Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Complaining Like a Millionaire

I like to point out all the shortcomings, double dealings, and head scratchers of the game trade, but I do so out of love. I've been tremendously fortunate to be surrounded by fantastic people, both my staff and in the trade. I talk about all the things I would rather do, whether it be open a Subway franchise or live on a sail boat and never wear shoes again. I have a rich fantasy life, made possible by those who literally make it all possible.

The stress of the holidays has made me irritable, short, and difficult to be around. I kid myself, because that's pretty much me throughout 2018. It has been a tough, unpredictable, and worst of all for my store, tight year. In a retail store, money is freedom, and lack of it is being asked to make something from nothing. I haven't missed an opportunity to let those around me know these things. As I see my staff transition, people come and go, I want to both apologize and again stress how thankful I am for those who do so much of the heavy lifting.

I'm driving down to Baja right now, where we'll relax on the beach and become bored with being lazy. I'll do some reading on Native American mythology, as well as read through the 5E remix of Isle of Dread. I've got a big D&D campaign about to start. In a week or two I'll write an annual state of the store post. It will basically say in year 14 we grew a small amount, we had trouble making sense of a chaotic game trade expanding in some areas while bursting in others, and we'll do great things in 2019 with a renewed enthusiasm. I'm too tired and sick for enthusiasm at the moment, but the thankfulness remains.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

People Gotta and Three Ring Circuses (Tradecraft)

What is a successful product? It's about opportunity cost. A successful product is one where you make the most money compared to other product opportunities. This is why GMROI, Gross Margin Return on Investment is a superior tool to turn rate analysis. Given your gold pieces, what inventory you sold to the adventurers brought you the most return?

There is a caveat that says this product enables you to continue what you're doing. Sometimes a product line is slow, but it enables you to continue selling something fast. Right now I would love to drop my Magic singles. Lacking any meaningful tools for performance analysis, it appears to be an area I would normally give the axe. I find it unbelievable the IT leaders in this field can't provide the most basic tools for this analysis. When was that card added to my database? That's enough to begin providing me data. I continue to sell Magic singles because it's a major part of my Magic Industrial Complex. There are singles, sealed packs, card supplies, events, and at the rate of player involvement, even snacks play a major role in the MIC. Cutting Magic singles imperils my ability to continue doing what I'm doing.

I was at a store in Alaska many years ago that sold games, weapons and porn. That store is still there, dominating the landscape. They understand their target market, and apparently there's no worry that weapons and porn turn off a particular segment of their customer base (they are a culturally resilient crowd). It does not imperil their ability to continue doing what they're doing. Meanwhile, there are stores in the Midwest that are regularly harassed for carrying Dungeons & Dragons. Myself? We just received these really cool Frank Frazetta puzzles that I had neglected to inspect very closely. Barbarians on piles of dead bodies is perfectly acceptable in American culture, but there's a bare breast I hadn't noticed. I sighed, said something about art and a different time, and put them on the top shelf of our puzzle section, setting the item not to re-order. That puzzle imperils my ability to continue doing what I'm doing.

Frazetta Jigsaw Puzzle Barbarian ALC Studio ALCRHRZ003
That continuation assumes I have a personal focus. My business partner once compared selling game to widgets, as in "games, women's shoes, it's all the same." For me, that's not true. Well, not entirely. One concern many of us have is losing passion for what we do. I just finished writing a 300 page D&D campaign, so I love that this stuff permeates every part of my life. I have no passion for selling women's shoes. It might personally make me wealthy, but I would dread going to work in the morning. Selling a 13 year old girl a starter box of D&D gets me out of bed in the morning. Explaining which of the six monster books we carry is best for what you're doing puts a twinkle in my eye.  I mention girl, because I love the fact this game, that has been such a big part of my life, is branching out into so many demographics. Plus girls are more likely to ask for directions, while the guys are hesitant to look ignorant. That this puzzle box is next to this paragraph tells you of my plight in this field.

So we worry about the focus of our store. When I had golden handcuffs from selling Yugioh, in which my duel terminal investment required me to put up with a loss of focus and really poor behavior, I was counting the days until we had freedom to ask them to leave. We didn't hesitate when the time came, it was days after we sold the terminals. Likewise, I see the future of retail being one of two things, somehow, laser focusing on your one thing, using every trick in the book, every promotion, every three ring circus trick to eek out a living before Amazon and local government regulates you out of business. That's one option, and I know a group of top retailers doing that thing. It requires boundless passion to continue doing your thing.

The other option is selling women's shoes. You stop focusing on that one thing, stop trying to up your value proposition in this one area, and shift to something else. People gotta eat. People gotta get their hair cut. People gotta get gas. It's the people gottta strategy. You find that thing that's immune to the persistent pounding against value employed by the publishers, distributors and retailers in the game trade and you instead find something else, your women's shoes. Retailers stocked up like mad on Amazon on D&D books this month because Wizards of the Coast cares nothing about brand value protection. Wizard's allowed their partners to dump. Distributors likewise dumped. Retailers are hoping to sell the dumped product in the first quarter. I shake my head and look closer at the people gotta strategy.

The problem with people gotta is it's not continuing to do what you do. Most game store owners can't employ the people gotta strategy because they are not retailers, they are game store owners, a subset of gamer, a value seeking creature that employs short term satisfaction with rampant consumerism. Bless them all. Just as I balk from women's shoes, game store owners would be unenthused and pretty terrible at running a cafe, or whatever other people gotta business they fell into. But most are also incapable of maintaining the three ring circus of the one thing. Most will fail either way. I want to both help them and encourage them to fail faster.

Which perhaps brings up a third strategy, of waiting for the retail apocalypse when the crowded marketplace of 7-10 times the retail space needed, finally gets reduced to a manageable level. But knowing I get little benefit when competitors close, I wouldn't hold my breath for that. I'll continue with the three ring circus, get the occasional thrill of turning on a kid to my favorite game, and fantasize about what people gotta do. Until then, please ignore that puzzle on the top shelf. It's art and it was a different time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Inconsistency of Commodity Experiences

When I look out the window of my store, I'm reminded of a story. I accompanied a friend to buy a new BMW at the dealership across the street. He did a Euro delivery deal and walked away with a date to pick up his new car in Munich. I went with him on that trip and it was a wonderful time and the car was fantastic. My own BMW, a higher end model with lots of problems, was costing me a fortune. I went to that same dealer, met with the same salesman and requested the identical car, with the identical deal. Nope.

The salesman insisted I pay another $700 for a delivery fee that wasn't required on European Delivery. But what about my friends deal? Nope. Can't have it for that price. To give you an idea of how car dealerships work, each dealer gets an allocation of cars each year, say 100, and they need to maximize the profit on each of those vehicles, which is why there's so much haggling and an attempt to get you to pay full price in a market segment where almost nobody pays full price. It's the poster child for dumpster fire retail. European Delivery, offered by a handful of manufacturers, is outside the dealer allocation, so they can sell as many of those cars as they want and it's essentially "free" money. Turning me down for $700 was turning down free money, in my mind at least.

I drove over to another dealer and I swear I've never seen a car dealer so overjoyed to work with me. I handed him a complete deal, with all the details, for an imaginary car in a foreign country and he would make $1,000 for his efforts that day. He would never see me again. I swore I would never step foot in that first dealer and it left a bad taste in my mouth. It's a taste I encounter daily, just by looking through my store window at that same dealership across the street.

Driving through France in my perfectly configured dream car (I ended up really hating it)

What's the relevance of this story? We sold a box of Magic the Gathering: Ultimate Masters to a customer. The clerk was unclear on the price, as it has been like shifting sands with us. This product was in fact, allocated, meaning, in theory at least, we are only getting so many and we needed to maximize profit based on market conditions. Even though the price was clearly stated in our point of sale system, the clerk sold it for 10% off.

Later, his buddy came into the store, and asked for an Ultimate Masters box like his buddy bought, with no sales tax. Pfft. That wasn't going to happen. No sales tax? That sounds like his buddy went to a competitor.  We rang him up and he was rightfully upset his box was 10% more expensive than his friends. He was angry, he swore he would never be back and said some mean things, and I lost a customer. He probably went and told all his friends as well. Nine friends more than likely. Or maybe he'll write a blog post.

Too much ketchup on your burger? Not at McDonalds.

There's two ways to lose a customer, one is treating them poorly through bad customer service. The other way is the irritation and anger that comes from inconsistency of experience. It's why people give in and just go to McDonalds even though the independent burger joint is often better. It's not always better, just often. Often is the enemy of consistent experience, and McDonalds may be kind of mediocre, but it's always mediocre in its consistent mediocrity. In any case, there is often a sliding scale of bulk CCG product, but there is only one game where we have this chaos of allocations and commodity pricing, Magic: The Gathering.

The shifting scale of commodity pricing and allocations adds a level of unprofessionalism to the game trade. It makes us all car dealers, makes everything negotiable in the eyes of customers, and lowers overall customer service. Every retailer thrives for consistency of experience. Wizards of the Coast believes these allocated products are a type of halo product that accentuates the brand, and they incentive their entire retailer marketing scheme so retailers chase these allocated products. The joke is they only care about "butts in seats," with their WPN program, but as retailers, we chase butts in seats in order to get these commoditized products. Everything about that program is designed to devalue the product while spreading the reach of Wizards of the Coast. It's great for them, but a terrible, inconsistent experience for everyone else. The halo has morphed into horns, trampling consistency of experience, and I think it's time to be discarded.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Fickle Store Owner

As a store owner, what really drives me nuts more than anything else, are comments like, "That's ok, I'll just buy it on Amazon," or "Amazon is out, so I'm here." These comments make me a little sick to my stomach and they're the worst thing ever.

Oh wait, that's not it.

As a store owner, what really drives me nuts more than anything else, is not knowing. When I accidentally order an expansion for a game I've never carried and it becomes a best seller. When a $25 map pack for a $50 D&D book outsells the book. When I can't figure out if Amazon is eating a quarter or a half or three quarters of a market segment, or whether it's actually Amazon racing to the bottom, or my friends who own game stores. When a long time customer simply disappears. When a group simply stops playing a game. When nobody comes.

Yeah, that's what drives me nuts more than anything.


Maybe what really drives me nuts is the apathy that develops over time because caring is so painful. Seeking the unknowable is an act of faith, and you can throw yourself off that cliff of faith or you can live in an agnostic world of gray. Deciding not to care is psychologically protecting yourself from heartbreak. It's building a retaining wall against the slow erosion of peace of mind. It's going through the rituals of retail never sure if They will come.

No, it's definitely the first one.