Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Caring (Tradecraft)

What do I care about? In my business, I care about three things: I care about my employees, I care about my customers, and I care about the profitability of the business. I care about these things in that order. In the business, everything else is just details. Don't sweat the details. Sweat these other things. All else is the buzzing of flies.

My employees come first. The customer is not always right. I take care of my people. Do we have to ask why? Lets assume we have no moral compass and "because it's the right thing to do" is not a good answer. Take care of your people and their enthusiasm and happiness will result in greater productivity and will better serve the customer. Blah, blah, blah. If you fake this, it results in all kinds of corporate style perversions, like forced team building exercises and meddling in peoples lives. I suppose it's better than being a horrible tyrant and putting productivity sensors on your employees as they run around your environmentally hostile work environment.

I care about my customers. I want to build relationships. I want them to be happy long term. I'm willing to lose a sale over that. I'll send them across town or online to make them happy, but I'll also special order their $5 game with $7 shipping, if it comes to that. I'm willing to tell the occasional (young) person uncomfortable truths to help them on their path, that has nothing to do with selling games. The truth of this one is I never expected the customers to be the best part of the job, but they are. I had hoped to be the puppet master behind the scenes in the office. I hate the office.

Again, taking care of your customers is the long term correct business decision that will result in excellent word of mouth marketing and respect for your business and your opinion. That's more blah, blah, blah really. Customers know when you're faking, and similar to fake caring for your people, fake caring for customers comes off as crass and opportunistic. It's only slightly better than not caring. At least then they know where you stand. If you shop at Target or Wal-Mart, you've probably experienced the lowest common denominator of customer caring.

As an aside, there are many horrible people who will come in that resemble customers, but are not. "I don't want to be that guy, but this game is $5 cheaper at Target." Suddenly, without warning, not my customer. Buzzing of flies. "What was that you said, my good man?" These people will suck the soul from the top of your head with a cocktail straw.

The profit of the business is critical. As the leader of a corporate entity, I'm legally required to maximize shareholder value. I can actually be held liable for making decisions that do not do this. Before you freak out about all the corners I could theoretically cut, remember the first two imperatives of caring about employees and customers. There's not much wiggle room when you put it in that context. You can't fake profit, although you can hide your head in the gross like a business ostrich until profit passes you by.

Finally, not listed here because it tends to solve itself if you do everything else right, take care of yourself. Vacations are not optional. Time spent burned out can go on for weeks, months or years, and this time is lost opportunity. You have cheated your shareholders out of you functioning properly. Take time off.  Go do some gaming if that recharges your batteries. Take a trip. Do something else. You need fresh eyes every day to see where you can improve and come up with innovative ideas.

Taking care of yourself also means properly paying yourself. Oh, and pay yourself well. You absolutely, by textbook definition, earned it. That's your money. Compensate yourself for a job well done. It might seem strange that I emphasize this to such an extent, but I think it's necessary. It feels like a slippery slope to pay yourself well while negotiating down your garbage bill and changing cell phone providers to save $10 a month. But this is business. This is the point. Do the job. Get paid. Get a little somethin' for yourself.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Tale of Zip Zap (Tradecraft)

Zip Zap is a fine little speed card game by Gamewright. Sure, it's got a depressingly low 5.67 on Boardgamegeek, but that's because it's a family game, perfect for 4-5 year olds. The snobs at BGG do not like family games intruding upon their geekery, so you always have to keep that in mind. We had it because it was a top family game in the San Francisco Chronicle in December, 2012. It was described as rollicking. Who doesn't like rollicking? I had to look that up. It's exuberantly lively and amusing. Cool! The man in the chair was clapping, although he admittedly wasn't doing cartwheels in his seat. So it was no surprise we had some left over.

On December 26th of 2012, I had five copies of Zip Zap that I stubbornly held onto. Zip Zap may have been the muggle mid level choice of 2012, but on December 26th it was adrift in a sea of much better card games. So those Zip Zaps sat on the shelf for two years. I let that happen. A couple sold the following December, some of those same returning customers. A couple sold over the Summer of this year, and finally the last one sold this month, a full two years later. This was quite dumb. Zip Zap should have been dumped like a bad habit starting December 26th, 2012.

That's the lesson here. After the holidays, if you've got "muggle specific" games you brought in, dump them immediately. Dump them hard. Dump them without remorse with a clearance tag that covers your cost, but not much else, and less than cost if that doesn't work. Ignore the talk of how it looks or what it teaches your customers, get your money back now so you don't wait two years to recoup it.

What did Zip Zap cost me? You could do some complicated math, since we know the sales points, but lets keep it simple. Doing some bistro math, if my average turns on card games is three per year, and I've got $11 (the MSRP of Zip Zap) times 5 copies ($55) tied up, it means over two years I lost $275 in potential sales ($330 minus the eventual $55 of the 5 Zip Zaps). That's nothing but stubbornness on my part. If you look around your store, I'm guessing you'll find half a dozen or more Zip Zaps, probably with much higher price tags, reminders of your bad purchasing. Tell the little man to sit down and take a nap. What I find exuberantly lively is seeing dead inventory walk out the door. It's a rollicking good time.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

How We Can Have Nice Things (Tradecraft)

When I opened a game store, the number one criteria was working in an environment that I enjoyed. That included clean floors, nice music and lots of warm wood in the form of matching store fixtures of high quality. It was a decidedly upscale environment in comparison to many game stores.

An upscale environment is a form of product branding. I didn't know this at the time, I just wanted a nice place where I was surrounded by cool things and people while I watched my house appreciate into the sky. Your product branding sends a message to your customers, and along with your own messaging, AKA advertising, it sets a tone for your business. In this case, the branding is premium, as opposed to conventional or luxury. I'm no marketing expert, by the way, but I think we've nailed premium pretty well.

Premium branding, as the article linked above describes, is open to anyone who wants to be a member, albeit at a price slightly higher. In the case of the game trade, we don't generally charge over MSRP (which is its limiting nature), we simply hold the line. In a world of crappy discount game stores that look like your basement, holding the line is what goes for baseline premium pricing.

Premium means building faith in your brand (your store, not your products), having the things people want, when they want them, and generally providing a level of service above average. It's also about having some class and promoting your brand and the hobby accordingly. If you can do this, and the best game stores do, you will be in the top 10% of stores in the country. The bar is low, but I'll admit it's wickedly hard to get all the pieces in place.

In the game trade, part of premium branding is a bit like running a church. Many customers will tell you to your face that they could have bought their game online for less (prayed at home), but they wanted to support you, the local guy who helps keep the congregation going. About 20% of our customers use our game space, but a much larger percentage, probably around 50% support our store because we have these facilities. They've told us as much.

The other half of our customers just like shopping at our store. Key point: less than 10% of US commerce happens online and it's a percentage that is not growing. Oh, and there will be those who don't like our tone, who want to game in a dingy basement while swearing up a storm and reeking of low grade marijuana. They'll choose a different denomination. Go in peace my son.

When it comes to premium branding, you have to continually uphold your side of the bargain. You have to maintain high quality standards both in staff training and with facilities. I've written before about how you might start with the best of everything, but if your store isn't as successful as you might like, over the years it all breaks down and you can't afford to maintain quality. I'm talking primarily about furniture, fixtures and equipment, the dreaded "FFE," but it also includes staff quality.

When you're not making money, it's demoralizing and the staff work ethic can fall and managing them seems rather pointless. You also have to keep your evangelizing going, meaning you might want to only run the most profitable events (CCGs), but part of your premium mission is to promote a wide array of games. Role playing games and RPG events, for example, are a labor of love that could be dropped entirely from the store from a purely business perspective. They're not just a labor of love, but also part of the mission.

I don't want to make this sound easy. It first starts with a level of business capitalization that is unreasonable. To have a beautiful store with high standards requires more money than is reasonable to invest in a trade that has very little profit. It requires more work and constant improvement than is warranted by the reward. However, if you happen to be that dedicated, foolish or stubborn, you might just have what's necessary to pull off a premium game store.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

About Looting (Tradecraft)

Happy holidays! Isn't this an exciting time of the year? Oh right, I was going to talk about looting. It happened last night in Berkeley and tends to be a regular occurrence both there and in Oakland. It's a wretched Bay Area tradition that brings in people from neighboring communities.

As business owners, we want to protect our property, and that includes damage and theft from rioting. The good news is most business insurance policies cover rioting. Call your agent to make sure though.

I am assuming you have business insurance. I was shocked to learn when I first started my business that quite a few game stores didn't have it. The guy giving the lecture on business insurance at my first trade show learned the hard way, when a car barreled through his plate glass windows and into his store. Twice. We must submit proof of insurance to our property management company annually. So looting is covered under most insurance policies.

When it comes to physically protecting your property, well, don't. I am not a lawyer, but the law is not on your side if you shoot a looter. Unless you're in Texas, which has the ever so helpful "He needed shootin'" defense that I sometimes wish we all had, especially during Yugioh tournaments. I kid! Don't shoot looters. Standing in your entryway with a shotgun might sound like a romantic and natural thing to do, but spend that shotgun money on a good security camera system instead. Make sure you can export that file and post it publicly for easy looter identification. It works.

That said, nobody ever gets prosecuted for shooting looters, except police. In fact, the real danger of being out during a riot or natural disaster is something called elite panic. In a real emergency, people come together to help their neighbors and recreational looting is rare. In anything but the End Times, you can expect generally helpful people. It's something I learned in my recent Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training. I highly recommend training so you can help your community in a disaster. It's also a great antidote for fear and paranoia.

With elite panic, government freaks out during these troubled times and overreacts. The elites panic. You're far more likely to get shot on sight by a cop or soldier with shoot to kill orders than you are of defending your business. It's one reason why CERT members wear green, fluorescent vests and helmets.
Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don't become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away our seething violence will rise to the surface...  source.
So get business insurance, invest in a camera system and stay home.