Thursday, November 30, 2023

Brands versus Games

I finished Dungeons & Dragons, Baldur's Gate 3 last night. I've played 322 hours of that game since May, compared to an average of 88 hours a year with friends around the table. I haven't watched a movie since starting this game and it has dominated my free time. It is an example of brand management, taking the game I love and managing it across various platforms with the hopes of turning that creativity into money. Wizards of the Coast's Q3 profits were up 99% because of BG3, along with other brand extensions, including Lord of the Rings Magic and Warhammer 40K Magic. Brand management is also at the heart of my professional problems. I shall elaborate.

I love games. Game designers are passionate about making games. Every successful company in this trade has found a balance between the passion of game design and the very difficult business of the game trade. Go through Shannon Applecline's history of role playing games and the same balancing act plays out, decade after decade. You can be passionate, but without business sense, you will fail. 

The problems occur when our beloved games are managed by large, corporate entities. These entities have passionate designers, at least at the moment of design, but the power in the company is with the executives, the brand managers. Brands must perform, more so than just smart business in the game trade. The game itself takes a back seat to the potential of the property.

Brands aim to extend, leverage, and exploit properties, previously known as games. Brands will take a rounding error like D&D, which we love, and coddle, protect and feed it just enough to maintain it in the public eye, in hopes of a more profitable brand venue. D&D is devalued, de-contented and sold at close to a loss for maximum peak public awareness. That's how you build a brand. It's also how you strangle a game.

This brand management sounds terrible, until you get a gem like Baldur's Gate 3. BG3 is successful brand management, which happily resulted in a great, creative game. It's the best video game I've ever played. It's a wonder of game design. It has made me better at tabletop D&D. It will occasionally fall on its face, but that's just game design pushing the limits, something tabletop D&D, intent on careful brand management, hasn't done in perhaps 20 years. 

You don't get creativity with place holder brands. With brand management comes vanilla brand self preservation. Real employees make money for the brand, while creatives are contractors, hired to write middle of the road, safe content, for when there's a need for the brand to maintain public awareness. It's pretty awful and the community takes up most of the slack in both creativity and on boarding players.

The modern game trade is dominated by brand management, not in the number of companies but in the percentage of sales by top publishers. We don't speculate so much about the content of the next Magic set as much as we do about how (not whether) Wizards of the Coast will manipulate supply.  We don't worry whether Asmodee will develop a great Star Wars CCG, because we know the fantastic designers will do a great job. Instead we worry how Asmodee's brand management will tank this game through various missteps that might keep that game relevant with consumers. I have no idea how popular Games Workshop's Warhammer 40K game actually is, only that my turn rates are fantastic due to short supply from tight allocations, under production, and channel strangulation. My metrics say it's a winner, so probably? Starvation can be mistaken for fitness. 

All of this has nothing to do with the actual quality of the game, only how corporations self perpetuate and maximize shareholder value. By the time a game player has achieved peak disillusionment, they are likely on to families and home ownership and other peaks of life's disillusions. This was stressed in a recent video by Matt Colville, who discusses brands versus games when it comes to D&D. As a store owner, I'm still here, selling these games, as a disillusioned brand champion, to the kids of the disillusioned. I shouldn't care, because the money is good, but as a player of games? It makes me sad and if dealing with the public hasn't crushed your soul, brand management certainly will give its all.

I am not guilt free in this charade. I embrace the brands just as hard as anyone. When 80% of my RPG sales come from 20% of my D&D product, I might still bring in a slew of indie RPGs, but who am I kidding? It's all about the D&D. I would love a miniatures game replacement for 40K or a CCG alternative to Magic. The truth is those brands are solid, even when the game falters, even when they load balance gender in D&D books rather than write progressive content. Brands can screw around and not find out, something small publishers can't get away with. 

Anyway, I shall now slink back to my corporate lair and prepare for my next D&D game, like the hypocrite I am. 

Monday, November 6, 2023

Demand Forecasting (Is a Lie)

My POS company, Lightspeed, is enamored with demand forecasting. They rolled it out as a test and have now made it a permanent part of the purchasing process. I'm going to explain why demand forecasting is a mistake and why it's dangerous for a buyer to rely on it. 

Demand Forecasting is based on some basic math. If you've ever watched a TV commercial on investing, they'll add the disclaimer, "Past performance is not indicative of future results." Demand forecasting is using past performance as a guide for you to spend money for future results. If demand forecasting used AI, or if it actually used some of your past seasonal data, it may have merit. Instead, it's using some basic math to say, you should really have 6 of these, because you sold 6 in the past. 

I'm going to explain this simply, as if you were a software developer at a point of sale company, this is not how buyers buy product. Product comes in hot and cools off over time. The fact I sold a bunch of new product, is no indication I'll continue at that pace. It's almost guaranteed this won't happen. A good demand forecasting program would understand a trend in sales.

Demand forecasting is also not supply forecasting. The system has no idea how to calculate these variables:

  • Seasonal Stock. Am I going into or coming out of a busy season? A good demand forecasting system could look back over a year and perhaps know. 
  • Safety Stock. The Fantasy Flight Games solution to out of stock situations is to always have more on hand. A POS system doesn't know what stock is safety stock. This is stock to have on hand to avoid outages, because reasons.
  • Flash Stock. Much of our sales in this trade includes items that come out hot and peter down to slower sales very quickly, like collectible card games. Understanding that I will not have sales levels of days 1-30 of a Magic release in days 31-60 should be part of demand forecasting.
  • Space. There is often no consideration for space available in demand forecasting. My demand forecasting POS suggested I order 50 cases of Mexican Coke, based on past sales. Where the hell am I going to put 50 cases of Coke? Getting it weekly makes a lot more sense than a 30 day supply.
  • Budget. Of course, the biggest problem with demand forecasting is it will suggest you obtain an optimal stock level, without knowing your budget. It doesn't integrate with an Open to Buy spreadsheet. It doesn't know you're saving up for a big release.
So did I try demand forecasting? I did! I realized demand forecasting is a perfect representation of what I should have ordered a month ago. Demand forecasting is a look back, a score card for your previous purchasing. Until it has artificial intelligence involved, where it can look at larger periods of your sales, and perhaps work its way into the Internet to provide intelligence, it's really more of a gimmick. If it had AI, it would be amazing. Imagine a system that could do that! Instead we get some basic formulas using limited data that look backwards instead of forwards.

Don't get suckered into demand forecasting. It would be like using a self driving car that only had cameras in the back. If you're using Lightspeed, I suggest you open a ticket and tell them to get rid of this clutter.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Magic Pricing Experiment

While sitting in my RV in Mexico, I came upon an idea that probably wouldn't have occurred to me, if I were closer to my store. What if I took this pretty much dead, Magic product from 2020-2022 and sold it at market prices? It wasn't selling at all and was starting to clog up my inventory reports. The stuff was dead, so why not try? What did I have to lose?

Market prices for a lot of this stuff range from well below cost to slightly over cost. Putting it on sale, in store only, would hopefully get it off my reports and perhaps bring in some extra cash that I wasn't realizing. My big hope was flippers would take notice, buy my Magic, and re-sell it online; something we should be doing ourselves. I have three people who watch my online store for discount Warhammer product and they buy it up within minutes of the listing.

The results after several months of this Magic pricing experiment were not great. Sure, it moved enough to get that product off my dead inventory reports, but not enough to make much of a dent in the supply. Worse, it tended to skew my numbers. 

If you've ever had a great sales month and your bank account is empty, it's probably an issue with margin. When Pokemon was on fire and sold well over keystone, I would stare at the income statement and not understand what was happening. Where did this money come from? We are accustomed to a pretty static margin, and adjust that up or down and we've been transported to a different universe.

What I think happened was I was diverting strong margin sales into poor margin sales. I was taking my best product line in the store and deciding not to make any money selling it. Is it possible I wouldn't have had sales otherwise? Sure, and with a true experiment with a control store, maybe we would have found out. At this point, I will be happy knowing all Magic sales have a reasonable margin.

No flippers took interest in my cheap Magic, although the customers at the lowest economic tier tended to buy a pack or two here and there. We put some booster boxes out on the counter at below cost, and the reception was lukewarm. The fire sale price of Magic is probably about half of the market price. Since we were already losing money, I didn't really want to just make a bonfire in the parking lot.

Then Wizards of the Coast announced a consolidation, a combining of Draft and Set booster packs into Play boosters. For stores, there are far too many SKUs and too many chances to get things wrong. This is just one small example, but it did promise to take two confusing, similar products, and combine them into one. Here's the important part, the Play boosters will likely be priced like Set boosters. Why does this matter? This inflationary move makes older product look more attractive.

If the going rate for a booster pack is now $5-6, Magic draft boosters, especially, have just become about 20% more attractive in the long run. It will take some time for this to be noticed, and time is what these COVID era sets need to regain some value. We'll start seeing Play boosters next year. 

My decision this week was to be informed by market prices, but not driven by them. I went through, and with the exception of Commander Masters and some truly dead Jumpstart releases, set my Magic prices at a margin I was comfortable with. My goal was around 30-35% and I mostly achieved that. A lot of sets didn't change, but the deep discounted COVID sets had an overnight price increase that was pretty substantial.

Two things happened. First, I started selling boxes at that new price and second, I was accused, by others, of price gouging. Yes, if you have been following market prices, selling at a loss and hoping to making it up in volume, there will be those who accuse you of gauging for attempting to get 30-35% off a product. It's not that they have even the foggiest idea of what I paid for it, only that it was cheap before and now it's not. They could have bought me out, but they were happy to make micro purchases well into the future.

To be clear, I don't expect these now sustainably priced packs to sell well, or maybe even at all. I am willing to relegate them to museum product. You can see them up on the shelf, perhaps buy a pack or two out of curiosity, but I generally don't care if it takes years to sell them, provided I have stability in my numbers. There's probably $15,000 worth of product like this, down by about 40% from the beginning of the year. 

I fully expect my dead product to return to the grave and show up like a zombie on my inventory reports. I have resolved that this is my fate. I am buried in the manure of COVID era Magic, and only time will convert that product into rich soil. With the help of inflation through WOTC, of course. Customers will be happy to buy your Magic at below cost (on their schedule), up until the day they chain up your front door.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Magic: The Supply Problem

How did we get to such a severely devalued situation with Magic the Gathering? There are a number of factors. I think we had a unique set of circumstances, a perfect storm of product expansion, COVID fear leading to a flight to quality, and an inability to calibrate supply and demand because of all the noise. It was exacerbated by a publisher who not only pumped out a tremendous amount of product SKUs, but likewise dumped it alongside frantic retailers. It is a closed loop system, unable to self correct, because of a publisher likely grappling with the same issues. Let's look at each issue individually:

  1. Massive Product Expansion. By looking at the chart above, this seems to have started well before 2020, when COVID made Magic a safe harbor. We've seen a huge number of sets, with an expansion of formats and specialty offerings. The end result, I think most retailers would agree, is overall higher sales across many more products. The problem came from how we ordered those sets.

  • Past Performance is Not Indicative of Future Results. Retailers ordered their typical amount of product based on very steady past sales. However, what we discovered were sales were split over a variety of products, with overall higher sales, while leaving us with overstock of nearly everything, as the average SKU underperformed. We were in new territory. We figured this would all work out eventually, so it was allowed to linger on.
  • COVID Money. In 2020 and 2021, many of us were in pretty desperate straights. We had restrictions on customers coming into the store, no or reduced organized play, and there were few sure things to pay the rent. Magic was pretty sure. In 2020, with my store closed, I made personal deliveries of Magic product to my customers homes. It was astounding they were willing to work with us and I'm grateful. Because Magic was a safe harbor, it was easy to not only spend money on it, but to buy deep. 
  • Safe Harbor. Nobody ever lost money on buying too much Magic, if you waited long enough. This is similar to the IT phrase, nobody ever gets fired for buying IBM. In troubled times, when things are chaotic, there are some safe bets out there, and Magic was a pretty safe bet. If you had the aforementioned COVID money, you could simply sit on any slow moving inventory and consider it a retirement account. Unfortunately, this situation continued well past 2020. I think it culminated last month with the near instant price collapse of Commander Masters. COVID money is mostly gone, both for retailers and consumers. Magic is no longer a safe harbor, but more of a boat anchor.
  • Variety Impeded Purchase Reductions. When Magic is a huge percentage of your sales, perhaps the majority, a reduction in Magic sales is a big reduction in overall store sales. Retailers have been attempting to fine tune purchases, rather than just stop them, because as you can see from my chart, overall sales are up. If you could predict the demand for each item, you could crack the code! Unfortunately, there was too much noise in the data, too many Magic releases of different styles and formats to get a foothold on purchasing. You could reduce your orders multiple times and still lose as the bottom fell out. Those years of steady growth had a very simple product makeup, and we're now seeing a lot of expensive experimentaiton.
  • Wizards of the Coast Was/Is Dumping. What hurt sales and the ability to get rid of overstock was WOTC on Amazon. The Amazon price becomes a benchmark. Some customers see it as a de facto MSRP, since it's the only place that has Wizards of the Coast is listed as the seller. Yesterday they were dumping Ravnica Remastered at below cost on Amazon, a set that releases in January that retailers haven't even been solicited on! There will be some who will argue that it's not WOTC on Amazon, it's Amazon itself, but it's happening on Wizards of the Coast's watch. They are responsible. It has their signature on it. When the publisher is devaluing product, selling at retailer costs, there is nowhere for the price to go but down. It's why the market price of so many products online are at below cost. In the race to the bottom, Wizard's of the Coast is the 500 pound gorilla shoving everyone out of the way to the finish line.
So what's the solution? Retailers will continue to attempt to fine tune, to order less. Wizards of the Coast is dumping product before its release, which is perhaps a sign that we are beyond pumping the brakes. I'm at the stage of just slamming on the brake pedal and letting the car go where it must. My holiday profits may be about weathering a much reduced Magic sales environment. If this were the stock market, I think my advice would be to sit on the sidelines with your cash in the short run, focus on your growing non Magic investments in the long run. 

Monday, October 9, 2023

Magic Mystery: The Elusive ROI

There is a mystery. I wrote yesterday about the disaster that is Magic the Gathering, however that is half the story. The other half of the story is the success of the product SKU expansion. From a sales perspective, this should be hugely successful, and the numbers say it is. Overall sales of sealed product, according to most of my peers, and Wizards of the Coast, is up. Looking at my chart below, on the surface, there's not much to complain about.

Looking at the chart, you'll see some pretty boring Magic years, a dip in 2020 because of a COVID shutdown and then 2021-2023. 2021-2023 represents the new era of Magic, strategy of expanding SKUs. We see rapidly rising sales and gross profits (although that's faltering a bit). Looking at this chart, we appear to have a win! 

The Mystery: Many stores have a similar chart. However, this is only half the story. This is a report of what sold, but it is not a report of what didn't sell. So basically, if you had perfect information, and knew precisely what to buy, there would be no complaints, no overstock, no unsellable product. The chart would tell the whole story. Data like this is all that Wizards of the Coast has from stores. 

The metric that best tells me how I'm doing with money I'm investing in product is called Gross Margin Return on Investment. GMROI for Magic is pretty bad for me. My GMROI is 1.6, which means for every dollar I spent on Magic, I made $1.61 back, which is not very good. Last year Magic was at 1.2! I've been grappling with this for a while now. 

A good GMROI is about 3.2 and my overall store is at 2.9 right now, no doubt pulled down by the low GMROI of my top brand. My store is fine, with Magic at around 30% of sales, but imagine if Magic is most of your sales. You might be looking for a job, while sitting on a stockpile of what would have been your retirement just five years ago. With the exception of the legendary Fallen Empires, nobody ever lost money with too much Magic, until now (Fallen Empires is at $550 a box, btw).

As a side note, My Lorcana GMROI, a game in which I possess not a single piece of stock, is the best in the entire store at 323. It would be nice if these two companies could find some middle ground when it comes to production.

The Solution: With a low GMROI for Magic, and high sales, you have large sales numbers, but you need all that money to pay the inventory bills for the (near worthless) product you have in the back. Rather than just complain about this, you can see there's an opportunity in the numbers. If retailers can crack the code of buying the correct amount of inventory, we'll see the same sales levels but better GMROI numbers. That means more profit, rather than great sales, but layoffs. I can imagine where bean counters at WOTC might not understand this, because they only have the sales data. They can't see the overstock as they don't collect that data from stores.

The solution is obvious, you order the correct amount of product. Easier said than done. The problem is it's a moving target and the sales dynamics have changed. I can order less, but customers are becoming shy at around the same time. Prices are falling instantaneously, making them unwilling to take a chance. Devalued products don't sell at near any price, at least in brick and mortar, which is why they don't show up in reports as reduced profits. Usually you can see a clearance sale in the data, but there's no data if you can't clearance anything. 

It would be best if Wizards of the Coast took the initiative and did this themselves by printing less product, which they may have done with the upcoming Doctor Who set. Magic is lucrative and it's tough for many small stores, relying on a large amount of their income from Magic, to take the steps to forego potential income for the sake of a stable supply. WOTC should do it for us, sad to say. But they're no white knight in this battle, having been guilty of dumping themselves. Solve this mystery and we'll have a historical blip to look back on as this strategy of expanded SKUs pays off into the future. 

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Magic Price Collapse

I started my store in 2004 with the whispered stories of Fallen Empires from a decade before. Distributors, stores and even Wizards of the Coast took a big hit when in 1994, after a series of allocated Magic releases, suddenly everyone got everything all at once. The set was over ordered, over produced, and the storage costs alone threatened WOTC. Everyone vowed not to make that mistake again. According to MTGWiki:

After Fallen Empires, WotC would carefully decide how much of a particular product to print. It was a total swing of the pendulum. A formula was established by the Sales team at Wizards, and how much new product the distributors received was based on how they scored on the profile. How much the local retailer got was in turn determined by the distributors, each of whom had different ways of deciding how much of their allocation would go to the retailers. 

The last several years has been quite the Magic ride. It is clear Wizards of the Coast is not putting any restraints on their print runs. Imagine Fallen Empires, as a three year period of releases, culminating (so far) in Commander Masters. Commander Masters saw its value plummet days after release. I've never seen a Magic product sell alright on a release weekend and simply stop selling entirely on the following Monday. The market price dropped to below cost that quickly. 

Whereas I couldn't understand my income statement back when Pokemon was selling over keystone, I couldn't understand my income statement in September because I had become a discount seller, selling Commander Masters slightly over cost. Sales were wonderful, but where was the money? Both of these were new experiences. 

I do expect something to change soon, for no other reason than I can't afford to keep doing this; nobody can. A sell out of future Magic sets, much like how we treat Yugioh, would be more welcome than extra stock. The Yugioh strategy is to print a set, distributors take pre orders, stores get in their boxes, and within a short period, it is hopefully gone everywhere. Nobody wants to be caught holding. 

In the past, Konami would reprint every high value card into future products, much as Wizards of the Coast is doing with Magic, killing any secondary market opportunities. This is the Yugification of Magic. The secondary market, the activity of selling singles, is the "collectible" in Collectible Card Game. That's not my market, but I absolutely benefit from it when I sell sealed product. I'm punished when that market fails.

Here is a visual understanding of this problem. Below is a table showing the Magic products I have on clearance in my online store. These are all from the last three years. The chart uses TCGPlayer market prices, essentially the stock market for trading cards. This is an idiosyncratic list, but I think it's fairly representative of the market. Nobody will buy this product at just about any price. I have $8K of dead Magic inventory, and another $12K of Commander Masters, which hasn't been declared dead yet, but might as well be, as I attempt to sell it at a dismal 16% margin (well above market prices). At the beginning of the year I had a similar value of dead Magic, so this has not improved for me.

Click image to Embiggen

There is speculation Wizards of the Coast is attempting to boost revenue, possibly in hopes of selling the company. There appear to be signs of tying up loose ends. I hope buyers realize the damage done to the brand by this pump and dump strategy. When you overprint a collectible product, you don't just kill the value of that product, you undermine confidence in the market as a whole, collectible cards going back decades. Which valuable vintage card will be reprinted next? Where will the hit come with the next press release? It's why we're seeing long time sellers of singles, multi million dollar companies, exit the Magic singles market. The only one winning in this game is WOTC short term profits. The brand may never recover. I wouldn't want to buy into that mess. In fact, I plan to buy a lot less. The empire may be falling.

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Anatomy of a Time Traveler

They say a store makes money in the buying, but I think you can also say a store loses money in the restock. I run a front list driven retail store, dependent on new releases. However, I've never turned down a reasonable restock. The key to a successful restock is understanding the product. 

You cannot just rely on performance metrics, which is why buying is not an easy job to delegate. Buying requires understanding the meta of the store, the game, and the customer. There is a story behind every product and you either know it, or you don't. The more you know, the better your buying performance.

Let's take a look at a single product. It happened to sell this morning, so it's on my mind. Today we'll examine the Necron Chronomancer.

The Product: Immediately, you may notice it is a blister from Games Workshop. It's a special character or command option and it will likely be a slow seller. That's all I really know about the game meta. It is likely to go out of print quicker than a box set, so if I want to have this for the holidays, I may want to buy more than one.

How is it performing? This is the first step in deciding if I'll bring in another model. However, it is not always simple. Looking at the Sales History table below, I've sold one in the last month, and five in the last year. I see that I've sold 14 in its history, which tells me it's not a new model from the recent release. It's a steady seller. 

The Game: One thing I might do is look back at the history. I may have sold five in the last year, but did I sell all five, say seven months ago? Could there have been a spike in demand hiding in the numbers? If it were later in the new Necron Codex release, that may be the case. I may have a product where the demand was satisfied early on and now this was the last one, rather than the latest one to sell. The numbers can lie.

What do these numbers even mean? I'm looking at turn rates on individual items like this. In this case it has a turn rate of five in a year, which may or may not be distributed throughout the year, as mentioned. My 40K department has an average turn rate of around four, which means this model is well within those performance metrics. The Necron Chronomancer appears to be solid.

There are other inventory considerations as well. For example, there are many slow selling, underperforming Games Workshop items that are considered part of their core offering. I must carry these, if I want to engage in various promotion programs. I'll have a notation on the product code to let me know not to make the smart inventory choice, but rather nod to the marketing department. It all gets lost in the sauce, to use a Miami Vice line.

There are products that are often part of a collection or set that I want to promote. The Necron codex was recently released, and for a while at least, I want to have every Necron item available. Unfortunately, about half are out of stock, but I'll keep trying. If the turn rate on the Chronomancer were really low, like perhaps one, I might decide this was my opportunity to finally move it. I also might second guess myself and figure the Chronomancer might be good in the new codex. Since it took several months for this to sell after the codex was released, I'll assume it's about the same. I might even ask somebody.

The Store: How is my 40K community? Is it on the upswing or downswing? Our coordinator coordinates for a couple different stores, a relic from the COVID times of attempting to get events restarted. I consider that shaky. Do they have events scheduled for the future? Is the community drifting towards other games? How many starter sets are we selling (not enough), which often determines if we have new entries into the hobby or if I'm selling to the same people. 

With a Necron model like this, it shows long term success over time, but there are often times where we see spikes in a new model, then nothing. That community got the model they wanted and there are no new people coming in to buy it afterwards. This happens a lot with miniature games. It's where all our Fantasy Flight miniatures games are. We sell a ton of new releases, while the middle period releases are dead, and the starters barely hang on. Veterans will buy out the new releases, but you often need new players for your restocks.

How do you teach this? That's my big concern with anything I do. How do I transmit my considerations to a new buyer? Do my fuzzy, subjective criteria even matter? I believe they do. When I first learned performance metrics, I broke a lot of stuff. It turns out you need a lot of stupid inventory to support the smart inventory. But how do you know which is which? It turns out there's a lot of art to the science.

We had a manager who was exasperated at my 40K buys, thinking I was clearly incompetent as a buyer. I let her take a theoretical stab at the new release and she was picking inventory no better than chance. Customers were not making logical choices! My performance with the line is probably just a little bit better. There are just too many competing factors, including the company itself trying to outsell me. In these cases, it's better to hope for a sell out than a long tail.

It would be easy to error on the side of not buying. At the end of the month, you're rewarded by not doing your job with a pile of money. You can do that once or twice a year, if you need to, but there's a cost. My first attempt at delegating buying, during a ten week trip, resulted in needing to talk with the manager. "You don't understand, you must buy. The amount you must buy is your Open to Buy number. Spend all those dollars." 

Finding things to buy on a daily basis is really easy. The hardest work comes from finding new lines, new companies, new departments to expand into. I could very easily continue to buy deeper and broader hobby games, and my systems says I should, but I do believe my market is being served in that arena as best as I can fathom. I get better results nowadays with hobby adjacent products, like stuffies, pins, magnets, and yes, toys. All of these new items must be carved from the existing budget. All of these items are the first to die in a recession.

So back to our time traveler. Maybe I decide to only stock Necron Chronomancer one deep, providing me $22 (the cost) to buy a couple stuffies. Can I sell these stuffies five times in a year, like those Necron dollars? Looking at my reporting, my Toy department turns at 5.42, so I think the answer is yes. Then again, it often takes me a month or longer to get a solid Games Workshop restock. I might need what we call "safety stock" to weather the typical Games Workshop outage. Perhaps two on the shelf would be safer. I just don't know. Neither does anyone else.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Thoughts on Selling Your Business

I was talking with friends about selling my business. I'm not looking to do this, to be clear, although there's always a price. There are a couple of scenarios. Let's peer down this rabbit hole (again):

My Business Has No Value. Not my scenario, but if you have an unprofitable business, you're in the category of needing a liquidation value. Some people don't believe in the myth of profitable retail and think all hobby game stores are in the liquidation category. The liquidation value of a business is pennies on the dollar. Ten cents on the dollar for inventory, furniture, fixture and equipment (IFFE) is about right. 

Most (former) store owners will dig in, keep their inventory and sell it online out of their garages for years into the future, in hopes of getting 20 cents on the dollar. They have never been good at figuring out the value of their time. I once bought a friends store for 20 cents on the dollar in consignment, and it nearly broke me. I wouldn't have done it, except I picked out his inventory.

Your Business Has Some Value. It's a little bit profitable. Let's look at sale multiples. Do 3-5x your net profits exceed your liquidation value? Let's say you have $10K a year in net profit. You have $50K in IFFE. Liquidation will get you $5K, $10K if you don't value your time. You could argue a 3-5 multiple of your $10K net for $30-50K. You can see here that being just a little bit profitable will vastly increase your payout. Even at that highest multiple though, you're just emerging barely alive. 

This scenario assumes your business is worth keeping rather than liquidating. Buying a business in this fashion is deciding, as a new buyer, that you want to personally run this business. This kind of business is a "buy a job." It has little potential. It's a place to park your life or maybe the life of a child who needs to find their place in the world. The new owner would expect to take your current salary, plus that $10K a year. Living the dream.

Your Business Has A LOT of Value. You're living off it. It's your retirement plan. You're in the groove and can do it until you go blind or die quietly in your bed. This is my scenario (although not my numbers). Let's say you do $100K a year in profit. You have $500K in IFFE. Liquidation might get you $50K, which is ridiculous in this scenario. However, treating it like a real business, you might attempt to get a multiple of your net profits. A 3-5 multiple of your net is $300-500K. However, we have a couple problems.

First, finding someone to pay you half a million dollars for your hobby game store is going to be difficult. It would be nice, but it would be unprecedented for a store that's probably doing (let's say a 5% net profit), $2 million dollars a year in gross sales. It's not unreasonable, just unlikely. I do think the world is changing and the odds are increasing.

Second, $500K really isn't enough money. If you're enjoying your perpetual $100K a year in profit, $500K isn't going to provide you that steady income you need in perpetuity. Let's assume you can get a long term return of 5% on your new $500K nest egg. That's only providing you $25K a year in income, a far cry from your current $100K. 

The amount of money you actually need to replace your $100K annual income is a payout of $2,000,000. I have to say a one year payout of your gross is a multiple that's thrown around, but it's way more than five years of your net. You better have a turn key operation and that key better be made of unobtainium. You aren't likely to find such a generous buyer. So clearly, a profitable business, providing you the money you need, is never going to be worth selling. However...

You Need Out. Nothing lasts forever. You've simply had enough and want to do the next thing. Or your health is failing. You are ready to retire. You have made some missteps. You need to sell it. In my case, I will eventually have social security income, retirement savings, and probably a small inheritance. I might decide I have enough and don't mind my $25K extra a year in exchange for my time back. You can also see that putting more money into this monster is probably the wrong choice when there are other retirement investments available.

There may come a time when I'm ready, but I might not be prepared. In fact, the longer I wait, the less likely I'll be prepared. This is very dangerous, because it not only takes time to sell a business, the reasons you might want to sell it, such as the business not doing so great because of your distractions, can greatly impact that business value. Drop down from highly profitable to break even and our pay day becomes a fire sale. 

My impression is that after decades of fostering the business, you have to get out while on top, but also at a time of your liking. You have to sell the cash cow while it's still in good health, not when it's forgotten out in the pasture. When you have to sell it, is when you look around at what's possible. A $500K graduated inventory reduction sale might be the payday you're looking for. 

You might start courting potential buyers years in advance. You may decide to hand it to your heir, who may require years of training and experience. At the moment I have a key man insurance policy that will give those around me a fighting chance at making the business work without me. So if you've got this profitable business, you're walking a knife edge here. Nobody can possibly give you what it's worth. Finding a buyer who will pay you less than it's worth is a time consuming challenge that seems foolish considering your current circumstances.

As a small business owner, it's just another thing you need to think about.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Why Turn Rates Lie (Tradecraft)

A friend noticed my comment yesterday about how my CCG turn rates went from 18 to 4, over the last several years. He lamented that must have been difficult to deal with. Yes and no. The problem with talking about turn rates is in the name, it is a measure of something happening. But what's happening?

Turn rates are the number of times in a year you turn over, or sell through your inventory. So we're dealing with two numbers here. We have the inventory value and the sales velocity. It's fine if your inventory is stable, but what happens when your inventory is expanding or shrinking? 

My inventory value of CCGs in 2023 is roughly three times what it was in 2020 (my sales are not three times higher, and we'll get into that). So maybe my 2023 turns should be a COVID adjusted 6, instead of 4 (18 divided by three). A turn rate is a nice data point, something to keep in mind, one variable among several. It can be deceptive though. 

I should mention we sell almost twice as much CCG product in 2023 than in 2020, which has transformed the store and my life. But as I mentioned we have three times the inventory, which is way too much.

Rather than look at turn rates, a more accurate view of what's going on is Gross Margin Return on Investment. GMROI was something I would rarely calculate before my new POS system, because it was cumbersome. However, my new reporting package crunches those numbers for me, without having to ask. GMROI says that for every dollar you spent, you got X dollars in return. 

The first time I crunched the GMROI numbers myself, I realized I was getting a 65 cent return on every dollar I spent on chess sets. That was a much clearer reason to dump that category from my store than say, a turn rate of 1.5. I now carry just a handful of chess sets. GMROI is a much clearer lost opportunity. 

My overall store GMROI is 2.92. This is alright, but not great. A good GMROI, according to articles I've found (because we don't talk about this number in the game trade) is 3.2 or higher. I don't know of a game trade specific value. 2.92 means we have room for improvement, and the biggest area for room is ... you guessed it, CCGs. 

My GMROI score for CCGs is a sad 2.17. Basically, all the same categories with poor margin (calculated in the last post) showed up with below average GMROI scores. However, CCGs is by far, the worst offender. Like a lot of stores (and distributors), I'm sitting on a ton of CCG product from the last three years. 

Because we're all in the same boat, with the same CCG product that needs to be dumped, there is little opportunity to quickly liquidate that product. It is often sold well below cost online. I'm primarily talking about Magic: The Gathering. The game has seen a shift in strategy, production volume, and product variety. Many stores are trying to unwind this experiment. 

What this means for a purchasing budget, meaning how stores spend, how distributors spend, and what happens to people trying to sell to stores and distributors games, is a slowdown. We will all slowly unwind this product, because there is no quick selling of a universally dead product, other than a dumpster fire. It is broadly recognized as trash (even when it's objectively good). 

Those of us who can't unwind their inventory might fail, and I'm certain some already have. It's one thing to personally over order and make a mistake, but when an industry over orders and makes a mistake, the effects will ripple outwards and it will gum up the works. I will buy less, distribution will buy less, and publishers of games, who having nothing to do with Magic: The Gathering, will feel the effect as orders decline. Even if we did get rid of this stuff, we have been left a little impoverished and gun shy as a result. And that's how the post COVID boom ended. 

Friday, September 22, 2023

Margins (Tradecraft)

Your sales are strong, but your profits aren't where you want them. Margin may be to blame. Strong POS reporting can help you determine weaknesses. Likewise, you may find yourself with a perplexing abundance of cash, and margin may get the nod for that success, once you identify it. I'm questioning margin this morning, so where do I look?

The first thing is trends. My margin this month is no different than my three year average. I'm probably fine, or if I'm not fine, I'm no worse than average. If you don't have a fancy reporting package, you might have to crunch some numbers to get this data. I have this calculated on my Open to Buy spreadsheet as well.

Next is individual departments. I might be hitting my average when it comes to margin, but I feel like some of my departments are under performing. I feel a disturbance in The Force. Let's take a look:

In this case I've massaged my numbers and added some color. The green departments are doing pretty well, above average of around a 45% gross margin. Some of this is a lie. For example, my puzzles with a 51% gross margin don't include shipping charges, which are often part of purchasing. I offset those when possible. Dice include non inventoried loose dice with no cost associated with them, which can boost the reported margin. Statistics are lies, but if you know which ones you can and can't trust, they're still useful.

Of all the colors, the blue departments are most irksome. CCG Supplies should generally be a high margin department. However, we've had a bit of a purge, and with a clearance sale comes a hit to margin. Board games are in the same category, a perpetual cavalcade of clearance. The question there is should I order fewer board games? I decided several months ago I should be more cautious, but that's not reflected in the numbers yet. 

I have a strong FOMO instinct when it comes to board games, mostly because I'm not a board gamer and don't want to miss a chance. We sell 700 board games and none sell more than 100 copies in a year. I have a strong Bilbo Baggins feel about my board game.

Finally we have the red departments, the problem children. CCGs are commodity priced, so I see their low margin as systemic, part of the deal. I don't sell singles or lump "events" into this category, which could raise margins. This is systemic for many stores, part of their deal. I was also hurt by selling Commander Masters at market prices, which is pretty much a fire sale. CCG margin has held up pretty well, regardless, if you can accept those numbers. A diversified store is able to sell CCGs at a 35% margin all day long, but a card shop? You better have volume and low overhead.

Miniature Games are a bit vexing, as it feels like sales are primarily comprised of new releases and clearance items. Again, I've decided I should slow down on ordering some of these games, but that's not reflected in the numbers yet. We lack enough new players to keep these lines strong; they are somewhat static. We can't give away Games Workshop rulebooks. Despite a new 40K edition, there does not seem to be a lot of energy in the category. It's a tough category to crack with an uncertain economy, but that's probably just an excuse.

RPG miniatures have also seen a deep clearance of dead wood. I've dumped a huge amount of WizKids dead miniatures, while at the same time bringing in a ton of back orders that finally came back into production. The restocks aren't reflected in the numbers, but they offset the dump of dead plastic in sales.

To summarize, we want explanations, not excuses. We want action items, otherwise we're just wasting our time. What we don't want to see are perpetual low margin categories, if it can be avoided. What are some of my action items?

  • Price Increases: Boost prices on snacks slightly to return to higher margins (50% at least)
  • Diversification: Crack low margin CCG titles for singles. Commander Masters, for example
  • Fine Tune Ordering: Order about 15-20% fewer board games, maybe when you're thinking about ordering 6, you order 5. The biggest change would be to order none rather than speculate.
  • Stop Ordering Multipacks: Fine tune RPG Miniature ordering based on performance metrics, and not a sleeve of 6 of everything. I order a six pack of paints from one company that doesn't require me to, because Games Workshop trained me.
Low margin is a buying problem. You primarily have a low margin because you're an inattentive buyer (blaming myself here). Sure, marketing could be improved. You could demo board games better to not have to clearance them, but low margin generally comes from blowing out dead product. You have dead product, because you didn't forecast demand properly. Be better at forecasting. Build a more robust supply chain so you can re-embrace just-in-time ordering. Get your sales team to promote fewer titles at higher volume, rather than a shotgun approach. Easier said than done!

Gross margin is also just one metric. If I look at a seemingly healthy department, like puzzles, what do I really see in sales? My staff despise puzzles, and they've been a thorn in my side, but they've been managed since COVID and have a turn rate of four for the year, which is really good. My 3.14 GMROI is slightly above average too. If puzzles were sitting on the shelf at full margin with a turn rate of one or two, that would be a problem. Margin won't tell you about those shortcomings.

Turn Rate


Then again, my CCG turn rate is currently four, but before COVID it was 18. Somewhere between 4 and 18 would be better. You have to have a grasp on what's normal and what you're trying to accomplish. Four is actually up from two at the beginning of the year, so I'm not complaining too loudly.

Finally, this is dynamic. I can't think of a time where all departments were firing at 100%. There is always a problem child. Try to not make it the same kid every time.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Off The Road Recovery

I'm spending time recovering from four months on the road. I'm not doing a long trip any time soon, but here are things that need addressing. I imagine you could get into a recovery routine, if you do this enough. Or maybe include them in your trip. Some of them could take some time:

  • Healthcare. This includes a much delayed trip to the dentist and a trip to my new doctor for a checkup. I'm getting older and with that comes some issues that need adressing.
  • Truck Maintenance. Ford called me on our way out of town to tell me a windshield part was ready. I had informed them they needed to get it before I left. They've been holding the part for four months. I also need maintenance like fluid changes. Since I did a lot of towing in the heat, I'm putting the truck on the severe duty maintenance schedule, which means some expensive maintenance like differential fluid changes.
  • Trailer Repairs. I had the trailer washed last week and before that the underbelly repairs were finally done properly. There are about 10 repair items for the professionals, and they might keep the trailer a day or six weeks. The worst problem is my refrigerator really isn't attached to anything. I'm taking the trailer to a reputable service center in Lodi, even paying for some items out of pocket that are under warranty. I want repairs done right. I want them done timely. The next trip is mid December. They may keep it until then. Who knows.
  • Trailer Storage. After repairs, I'll be looking for a new home for the trailer, hopefully close by. Most places are full. The ones that aren't full are expensive. I'm on some wait lists. I may store it far away while I wait for my name to be called. 
  • Reset Finances. I spent more money than expected on the road and at home. I need a full reset. I went from project mode, spending way too much money, to travel mode, spending way too much money. That must stop. I'm saving for a Spanish intensive trip using frequent flyer miles, but mostly money is going to the truck and trailer reset.
  • Re-engage with Friends. I missed my friends terribly and realized they are the glue that keeps my life in place. I'm visiting with friends, starting a new D&D campaign, and trying to get my social life re-started. I'm looking to see if any friends might want to join me for the next adventure, since Rocco will likely be in school. Besides a trip to SoCal in December, I fantasize about a slow drive down the 395.
  • What About the Store? I stopped by and had two pieces of mail to pick up and a short meeting. As I've mentioned, working from the road isn't much different than working from home.
I have some culture shock, especially things like the cost of gas and eating out. Gas was actually more expensive in Mexico, but between liters and pesos, I didn't think much about it. I've noticed a lot of empty restaurants, as others are probably in the same boat. We had lunch at our old haunt in Concord today, Spaghetti Factory, where my old waitress told me they had only one waitress during the week days, down from three before COVID. People are still working from home. 

I was building a trailer for a year before I left, so I'm back without a project. That might be for the best while I reset. 

Our next Mexico trip is distant, probably 18 months away. We want to start where we left off, include the Yucatan and maybe Belize. Perhaps Guatemala, although there are no RV parks there. We also want to do it during the winter. Summer is brutal.

I'm taking my son to visit relatives and spend a couple days at Disneyland over Christmas. We'll take the RV and make it an RV centric vacation. The plan was to do five RV trips to Mexico over five years, but I think we'll do two big trips to Mexico and as many smaller trips as I can manage. After the five year mark, I'll decide whether to sell the trailer and truck or continue on this path in some fashion. I have other travel ideas as well, including dreams of driving the Trans America Trail

8,640 miles driven on the last trip

Friday, September 8, 2023

Least Adventurous Adventurers

I work in adventure gaming. I think that best describes a trade where we sell games about exploring dungeons, fighting space bugs, battling wizards, and settling imaginary lands (my four store categories). We sell adventure, but we sell it as fantasy. Most of our customers are not going on adventures; most people don't go on adventures. Actual adventure is a bit repulsive to quite a few of my peers. Retailers seem least likely to go, due to constraints of time and money, and deep immersion into the games we sell. Adventure is often the trip to the next trade show.

My retailer peers fit into a couple fitness groups, those whose health you worry about: obese men, mostly, who you see at trade shows, huffing and puffing as they make their way to the next presentation. I have been known to huff or puff on occasion at a trade show. We worry greatly about these folks, and when they pass at a young age, we are sad but not surprised.

We also have those who devote significant energy into not being in the first group, including some fitness gurus who you'll find at the hotel gym at 6am. It's a sedentary hobby, and rebelling against an early grave is natural. We are chained to a counter and eat whatever (often cold, often fast) food we have available. I did this for nine years before I broke the chain. I use the example of the baby circus elephant, where they put a dinky chain on its leg and it learns it can't pull against it. When it's an adult, it's conditioned not to try. I needed someone to tell me I could break the chain before I could free myself.

I've struggled to keep weight off for years, to the point of hurting myself exercising. After I had the store recovered from COVID, I time where I hand delivered games to customers doors and worked long hours as the sole employee (an adventure for sure), I became an overweight, sedentary slob. I had a mental shut down and was just done for a while. I had no time to process worldwide pandemic, the death of friends and relatives and the imminent demise of my business, at the time it was happening. At my lowest point, I hurt my back from just sleeping wrong and struggled to get out of bed. 

My response was to throw myself into a fitness program, deciding I would get in shape, even if it killed me; and it nearly did. I lost 30 pounds the first year, but then hurt my back. I have a friend who did the same recently, and we both struggle with back injuries because of our over exuberance working out. At middle age, you need to be more careful when it comes to these things. We need more calculated, gradual fitness improvement, probably with professional assistance. But fitness or death, is not an unusual response at middle age it seems. Our self images are not easily discarded. Being told you're not fit to go on the adventure is not acceptable.

Our characters are exploring continents, while we struggle to move our bodies a minimal amount. They wield broad sword, while my arms get sore from wrenching on my trailer. This came into clearer focus on my recent trip. We were gone for four months, so a lifestyle emerged. I should mention for someone with a more active lifestyle, like my buddy, this was nothing, but for me, it was nothing short of an adventure.

While in Mexico, I failed to hit my "step goal" most day. This bothered me for a while, until I realized I was losing weight and getting stronger. Our life of adventure, setting up camp, tearing down, cooking and cleaning, and exploring 35 towns, a couple mega cities, and a dozen ruins, didn't conform to my exercise regimen. I did a lot of store work on my laptop, but it seemed every other moment of the day was about preparing for the next thing. The food wasn't always great, but it rarely left me feeling awful like the food back home. It didn't seem healthier, often just simple ingredients, but my health seemed to be improving. I wasn't the only one.

However, my son was not happy during much of this trip, as it dragged him away from his adventure gaming online. His online adventures were taking a back seat to climbing Aztec pyramids and exploring 3,000 year old villages. He has his own health and fitness struggles, so he preferred his adventure in a darkened room with friends.

My realization this morning is all these artificial fitness and exercise routines are, for me, about being prepared for real world adventure. I don't always climb Aztec pyramids, but when I do, I want to be able to without having to ramp up my fitness before I go. The oddity of being upset because I was missing my fitness goals while doing the thing, was lost on me until recently. I was hitting the fitness goals in order to go on the adventure. 

I now have to put up or shut up. I continue that lifestyle or I fall back into "training mode." I don't want to become the retailer slug of the past. Lacking another town to explore, I plot out my step goals for the day. I look around and wonder where the next adventure will come from, the elusive active lifestyle. I wonder when I can hook up that trailer again and head off into the unknown, to regain that lifestyle again. The goal is to take a wonderful experience like this and use it to transform your life. Until then, I've got a new D&D campaign to prepare for.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Three Quarters Edgy

I just ordered a book for my store from Indie Press Revolution called The Privilege of Play. It tracks the white male origins of hobby gaming from model railroading to the present, along with the discussion of how there's a denial this is the case. My grandfather recently passed, and his basement railroad was an inspiration for the family over the years. You can draw a line from my grandfather, to my fathers beloved train sets, to my own gaming. When I visit my parents next week, I'll likely compare notes with my dad on where we overlap, usually scenery painting. My son is an online gamer and we also find hobby gaming overlap in which to bond, usually strategies related to online games we share. 

When I ordered the book I wondered if anyone would be offended. I found the description intriguing, maybe challenging. Dipping my toe into the culture war certainly isn't my intent, but isn't it refreshing to be challenged once in a while? Yes, until they throw rocks, which happened recently with a triggered "customer" who didn't like we have a pride flag in the window. 

Despite rock throwing malcontents, I've found that I'm generally more conservative than my customers and staff. I think this comes from well, owning a store. Small business owners naturally engage in risk taking behavior, but successful ones intuitively know where the line is drawn. When I start to wonder if I've gone over the line, the answer, nowadays at least is, "No you haven't." 

I work within an invisible box of constraints that has allowed me to be successful. Even if I can't see the box. This isn't bragging, it's an observation, and maybe I would be more successful with a bigger or smaller box.  However, I think the box has been "right-sized" over time. There are areas within geek culture where you can push the boundaries and areas left well enough alone .. and they've changed dramatically in twenty years.

Getting back to my book, the reality of this book and all the various meta books I love to bring into my store is they sell poorly. I have a section called "Better GMing," which accounts for the slowest department amongst my role playing books. Most people just want to have fun, something important to remember. A few of us, and I know your names, also want to explore the meaning of that fun. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

10 On The Road Thoughts

I've been traveling through Mexico for three months, with a week left before traveling back to the US. We'll be crossing over in Eagle Pass, Texas, but being a Californian, I still have 1,700 miles to go (at around 300 miles a day). I have some thoughts for living and traveling on the road, especially here in Mexico. Here's a brief list:

  1. Are you living in or out of your RV? My goal was to experience as much culture as I desired, while also having a home as a refuge. That home could be a nice hotel room or in my case, a new RV. If you have a small RV (a van here is ideal) or a small budget for a cheap room, you're probably living out of your accommodations. You spend as little time there as possible. You might go small as a strategy to force yourself outside, but I didn't want to take that chance with my kid and months away at a time. If you have nice accommodations or a larger RV, you can live in it. If I have adequate power, my experience in my RV is the same in a beautiful mountain town as it is in a Wal-Mart parking lot. With size comes problems, so it's no free lunch. Decide which of these appeals to you. My advice, go small and spend your money on language improvement. Being outside and talking with people is key.
  2. Who is Going? I originally planned on a truck camper, a much smaller option. The main problem was nobody I know would want to live in a 35 square foot tiny home with me, at least not for months at a time. I looked at who would come with me, and what I would need to entice future travelers. Eventually I decided I wanted all the comforts of home, just in case the outside world wasn't what we bargained for. It has been derogatorily called a cocoon, a bubble, a box, but it's home to me.
  3. Telecommunications. We found our AT&T phones had 5G Internet traveling in the US, but were often bricks in Mexico. Starlink was the answer. It's not perfect; it drops out on occasion. Mine failed early on and I've been moochnetting off a friend. At no time was it so bad I couldn't use it for work. Just forget about cellular as a solution; it won't work reliably everywhere. However, I did buy a local phone, a Wal-Mart Android phone that cost me about $150 and uses local cell services (their BAIT network). It saved us when the AT&T phones dropped to 3G, usually when I'm using Google Maps. I sip data on my Wal-Mart phone, while my AT&T phone was set up to guzzle bandwidth.
  4. Budgeting and Money Management. Movement is money, so traveling to and from your main destination is probably the most expensive part of the trip. Slow way down. Also, save up for those times. In Mexico, you use a lot of cash, and ATM and currency fees are sometimes nuts. I use a Schwab account that reimburses me for fees and does a more favorable currency conversion. I only use this account for travel. I also use credit cards that don't have currency transaction fees; Capital One and now Chase are both pretty good. Nobody wants your Amex.
  5. Be Adaptable. When I drove through Mexico five years ago in a Jeep, there were times it broke down. When a battery cable came loose, we got to the next town when my buddy used a nail off the side of the road. In RV living, you will need to do home repair or find people who can. I'm waiting for the carpenter to show up today. Maybe he will, maybe he won't. I have nine items on my repair list for when I get back; none stop me from enjoying myself.
  6. Gradual Removal from the Workplace. I took a day off a week, then weekends, then a two week vacation and eventually worked up to 10 weeks five years ago. After COVID, I stopped working on site. What I've found is being prepared means there is no difference between working from home and working abroad. I do have a small problem with the state tax officials, who want me to call them on an 800 number (no bueno), but I had my manager send them a letter.
  7. Management is Key. Delegating day to day operations to a responsible team takes years. There are things I could delegate that seem to ask for it, but they're so key to the business, I keep them for myself. Learn which are which through trial and error. There should rarely be a case in which the on site staff don't know the answer. This takes years to develop.
  8. Things You Can't Get. There is very little you can't find on the road. I bought a new laptop before I went because I knew it would be a crisis if my five year old model failed (it had problems). It turns out there are unofficial Mac stores in every city. My list of unobtainable items are mostly conveniences, like Swiffer pads for my mop. RV parts and accessories like tank treatments are completely absent here. is so lame I never bothered trying.
  9. Learn some of the Language. I was woefully unprepared on this trip, with about 60 Duolingo Spanish lessons over three years. Yet, I spent ten days on my own without my Spanish speaking friend, living my life, going to the movies, getting work done on my truck, buying groceries. Sure, I failed at times, but I also got everything done and built confidence. I know way more Spanish than five years ago, and I know a lot more than when I started this trip. I'm planning to come back soon to do a Spanish intensive.
  10. Wonderful Discoveries. I discovered micheladas, a beer and clam juice concoction that hits the spot on hot days. I like toasted corn crackers and my go to at any restaurant is consome de pollo (chicken soup). The food on this trip has been so-so and I've done a lot of cooking in the RV. Eggs are in the cupboard, rather than the refrigerator. All the cheese seems to be manchego, so a specialty cheese shop is a blessing. Regional breads of every kind are the go-to snack at any time of day. I drink about a bottle of jamaica a day, unsweetened and designed to be the base for some family's sugary beverage. The people have been wonderful, especially the times I've been able to hold a brief conversation in Spanish. It's the small things.

Monday, July 31, 2023


I was pulled over yesterday while pulling my trailer in the city of Pachuco. This is not unusual and we're expecting it to happen more as we head north. The Dodge Charger cop car was filled with several officers, which is how they do this. It's a team effort. The charge, according to the young officer, was driving a vehicle too heavy on the highway, more than 2.5 tons (my truck is less than that). Big rigs and buses zoomed by me while I sat there, engine running, in the rain. 

The thing about something like this, which on its surface is complete bullshit, is that perhaps its true. Perhaps I broke some law. I started texting my buddy who suggested I get him to show me in his law book where this regulation existed. I declined that strategy because the language barrier was going to make it tedious. Meanwhile, the officer took my drivers license. This is when hostage negotiations begin.

Once they have your license, you're going to have to negotiate to get it back. I was informed there was a fine. Sure, a fine, whatever. But if I were to pay his supervisor directly, the fine would only be half. He never told me the amount of the fine, only that I had to pay one. 

I told him, sure, I'll pay the fine, if you give me a receipt. This is code for make it official. He told me he couldn't give me a receipt right now, but if I wanted to come to the police station to pick up my license on Wednesday, I could pay it there and get a receipt. This was a Sunday, I was clearly a traveler, so he figured this would entice me to pay him now.

I told him, sure, I'll come Wednesday, just give me the address. He looked a little surprised I had called his bluff. But really, I would have come back Wednesday.

Well, he said, if you drive north on the tourist corridor, they will check your license periodically, you will need it. I knew this was complete nonsense. I pointed to the GPS screen on my truck and told him I've got about 23 minutes to my destination, I'll take my chances and return Wednesday.

He's not happy about this and goes back to his car to talk to his buddies, which I found out later included his supervisor. Meanwhile I started taking photos. I did this conspicuously, so that they knew I was taking photos. I was documenting mordida, the Mexican form of "commonly occurring petty corruption." 

Within minutes of entering Mexico and seeing my first speed limit sign in kilometers, I was pulled over for mordida. I never even had time to do my half plus 10% on the fly calculations before they nabbed me. I was speeding, they had clocked me, I was dead to rights. I should have gone to the police station to pick up my license and pay the official fine, but I didn't. I paid the cops on the spot in cash, which certainly went into their beer budget. This was in Sonoyta Mexico, which I had to travel through several more times on our trip, eliciting the response from me each time of, "F%#k this sh#$$y little town." I was intent on not paying mordida again, if possible.

We were pulled over again months later in Tultitlan, outside of Mexico City. This time my friends bus was supposedly smoking too much. There is no visual infraction for such thing, as it's a scientifically calculated infraction that would need to be measured at some sort of smog station. This is what he gathered when he insisted they show him the broken ordinance. We spent about an hour there, while they threatened to arrest him and impound his bus. He held his ground and eventually the fine started dropping until they just let him go. We had been warned the police in this town were in cahoots with the cartels and liked to prey on tourists. We should have gone around.

Five years ago we went through the same process, pulled over on a toll road for not having the proper permit for driving in Mexico state. Foreign plated vehicles must apply for this free permit, which is on a Mexican government website, only in Spanish. Knowing you need this is some sort of magic knowledge and acquiring one in a foreign language required an alternate web browser, some serious language fluency and a copy shop. They hate electronic copies. They threatened to impound my Jeep and my buddies truck, fine us a bunch of money, and generally make us miserable. After a couple hours, their demands were reduced to "just buy us dinner," and then in frustration, the cops wandered off, supposedly to find their supervisor. We just drove off, having paid nothing.

Back to my story, I was not arguing the law, not being belligerent. I was warm and comfortable in my truck with the engine running, while this young officer was getting soaked in the rain. He mentioned this and I gave him a somewhat sincere, "Lo siento." I had all the time in the world, which is key to these negotiations. I'll wait until you produce a receipt. I'll come back Wednesday, if you so desire. I will not give you a bribe. 

He asked me if I had been pulled over in Mexico before and I told him, yes, four times. Did you receive a ticket? I smiled and said no. Technically I never got a ticket in that sh#$$y little town.

The supervisor exited the patrol car and immediately covered his face with a shamaugh. He preferred not to be photographed. He walked up to his officer, they spoke a few words, and the supervisor handed me back my license. I wasn't playing. Time to cut their losses and seek out the next victim. 

So amongst my very few complaints about Mexico, we have trash fires, topes (speed bumps), and I need to add mordida to the list. Also, coming in fourth place is fireworks. It's not uncommon to hear random explosions at any time. Just Mexico being Mexico. But bribery is certainly a bigger issue.

Is this all worth it? Is the trouble and fear caused by these interactions worth the trouble? Of course. Mexico is a beautiful country with friendly people and a rich, ancient culture (when they're willing to admit it). I have had no problems with crime (other than cops), no petty theft, no aggressive and often mentally ill panhandlers, and an awful lot of very helpful people who want us to succeed here. I enjoy Mexico quite a bit, but they're never going to get a handle on real crime if they can't get a handle on their cops. You can't turn the people agains the criminals, if they can't tell the good guys from the bad guys. It's a US problem as well, now that I think about it.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Fecal Matters

We're planning to spend next week higher in the mountains of Mexico. Here we will find virtually no services. Most interesting, both RV parks don't have dump stations. The logistical cogs in my head creak into motion as I attempt to figure out how many days I can "reasonably" go without dumping my 38 gallon black tank. Black tanks contain human waste, if you weren't familiar with the term.

The reality of that 38 gallons is it takes about 3 gallons of water as a base. So it's really about 35 gallons. Then there's the fact that the RV gets a bit ... ripe ... at around 55-60% capacity. That's around 17 gallons. We tend to use about 5 gallons of capacity a day, so that's three days of odor free usage. We have tank enzyme treatment, but we're running low, as it's not sold in Mexico. We may splurge with our rations and double up while in the mountains.

There are two RV parks, one for three nights and one for two nights, followed by a full service RV park elsewhere. With planning, we should be fine with our tanks. We've scouted a dumps station we can hit between RV parks, so theoretically we won't need to break camp and go find a place at the first site: three days - move and dump - two days - new RV park with services. Will the dump site be open? Will we fit? We assume so, but it's Mexico. It is what it is. We may have find ourselves searching for a hole that morning.

These logistics are dreaded by a lot of people, who also dread dumping tanks. There are tales of horribly disgusting accidents, and for most older couples, the men almost always end up doing this work. I kinda like it. I've got clear connectors on my hoses so I can see the state of my tanks, potential clogs, and the overall flow. I don't mind the smell and I've never had a black tank accident. Maybe my attitude will change when my hands are covered in other peoples business.

Dump Station

As I write this, I am waiting for the propane truck to arrive. This will be my first propane fill in Mexico. I have two, 30 pound propane tanks and we've completely used one. We use propane primarily for cooking and hot water, and almost nothing for heating this trip. Our maiden voyage of ten days during the winter saw us blow through both tanks, so usage really depends on the season. We're expecting cold temperatures in the mountains, with no power, which means we'll be using the propane heater. This seemed like a good time to fill that empty tank, while contemplating how to dump the others.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

The Mexico RV Paradox

Mexican RV parks are about infrastructure challenges. My five year mission is to explore Mexico's Pueblos Magicos while being able to work uninterrupted from my RV. To do this I bought a new RV and we installed a pretty slick electrical system for energy independence along with Starlink for Internet. I can go indefinitely on solar, or a few days unplugged, if I need air conditioning. 

In Mexican RV parks, we've seen dangerously low and high power conditions along with complete power outages for days. Today we woke up to clogged sewage lines. Very low water pressure is the norm. When I researched RVing in Mexico I found disappointed campers, people who were not prepared for these situations. Preparing for this trip meant preparing for all these problems.

My RV has survived all these challenges with flying colors. We are currently at an RV park with 15 amp power, basically an extension cord. The mornings are cold, so I'll turn on our electric fireplace, which probably has a 20 amp draw. It takes the 15 amps of power from the RV park and 5 amps from my battery bank, which is recharged in an hour. But there was a cost to all this. 

Not only did I spend a fortunate on the electrical system, but the RV and truck were expensive, which gets us to the paradox. The roads in Mexico are terrible. RVs on these roads rattle apart, mine included. One of the services I look for upon arrival in any RV park is references to RV repair folks. Something has either broken on the last leg of the journey or there's something that wasn't fixed from before. 

RVs get a 10 year import permit for Mexico and the consensus is they will likely be destroyed or close to worthless after 10 years on Mexican roads. The paradox then is that my expensive, prepared RV will be sacrificed during that 10 year permit. This was implied before we started, but the reality of it is hitting home. My original plans were to return four more times, but we recently discussed what that would look like.

We wouldn't come down the coast in summer ever again. It was horribly hot and humid. We wouldn't do short days of 3-4 hours of driving, as that prolongs the pain. I think the coastal route had very bad roads, but I'm told they were not uncommon. I am still holding out hope that we find a way back that isn't as brutal as the way down, a quick toll road from Central Mexico to Texas with nice pavement. I'm told that doesn't exist, but I need to believe for the sake of the next four trips. 

The other option is to just leave the RV here, but since I tow it, I still have to make the long drive. My buddy has a bus, and he could just hop on a plane. 

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Cactus and Labor Opportunities (Limitations)

One of the nice surprises in Mexico is fresh nopales, or cactus. Since I visited five years ago, I've been eating nopales every morning with breakfast, They're tasty and healthy, especially chopped up in scrambled eggs. However, there's a small problem and it's about labor.

Fresh nopales in the United States tend to be sold in paddles, with the cactus spines still on them. There's really no way to justify the labor of removing the spines as a processing step. The cost of the nopales would need to go beyond a comfortable price for the small local community that eats them. It's not a big community, in fact many restaurants have stopped serving them because the demand is small and they don't stay fresh long enough.

The first time I bought nopales back home, I spent the time to remove the cactus spines, impaling myself a couple times, dicing the nopales, cooking them up to reduce the sticky sap, and well, that was the last time I did that -- and it was just one paddle! What a giant pain in the ass. The second option was to buy them in a jar, and that's what I've been doing for years now. Jarred nopales aren't exactly fresh and they're spiced like the (only) company that sells them wants to spice them.

Nopales in Mexico are different. They're amazingly fresh and sold on the streets. The spines are removed, as the labor to do so is inconsequential. For a couple bucks, you can have a huge supply. I currently have a stash in my freezer, because one bag could feed a giant family for a week. When we went and talked with one of the nopales ladies in the market, she was carefully cutting the nopales into a bag, an extra prep step that again, had an inconsequential cost added to it. She was kind enough to give us an excellent recipe with fresh spices sold nearby. We made a big batch of nopales we've been eating since then. 

So we have the same North American product, sold differently and essentially one viable and the other not viable because of labor costs. As various regions of the United States struggle with different income tiers, this is something to keep in mind. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, while my California minimum wage is $15.50/hour (it's about $1.54 in Mexico). What is good for Idaho, may not work in California. 

This is especially true with high labor activities like selling Magic singles. My $15.50/hour employees are selling in the same market as stores with $7.25/hour employees. It doesn't make much sense for me to compete in that marketplace. Of course, I could buy a machine that does sorting, but those costs need to be factored in agains the $7.25/hour stores. Is it competitive? I bet it is, but I'm not sure. Perhaps we just don't sell Magic singles, much like how you're going to get the spines if you want nopales in the United States. The extra processing step may not be financially viable, even if Magic singles are the healthy add on for the game trade.