Sunday, July 31, 2022

How 40K Works (Tradecraft)

From a store stocking perspective, the rapid advance of new products from Games Workshop is untenable. Thankfully, Games Workshop understands its own efficiency requires models to be regularly discontinued, much to the dismay of fans. New products theoretically release at roughly the same pace as we should be discontinuing old product, in a zero sum game. Figuring out what to discontinue is the trick.

Figuring out what to order is also a trick, a combination of skill and intuition. We have weekly releases, combined with a forced blackout pre-order period until the models are already on the train across the country. We generally fly blind, relying on past sales patterns to predict future results. Or we cheat a little and find a way to get informal or even formal pre orders from customers. This results in overstock as a way of life, or lately, ignoring releases if customers are indifferent, or sales patterns show no interest at all (Warcry this week). So how do we decide what in our 40K line stays and what goes once it's here?

Every store stocks differently. Also, every store stocks differently in their stocking lifetime. If you have a store now and you have a rigid idea of how you stock a line, just give it some time. When I first started, I carried a minimum range of GW stock. Three years later, with a huge store, with our local GW store closed and my main competitor retiring, I carried every Games Workshop model produced. A couple years after that I added Forge World from England, marking it up 10%, just to satisfy hungry customers. I was selling resin parts in display cases. At one point a competitor popped up specializing in 40K at a discount, and I pulled way back on my inventory as sales flagged (they're gone now). Lately I'm somewhere in the middle. There is no one answer or strategy. Local supply and demand drive my stocking strategy.

As a stockist store, I carry every required model. Are there ones that perform so poorly I would like to drop them? Sure, I've got five model kits I would like to dump, but I can't (three are Warhammer Underworlds). This is fantastic. It's $135 worth of product, which is a small opportunity cost for the benefits of the various GW programs. This wasn't always the case. 

Sometimes this dead stock number can be thousands of dollars. The stockist benefit to customers is you can always find a core group of models at a store like mine. Does GW define that core well? It can be hit or miss, but it's mostly a hit. Companies can define their core on what they wish to sell, as opposed to what actually sells (Privateer Press). GW, in its current incarnation, is good with defining a strong core. It works for both of us.

All the other stock must serve the local community. This is a hard pill to swallow. I would like all the Orks or Tau on the shelf at all times, but once my customers have had a chance to buy what they need, it's increasingly difficult to stock for the casual who buys from us irregularly. Keeping a "coherent collection" of models of a particular army often falls apart, if you don't have new customers, with new needs, constantly visiting. With events functioning, but the public still wary of gathering, my sales are great, but new customers are harder to acquire. This is a game that for a good percentage of customers, requires new opponents on large tables in public spaces. 

How do we know what 40K stock to drop? This is where sales performance metrics come in. Once a week I'll get a report of inventory that has stopped performing and I have to decide what stays and what goes. This report is overly generous, and if a title shows up, it's truly deceased. Those five core stockist items must stay, obviously, but 20 other items were deemed unworthy this morning, that should have gone. Five of those 20 were added to our online clearance section with some regret. 15 were given a pass, because I deemed them relevant ... for now.

So my store, and likely most stores, are going to have a core collection you can count on, new releases that are still fresh (this trade is "front list driven") and a collection that represents the current needs of their local 40K community. If as a customer, you shop irregularly, or you cross shop, don't be surprised if you find what's available makes no sense. We're using your sales patterns to predict the future, and with unpredictable sales patterns comes a mismatch of inventory to customer needs. I'm not placing blame, but this is what you get and I can't do anything about it. This is all we can do and it's why multiple stores exist, surviving on imperfect information (mine and yours). It's how I pay my mortgage, so certainly don't feel bad for me.

Friday, July 29, 2022

5 Responsibility Holes

 When it comes to remotely managing a business, there are likely some responsibility holes you may have overlooked. These are areas of responsibility that require, you the owner, and only you, to properly manage. We want to eliminate these as much as possible, to maintain independence. Here are a few:

1. Hiring a Manager. If you have staff and you're remote, it likely means there is a middle layer of management. Ideally this person will stay for years and give you plenty of notice before they leave. However, they could notify you of their two weeks notice at any moment or worse, get hit by a bus. You will need to come back from wherever you are to resolve this.

Resolution. Ideally you have someone being groomed as an assistant manager at all times. I say ideally, because it's common not to have anyone in line. Second choice would be someone who could manage operations while you return to hire your next manager. We have a relatively flat organization chart to where almost anyone can do anything, provided they had a little more access.

2. Security. The day after Christmas, I got a call at 5am from the alarm company. Someone broke into my store. Would I like them to call the police? Duh. I was 400 miles away. My manager didn't answer their phone and I put out an all hands request for anyone to meet the police at the store. Thankfully a junior employee stepped up. What if they didn't? 

Resolution. Ideally the manager would be a secondary or even primary contact with the alarm company and perhaps with property management. Keeping cell phone numbers handy of all your employees as an owner, even though you probably can't imagine ever calling them, could be critical in an emergency. From 400 miles away, I was able to arrange for a board up service to get us through the holiday weekend and eventually new glass. 

3. Final Paycheck. In some states, including mine, an employee is required to get their final paycheck their last day of work. No waiting for direct deposit; pay me now or may me my daily pay for every day you're late What if you, the owner and probably only person authorized to sign checks, is out of town? This happened yesterday.

Resolution. If you know an employee is leaving, proper planning can arrange an electronic rushed payroll on their last day. This doesn't work for someone fired on the spot, who again, needs to be paid right this moment. You could authorize a manager as a check signer. You could provide some check to the manager for this purpose, either blank or signed, or perhaps you could provide a cash reserve with a receipt showing final payment. I don't have a great solution to this. Thanks California.

4. Your Mail. It took me a couple years to start changing addresses so mail was sent to me house instead of the business.  There is still time sensitive mail that's important someone is authorized to open, notably your manager. For example: Letters from your landlord, government correspondence and unemployment audits, and one that haunted me for a week, potential lawsuits that require a quick response. 

Resolution. Teach your manager to triage mail, scan and email important documents, and generally take responsibility for your physical in-box. 

5. Supplier Invoices. During my first long trip of several months, the manager would take in orders, create a spreadsheet of invoices that we shared, and I would pay invoices remotely. Some were inevitably missed. How do you avoid invoice mistakes?

Resolution. Moving entirely away from paper, I now track every order in a POS database with a shipping tracking number. Generally, that tracking number is part of an invoice. When there is no tracking number, it means there is no invoice, and it triggers me to query vendors. Taking complete ownership of orders means fewer steps, fewer mistakes. It's also more work. This is great until a random order shows up with no tracking or invoice, which triggers alarms from staff, at which time an exception occurs, and we resolve it. 


6. Oh F#&* Budget. What happens when you need to fly home to hire a new manager, you have a minor disaster, or Wizards of the Coast decides they don't like your furniture?

Resolution. Money in the bank. Plan to have a few thousand dollars or more to cover your return flight, emergency glass replacement at holiday rates, or other eventualities. Maybe you can even bribe your manager to stay another month. Money will buy your way out of a lot of problems. 

Anyway, those are my big holes after two years of working from home. I plan to take my first long, international trip in 2023 and I am fully aware I may need to take a flight home at any moment. 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Agreeableness and Why We Won't Hire You

I am far enough removed from day to day operations to finally say this without anyone thinking I'm referring to them. The biggest reason a game store doesn't hire you (after repeated attempts), or let you run your volunteer event, is we simply don't want to work with you. 

A great number of our customers, more than the average business I would wager, are people with difficult personalities. They are disagreeable. Some will argue otherwise (they love to argue), but I do believe this trade brings in the more socially awkward and difficult folks. That's fine. We love all the misfit toys, being misfit toys ourselves. 

Game store employees are weird and awkward as well, but they have the added trait of being agreeable. When I hire an employee who is not agreeable, I always regret it. Being agreeable is an important personal trait for retail, just as much as being geeky and knowledgable about games. From Psychology Today:

Agreeableness is a personality trait that can be described as cooperative, polite, kind, and friendly. People high in agreeableness are more trusting, affectionate, altruistic, and generally displaying more prosocial behaviors than others. People high in this prosocial trait are particularly empathetic, showing great concern for the welfare of others, they are the first to help those in need. Agreeableness is one of five dimensions of personality described as the Big Five. The other traits are openness to experienceconscientiousnessextraversion, and neuroticism.

A good percentage of our customers, sometimes our best customers, are not agreeable. Being agreeable ourselves, we do what we can with disagreeable customers. We bend quite a bit in this trade dealing with them and their often difficult behavior. They say an employee doesn't quit their job, they quit their manager. In a hobby game store, if you ask former employees, they'll tell you they really quit the customers.

Something else to consider is perhaps 70% of our customers are male, and women consistently score higher in agreeableness than men. We have more men on staff than women, but this does mean that the average customer is probably not what we would look for in an employee, statistically.

"What about neurodiversity?" you might ask. People don't submit job applications like character sheets, so we generally don't know if someone is on the spectrum or otherwise neuro divergent. We can only go with our social interactions with them, and as everyone has to do every job, we envision them in customer service, often dealing with difficult customers. 

I want to be clear that some customers I really like. The thing I miss most about daily operations is the customers. There are a good number of customers I consider friends. Would I game with them? That's my barometer of friendship. Probably a dozen at least. I miss them dearly. 

There are other customers that are prickly, but I enjoy the sparring, the back and forth give and take. I wouldn't game with them, but I would gofundme a fifty for their cancer treatment. I appreciate their existence beyond monetary gain. There are some customers whom I feel I've barely survived their presence, that I've earned their business through painful social interaction. When I worked in the store, some of these customers would only want to talk to me. We had an understanding. Being an agreeable introvert, this is exhausting. Again, I still miss them. However, I wouldn't hire them.

I'll also mention that I personally like customers and even employees, that my manager at any given time, definitely does not appreciate. I see one side of people. Being a male store owner, I tend not to see unpleasant sexist or class based interactions. I have close friends who some staff feel look down on them, while seeing me as an owner, worthy of respect. That's troubling and I try to confront that. I am not the arbiter of cool, but as an employer, I can choose who I will work with. It's a small group of agreeable people.

I don't always hire agreeable people, but when they're not agreeable, they have a strong skillset I need. That's my advice to you, disagreeable one. Find a field that values you well beyond this one personality trait. I came from IT, a field populated quite often with disagreeable people. It was some good training for owning a game store.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

New Adventures

It is time I've made some changes. Since July, 2007, I've been writing blog posts about gaming and the game trade. It started as a place to share thoughts, but it turned into a book and so much more. 

 I have learned a tremendous amount through the give and take this dialogue has provided. Certainly I am not the best game store owner, but I'm probably the best person to report on the topic. I want to continue that in a new way. 

For four years, we've been planning a return to Mexico. We spent several months on the road through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras in 2018 and we've been yearning to return. I'm on day 1,022 of online Spanish lessons. This will be a five year mission to explore Mexico. To seek a new life in a new civilization. 

For me this is remote work, managing the store while on the road. This is going to be exciting! It would take very little for me to have to drop everything and fly home. The plan has a lot of inherent failure points, the biggest being "rigs" big enough to live in are also too big for a lot of Mexico. It's going to be tight! 

This might be a fiasco and if you join me, you'll have a front row seat, including the challenges of true remote business management, where you can't drive 30 minutes to your business to fix a problem. 

The schedule is six months on the road, six months off, so there will be fun travel interspersed with damage control, if any, back home. Where in Mexico? All of it. We have 152 Pueblos Magicos sites we want to visit plus some bonus UNESCO world heritage destinations. I imagine we'll also take suggestions. 

I want to use something like Patreon for subscribers. I'll continue to write regularly for Patreon members, and occasionally still post publicly, so I don't disappear completely, but I'm kinda done with this. Using a somewhat private platform will allow for a lot more detail of the "challenges" of day to day management. 

There will be photos and video, and a Youtube channel would be a natural place to deposit older content after Patreon members get it first. There are thoughts that a book might be be derived from this, although it may not be game trade specific. I could imagine ancient culture interspersed with "store on fire" stories. 

Although money will be tight, I'm not doing it for the money. I'm naturally going to write anyway, either for the book or for Patreons. It's what I do. My financial "offset" for this trip is about $1,000 a month, meaning that's what it costs me to maintain my life back home AND travel. I'm not going to get that in subscriber fees, but it would be nice to offset costs while creating content. It would be even better to use subscriber money to do cooler things or buy things like camera gear or a desperately needed new laptop. 

Thanks for reading this far! Please post your thoughts. I'm not one for "begging" for money, and I haven't set anything up at all. I have no experience in the subscriber model, other than what we did with Kickstarter. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments. My Facebook page Owlbear Adventures documents some of the technical elements of the trip since April of last year. We leave the first half of 2023.