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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Enemies to the Bitter End

Enjoy this double-plus-length article; I’ll be on my “summer vacation” next week due to scheduling and prior obligations.  I’ll return with a new article on Tuesday, September 8th! - Mike

Game and comic stores are “competitors,” and players, especially younger players, tend to adopt the rivalry posture with aplomb.  It’s natural for a player to take pride in his or her waterin’ hole, the same as any non-gamer might be loyal to his favorite corner pub.  The friction can get out of hand, however, if a store owner isn’t careful to rein it in.  DSG has had to issue bans in the past due to gross misconduct during such a dust-up, and that’s unfortunate.

In truth, game and comic store owners can often be far greater allies than rivals. Call it the effect of the shared ordeal, the enemy of my enemy being my friend, or whatever you like.  Entropy, massive shifts in the economy or consumer spending, and vast changes in the entertainment hobby present far greater threats to a comic or game store than the competitor across town.  If DSG and Store X had a drag-out battle for business over the summer and Store X failed, a fat lot of good it would do me if the Magic bubble “popped” within a few months afterward.  The biggest fish in a dry wash... is dead.

Think it could never happen?  Let me tell you about a little game called EverQuest, and its bigger, hungrier younger brother birthed soon afterward, the World of Warcraft.  There is a list as long as my arm of stores that failed, in my metro area alone, as players emigrated en masse from the tabletop hobby and spent their weeks, months, and years raiding the Timesink Caverns for purple loots instead.  The emergence of MMORPGs, in fact, had such a seismic effect on market demand for our products that it marks a fairly clean dividing point in local history between the “old guard” stores and the modern ones.  Only two local game stores that I know of crossed that chasm and lived to tell the tale: Imperial Outpost Games in Glendale and The Game Depot in Tempe.  All About Books and Comics in Phoenix and Greg’s Comics in Mesa also survived, but exited the game trade.

There exist private Delphi forums and Facebook groups for game and comic retailers.  Most participants are extremely gracious and willing to help newcomers.  There is even such a group oriented directly toward helping new owners get their stores off the ground.  Store owners network and mingle at Gen Con, various comic cons, Origins, the GAMA Trade Show, the various distributor open houses, PAX, and so on, and are often fast friends.  If there is genuine hatred between store owners generally, the majority of such people have a strange way of showing it.

Psychology accounts for some of the camaraderie that exists, but there is a strong business case for being on friendly terms with competitors as well.  Three factors inform this: customer service; cautionary example; and improvement, whether iterative or structural.

The customer service angle is obvious enough: If we don’t have the thing, we send the customer to the store that does have the thing, because the end result of that is a happy customer.  We didn’t get the sale, but we created a positive experience and the customer will associate our business with honesty, helpfulness, and a pleasant result.  I will do this every time if I don’t have the thing.  It’s not even a question.  The store that had the thing comes off even better in the deal, which is further testimony to the immense competitive benefit of "having the goods."

I put cautionary example ahead of improvement because in business, in order to thrive, one must first survive.  Knowing and understanding the competition and their methods informs business decisions to mitigate risk and avoid loss.  In the community, stores will often spitball ideas and ask whether anyone else has tried that idea yet.  Stores that lost money on it will offer warnings; stores that did well with it will recommend trying it.  The experimenting store can consider what it knows about the other stores (it worked at a comic shop and not at a pure game store, for example) and decide how closely the known results might apply to their store.  

In a more macabre sense, any time a store fails, other store owners consider the sum total of everything they know about that store: They were too small or too big, they discounted too aggressively, they catered to this player group or that, they were located too near campus or too far from a freeway or what have you.  And all those factors earn warning marks in our minds, and we’ll be apprehensive if we catch ourselves considering those same business strategies.  A strategy that earns warning marks again and again and appears common among many failed stores becomes a non-starter for those of us still in the trade.  Forget it, that never works!  Of course, being contrary-minded entrepreneurs, often with traces of autism, we sometimes find irresistible the urge to make the “unworkable” idea succeed.  This obstinacy is one reason why we never have any money.

There is then, of course improvement.  Iterative improvement, where we try to refine our business workflows every day and develop best practices, and structural improvement, where we make big, bold moves to change the equation and add a revenue vector, eliminate a cost sink, manufacture a competitive advantage, or shore up a competitive weakness.  In the former case, virtually any game or comic store has something it can teach us, even if it’s as subtle as the placement of a countertop dice display to be slightly more approachable.  In the latter case, either a store’s best attribute teaches us something structural, or a store is among the rarefied few that stand astride the trade like a colossus, operating at the next level of magnitude and showing the rest of us what we honestly never even thought was possible even a few short years ago.

So now it’s time to deliver the payload of this article.  It’s time to expose the seamy underbelly of my industry here, limited to the Phoenix metro area (apologies to Dusty, Justin, and Josh.)  I will now dish out all the dirt, the brutal raw and unvarnished truth about my competitors.

Or, to put it another way, here is what each of them have taught me.  So far.

Ready?

All About Books & ComicsPhoenix
The Valley's original comic book store, this place has been open since James Carter failed to rescue the Iranian hostages.  It's still there but is pure comics now, no games, no guff.  Their business is sufficiently advanced that when their lease was up, they successfully paid for a full store move via Kickstarter earlier this year.  Their inventory supposedly contains multiple millions of comic books, and they ship worldwide.  What does this store teach me?  A lot.  Mostly it teaches me how far the comic category can go... if someone out there is doing more with it than they are, that store has got to be something really special.  I hear tell of Graham Cracker Comics in Chicago being comparable.

Arizona Collectors Marketplace (includes Pop Culture Paradise Phoenix and Recycle Comics Toys Games and More), Phoenix
This store, or more accurately this agglomeration of stores, is a wonderful thing to behold.  It taught me not only that the flea market structure is still a thing, but also that nostalgia’s tug can be very powerful when harnessed effectively.  I have only visited once and I’m surprised I got out of there after only a single-digit number of purchases.

Ash Avenue Comics & Books, Tempe
This store taught me that hyper-niche focus works, and that I should never undervalue area demographics in making that work.  This hipster-friendly, new-urbanist, ultra-indie store wouldn’t look a bit out of place in San Francisco or Seattle.

Bad Moons Gaming/Chameleon Collectibles and Games, Apache Junction
Open since 2009, this store is now under new ownership, including a gentleman who cut his industry teeth as a valued member of my senior staff.  There is plenty to learn here, but the enduring lesson that keeps coming up is the tremendous value in finding the location where a community exists and a store does not, and opening there.  Under the previous ownership, Bad Moons quietly made its hay and was at liberty to ignore the competitive chaos in the crowded Tempe/Mesa and Glendale markets of 2010-2012.  Every time I see a store open within the orbit of one that already exists, I see an opportunity wasted and a disadvantage unnecessarily created.

Critical Threat Comics, Tempe
Supplanting a previous iteration of Pop Culture Paradise and located within walking distance of Arizona State University’s main campus, this store just celebrated its grand opening in the midst of the fall semester’s arrival of some forty thousand students.  There is a phrase for this, and that phrase is “Captive Audience.”  Future store owners: Do as PCP/CTC has done and be where an audience is.

Crusader’s Retreat, Phoenix
This store has served me well as a way-station for Netrunner games against friends on the opposite side of town.  Diverse, utilitarian, and welcoming, Crusader's does some game materials production on location, which is a recurring source of interest for me.  They also serve as a data point supporting close proximity to a freeway, any freeway, regardless of whether you’d expect a game store to be in that plaza.

Desert Sky Games and Comics, Gilbert
This is my store, obviously.  It teaches me something new every day.  Some lessons it has taught me are greater than others.  One big thing it has taught me is that it will take an extremely special situation to get me to consider ever working in government again.

Drawn To Comics, Glendale
Downtown Glendale’s own comics boutique, Drawn To has taught me just how much untapped potential exists that I have yet to harness from comic-focused events.  Their organization and execution of massive signings, meet-and-greets, and other social marketing is on the next level.

Dreadnought Comics, Glendale
This comic book store's merchandising "killer app" is so imaginative, a written description doesn’t do justice to it.  You have to see it in person.  They found a way to make shopping for comics new and different, all through a unique (to my knowledge) and gorgeously executed store fixture deployment.  Among the most valuable and most fundamental lessons any store can teach, Dreadnought proves that there is always another amazing idea out there that nobody has done yet.

Empire Games, Mesa
The epicenter of miniatures in the Valley, Empire serves as a living example of what a miniatures-focused store can be at scale.  Originally a virtual appendage of Games Workshop, Empire has developed into a hotspot for X-Wing as well.  Across the parking lot is a Wal-Mart, yet Empire survives and thrives.  It also speaks to the benefit of a store owning its own building.

The Game Boutique, Youngtown
The first store on the list (alphabetically) from this year’s rookie class, the Game Boutique has a level of social media outreach that you’d expect to see from a store three times its size and five times its tenure.  I’m still learning to flex those muscles and they’ve basically mastered it out of the gate.

The Game Depot, Tempe
Ronald Reagan was President of the United States when the Game Depot first opened its doors near ASU.  Three locations later, it has momentum, expertise, inventory depth, and a fanatically loyal community.  There is so much Game Depot does that supposedly can’t work or never works, and yet it works for them, and it’s been working for them, and it’s going to continue working for them, because they do it better than other stores.  They don’t buy or deal in TCG singles, they ignore comics, they eschew collectible toys and other merchandise at the fringe, focusing instead on mastering the full spectrum of tabletop games, at list, full stop.  So.  If I want to have that kind of longevity and success, the blueprint is right there, 18 miles northwest of DSG.  I’m free to follow it as much as I dare.  Where I deviate from their proven playbook, I assume the risk with my eyes open.

Games Workshop, Scottsdale
This store taught me that if you want to open in Scottsdale, bring capital.  Also, that it’s possible to run a store with a single employee who is not an owner.  It takes quite a bit of corporate back-end support, planning, and integration, but it can be done.

The Gaming Zone, Tempe
This is quietly Arizona’s best store for collectible and rare video games, and only a few in the tabletop game community know that they have Friday Night Magic on the schedule right next to Smash Brothers and Street Fighter tournaments.  This store teaches me with every visit that the rabbit hole of console game collecting and fandom runs extremely deep, farther than most of us realize.  The tabletop game and comic store trade tends to look down its nose at “vidya games,” but we may be the ones missing out.

Gotham City Comics and Coffee, Mesa
Take a 100-year-old building and renovate it into a comic boutique, and what do you get?  The store that got my imagination spinning again in 2011 when I was on the fence about re-entering the trade.  This store touches a lot of categories and isn’t tremendously deep in most of them, but it has taught me that a beautiful buildout and just enough attention to the iconic nerd pursuits can be a winning formula.

Greg’s Comics, Mesa
Another of the few stores in town that existed before I was old enough to drive, Greg’s Comics (owned by Howard, naturally) has at various points in time sold action figures, Magic: the Gathering, and even trading cards and stickers, but comic books remain the bottom line now and always.  The comic analogue to Prime Time Cards and Games later down this list, Greg’s Comics succeeds by doing exactly one thing and doing it to perfection: providing comic subscription box services at a generous discount, and advertising precisely that.  Howard wastes nothing: He once joked that he was renaming the store “Great Comics” so he would only have to buy two giant metal letters to update the marquee.  That was in 1991.

Hobby Destination, Chandler
There’s an entire branch of the hobby trade that’s more concerned with modeling, crafts, remote control vehicles, and like such.  This store focuses there, but also runs Magic: the Gathering events.  One of my own employees is a frequent customer of theirs for modeling.  This store taught me that even when I think I have a handle on a category in this industry, there’s often a yarn of overlap that leads into vast untapped territory.

Howie’s Game Shack, Mesa
Howie’s is a supra-regional chain of network PC game “arcades” that focus on first-person shooters, MMORPGs, Minecraft, and similar.  Their Mesa Riverview location ran Magic: the Gathering tournaments for a time, and I attended a few booster drafts there during the planning stages of DSG.  Breathtakingly clean and sharp, their buildout is both functional and inviting.  They have a special sponsorship deal in place with Monster beverages.  Each of these aspects is instructive to me and has me pondering how I can tap into that unfulfilled potential at DSG.

Imperial Outpost Games, Glendale
The third-longest-tenured store on this list, IOG teaches an elbow-drop of a lesson every single day: You don’t actually need Magic: the Gathering to succeed.  They outgross DSG and they do it without DSG’s biggest product line, which goes to show how well-executed the rest of their categorical coverage is.  Beloved by its player community and firing on all cylinders, Imperial Outpost is a west Valley institution and probably the best overall game store in Arizona.

Jesse James Comics, Glendale
Comic-centered, Jesse James has my attention because they’re making inroads into volume sales the way Dave and Adam’s Card World or Star City Games do for TCGs.  I am informed secondhand that Jesse James serves as a de facto comic distributor for businesses that, for whatever reason, are unable to deal with Diamond directly.  I’m not sure that sort of thing is in the cards (ha ha) for DSG, but I definitely want to learn how it works and what’s possible that way.

Manawerx/Rookies to Legends, Glendale
There’s a fairly convoluted history behind this store, but all you have to know today is that it’s a good store owned by a good guy and being managed by another good guy.  It’s adjacent to Imperial Outpost and sells exactly the things IOG does not: currently Magic: the Gathering and concessions, but previously sports memorabilia and sometimes other items as well.  For a while Rookies looked like it was going to win the own-a-building upgrade path, but it didn’t work out.  I follow this store with interest because its leadership is so consistently able to reverse setbacks and return to forward movement.

Mesa Comics, Mesa
Everyone knows this store and mine have a history, but I learn from Mesa Comics regardless, even today.  I maintain that it is the best-named store in Arizona, as I’ll discuss in an upcoming article.  In ten letters, it communicates where they are and what they sell.  It also establishes the blueprint for a location start with minimal expenditure of resources.  When DSG has its permanent hub up and running and it’s time to grow some spokes, those satellite stores may bear a strong resemblance to Mesa Comics.

Phoenix Gaming Lounge, Phoenix
Another member of this past year’s rookie class, this store opened in the Encanto Park neighborhood right near Phoenix College.  If it had opened a few months sooner, I was working at the state capitol right down the street and might have been a regular visitor.  Among other things, PGL taught me that the principle of locating where there is no existing competition is so powerfully correct that it even works when the area is “old wood” and you wouldn’t think a gamer community could arise there.

Play or Draw Cards and Games, Avondale
When a twenty-year-pro player decides to dive into the trade, this store is the result.  They’ve done so much right that a blurb can hardly cover it all.  They opened big enough to avoid the space constraints that plague DSG today.  They had the owner’s massive personal collection of singles on the shelf from day one to establish credibility.  They struck exactly the right tone with competitive players, serving the legitimate climbers while discouraging the more parasitic scrappers.  While they carry many games, they committed heavily to Magic: the Gathering right from the start and have not taken their foot off that particular gas pedal.  And they located in what was, at the time, far and away the best spot in the metro for a new store to open.

Prime Time Cards and Games, Gilbert
The vestigial spark of the erstwhile Gamers Inn, Prime Time is to trading card games what Greg’s Comics is to comics.  Targeting an audience of young, price-sensitive Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic players,  Prime Time teaches me that it’s absolutely possible to serve the scavengers of an ecosystem as long as your resource base is directed at revenue conversion and not wasted on unnecessary amenities.  The functional efficiency of this business puts higher-scale stores to shame.

Samurai Comics, Phoenix Central, Phoenix West, and Mesa 
The only regional chain currently active in the trade here in the Valley, Samurai has a proven comic-focused model that reaches far enough into games to claim the low- and medium-hanging fruit.  The owner still works every day coordinating operations.  Discussing with him how he has it lined up and organized has given me great insight into where my purview will develop.  I also observed Samurai's excellent deployment at Phoenix Comicon and hope to build toward that for DSG.

Showtime Collectables, Tempe
The sports cards analogue of Greg’s Comics and Prime Time.  Showtime existed before the MMORPG break, but its involvement in the game side of the trade was purely in a collectible sense at the time, with zero organized play.  Fast forward a decade and a half and they have their room full of tables like anyone else, and they cater fearlessly to audiences that have full-spectrum stores apprehensive, such as Yu-Gi-Oh, Dragonball Z, and lately Force of Will.  Utilitarian merchandising on the sports card side wouldn’t fly in a boutique but has great appeal to the “treasure hunting” customer demographic.  In my customer mindset, I like it.  I don’t think I could configure DSG that way and have it work.  And it’s still valuable for me to understand what they’re doing and why.

Silver Star Comics, Tempe
I’ve only visited once to this store tucked away in a corner by the Tempe Dollar Cinemas.  The staff member on duty was friendly.  The store has a comics focus mostly to the exclusion of games.  For now I have mostly questions about this store, so what it will teach me is still yet to be learned.  For one thing, I’m damned curious how you run Friday Night Magic when competing directly with movie theater parking and guests at the nearby Vinci Torio’s Italian restaurant.  Which, by the way, is exquisite.

Toy Anxiety, Paradise Valley
You know all those $300 statues that Diamond sells to comic stores?  Lifelike replicas of Iron Man, Harley Quinn, Daenerys Targaryen, or Monthly Manga Girl? And remember all those action figures and toys of yesteryear that your mom threw away, as moms always do? Optimus Prime, Snake Eyes, Spawn, the Millennium Falcon, or the Galaxy Explorer?  Yeah, this store is nothing but all that stuff.  No games, no comics, and yet somehow it is absolutely a part of our trade; in theory I'd carry any product they carry, they're just doing it now and doing it at scale.  Like The Gaming Zone and Hobby Destination, this store taught me that there are huge categories at the verges of our trade that go far deeper than we realize.

True Believer Comics, Gilbert
The final entry in this list from this past year’s rookie class taught me never to underestimate the power of “all dogs allowed.” :)

If I didn’t include a particular store, I apologize.  It didn’t show up for me in any of the Wizards Event Locator, Diamond Comic Shop Locator, or WizKids Event System, and if I already knew about it some other way, I just lost it in the shuffle.   Maybe what that store taught me was not to depend on the locators? That knowledge has value too.

Ten years ago, half or more of that list would have been different stores; twenty years ago, the list would be almost entirely different.  Retail is transitory, so those that survive Year One have defied the odds, and those that survive Year Ten are practically miracle workers.  If pay enough attention to all of them and glean what knowledge I can, Desert Sky Games and Comics might hopefully still be on this list for years to come.

3 comments:

  1. Nice list. I need to check out some of these places, especially for the things DSG doesn't offer. I've only found a couple on my own, even in the three years I've lived here.

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  2. Would like to see a post mortem on some of the stores that have come and gone in the valley

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  3. Great idea Kevin, thanks! I'll add that to my articles-to-write queue!

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