six distributors come to mind, but 87 are set up in our point-of-sale machine. I couldn't possibly list them without the software.The same is true with office supplies. There are paper towels, Windex, ummm.  See?  Once you start listing them, it's a bit shocking. It probably shows why I'm really good at income forecasting but horrible with expenses. There are too many little details. Don't believe me? The list is below. Meet me at the bottom.

· All-purpose cleaner
· Band aids
· Carpet cleaner
· Change rolls (pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters)
· Checks, hand written
· Checks, laser printer
· Cleanser
· Coffee (just because I'm the only one that uses it doesn't make it less important)
· Coffee cups
· Credit card slips (conventions/emergencies)
· Deposit Slips
· Envelopes, regular
· Envelopes, window
· Floor cleaner
· Garbage bags, large
· Garbage bags, white/clear small
· Gift certificates
· Goo-Gone
· Hand sanitizer
· Hand soap
· Ink, inkjet, black
· Ink, inkjet, color
· Labels, P-Touch
· Labels, red
· Labels, white
· Light bulbs, fluorescent
· Light bulbs, standard
· Merchandise bags, blue (large)
· Merchandise bags, blue board game (medium)
· Merchandise bags, blue book (small)
· Merchandise bags, small white
· Notebooks
· Paladin club cards
· Paper towels, hand roll
· Paper towels, machine roll
· Paper, computer
· Pens
· Post-It Notes
· Sales books (conventions/emergencies)
· Shrink wrap
· Stamps, postage, first class
· Thermal paper
· Tissue
· Toilet cleaner
· Toilet paper
· Toner
· UPS boxes, small, medium, large, envelopes
· USPS boxes, small, medium, large, envelopes
· Vacuum cleaner bags
· Window cleaner

See? Even with a list, it would take a while to do a spot check, but we're trying to develop some sort of system. Developing systems seems to be a lot of what we do nowadays. We've got four employees and the key is consistency, which only comes from policies and procedures, real ones that people know and follow, not just a dusty book full of rules in a corner. I've got plenty of those.

I came to the realization this week that our operation has grown beyond my own capabilities. There is more going on than I could do myself. Before, employees were helpful and good, but they didn't do anything that I couldn't jump in and do myself. They worked to give me a day off. Now there is just too much going on. This is a good thing. "It's full of win," I can hear one of them saying. I'll give some credit to myself for encouraging them to step up. Want more hours? Find a way to step up and generate revenue. Most of the credit goes to those doing the stepping. Now maybe one of them can figure out something clever to do with this list.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Eulogy for a Friend

One of my best friends passed away recently. I knew Rob since junior high school, but we got to know each other as part of a group of geeky high schoolers who played a lot of role-playing games combined with semi-nefarious activities, like building rocket launchers, setting off smoke bombs at school dances and other miscellaneous mayhem. It was all in good fun. Our friendship deepened and continued through college, where we were roommates, good friends and occasional gaming buddies. When I learned of his passing, the first question I asked our mutual friends was gaming related. What do you remember about his characters?

It might seem ridiculous, and we did so much more than game, but it struck me as a crystal ball into who he really was. I already knew him well, probably as well as anyone. I knew him better than my own brothers and probably even my wife. Still, I needed more. Who was he really? I needed some context to make sense of his passing. As well as I knew him, he was still somewhat enigmatic.

It was an interesting exercise, it turned out. While we all role-played flashy, heroic, often bombastic characters who vied for center stage, Rob never did. We remembered the first character he created when I joined the group, a thief named Ummmm. He couldn't come up with a name and when someone asked him what it was, Ummmm stuck. Beyond that it got fuzzy. He played rogues and support characters is all most of us remembered. We couldn't come up with their names, or sometimes only wisps of remembrance. Jim recalled a laid back Traveller character with a jump suit and ball cap. Stefan reminded me about Moleface Dogbrawl, but couldn't remember if Rob played him or someone else. I recalled some sort of samurai from Oriental Adventures. Not remembering his characters felt sad, but Russell put it into context:
"...he was like the bass player in a rock band. Always present, always constant, always necessary. Not always obvious, like the flashy singer or lead guitar. But without him you wouldn't have a complete band/party/group."
Rob was always the steady. He was the one you could count on to be there, whether it was gaming on a Friday night or an impromptu road trip to Vegas in The Beast, his old Dodge cargo van. The Beast was like the Serenity ship for us in the Firefly series, an ever present, important character with it's own strengths and flaws. Many Rob stories include escapades in The Beast.

Rob was the anchor for our group, and all the various groups that formed around him throughout his life. I can recall several, forming various overlapping Venn diagrams with him in the middle: his grade school pals, our  high school group (which doesn't have a name, and that's the story I'm sticking with officer), and his college friends.

He was such a steady influence, that I recall only a few times when he got angry. It was when someone imparted their personal drama on others, when his friends were made to suffer because of someones selfishness. Because he was so steady, when he was outraged it had such a strong effect that you couldn't help but stop and address the issue. I saw entire group dynamics change instantly, not because of his persuasive arguments, but because of his moral clarity. It's not something you can do, it's who you are. You made Rob upset. What the hell is wrong with you?

So maybe take a moment next time you're gaming and turn to your steady, your cleric or rogue, your quiet bass player and just thank them for being the anchor. Thank them for making it all possible. You never know if you'll get another chance.

Rob on the left during one of our desert camping trips