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.


  1. Another great article Gary! And much thanks for your support to the RPG community. Though I must say, I've never wandered in under the influence of nothing but the HIGHEST grade of Mary Jane. That 500 mile drive to your store deserves nothing less.

  2. I did make a point if qualifying the quality. ;)

  3. "To make this work, you can be dedicated, foolish, or stubborn. Pick 3."

  4. It's definitely one of the advantages of being in Cali.

  5. In California, you can't denigrate pot or the people who smoke it. You can only question the quality.

  6. Really great article (as always). The thing about your articles Gary, they have the benefit of your wisdom, and make things sound relatively easy. Easy like an action movie - there's some strife and some difficulties, maybe even some violence; but it all works out in the end.

    Hobby games retail should really be more of a cautionary tale - like stories parents in the 1800s told to their kids about wandering in the woods - you'll be alone, in the dark, no one to help you, and you'll probably end up dead.

  7. I get a lot of people thanking me for discouraging them from getting into the game trade. There are probably just as many who take it as a challenge.

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