Thursday, June 7, 2012


Within the spectrum of disappointed customers, there is the one who looks in vain for the game they played as a child, or even the game they saw last year but couldn't yet afford to buy. As Summer begins, I see a lot more of these disappointed people, who usually aren't hobbyists, but just folks who like the occasional rainy-day game. Converting them to something new is a big part of our job, but they're resistant to it. As a customer, I'm often disappointed at book stores, where it seems the classics of my youth are missing and the history section is composed entirely of books on Egyptian pyramids. You're going to have a hard time selling me a book on pyramids when I want to read about Phoenicians. So what's going on here?

There are a couple factors. First, as I've written before, inventory is a zero sum game. I have a set amount of money to spend on inventory, so every new item requires an old item to be retired, as I try to re-coup those inventory dollars for the next thing.  If I add more capital to my purchasing budget (we increased inventory dollars by 15% last year), then I can enlarge the pie, but generally it's a process of swapping the old for the new. Plus there is a limit to increasing inventory dollars based on my market, and if my market is shrinking, like in the book trade, it hardly makes sense to add a new section on Phoenicians.

The second factor that accelerates this process is the speed of releases. When it comes to what's a successful book, 5,000 or so is a very good release number  (supposedly 98% sell less than 500). I think the game trade follows a similar model. Evil Hat, a small RPG publisher, shows that about 25% of their titles fall into the category of 5,000+ sales.

With about 3,000 game stores, that's a little less than 2 copies per store. However, it's far more complicated. As with Evil Hat's Don't Read This Book, , their nearly 5,000 sales include a variety of distribution channels, with only 20% of sales being brick and mortar stores through distributors. Those, I would speculate, are likely the 10% of "alpha stores" that tend to carry the more fringe game trade products. With some bistro math, I would guess 300 stores eventually order 3 copies each (but only the distributors know for sure).

Finally, there are the "disruptive" factors that bypass or throw a monkey wrench into the system. Kickstarter, for example, goes direct to the consumer. Remember that the consumer is the limiting factor in all this, and stores compete for their money, whether it be a new movie release or a Kickstarter project. Electronic products have been a competitor for years for consumer dollars, although some would incorrectly argue that the product is different than the physical copy. It hardly matters, because the consumers disposable income is also a zero sum game. A dollar on a PDF or an ice cream cone is a dollar out of that budget that can't be spend in a game store.

Possibly the holy grail to a lot of publishers, is the mass market. A game in Target or Wal-Mart promises to expand the game market, bypassing the gamer ghetto. However, that end to exclusivity clearly hurts the independent stores who see sales of those games slow or dry up completely. A good number of our regulars, especially CCG players, will think nothing of picking up games at Target or Toys R Us, if it's convenient. The pie is resistant to growth. A clear example of this has been observing sales resulting from the Tabletop program turbo charges sales of games featured on the program, unless they're available in mass market stores like Target, in which case, not much happens.

And what happens when Ticket to Ride or Small World go electronic? Does the pie get bigger? When the pie gets bigger, do the mass market stores naturally gobble up the low hanging fruit? What is the period in which small stores may feast on success before big stores kick sand in their face and steal their candy? Is that time period increasingly smaller? As a retailer, these are interesting times.

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