Monday, October 1, 2018

Shenanigans to Relevance Ratio

There are 400 or so publishers we represent on our sales floor, of which maybe 30 would make me cry if they suddenly went away. Those 30 publishers are relevant to me. It's not that the other 370 are irrelevant, just that there's always more product I could carry than money available to purchase. If I generate a purchase order from my main distributor this morning (which I need to do), I will see $10,000 of product to buy. My budget is about $2,000 (for the week it's $10,000), so I focus on the more relevant stuff. If you told me I needed to spend $10K right now on inventory, it wouldn't be adding new lines, it would be loosening the tightness on this purchasing. It's that easy.

Those 30 highly relevant publishers have a degree of shenanigans they can pull while still retaining me as a retailer. That degree is determined by my sales levels. A small publisher, with one game that sells a few times a year, is so irrelevant that if a distributor changes the code, I might not even bother looking up the new code. If it's out of stock, I probably won't seek it out elsewhere. My book is in that category for most retailers who carry it, so I regularly mention it's on Amazon, since they know how to sell books properly.

The more money I make off a product, the more shenanigans I'll put up with. But shenanigans is watched closely, as if it's in a debit column of a balance sheet. The more shenanigans, the more sales need to add up to balance it out. You can watch the shenanigans balance sheet and see the inevitable clearance sale in the distance. One misstep and it will snap like a rubber band.

For example, I really like Paizo and just last week dropped all Pathfinder 1.0 in anticipation of 2.0. For many retailers, carrying Pathfinder was in protest, as they watched Pathfinder PDFs sold online, a Paizo online store that discounted game trade product, and a room full of Pathfinder Society players who were using store resources while buying all their game products directly from Paizo. They made enough money to tolerate this ... until they didn't, notably when D&D 5 came out and there was a shift. The shenanigans no longer matched the relevance and the loud thud of retailers nationwide dropping Paizo was deafening, or at least that's what they all said. They did so gleefully because the shenanigans was epic.

Wizards of the Coast is the most interesting in this regards. The relevance of Wizards of the Coast cannot be overstated. It's the only publisher that's actually capable of shaping the retail tier itself. Store owners build stores around Wizards of the Coast. We spent $133,000 on expanding our play space, for Wizards of the Coast events. If Wizards of the Coast stopped publishing Magic, my guess is half the game stores would be instantly out of business, and the other half would be making major shifts, like dropping staff, and not renewing leases in the same location (they would choose to have less game space). Yet the shenanigans level of Wizards of the Coast is breathtaking.

Just to reiterate, they've dropped retailer margin on product twice. They sell Magic and D&D at near wholesale prices on Amazon with no concept of brand value protection. They pick and choose winners, offering products and events to exclusive individual venues. They treat retailers as their marketing arm, judging them and the exclusive product they receive by butts in seats. The ability to continue to survive as a retailer in the game trade is actually dependent on Wizards of the Coast, so it's interesting to see how many debits they can rack up in the shenanigans column before their relevance begins to falter. It's likely if they ever overplay their hand, they won't see it coming.

Some of this shenanigans was practically asked for, even by me. The barrier to entry in the game trade is so very low, the professionalism unexceptional, and Wizards of the Coast is now making it harder to exist as a Magic only store. That's good news for professional retailers! What's not good news is realizing how very relevant they are to us. Last week I looked at Magic sales over the months, single sales especially, which you would think are faltering along with our dying Magic events. I looked at how D&D groups use our event space several nights a week, and whether we could combine more Magic events on one night. I'm balancing my relevance to shenanigans ratio. For now, the relevance is still strong, but the shenanigans is at a level that strategically, I know I can't count on this company in the long term, and that is likely to result in a massive shift not only for me, but most professional retailers who are trying to make this ratio balance.

Every store owner should be looking at what their business would look like without a Wizards of the Coast. They should have cash reserves for when the shenanigans exceeds the relevance. Like I said, most stores will simply be gone, but the other half will adapt. It's the nature of the game trade that diversification within it is without it, meaning real diversification in the trade means not spending more money on new games and play space, but on different wares and a different environment. Give an experienced retailer $50,000 right now, and they're more likely to build a coffee bar than buy new games or expand their space. The relevance is high, while the shenanigans is more predictable.

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