Friday, August 7, 2015

West Coast Game Store Tour 2015

I'm on an epic journey along the West Coast attempting to discover the best game stores in the region. Alright, I'm on vacation. My son and I started in the Bay Area, the baseline for what I consider excellent game stores. Bay Area stores are big, well managed, with lots of game space and great events. They have not been innovative in quite some time, however, and that's why we're out exploring.

Innovation on this trip has come in several forms. First, what every gamer wants to hear about, the cafe/bar model. A number of stores serve coffee and beer, or just beer. How they deploy this "third place" is as diverse as the stores themselves. Some are adult only areas in the back of the store (Guardian Games) while others are cheery family friendly niches, like Meeples Games. Some are hip and trendy while maintaining a vibe that can still attract families, like Mox Cafe. We've even got sophistication, in the form of the restaurant at Mox Boarding House. All employ third place theory in an attempt to provide customers a not work, not home place to hang out, socialize and imbibe.

Second, almost all of what I consider the best stores we visited do game demos. Why is the game demo important? It's what allows brick and mortar retailers to take a modicum of control over the sales process and actually drive interest in games in their area. As one retailer told me, if he can sell a couple dozen of a game through his demos, he's created an evergreen product in his region. Without game demos, you're just surfing the wave of outside interest or the slosh over from your events. Become the source and customers return to you. Running game demos requires adequate staff, something it became painfully clear my store is lacking. More staff, more demos, more sales, more control.

The Tension in all of these stores is making money versus customer satisfaction. It's clear as a store owner, that there are a lot of things that look great to customers that are retail illusions. Nobody is making money selling these things or doing these things, but they exist to draw you in, attract your attention, create a vibe so that you'll spend money on the 20% of stuff that you spend money on. That's pretty much how the game trade works, 80% useless crap or services you think are important and the 20% of stuff you actually buy and use. Which are the 80% and which are the 20%? That's the stuff retailers discuss privately.

It became (painfully) clear to me through exploration that our mid life (10+ year old) store was still operating on some survival, new store principles and was ready to deploy some of the concepts the veteran (15+ year old) stores were using. More staff, depth of stock, demos, and similar concepts were staring me in the face as obvious enhancements to our store. We probably won't offer concessions anytime soon, but talk to me in another five years.

You can see hundreds of photos of these stores along with much discussion on my personal Facebook page (all but one is designated Public). We have a couple more West Coast stores before we head into Canada today towards the holy grail of game stores in the The West, The Sentry Box in Calgary. It's supposed to be the largest game store in the world, but I'm hearing grumbling about Madness in Texas holding that title, so we'll just say "The West" for now.

We'll then head through Montana, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Central California (perhaps a store in LA as well).  We'll be looking for ideas, but the store owners in these places will tell you themselves they don't compare to the West Coast stores. They just don't have the demographic to support amazing stores.

Here's a photo of the front of each store with a quick blurb:

Eureka, CA: Nice store with a broad spectrum of hobby games and comics. Their RPG selection is a combination of the new hotness and old school games like RIFTS and Harn (not much indie stuff). Small and open about 35 hours a week to meet the local demand. — at North Coast Roleplaying.

Portland, OR: Wow. A huge store with a ton of miniature games and board games. The RPG shelves must reach fifteen feet. The CCGs get their own grotto. Several private rooms are just big enough for an RPG session. They've got a bar in the back, open in the evening and closed to minors. The manager, Scout, was welcoming and she talked about how they built out this new location a couple years ago. They've been around over 10 years. — at Guardian Games.

Aloha, OR: My kind of store. Family friendly suburban store at 3,500 square foot owned by Steve Ellis. Warm, inviting with attentive staff and a broad (and deep) selection of what you want. — at Rainy Day Games

Seattle: WA: Family centric store with board games, puzzles, and a very small amount of Magic and RPGs. No miniatures. They've got a game library and their events include a kids FNM and a casual adult Magic Thursday. Great signs!
 — at Blue Highway Games. 

Seattle, WA: Attached to Card Kingdom, the cafe serves beer and coffee drinks but emphasizes the cafe aspect. So we have kids playing, groups of young women, families and the usual gamer dudes. It's as busy as a regular cafe with a game library available next door.
 — at Cafe Mox.

Seattle, WA: I had mixed feelings about Card Kingdom and it turns out it's because the store has been without a manager for a while, a problem they're about to solve. Their sister store, Mox Boarding House is a sorted out version of Card Kingdom. Card Kingdom has beautiful fixtures, professional signage, a large staff, and a vast inventory, but it feels like it's on auto pilot.   — at Card Kingdom.

Seattle, WA: This is a happy place. It's a hybrid game store-cafe featuring coffee, beer and sandwiches and like Cafe Mox, emphasizes the coffee. The owner Laura built it a couple years ago. There's good signage, a wide selection and a lot of happy customers, especially families. It's on a harder to get to second floor location, but we found it easily enough.
 — at Meeples Games.
Bellevue, WA: In the burbs, this place has a more put together, adult vibe. The manager greets customers and works to keep the huge place organized, straightening shelves as we shopped. The restaurant looks classy. The entire place is more open and relaxed. The stock is as deep as Card Kingdom (really deep) but it feels more cohesive.
 — at Mox Boarding House.

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