Sunday, August 16, 2015

West Coast Game Store Tour 2015, Part Three

The Sentry Box
This post is entirely about The Sentry Box, in Calgary. Calgary is the third largest city in Canada with about one and a quarter million people. To be honest, this trip was founded on an excuse to go there. If we took a trip to The Sentry Box, how would we structure it? It's around ten hours from our last game store location, Vancouver, but we spent some down time in Banff to rest and recuperate.

The Sentry Box is, by all accounts, the largest, pure game store in the world, with over 13,000 square feet of games on two floors. They have empty spaces and storage areas beyond that square footage as well as renting out a part of the building to an Internet service provider.

By pure game store I mean they only sell games and they're not a hybrid of comics, hobby supplies (from the hobby trade) or other stuff. That said, they have a fantasy novel section to die for, easily as big as most stores. The Sentry Box is simply the best stocked game store I've ever visited. It's a conversation ender. It has The Games. It comes pretty darn close to everything.

The Sentry Box business model, according to my guide for the day, Zach, is that of the antiquarian book store. That means they are more than happy to collect older games and have no problem sitting on them, pretty much indefinitely. This makes The Sentry Box a world class destination and as I mentioned to one Facebook friend, there could be a Gameageddon, in which all game stores were destroyed, and it would be alright as long as we had The Sentry Box. I use the word "we" as if it's collectively ours. It's that amazing and worthy of protecting.

So what do they have? They have it all, for the most part. Most everything I know of in the game trade is there now, along with quite a few wonders from the last 30 years. I took over 120 photos while at The Sentry Box, so check out my Facebook page to see them. The photos are the real show, go see the photos.

Besides everything a regular store would have, including a ton of older back stock, they have miniatures from over the decades. They have that previously mentioned section of fantasy novels. They have a room upstairs with all those historical miniatures you can only buy online, like Old Glory, which they are a major online seller of in Canada. Think of a product category, and The Sentry Box will have the entire range, and if possible, like with direct only Games Workshop product, a bit more on top of that. Other than my own store, they're the only place I've seen a deep stock of Pathfinder product beyond hardcover books. They may have the rare customer disappointed in an offering, but they're going to be at the super fringe end of gaming.

How do they do it? First thing to say is don't try this at home. Like most shock and awe stores, it tends to emerge over time, usually accidentally, but in this case, it was an intentional decision to grow that inventory and not to cull the herd. Part of how these stores survive is through attrition of ones competitors, growing bigger over the years as the others fall before your feet while you listen to the lamentations of their women, or something. This is true of The Sentry Box as well as Imperial Hobbies, but also other mega stores in the US.

As mentioned before, Internet sales are not as big a threat to Canadian game stores. As explained to me, it's more about the exchange rate from American dollars, duties on imports when you get something shipped, with shipping costs playing a smaller role. The Sentry Box has a price plus model, with many items marked with a base price with an exchange rate multiplier attached, that magic number taped to the front door and changing all the time. They don't even try to adjust the ebb and flow of international currency in their POS system.
Three Bucket Model

Finally, they own the building. Game stores work on the Three Bucket model I've written about, modified from the restaurant industry. After cost of goods, expenses go towards three buckets: rent, employees and everything else, with all three buckets being relatively equal in cost. Owning your building requires that bucket to be far smaller, meaning you can increase your cost of goods, lower your turn rates to have older inventory, or even have more employees (Sentry Box has 30).

So they've got an antiquarian bookstore model that has survived decades in the market, insulated somewhat from the Internet, and given breathing room by owning their own building. There are other ways to bend the expense curve, but they usually require tweaking your cost of goods (services, buying used, high margin items, etc).

What's Next? Go over to my Facebook page to see the public posts, photos and conversation about The Sentry Box.  We headed down through Montana yesterday, spending the night in a teepee during a thunderstorm (an experience, but an exhausting one). We're in Idaho right now, hoping to hit several game stores in Utah today and tomorrow. Then it's off to Las Vegas to sleep in a pyramid, a swing through Los Angeles, and a stay in a Danish village. Then it's back home. We're both tired, exhausted and missing home and there's not a lot of great innovators along the way, but there will be at least one more post of what we discover. I always learn something new from every store I visit, even if it's boosting the signal of something I already know.

Edit: For a great interview with Gordon Johansen, owner of the Sentry Box, check out this Manaverse podcast.

Before the exhaustion and the mud and the truck littered with X-Wing packaging

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