Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Level Playing Field

Nobody "owns" a customer. Saying someone is my customer, refers to an ephemeral business relationship that includes neither exclusivity nor the promise of future trade. We work extremely hard to attract and retain customers, but it's like sand through your fingers. Customers constantly leave, lose interest, get married, die or whatever, and the process of acquisition and retention never ends. I mention this because when I talk about how publishers deal with my competitors, I want to make it clear that I'm not entitled to anything, including customers.

What reasonable retailers want from publishers is a level playing field. Many retailers will decry the various sales channels publishers have established that don't include them: direct, big box, the book trade, Amazon, PDF sales and of course, competing game stores that sell online. In my book, this isn't reasonable, as it stinks of entitlement. We don't own the customers, nor are we owed consideration from publishers beyond our tenuous business arrangements. There is one exception, however, when a publisher sells something exclusively to one tier.

The latest case that annoyed me quite a bit was the sale of a special Munchkin version with a booster pack sold exclusively at Target for the same price as regular Munchkin sold through hobby retailers. I understand the desire to sell to mass market, to break out of the hobby ghetto. I also understand the logic that the "muggle" customer will seek out the game store to fulfill their needs once they purchase their base game of Munchkin, Caracassonne or Settlers of Catan. Steve Jackson himself likes to tout this benefit, and I'll give him that. However, this assumes all things are equal. When a special Killer Bunnies or Scrabble is sold at Barnes & Noble or a special Star Wars miniature set (Wizards of the Coast) or Munchkin, as in this case, is sold at Target, it's more than growing the market. This is directing hobby game customers, those ephemeral folks who shop at my store, to my enormous competitors. In fact, it puts a wedge between me and my customers, since I can't get these special items.

Looking back to 2010, I sold 357 Steve Jackson Games card games compared to hmmm, let me count them, carrying the one, zero at Target. So why am I being treated badly for supporting this company? The same question can be asked of Playroom Entertainment or Wizards of the Coast when they've pulled similar stunts. If your product can't compete, as is, in the big box world, perhaps it doesn't belong there. If you do need some special oomph to make it work, let those who helped keep you in business participate in the promotion. Otherwise you build animosity with your head sales people, AKA me. 357 is also close to the number of total card games I carry. Do you think I'll have a difficult time recommending a non Steve Jackson Games card game if I've got a bee in my bonnet?

"Aha!" you say, "There are hobby exclusives as well!"  This is true, but I would argue that the small size of the hobby trade and the incredible level of support we provide will often justify this little somethin' somethin'. They may not be my customers, but it is our market. It is our responsibility as hobby store owners to build that community, that market and hobby exclusive products cement that position. The purest expression of this is Wizards of the Coast's program to allow stores that support D&D with organized play to sell product early. You build the hobby and we'll give you special status. Other than mass amounts of foot traffic, Target and Wal-Mart offer nothing of value and will dump your hobby game when the turns fall below their threshold (but well within the hobby trade threshold). Alright, so perhaps there is a bit of entitlement inherent in this argument.

The exception to all this is the electronic product. We try to participate in the electronic market with those publishers who will allow it, but it's really never going to be a strong point for brick and mortar stores. That said, just providing us the opportunity to play in the electronic marketplace creates enough good will for us to boost our promotion of those companies, even when most of their sales are rather small. Perhaps we'll come across a better way to market electronic products in our store, but we'll never know if we're not given the opportunity.  We're also more likely to stock the print product when we get such consideration. Honestly, just offering this in some rough form is enough to build that good will. If SJG gave us a one week window to order special Target Munchkin, very few stores would have likely taken advantage of it, but that consideration is really what it's about. We want a level playing field, even if we don't feel like playing.

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