Sunday, February 27, 2022

Premature Proclamations

In regards to my speculation of whether the CCG market has collapsed, I can assure you, it didn't happen in February. The music continues and I'm not eyeing chairs.

We've seen amazing sales of Pokemon Brilliant Stars. In fact, sales are better than any set before. We've seen collectors come in to buy multiple cases at a time at full MSRP.  We've sold over 100 boxes in the last week, which is pretty amazing for us and we have half our supply in reserve. Inventory of a couple older sets are alarmingly high, but they're moving along slowly. Overall store inventory should stabilize in the next couple of days, after spiking once again with new releases.

Magic the Gathering: Kamigawa Neon has also done well, and back at a more predictable level. Magic has traditionally been steady for us, both in sales and supply. That tends to engender a bit of indifference. If something is easy to get and sells at a predictable level, regardless of your efforts, it goes on auto pilot. Magic has been anything but predictable during the last two years, and we still suffer from overstock of some of those sets. I predicted moderate sales of Neon, ordered a moderate amount, and have sold a moderate amount. It's a welcome yawn, from a buyers standpoint. I should mention successful stores regularly stock deep of sets with no concern for overstock. Having these reserves is a luxury I'm unfamiliar with. There is no Magic set that doesn't sell (eventually).

When I talk like this, let me assure you it's my supplier voice. I handed events to my manager in 2007 (5 managers ago) and haven't been much of an event cheerleader, and CCGs are about excitement and events. That's another department. As a buyer, I've decided to skip another year of the GAMA Trade Show. I was planning to go, but I'm going to pass one more time due to COVID concerns. I'm also hoping to conserve store cash. 2021 was about capital improvements and buys, while 2022 will hopefully be a conservative year where we pay off the remaining government debt.

My primary concern, in February, our second best month on record after December, is the inability to control expanding inventory. In boom times, which we're experiencing, it's a lesser concern, especially with large cash reserves. As I draw down my reserves to pay back my government loan, I'm painfully aware of five figure invoices approaching. The money is good, but the risk has increased. Cash flow reports are now more important. We're down to days instead of weeks, although we just paid off some giant expenses (taxes).

Is this a winner take all trade? My success pales in comparison to some of my peers, who have their larger stores even better dialed in. There are likely still stores cut off from supply and struggling. There are a large number of stores likely to close in 2022. Is it because of supply issues or something else? I think it's mostly about capital. Not starting with enough of it, not knowing how to manage it, not understanding how to leverage it, being too proud to acquire it. This is a trade where you don't have to be big, but you must be clever. It's an information poor environment and those who can get intelligence on what's happening are winning. If you sit in your silo and don't answer the phone, you'll be left out.

My job, the one I have at home, is more about managing capital than knowing how to sell games, but that's a modern development. I did my time on the sales floor and I wouldn't mind terribly going back for a while, by choice. I don't know where I would be without developing strong credit terms, having big buckets of credit card reserves and of course, that EIDL cash reserve, which I expect to pay off by the end of the year. I can tell you I've been poor, with days of cash flow and unsure if I can make payroll (I bounced it once).  I've been cash rich of late as well.  As you can imagine, I prefer operating in that rich environment. The stress of being cash poor is just too much. 

Monday, February 7, 2022

My Store in 2022

Here's the current mood for 2022, as if its going to last:

It's positive. 

We stretched in every way possible to get stock for the 2021 holidays. At our height, we had $70,000 of extra stock, at cost, in hopes of not missing what was likely to be amazing sales and a dark Q1. This was possible through copious amounts of government money and confidence whatever we bought would sell eventually. Inventory is opportunity cost, but if you're sitting on a pile of money that doesn't have to be entirely paid back for 30 years, what's an extra six months of overstock?

We did indeed have a great holiday season. December was our best month ever. Q4 was our best quarter, beating out Q3 and Q2, which used to hold that record until each were shattered with astonishing sales performance. Even another store break in, two for 2021 (three since 2004), wasn't enough to crush the spirit. Sales into 2022 have continued to be strong as our store is now different than before, with every perceivable product demand met and, of course, that pesky overstock. The quantity right now is $25,000. 

Overstock, in our case, is money we would like back. Overstock is normally extra stuff you don't need. That's not the case here. I run reports and there's nothing to get rid of. Turns are strong, GMROI says keep spending. There's actually very little stock we don't want. In a sense, the store has told us that $25K is not mine, but is rather in the stomach of the beast. It has no intention of barfing it back up. If I want it back, I'm cutting away muscle, not fat. The store dares me to come at it. It flexes.

This is a good thing! This is money well spent. Except I want my $25K. The result is a somewhat return to normal for the store. I'm no longer chasing product. I'm stocking leaner. I probably won't get that $25K back any time soon, it's there for the taking, over time, if I use my retail fundamentals. 

I am dissatisfied with a lot of people right now. I am coming out of my COVID crisis haze, despite it still going on, and wanting to make changes to who I do business with. I'm tired of excuses. Some of you have sucked for too long and I'm not having it. The money has become mine once again, not the governments, which means I take things more personally. I'm getting hungry and that's good. There's far too much slack.

In December, I made a list of the eight things I wanted to buy with holiday profits. Some of them were store related and some were personal, like a fully funded IRA or a trailer down payment. In the end, my focus narrowed to one objective: pay back the EIDL loan. That money is now "sequestered" in a separate account, the full amount of the loan. The goal is to live lean on what's left, maybe even pay taxes without a dip into the EIDL pot. None of my personal objectives can happen with that loan over my head. 

I won't pay off the loan quite yet, because honestly, we have COVID crisis points more now than ever. I've never been closer to closing my store down for a week or more than I was last month, with a staff COVID outbreak. Staffing is lean, and it only takes a couple minor infections to take out both shifts, and when I had a COVID scare at home, that would have left me out of commission, as the sole backup. I am a bit tired of it all, and yes, I know COVID isn't done with us yet. It's just hard sitting on a rainy day fund that costs me hundreds of dollars a month when the skies are so blue.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

9 Steps to Better Amateur Writing

I am not a professional writer. I used to publish a magazine, which had me writing a number of articles under various pen names when I couldn't get enough content. I've written a book, a masters thesis, a couple thousand blog posts, and half a dozen magazine articles. My total compensation, how I personally measure "professional" versus amateur, is less than $10K. However, the advantages I've received from being a half way decent writer are incalculable in my professional life, or lives as they were. Here are some tips:

  1. Use bullet points. It's a way to gather your thoughts without formal writing structure. It's lazy and easy. If you want to write something people will read, that's a bit "click baity" as the kids would say, include your bullet points in the title. Nine steps to better amateur writing. It's a magazine writing trick for content creation.
  2. Start simple. If you don't know how to write well, start with something simple like the five paragraph essay with five sentence paragraphs. If you can master this discipline, my bet is you'll write something tight and well reasoned. It's much harder than what I tend to do, but oh can it be a beautiful thing. Also consider writing in a more journalistic style, with the most important content in the front and less important stuff towards the end. Hit the facts of who, what, when, where, why, how and voila! I was the feature editor of my high school paper and slamming out these kinds of articles on a deadline was pretty easy.
  3. Writing can be awful. The process can be awful, especially if you're writing for someone else or writing with a deadline. Everyone starts writing in school, which means assignments and deadlines and stress. If you're an amateur, you shouldn't see a lot of deadlines. I find it satisfying and relaxing, provided I know what I want to say and nobody is forcing me to write it. 
  4. Popularity results in discipline. If you're writing for yourself and half a dozen people, you're less likely to worry about structure. You'll be somewhat self indulgent, like some annual letter you send to your family. Nobody cares if it's a paragraph or five pages. You'll probably not develop as fast as a writer because you won't get much feedback. Just keep that in mind.
  5. Less is more. It's true that what you cut out is often as important as what you include. Again, if nobody is reading your writing, it's easy to write too much, because there's no argument to win or point to get across. At a certain point you can write anything to any level of depth and you need to start thinking about your audience. My most popular posts are often the shortest, but popularity isn't everything.
  6. Your voice. Some say your writing should sound like how you speak. I don't know about "should" but I think this naturally occurs over time. I went from being an alright, high school level writer, to becoming a beaten down academic writer. I had to learn to write academically, formally, to get through grad school. Then I had to "unlearn" academic writing, which is too formal and standoffish for most people. This unlearning is where my voice as a writer developed. I'm not a great speaker, so you get what you get.
  7. Practice, practice, practice. My writing has improved over a very long time. I hope it continues to improve. I cringe when I look back on my early blog writings, when I was weaning off academia. Again, it helps to have a topic popular enough to get feedback on your writing. Writing in an echo chamber is a slow path to better writing.
  8. Get an Editor. My book is super clean and well written, because I had a team of editors. They pushed back on a few content points, but mostly it was cleaning up my writing. I want to be the writer I sound like in my book. I also have after the fact editors, like my friend Kent, who reads my stuff and points out my mistakes. I might self publish in the future, but an editor would be contracted.
  9. Revision. For online writing, I write a paragraph, re-read it, and since I don't have an editor, I'll get some coffee and come back and read it again with fresh eyes. I'll often edit a bit further at that point, but usually just a word or two. It's cheap writing to go with the free price tag and I'll admit it's written and edited to that price point. 
That's it! Keep writing and you'll slowly improve. Don't attempt to jazz up your work with fancy words. Write simply and clearly and if you've written something halfway interesting, you should start to receive valuable feedback. I hope this coming from an amateur is useful. If not, seek professional help.

Thursday, February 3, 2022


 I like the Yoda-like direct translation of Heraclitus:

"Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not."

 A cleaner translation might be:

“No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Meaning the river is constantly changing, but we also change constantly. This is truly the dilemma of small business. The environment changes. We change to meet the environment. We look around, prepare to take our next step, and the landscape looks unfamiliar. We look around and we don't recognize ourselves either! We constantly re-invent. We lack a consistent view from which to make decisions and our decision making faculties are likewise transformed by the experience.

Large businesses struggle with this by attempting to lock down that view. They don't want the man to change. They want people to fit into their corporate culture. Some try to create a corporate culture of constant change and questioning, which works to some degree. Some organizations that hate change (police and military), filter out those who question our subjective reality. I posted recently about complaining to a teacher I was feeling disoriented, at which he replied, "Well, don't get oriented." The man will always change. Large businesses also work behind the scenes to keep the river from flowing, but that's another discussion.

The river is constantly changing and you can't stop the flow. My store has done very well over the last year. Is this the river or the man? The retail environment has changed over the last year, and in fact is vastly different from the beginning of the last 12 months than from the end. My store, the man, has also changed, and I believe it is a fundamentally different business because of the transformation that took place over that period. Where does the river end and the man begin? That same teacher who told me not to get oriented probably would have responded, "Wrong question."

You might say you can't enter the river and return the same man. Its waters are transformative, restorative even. Water plays that role in spiritual traditions. Water washes away sins. The lotus of wisdom emerges from the mud. Fountains hold the secret to eternal life. You can stand in the river and question its nature, as I often do, or you can embrace its mysteries and step out a new person, ready for the next challenge... ready to cross the next river. Oh, you though you were going to get oriented?