Sunday, March 24, 2013

What Lit the Match?

One of the questions I had going into this year's Gama Trade Show was: Why, exactly, have collectible card games been so successful of late? Answering this question is very important in understanding why our sales, along with the sales of many successful retailers, are currently up in the 20-30% range from previous years.

The answer allows us to plan for the future, including expensive capital projects, like new stores or our own expansion plans. We're in the middle of an expensive Magic singles project that has already cost us thousands of dollars. Knowing the answer allows us to avoid over-extending, since what goes up, generally comes back down. Knowing why it went up can help predict how it will deflate, and knowing that can allow us to have a controlled, graceful landing, rather than a crash. I've seen a CCG crash, and it's not pretty.

Wizards of the Coast claims their beautiful upward slope on their spreadsheets is due to organized play. That was the gospel they were spreading, and I heard it repeated by others. I don't buy that. Organized play has certainly helped it along, fanned the flames, but I don't believe it lit the match. Organized play is critical to what's happening now, but it's a bit like crediting the quality of your gasoline for the performance of your car. Organized play is very good marketing, it's not the product. It also doesn't explain why games like Pokemon, Yugioh and Cardfight Vanguard are doing so very well.

Another retailer I spoke with credited the decline of the MMO. Games like World of Warcraft are in decline. Before you discount such speculation, remember what happened on the upward ascent of MMO's, and how it decimated much of the RPG community. I recall when I first started in 2004 the lamentations of store owners whose customers suddenly abandoned them as they shunned their stores to play WOW at home. Several million people have abandoned WOW in the last couple of years, so it's plausible they're looking for some alternative entertainment. If so, why not return to RPGs rather than CCGs?

The economy is also a common answer, with improvement on the rise for those who are participating. Consumer confidence is up, the mood is improved, and the dark days of just a few years ago appear behind us. Although sales in other areas are uneven, I have noticed a loosening of the purse strings, as they say. Customers remain cautious, but not irrationally frugal, driven more by the media than their own circumstances.

So my question remains unanswered, but I would love to hear your thoughts on the question.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Knowing When You're Done

The most helpful thing I learned at this year's Gama Trade Show came to me the first day. Dave Wallace gave an esoteric seminar on Building a Better Manager. I say esoteric because it touched on a lot of conceptual, strategic level stuff that's rarely discussed at these shows, which tend to focus almost exclusively on retail tactics. I love the esoteric stuff.

At one point Dave mentioned that when you do a good job working in your business, it opens doors, like branches of a trees, creating cascading opportunity. This opening of doors, a process of constant improvement and opportunity, is never ending. Therefore, since there's no end, you decide when you're done. Just as I mentioned in a previous post how it took a year to realize I had permission to start, Dave is describing the end game, essentially reminding us we have permission to stop.

When I say stop, I'm referring to the activity of working in the business, day to day work at the counter, with customers, placing orders, and the like, which is in stark contrast to working on your business, which is a more strategic activity divorced somewhat from the day to day world of the store. Working on your business is stepping back and creating opportunities, working to branch out vertically or horizontally (which direction is my big question right now).

There are practical factors in stepping back (or up, or vertical or horizontal), such as your loss of salary. This assumes you have a profitable business that can support you or you have some other thing you'll be doing to replace your lost manager income. This is not about giving up and getting a job, it's about creating a hierarchy where you can be productive in a different way. The point though, is if you've been waiting for the time it will end, the time you can step from behind the counter, if you're doing your job right, it will never come. You just have to do it, deciding to work through the practical matter of how. It will never come if you wait.

Finally, if you love working in your store, the message is still good for you. The opportunities created by process improvement and better management propel the business forward almost without limit. If you think you've tapped out your market, you just need a better perspective to realize the opportunities. The take away though is knowing that you've decided each of these paths by following them.

And that was probably five minutes of two hours of great stuff.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Kickstarter and Quality

I'm at the Gama Trade Show this week and I was mentioning to some industry people a bit of research I performed regarding Kickstarter games, board games in particular. Having supported around 20 projects and having been disappointed by the majority, both in production value and game quality, I wondered if Boardgamegeek would show these projects to be below average.

BGG has a Kickstarter list of board games created by Kenny Ven Osdel with nearly 800 board games on it. So I went through the rankings, creating a chart for the lot of them on the BGG user reported scale of 1-10. What did I find? Nothing really. There was nothing in the curve that suggested that Kickstarter board games were any better or worse than non-Kickstarter board games. I never bothered keeping the data because there was nothing to see.

Although there is much anecdotal evidence that a lot of what's derived from Kickstarter is slap-dash, that's not what I found with the rankings. Neither do these games deserve any accolades from fans because of how they were derived. For me this is important because it says that if these games are no better or worse than other games, and I have a problem selling them, my hypothesis that Kickstarter has saturated the market, making sales at my retail store difficult or impossible, is more likely. It's not a quality problem, it's a disintermediation problem.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Wheaton Effect

I was skeptical when the Tabletop program began, the Wil Wheaton program where celebrities play hobby board games. The skepticism was enhanced when they announced a deal with Target, and when major distributor were running out of these games, while mass market had a steady supply. It seemed like the typical example of the hobby trade doing the heavy lifting so the mass market could skim the cream off the top. The show is also kind of hip, which clearly goes against my Groucho Marx mantra of not being a member of any club that would have me. However, when International Tabletop Day was announced for March 30th, along with a nebulous $500 retailer marketing program, I jumped at the chance.

Why? Tabletop mostly works for my hobby game store as a promotional tool. Our results from Tabletop promotion are uneven, but they're indisputably strong. Tabletop is advancing the hobby, highlighting games that have been overlooked, super charging sales for games that have always been hot, and only in a few cases have failed to light that fire. But sales are minor compared to what's really important.

The holy grail of Tabletop is not to increase sales of these games, which according to my data, are up about 50% after the Tabletop treatment. The goal is to bring new customers into the hobby. We need to grow hobby gaming to survive. Grabbing new gamers is an incredibly difficult task. Our games are clever, relatively complex, and maddeningly difficult to introduce to non gamers.

Tabletop helps us with that. As a retailer, we have a Tabletop kiosk using an iPad, rotating through each program. The kiosk is next to the highlighted games, which tends to result in sales. This is something we learned a couple years ago with the Fantasy Flight Games media center, which allows customers to learn about each game through an iPad interface. Like with Fantasy Flight, these games are good, which is key, they've always just needed a bit more help in promoting them.

Without too much analysis, here is my raw data. We sell about 1,000 board games titles and this is a tiny subset of what we've sold, so I don't mind allowing the peak behind the curtain for these 20. 

The highlighted number in each row is sales in the month that game debuted on Tabletop (sometimes rounded to the next month). The shaded games are ones that went out of stock for long periods of time, making their data pretty useless. There are other games with significant outages as well, but these were the worst. Note that most of these games performed well before Tabletop. The average "turn" rate for the hobby game trade is around 3 a year, so even a potentially slow seller, like the classic Alhambra, is still doing well enough in this chart.

Hopefully you can join us at the store on March 30th. We'll be providing space and volunteers to let you play these games and experience them firsthand. We'll have prizes and other deals going on as well.