Friday, February 6, 2015

Selling to Retailers (Tradecraft)

Say you have a game product and you don't want to deal with the game distribution system for whatever reasons. How do you sell to retailers? What do they want? What should you avoid? Here's what I'm looking for. I encourage other retailers to add their comments:

Alpha Stores. On one extreme, game stores can exist entirely with one distributor and 100% of their games coming from that single supplier. On the other extreme, mall stores that do a lot of mass market games to the general public may have as many as 100 suppliers. But most stores? Most stores have a couple other accounts besides distributors, such as a Wizards of the Coast account to get Magic promos and product and perhaps a Games Workshop account. Adding more accounts adds complications and cost and they generally dismiss the idea out of hand.

If you want to sell direct to game stores, you're selling to alpha stores. You are their luxury brand, as they've already covered all their bases with product from distribution. They're looking to "round out" their inventory, to add flavor. You are the spice to the meat they buy from their other sources. There are probably 3,000 game stores and about 10% are alpha stores, so your market is around 300 stores.

Simplicity. Those 300 store owners spend no more than 10% of their time purchasing. They need quick, streamlined processes that don't require remembering complicated information. I've got a supplier that will sell me boxes of CCGs, but at six boxes I get a discount, then a different discount at 12 boxes. And then.... snore. I call him when I need things and their prices are good. That's what I remember. He also calls me on the phone using high pressure sales tactics and he knows I screen him with caller ID.

Simplicity also means I can quickly generate a purchase order and send it off or I can go to your website and order direct, hassle free. If I have to call you, you know, on the telephone, it's an interrupt I will avoid. That includes the weekly or monthly phone calls I take from so many secondary and tertiary suppliers. I'm busy and it's an irritation. Send an email. Remember, it's only 10% of my job, while it might be 90% of yours. A simple order placement system means I can do restocks like clockwork and regular restocks are how you and I make the money.

Also, if you've got PDF products free with print products, please go with an established system, like Bits & Mortar. I've got half a dozen people on staff who need to know the procedure for this, and multiple procedures is not going to work. One procedure barely works.

Seeing Other People. You will probably also be selling direct to customers. I'm not going to stand in your way. Multi channel sales is the way of things. However, if you're selling to them at a discount, I'm probably not going to deal with you unless you've somehow approached "first tier" in my mind, like a Paizo or a Games Workshop. If I do carry you, it's unlikely I'll promote you like I should, because I know you're under cutting me. Every moment I spend selling your game is a moment I'm spending on marketing so you can later "steal" the sale. I'll cut bait and run much sooner than with those who aren't doing this.

This also goes for special offers to customers that aren't offered to retailers. If you're offering anything other than junk clearance (which you should also offer me, to keep me happy), I'm going to be frowning. This includes Kickstarter projects as well. As much as I hate ordering a game and having it arrive with a bookmark, promo card and stuffed chihuahua that once meant something to you and your backers, at least I know you cared enough to include me in the scheme. An entire series of blog posts could be written on the Kickstarter-Retailer relationship.

Push. If you really want us to sell your game, suggest customers buy the game from us. Do you know where Games Workshop fails and every good direct company succeeds? They get customers to ask me for the upcoming release. Push your customers to pester existing game stores to have the new thing on release. Even better, push them to special order that item. Please don't push them to ask every game store, just your retailer partners. There's nothing worse than a campaign to pester me for a line I don't carry. It makes me dig in my heels and resist.

Include a retail locater on your website. Make sure you contact those people once a year. Fun fact: Most game stores don't track what retail locaters they're on, so over time, that information becomes stale, making the publisher and the retailer look foolish. Retailers should track this, but so should you.

Margin. At a 50% margin and free shipping, we're good all day long. That's what we get from most distributors on most products. You should be able to afford this without the distributor involved. At 45% and free shipping, you're now a brand sold at a premium. I'll carry your line, but it better move and brands at 50% get top billing. At 40% and free shipping, your brand sells itself. When it stops doing this, it's gone. At 35% and free shipping, there should be no risk, amazing turns, and you're in my top five in the store. You are the Cards Against Humanity of your tier. If any of this sounds terrible, consider distribution.

I want to pay with a credit card (edit: PayPal is fine, with no fees). I want quick turn arounds with order confirmations and tracking. I want out of stock tracking and notifications when items are back. I want paper invoices sent with the order. I want emails of upcoming items in a timely fashion and the ability to pre-order them, not just a phone call when they're in.

If you want an example of a company that nailed direct sales from day one, check out Wild West Exodus. We're really not selling their game any more, but they were breathtaking in their professionalism. I give them massive credit for that. The absolute worst is Games Workshop, of course, who seems intent on making my life hard and my customers buy direct from them.


  1. Oh, man. The weekly sales call. I had a video game accessories distributor in California who must have realized that I was screening their calls, so they started blocking caller ID. Except I don't answer blocked calls, so they started having their sales people call from a different number every week. I can only assume that they're provisioning a weekly number from a VOIP provider. Last week they called from Texas. I don't buy from them anymore. Awful lot of trouble just to talk to people who don't want to deal with you.

    Email is so much easier. I thought I was a weirdo for asking for this from my vendors. Thank you for the reassurance that I'm not strange, or at least that we're strange together.

    A reorder website that integrates well with a point of sale system is awesome. Alliance does a pretty good job with this, allowing you to upload a CSV of your order. Some places are even easier to deal with: I paste the reorder report into an email and send it off to my rep, and I'm done. This doesn't mean that you can slack on an ordering system that shows me current availability. I'm looking at you, Southern Hobby.

    If you make me call to place an order, you'll quickly find that I don't place orders with you anymore.

  2. Somewhat of a corner case, but if you go to conventions? Bring extra product and have terms ready for any retailers attending to quickly and easily buy some of your product to take home with them.

    That thing about credit cards? Accepting them for THESE purchases makes life much easier.

    And while Gary likes credit cards, some of us prefer billing on terms, so learn how to send an easy-to-understand invoice with an obvious due date on it, too.

  3. Yes, stay home from a convention unless you're ready to take my money. I can't tell you how many times this has come up, often because the convention monkey isn't a real employee.

  4. What really chaps my hide is when a distributor messes up, they don't do anything to fix it. They say "sorry" and expect me to keep ordering from them. So I stop ordering from them. I then get that call "I see here you haven't ordered from us in awhile. I have some crap in our warehouses to sell you at over inflated prices"

    The worst is when I get penalized for not ordering enough from them. No loyalty AT ALL. "So wait, I have been ordering from you every month for a year and my discount is getting worse?" "Well you didnt spend 1,000,000,000 dollars between the moon phases to qualify for a larger discount."

    I will say this. Games Workshop is relentless. They call me once a month. They have sent me over 1000 dollars in free stuff that I use for our paint days. They want my business bad. I have almost given in a few times. Then I come here and come back to my senses.

    And Magic. Over marketed. Bad overall product. Poor distribution in many cases. Bad margins. But it sells like hot cakes. It feels like a scab that never heals. Right when you think it is gonna get better. BOOM. New set is out and it starts to fester again. I love it. I hate it.

  5. Here's what normally happens at conventions when I'm sitting on thousands of dollars burning a hole in my pocket.

    Worst: Uh, just call us after the show.
    Bad: Here's an order form. Someone will contact you after the show for payment. I get a response half the time.
    Better: Here's an order form. Put your credit card info there and we'll ship it after the show. It ships half the time, often 4-6 weeks later. Sometimes with no call or notification.
    Best: Here's an order form. I'll scan your card RIGHT NOW with my Square reader and I'll send this order to our people at the office this evening, after the show.

  6. This(on the mess up issue, at least). I have a list of specific companies I won't deal with again because they did something like shipping damaged product and then didn't fix it. If you're going to do business with retailers, you need to be able to handle fulfillment and customer service.

  7. From the exhibitor side of things, that product cost me a lot to get to the convention and I have no resupply so I want to sell that product to a consumer at consumer prices. Bringing extra product usually is not an option due to the high shipping and receiving costs.
    Now at the end of the show, I desperately want to sell you any left over product because I don't want to ship it back.

  8. At a show like GAMA, where we are trying to sell to retailers right at the show I learned a hard lesson. I lost a couple sales because I couldn't really read anything that was on the form (I wasn't the one who accepted all the sales forms) and after searching for the store owner or buyer after the show and not getting contacted back. I eventually lost about 2 sales. So I guess the lesson I learned is fill out the contact information and credit card yourself. Also have a hard copy of your catalog available because our online catalog was too slow with the internet connection.
    Great article by the way. It really gives publishers some ideas on how to operate.

  9. I'm thinking more at trade show than convention. But I have bought out an exhibitor at the end of a show like that. Rented a station wagon and drove it home from Vegas.

  10. That's fine, mysterious exhibitor who didn't sign their name! Poaching sales from the local shops is a backbone of any sizable convention, and every publisher's God-given duty.

    Just make sure that you have a way to let us easily pay and get invoiced for those leftovers that you didn't sell to consumers at sub-SRP prices.

  11. What is it about Wild West Exodus that you like so much? Another blog post, perhaps?

  12. Their IT set up is sophisticated. I receive pre-order information via email. I sent them purchase orders. They send me order confirmations, status updates on the order, and ask for feedback on orders. They check all the boxes.