Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Thoughts, Part 1

I’ve been waiting for a chance to use more Spock’s Beard references in the articles on this blog, and today seems like a day for it.  In recent weeks some topics have come up that have me musing.  Concerns, brainstorms, insights, call them what you like.  This is going to be a brief collection of those.  Like the mighty Beard, I’ll do Part 2 and so on, but those will occur ad-hoc at later dates.  This won’t be a multi-part article.

There are an awful lot of card sleeves on the market now.  I did a sleeve primer a few months back, but that article is already outdated now.  Two weeks ago we received Dragon Shield Matte sleeves, and they are now the top-selling sleeve at DSG, surpassing Ultra-Pro as well as Dragon Shield’s own non-matte offerings.  With our massive GTS pre-order of Ultimate Guard sleeves pending delivery, DSG’s inventory currently includes every other sleeve brand of which I am aware: Ultra-Pro, Dragon Shield, KMC, BCW, Fantasy Flight Supply, Monster, HCD, Legion, Player’s Choice, Max Protection, and Mayday, though the latter four are in closeout status based on player feedback.  I may keep some remnant scion of their lines in stock just to be able to say DSG has it all.  It might make a neat project to see if I can round up all the outliers, like Cryptozoic’s and Upper Deck's sleeves, though I suspect those are simply OEM products from one of the regular sleeve brands.

I hate the fact that DSG is not carrying used console video games.  It was the most profitable category the store ever had.  I only moved away from it because it was impossible to generate real volume throughput without having a lot more of it on the floor — and I didn’t have enough floor to give it.  Even paying more than GameStop on buys and charging less on sales, the money was good. As a rule, video game players don’t expect much residual value from games they have already consumed, played through with little or no intention of replay.  The vintage console collecting scene is a little more resilient, but it’s still nothing like TCGs or comics.  Maybe it’s somewhat more like comics.  Keys and chalk, and nothing betwixt the twain.  It would require labor and attention, but I could cater to the console collectors very effectively and build passionate loyalty in that audience, if not for lack of space to do it in.  Truly, space constraints inform virtually all of my business planning these days.  I shake my head at how empty DSG looks in opening-month photos.

Speaking of space constraints, I’ve been researching ways to improve our comics presentation and accessibility.  There are not a lot of great comic book merchandising fixtures out there.  For new and recent release racks, Skyline makes custom wedges that rate high in the appearance and finish department but gradually damage books that sit in them, and cost as much as an AEGIS cruiser.  The awe-inspiring Madness Games in Texas uses video/DVD wire racking on their slatwall, and the combination is visible, is accessible, and doesn’t damage the books.  However, those wire racks are real space-eaters, and only get a B or so for appearance.  Regardless, I think Madness has found the most feasible solution available for now, so I’m going to move to that format and I am having to buy and add new slatwall to do it.  DSG currently has slat panels that run the span of arm’s reach for a standing shopper, and will convert to paired panels that start at the floor and run up the wall as high as they happen to go.  

For back-issue browse bins, Skyline again has expensive offerings but the custom bins that Atomic Comics used to have were the high-volume, commercial-grade solutions that impressed me the most.  Samurai Comics, a Phoenix-area chain, got some of them in the Atomic liquidation during a time when my store wasn’t in the category and didn’t think to buy any.  I bet they’re glad they did.  If I can have some built that are like that, I think comic back-issues can finally become an authentically shoppable part of DSG’s inventory.  Everyone has seen the comic bins on Big Bang Theory, but those would never support a real store, their capacity is too small and they require too much floor clearance for throughways.  It’s a shame because they look extremely shoppable and I think a store that can make good on that “promise," to a mainstream visitor considering dabbling in comics, will earn a customer.

Facebook has infinity plus one dollars right now because Facebook advertising works, and it might be the only advertising that works to any real, salient extent for hobby retail.  Little else we have tried has worked, save the hybrid channel of running vendor tables at conventions.  We did all kinds of can’t-miss redemption, such as a coupon for ten percent off whatever you want just for coming in.  I mentioned this advert back in May.  The coupon appeared on cash register receipts at area grocery stores and after six months was discarded as a waste of $1500.  Almost nobody came in with the coupons.  Nobody even saw them, I don’t think.  I remembered in the Arizona Gamer days running a coupon in the New Times, a free newspaper available literally right outside the store’s front door, and having nobody redeem it.  That’s a telling deficiency in the reach of an advertising platform.  These days I run Facebook ads every week for all kinds of products and promotions, and people come in.  No slick sales talk, no complicated hoops for people to jump through.  Just: Come get this Thing, it’s brand new, we have plenty (with photo of a giant stack of Thing).  Or: Come get this Thing, it’s our special this month, free (Accessory) with every (Thing) you buy.  Huge, tremendous response, laser-targetable and readily measurable.  It’s what every advertiser hopes for.  And that’s why I bought Mark Zuckerberg another ivory back-scratcher this month.

Anyone who sells on eBay knows that most buyers are perfectly pleasant to deal with and most transactions present no difficulties, especially once you’re selling in any kind of real volume.  The variance simply smooths out, you learn to do the fulfillment best practices that prevent the five percent of problems between 94% success and 99% success, and honestly I’ve had eBay buyer issues in the single digits this year, out of six figures left of the decimal in sales through that channel.  My eBay account has been open long enough to have a driver’s license in most states.  I am the freaking eBay Whisperer at this point.  I can predict with uncanny certainty and thoroughness what will happen with a batch of my eBay listings before I even finish picking out the pile of goods I’m posting up.

However, despite my efforts and those of other expert sellers, there are always buyers who cannot be managed, buyers for whom no level of reasonable diligence is going to be enough to get a transaction concluded and resolved.  Sometimes they’re malicious (speculators who want refunds on items with volatile prices, or scammers of various kinds) and sometimes they’re just oblivious or immature.  Thankfully, eBay allows sellers to block buyers for any reason or no reason at all.  It might seem like no seller would want to do this — after all, don’t we want to make money? — but pretty soon a seller learns that there is a vast ocean of buyers out there and it’s possible to sell everything you have without the necessity of dealing with the head cases.  

Sometimes it’s not even the buyer’s fault: I block any buyer who has a significant delivery problem from me.  Their neighbor stole it, their post office blackholed it and “out for delivery” never completed, whatever.  It’s not that I think they are a bad person.  I’m just unwilling to throw money down a rat hole trying to achieve delivery through a broken link.  Thanks, but no thanks — I’ll sell to the other 99% of people who have no issues receiving my shipments.  I also block any buyer who I believe to be a business, if they attempt to buy sealed Magic: the Gathering product.  Not taking any chances on losing that Authorized Internet Reseller credential.

Amazon does not allow sellers to block buyers.  Consequently, I do a lot less business on Amazon than I could.  I only sell the most readily sourced, easily margined, evergreen products through that channel, or else blowouts of barcoded goods where I’m not deeply concerned with the fate of the item, and I’m just trying to recoup sunk cost.  An Amazon return is the most frustrating thing in the world because the buyer can make up any old story and Amazon will force you to authorize it.  (Why even make us press the button, I wonder, when the process is pro forma?  Just issue the refund and tell us afterward how we got hosed.)  And we already know you need to grind down pricing to compete on Amazon, reducing its appeal further, though some categories are less treacherous than others in this regard.  

Having said that, Amazon’s software integration is generally better than eBay’s due to the lack of an underlying auction-based listing structure.  Amazon itself is really just a web-app point-of-sale system, if inelegant at times.  This makes it logistically powerful for reaching a gigantic addressable audience.  Even while I wrote this article, I had eight new orders come in on our Amazon channel that’s integrated through Light Speed Retail.  I just have to pull that stuff off the rack and send it out.  Simplicity itself.  It’s like my store that can fit a million shoppers at once, just like all those wonks and pundits said, back when "Information Superhighway" was a buzzword and we were all going to be brushing our teeth online by the far-flung year 2010.  For brief, glimmering moments like this, the promise of that commerce framework seems tantalizingly close.

Well, thanks for joining me this week!  While writing this article, I had a flash of insight on a topic for next week, so I’ll continue then with some musings on the addressable audience in our industry.  Just above above I talked about a blue ocean of buyers and it applies where eBay and Amazon are concerned, but also in our local communities, to the extent the population density is there.  This is a function of both the sheer numbers within proximity and the behavior of those people, and the latter is of greater concern to me, because of how disconnected it seems from the former sometimes.  Join me again here on The Backstage Pass on June 23rd at 9:00 a.m., same bat-time, same bat-weblink!

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