Monday, July 10, 2017

Ordering Board Games (Tradecraft)

I banged out a post on Facebook over the weekend that store owners appreciated, so here's an expanded and cleaned up version of how I order board games. It goes more into my thinking process of why I do what I do.

What distinguishes board game ordering from every other type of ordering is new board games are almost always not that new. What I mean is they've been out in the wild. People have played these games, reported back their thoughts, and there's a general consensus about its quality and value. Many games are derived from Kickstarter, so I also need to determine if the market is big enough, too big, or if there's artificial hype related to this.

Nothing else in the game trade is like this. If I want to order a new Magic set or new RPG book, there are very few people who have touched this product before me.  Being a buyer for board games is a bit like playing catch up, even though the game hasn't technically been released yet. Board games are also tricky for new store owners because reprints are always coming back into the trade, yet distributors never mention this when soliciting for a game. It's easy to get burned ordering a cool looking game, only to find out it was released five years ago and everybody already has it. There is institutional knowledge gained from doing this over the years, skills that both irritate store owners and insulate them from competition.

Below is my process for ordering board games. Note that although I have product knowledge and can sell a lot of gateway games to new customers, I am woefully out of touch personally, with most new releases. I also don't work the sales floor that often, so increasingly I rely on my staff to do the heavy lifting of board game sales.

Also, I'm not saying anyone can do this. Unlike games like Magic, there tends to be one dominant board game store in each market. If you are not it, you are not going to be happy attempting to sell board games. I struggled with board games for four years before the dominant board game store closed when the owner retired. It has taken my many more years to be deserving of that mantle.

We're going to pick on Vikings: Invasions of England as our example today because it was the first item solicited by ACD on Saturday.

Here's how I do it:

1. Solicitations. Every Saturday, ACD Distribution, my primary distributor, sends me an email. This email has everything new for pre order. There's nothing new on their emails throughout the week, so I completely ignore them. This one email is my key to pre ordering. If it gets lost or it's not worked on by me or my sales rep, bad things happen (ask me how I know).

I'll also go through Game Trade Magazine from Alliance and pick out things ACD is not carrying (since Alliance is my secondary). Then my GTS rep will call to tell me about some exclusive they've cornered or a game he thinks isn't getting enough attention. So three distributors all wanting to sell me generally the same stuff, along with emails from a few more. If I'm certain of a hit and supply or release date is in question, I may order the same game from all three.

I pre-order everything I will want in my store. Everything. Let me mention one more time, absolutely everything that comes into my store was on pre order. It means when distributors get allocated product, they first fulfill their pre orders and then divvy up what's left. All the complaining about being allocated comes from people in the divvy pool. My fill rate on allocated product is close to 100%. There's a caveat to that though. Because I only order a 30 day supply, I generally order reasonable amounts. If I had a robust demo program and was ordering a hundred or more copies, I would likely not get my full request. So stores that don't do the right thing, as in not pre ordering, are punished by the system along with alpha stores who do everything right. I'm in the middle for now.

2. Research: Ranking. I hate to say it, but I rely on boardgamegeek for most of my information. So do buyers at distributors. I'll go on boardgamegeek and look at the ranking. Ugh, that game looks terrible, or wow, that designer has a LOT of friends. This means ... something, like the Richard Dreyfuss mashed potatoes scene from Close Encounters.
Like the Vikings game above, a game with many rankings in the "8" territory is a good sign. A small number of rankings is meaningless. A huge number of rankings is a warning sign the market may be saturated, usually reserved for a Kickstarter game that's getting a reprint for distribution, or something similar.  The 8.68 Vikings game above has 46 ranks. That's not bad. You have my attention. Anything below a 7.5 is not a win in this category. It doesn't mean I don't order it, but I'll need more positive information.
Note on Kickstarter rankings: There is the belief that Kickstarter games have a strong confirmation bias when it comes to rankings. This means customers who backed this game, bought into the hype, waited a year, and then finally got their game, tend to rank their games higher than something they just bought off the store shelf. I might knock off half a point for that. 

3. Research: Desirability. I'll look at the desirability stats for this game. How many people have it? How many people want it? This is far more important than a ranking really. That's because rankings on boardgamegeek are a bit elitist and many popular games are not well ranked. Munchkin has a 5.95 on boardgamegeek and 1,200 people still want 15 year old Munchkin. 361 people want Vikings so that's a market I want to tap. 
Note that 5,425 people already own Vikings, a game that hasn't been released it.  Is that a deal breaker? For me, no. This game raised half a million dollars, showing it has depth of interest. If it had 500 backers and $50,000? I might pass. Around $50K is where I begin to pay attention. 

4. Quantifying an Order. Now I decide how many Vikings I want. This game has a very high ranking, which is a plus. It has a very high desirability, which is also a plus. However, it's $80, which is a huge negative. It's not that my customers can't afford it, it's that the higher the price point, the more likely a game is purchased online at a discount. 
If I had some early release offer, it would boost this number, but I don't.  I should also do actual game research at this point, and see if this game is a niche game, like a deep simulation or strategy game, or whether it has broader appeal. I think it's the former. 
I might look at how well Viking themed games sold for me in the past. It's not a popular theme for me, it turns out. If it had a popular license or theme, it would certainly boost numbers. 
If I'm really on the fence, I might post a link to this game and ask my store board gamers their opinion. We're partners in wanting to get them cool games from me, so they'll often chime in. Through a lot of marketing effort, we've built our private group to over 400 board game customers, so it's often a tremendous resource. My board game customers know way more about board games than I do, and I ask them regularly for help. 
So how many do I buy? First, I want to buy a 30 day supply. Why 30 days? That's my terms with my distributor. I want to sell all these Vikings copies before the bill is due. If I had COD terms, my thinking would be different and my opportunities curtailed, as I would need money up front to back my Vikings.
Because this is an $80 game, the number I'll buy is severely curtailed, but because it's ranked so highly, and it's so desirable, it gets bumped up a bit. I believe my local market will move through 5 Vikings in 30 days. Something else to consider is the publisher. Academy Games is not a big publisher, so my likelihood of getting a restock on this game, especially starting as a Kickstarter, is incredibly slim. 
Kickstarter games that get into distribution usually consist of a small print run over the backer numbers, so I will assume that I will get my 5 copies of Vikings and never see it again. If I have strong feelings about the viability of Vikings long term, and I have deep pockets (I don't), it would be wise for me to go long on this game and get perhaps a six month supply. 30 copies of Vikings. With those deep pockets comes the responsibility to better research this game, but with my 30 day supply, my risk and responsibilities are significantly lower. If I miscalculate, my 30 day supply might be 90 days, while the deep play might leave me with unsold copies of Vikings for years.

5. Sure Things. There are 30 publishers where the question is not whether I'll buy a game, but how many copies. Even a low ranking game (or not even listed game) from one of them is worth one copy. 80% of my sales come from these 30 publishers, so I don't mind going a bit deeper or taking a risk on one of their games. There are a ton of "dog" games from Asmodee, but in the aggregate, I make out like a bandit. Taking a chance on an unknown Asmodee game is still pretty safe. When I was new, I would have stuck with these 30 (once I figured out who they were) and avoided independent board game publishers, but I've learned if I want to lead in this category, I have to consider everything. 
"Everything" for me includes distribution solicitations and many games on Kickstarter. Although I'm highly critical of Kickstarter, I've backed 51 projects. I've lost about 10% of my money doing this, so a Kickstarter project for me instantly has a 10% lower margin. It has to be a sure thing. Because Vikings is obtained through distribution, and not Kickstarter, I don't need to factor in that risk (resulting in lower quantities). To really succeed with board games, I believe you need to be out beyond the bubble of the game trade, talking with publishers, going to trade shows, and buying games without someone in the middle curating your experience. You know, like alpha board gamers do. I don't do that, but I will in the future.

6. Social media. I'll pay close attention to my peers in the game trade AND my local board gamers. What is everyone talking about? Retailers have gone quiet over their scoops, because supply is limited and we are all competing for the same limited pool of product. I made a big deal here about Gloomhaven after hearing the inside hype and ended up with a single copy from my large pre order. 
I'll listen to board game publishers and give extra attention to specials. For example, if I'm given a month of exclusive access to sell their game in exchange for ordering a higher quantity, I'll often take publisher's up on that offer. Kickstarter hype is also important for me, especially since I'll back projects for my customers. They will now come to me to ask me to back a project, and I'll usually assume there's stronger demand behind their request.

7. Supply. When the game is finally released, I'll ask about supply from my sales rep and if it's low, I may up my order quantity. This is often my last chance to keep that game in stock. Also, a limited quantity means higher demand, another variable in determining stock quantity. 

8. Missed Opportunities. How would I improve this? I would be at the forefront of board games and attend fan conventions. I would play more board games to understand the trends and desires of my customers. I would have better publisher relationships. I would visit board game forums, pay attention to what's hot. I would most certainly demo games and be looking for games that demo well. We have an expanded demo library but it has a long way to go before it becomes an impressive resource. 
I can't emphasize game demos enough, as it trains staff and supercharges sales, yet it's hard to implement. I would hire board game specific staff at every opportunity (incredibly difficult). I would do more staff training, including paying staff to attend board game nights. I would have a bankroll for going deep when I know I need to go deep. I can often identify opportunities, I just lack cash reserves.
9. Results. We sell a quarter million dollars a year of board games with this method. I believe I'm successful in getting the hits in my limited, somewhat provincial market. I believe I'm paying attention to what customers want. I'm certain I'm missing a lot of opportunities, especially because of cash flow, but definitely because of lack of product knowledge between myself and staff (sales is a whole other topic). To be successful selling board games, customers need to want a game within my economic window of being able to obtain it. That's a narrow window that taps buying, marketing, and sales. The better I am at all three of these skills, the more I sell and the happier my customers. 

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