Saturday, November 18, 2017

Bad Decisions (Tradecraft)

Game store owners, like regular people, can get into bad situations and make what look like bad decisions. If as an individual, you simply run out of cash and run out of options to feed your family this week, a payday loan is not a terrible idea. You do what you can to survive and hopefully learn how to avoid the mistake in the future. If you're getting a payday loan every pay day, something is terribly wrong, and the sting hasn't taught you anything. The same is true with store owners.

As someone who has had to survive hard times in the game trade, followed by adopting strong policies during good times, and then seeing lean times once again, there are short term strategies that only make sense when I have no other option. I may blow out product because the bill is simply due and I don't have a cash cushion to sit on it long term, which is the better play. I know I need a cushion, so I see my actions are not optimal for the long term. I endeavor to improve.

The problem in the game trade is there are too many store owners who are grossly undercapitalized, forced to make short term decisions that hurt not only their prospects, but the long term prospects of the trade. They don't just use their online sales as an exhaust port for unsold product, they need to blow out product and collect revenue, any revenue, upon product release. Anything that generates cash for their 7 day terms or even COD terms, is a win if it gets them to their next FNM, which they also treat like a cash cow. These are the payday loan customers who are there every pay day, unable to feed their store and without other options. Most will never have the capital to do otherwise.

Of course I'm talking about Magic, the cash cow of the game trade, as there's nothing else quite as liquid as cases of Magic cards. For the vast majority of the country, it's unlikely the bar will be raised to limit the number of undercapitalized stores. Here in the SF Bay Area, obtaining a commercial lease in even a reasonable area, requires a multi year commitment and demonstrated capital. But in most of the country, there's plenty of commercial, month to month real estate that can be leased with a handshake. So anybody can start a game store with ease, usually with some folding tables and Magic boxes. If you want to raise the bar, you have to regulate livestock.

That cash cow needs to have its value protected. How that's done is none of my business, and it's not legal or helpful for me to suggest how. I just think it should be noted that her udders are sore and inflamed from being milked at an increasing rate of speed. Her legs are wobbly from not getting enough rest between milkings. Worst of all, the kids have lost a taste for her milk. There's no longer anticipation, no longer curiosity as they guzzle down glass after glass, while being handed another glass before the first is even finished. Treat the cow with some respect and most of these problems go away.

As Much Rope As You Need (Tradecraft)

I could have called this post, "Boned," as a description for retailers sitting on a stockpile of Iconic Masters. Boned assumes their predicament was something that happened "to" them as opposed to poor judgment and bad circumstances. Perhaps there is a mix, but in general, I think Wizards of the Coast offered them as much rope as they needed to hang themselves, and they chose to swing at a length above the ground of their own choosing.

The problem with Iconic Masters is about timing, mostly. Mid November is not a traditional time for a significant Magic release. It's a dead season before the rush of the holidays. Generally things released during this season languish, either to be sold during December or never sold at all. It's a risky release time. So it's not surprising many retailers are reporting terrible sales during this slow lead up.

The second problem is the cost in relation to the season. My initial order of Iconic Masters was $20,000 of product on one invoice. I wrangled that down to about $12K. The problem is the end of the year is six weeks away. For a hot set or a set with a predictable sales cycle during a predictable time of the year, I'm likely to take 3-4 weeks to sell through an order and pay back that invoice. If I'm a little late on my predictions, and I've got some overstock, that's fine. However, with six weeks left in the year, what I don't sell is likely to become inventory overage, taxable as income on December 31st. There is strong incentive to dump this product for this reason alone.

Strong incentive may be an understatement, as this product is being dumpster fired (using this as a verb now) like no set I've ever seen. There are the usual suspects, but everyday stores also see the writing on the wall. At any other time of the year, the wise retailer would settle in and ride out a 3-6 month cycle of what's admittedly a very good product. But six weeks before end of the year? The risk is too high. Shove it out the airlock.

Did I mention Wal Mart has a Masters set for the first time? Oh yes. They have Iconic Masters as well as future product with the usual street date violations. The market is flooded with this product. Rather than banging the gong on Iconic Masters, Wizards has moved on, hyping the next Magic release, and making it easier for customers to just skip this one and jump on the next bandwagon.

Retailers can smell the blood in the water. They've made ground pronouncements of how they've had enough, which really just means they're reducing their upcoming orders of Magic downwards, something they should have already been doing, if demand indicates it. Distributors are going to be in a world of hurt when bills for this set are due and those retailers looking for the holidays to save them from a tough year will find their grandma money savior will go to pay the Iconic Masters.

The market has hit rock bottom folks. This is what bottom looks like. It's a shame too, because this is a very good product, despite the YouTube low lifes attempting to bad mouth it for personal gain. This is not enough to put anyone big out of business or topple a distributor, but it's a tipping point, a move from a bull Magic market to a bear market. For stores, diversification is the answer, but it was the solution to a problem that's too far gone for most.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Measurement and Reward (Tradecraft)

The game trade retail tier is a perfect expression of measurement and reward. When you begin to measure something and reward behavior,  you skew behavior in that direction. For example, if I give a bonus to employees for upselling product, they will absolutely upsell to every customer, whether they need it or not. My goal is to sell more things, but the reality is customers are driven away by the hard sales tactic. Upsells work in some situations, but not this one. So how are retailers measured and rewarded?

Wizards of the Coast measures butts in seats and rewards stores with status and limited product. If you look at game stores failing right now, the number two reason I've seen is the lamentations that players have done this or that. Players have moved to the store across town. Players don't like Standard right now. Players don't like the new tournament format. Oh dear, players have abandoned us!

Rewarding butts in seats has turned retailers into tournament organizers. They are not graded on their sales performance. They are not held to account for dumping $145 booster boxes for a dollar over cost. It's butts in seats, so butts in seats is how many game store owners measure success. Most don't know how to retail. Most would be offended, calling me a sell out, if I told them what they needed to do to effectively retail.

Distributors measure gross. The more you buy from a game distributor, the better the discount on games. It doesn't matter what you do with that product, just so long as you bulk up to the next discount tier. This leads to dumping, of course. If I'm $1,000 from hitting my next discount tier, why not buy that $1,000 of product and flip it online at cost? Distributors measure throughput and what we get in the game trade is tremendous throughput. Then we wonder why we have rampant product devaluation. It also ties into the number one reason stores close, undercapitalization.

Why invest in inventory that's worth ten cents on the dollar if you close tomorrow? You don't need dump trucks full of soy beans in your office to be a commodity trader, you just need to know they exist out there. I see store owners trying to sell their stores with acres full of tables and a few shelves of mostly card boxes. Pass.

Being a well diversified store, one which is a proper steward of game trade products, one that introduces and demos games to new customers, that protects brand value, that invests in inventory as a long term strategy, is not rewarded by the current game trade model. You measure throughput and butts in seats and you get throughput and butts in seats. Then retailers fail in droves, confused as to why their business model failed to perform when that's what they were being incentivized to do.





Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Stinky Gamer (Tradecraft)

Welcome to my high horse, where I survey the land around me so that I may pronounce my judgment.

Game stores have an odor problem. They smell and the problem is often blamed on gamers themselves and their poor hygiene. While there are such olfactory offending characters in our stores, the real problem is the game store itself.

Game stores are not meant to be assembly areas and most are not zoned or built for a large number of individuals with their body heat and natural odors. I'm on my high horse because I just spent six figures and six months bringing our store up to code, an unreasonable expectation to be sure, since I don't even own my own building.

So game store owners spend time masking odors, purifying air and otherwise embracing toxic chemicals to hide the stench, rather than doing the work to fix the problem. Now, if I were consulting for a prospective game store owner, would I be budgeting in a $10,000 HVAC upgrade and a bathroom remodel for typical assembly requirements? Heck no. At least not at first. However, those whose business model includes tables for hundreds of people, not dozens, would be wise to include such upgrades on their wish list.

This of course just adds to the impossible requirements of running a small business like this, the fact that nobody at the bottom could possibly afford such upgrades while everyone in the middle will have such expectations forced upon them. It's another example where it's good to be small and good to be big, but the middle has the expectations without the resources.


Our project board, so we know what to buy during the rare times we have money

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

They Want Too Much

Customers demand everything. They want price, selection, strong customer service and the new thing, experience. They want unique, "third place" experiences that provide them mental stimulation and a sense of community. These are a lot of wants, especially in a commoditized market.

The population also demands high wages. They want $15 an hour minimum wage. They want a Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI). Conservative and liberal alike will shrug when a small business fails because of these demands. Meanwhile, job seekers languish, underemployed with job mismatches where worker skills are not the correct skill set for the hundreds of thousands of jobs that go unfilled.

Despite the higher wages, there are few workers to be had, what would normally be a sign that the pay is too low, but we've been forced to raise the pay. Where are the workers? For my store, almost every new employee requires significant training, and almost none of them match our job descriptions. The applications are notoriously slim pickings, and it's true for most stores around the country.

So everyone wants everything, nobody wants to do the job of providing it, retail increasingly moves online, and and we complain bitterly about big box retail treating us badly. Sounds like conservative talking points, but it's my experience in the trenches. Is this an impossible situation? Nope, don't despair, here's where the opportunity comes in.

Small business owners fill these gaps, delivering the impossible. The problem I have, as an established store owner, is I can't hire people to make miracles. I can either make miracles myself, or I can throw my hands up and declare miracles are phony. There is no amount of reasonable money that will let me hire a miracle worker. I cannot provide what people want under current market conditions. Can't do it. That right there is an opportunity for small business.

My inability to hire miracle workers is my competitors opportunity to make it rain. If you are delighted, entertained, awed by a local small business, I can almost guarantee you there's a business owner making miracles, because you can't hire saints and prophets, you have to become one.

This is both a competitive advantage and job security for small business, as well as a reminder to us middling businesses that you better bring the mojo. And if you continue to go to Toys R Us and Wal Mart and Target and complain bitterly about your mediocre, bargain basement experience, please remember you're asking the impossible. Maybe a small business will arise to provide that miraculous experience you crave. Maybe the prophet is you.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Dream

I had a dream I volunteered to inventory a hardware store. The hardware store was my original metaphor for starting my business, a simpler life with concrete things, bought and sold by people who needed them. A far cry from the IT world where I rarely understood the businesses I helped support.

I borrowed the metaphor from an old boss, who told me over lunch one day his desire to open a hardware store. When I met with him before I opened my game store, he thought I was crazy when I told him my plan. "What about the hardware store?" I asked. He told me some dreams are meant to stay dreams.

The owner of the dream hardware store laughed and handed me a clipboard with nearly infinite sheets of thin, onion paper. Each sheet had lists of weird product categories and random codes. I stared at the top, the department being the only word that made any sense: Paint. The item description had words, but the meaning was lost on me.

I walked around the store, it might have been 100,000 square feet or a million, as I never stopped walking. There were no signs. There was paint here and there, and paint cans on top shelves of other departments, but never did I find the actual "Paint" department, nor the first item on the list. I walked and I walked.

I began to despair. I agreed to do this thing. Clearly this would take a year or longer with one person, and knowing retail, the data would be worthless far sooner than that, probably by the end of the day. It was like inventorying drops of water in a swift moving river. What had I gotten myself into? What was I trying to accomplish?

It was a familiar sense of hubris. Most game store owners have no idea what they're getting into until they actually do it. Also, it's not like you get to a point where you have it all figured out, like the mythical hardware store of simplicity. I can look at every element of that dream and break it down into something I'm grappling with after 13 years in this business.

There are multiple dangers of owning a small business. One danger is you'll fail, which can be a merciful experience if it happens soon, but after the first few volatile years, the chance of failure doesn't ever lower. Ever. If you dream of a failing hardware store, you might insulate yourself with an enormous cash cushion to get through the night undisturbed.

The most dangerous thing in small business is you succeed, just enough to keep going, but not enough to be worthy of your devoted life. You may have been young and not doing anything worthwhile when you opened, but what could have you done? What could you be doing now?

The lucky few will be successful, but their dreams will be haunted by giant hardware stores and infinite inventory sheets. Store owners will say, if you can make it doing this, you can make it anywhere. But where exactly? Also, there is no doubt in my mind there's a hard working hardware store guru, who knows the location of every paint can in the enormous store they work in, who dreams of opening a game store. As my old boss told me, some dreams are meant to stay dreams.


Am I a game store owner dreaming I work in a hardware store
or a hardware store owner dreaming I work in a game store?

Monday, October 23, 2017

Stickiness (Tradecraft)

The board game market has a stickiness problem. Games are being produced at a fast, many would say unsustainable, pace. Traditional publishers are competing against the Game of the Moment via Kickstarter, their traditional business model going up against the unsustainable passion of Makers rather than the long term strategy of a competing company. Many have or will join this Game of the Moment model, rather than being left behind, and there are some solid marketing reasons to do so. Perhaps the gatekeepers no longer represent the majority of market demand. There is not enough product security, value in the supply chain, to gain traction and it's hurting everyone.

Retailers are in the middle, with games arriving on their shelves with no guarantee they'll ever be back. Unlike the traditional publisher, the Kickstarter publisher is fine with a "one and done" model and are far more concerned about getting stuck with the "hot potato" of unsold product more than their desire to establish a long term presence in the hobby game channel. Getting everything I'll ever want of a product on release is not an unusual strategy.

With their reprint, the Kickstarter publisher is willing to sell to deep discounters online, just for the inventory security. After all, who cares about product devaluation of a one shot product? They're about the passion, getting the product into the hands of players, and having the income security to do it again. They don't have time to see their inventory sit at a warehouse where some distributor may pay them one day. They're ready to move on to the next project, or just be done and pay back their home equity line of credit.

Retailers would like there to be some stickiness to games. A solid business model would include extensive support of new games with a guaranteed supply chain. The "demo table" exemplifies this, where retailers become tastemakers, teach new games to new customers, and in return obtain stratospheric sales levels. It's the American Dream of planning, putting in the effort, and reaping the reward.

Unfortunately, it's hard to find such games as most aren't sticky enough in the supply chain. The new ones tend to be "one and done" and restocks are not guaranteed at all. Often when they arrive, the online retailers have gobbled up vast amounts of supply to dump at deep discounts. Even if you do get your strong restock, you're competing with the online giants in a devalued marketplace. Product has died on the vine and no effort to push that great game to an eager customer will overcome a 40% discount online.

So the status quo, one which my store is certainly guilty of, but trying to break from, is what they used to describe in the RPG trade as the periodical model. You don't hear about the periodical model so much anymore because RPGs have, for the most part, died a horrible death in the game trade. Retailers don't talk about RPGs. What's there to talk about? I love RPGs, sell a good amount of RPGs, but I have to constantly remind myself the scale of the other departments, how we sell six times more board games and six times more CCGs. RPGs are a shell of its former glory.

Oh sure, there have never been more fantastic RPGs produced than right now, but the game trade has mostly turned its back on them, especially when there's so much more money in board games. So board games are dabbling with the periodical model, where my store gets in the game of the week, we promote it as best we can for a product we may never see again after Thursday, and then next week we do it again. There is little to no stickiness. The end result of going down the periodical model path is there will continue to be great games via alternative distribution methods, just like RPGs, but stores will stick with known quantities and just dabble with indie hits. We'll have a special indie board game distributor we'll order from once a month, if there's extra cash in the budget (or not). There are signs we're heading in this direction already as we talk about protecting brand value and a flight to quality.

I will attempt to restock the best sellers in my one and done model and maybe one or two will gain traction. However, if it's being devalued online, if supply has evaporated, if the publisher decides to raise the price 40% after the first print run, I shrug and move on. Next week we'll have an entirely new game to pimp. The last thing I want to do in this model is expend energy on any one title.

I am only penalized for treating board game as anything but a commodity item, like soybeans. It's the periodical model. I could run with this model until the board game segment is a smoldering crater in  the game trade. We'll start selling a four volume set of paperbacks describing what went wrong, picked up by nostalgic customers who once played board games but no longer have wood for sheep.

This is not a long term retail strategy for the game trade, this path of least resistance. It's certainly not what I want to do or where I'm spending my energy right now. It's not what publishers need from us, as we're the traditional marketing arm of the traditional board game publishers. But I'm not sure tradition matters so much anymore.

Our job is to be that Third Place, a venue for new discoveries and experiences. Schilling the board game of the week to exhausted board gamers will eventually dampen their enthusiasm, just like selling a 5th Edition of D&D after just recently talking up a 4th Edition that I swear was a solid replacement for a Third and a Half edition, that had to upgrade because of something something, the Ranger. You want to sell entertainment, but you don't want to feel like an entertainer, some half wit carnival barker, doing it.

So I struggle to gain traction without a sticky product category where I can plant my flag. Publishers struggle as well. Customers are not immune to the struggle, with this embarrassment of riches, where I don't even look at bringing in a new game unless it scores an "8" or a couple thousand "Wants" on Board Game Geek. Don't get me wrong, I am a huge seller of board games, but we've definitely hit our limit, the store peaked in this category. We just need some stickiness, some brand value protection, to make our stand.