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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Meeting the Expectation at First Glance

In North America at least, a typical comic or hobby game store is located in a commercial suite.  This means the store is in a shopping mall or plaza, whether indoor or outdoor, and exists alongside other small business outlets.  Nail salons, coffee shops, small restaurants, barbershops, and the like are common.  Other niches of retail appear in such locations: jewelry stores, apparel stores, pet stores.  Some of our stores abut used bookstores, thrift stores, or pawnshops.  The mix varies whether the shopping center is an indoor mall, a strip mall, or, as in the case of Desert Sky Games and Comics, a plaza anchored by a grocery store, Fry’s Food and Drug.  (Kroger for you easterners.)  If the store is in a stand-alone building in such a plaza, it’s called a retail pad instead of a suite, but it’s the same species of animal.

Shopping centers are natural locations for small retail because they are a place people go.  There is thus a likelihood that a visitor to any one store in the plaza will see another business and be interested, or at least curious.  This generates an arrival known as “walk-in” or “walk-up” customer traffic.  Walk-in customer traffic is a crucial part of how many stores survive.  It is like a vast prepaid advertisement being redeemed: the cost of rent on the store’s lease itself is generally reflected in the shopping center’s attractiveness as a place for people to go.  It is expected that a store in such a location will be visited by a non-zero number of human beings who arrived spontaneously and not in response to an advert message.

When a customer arrives and is not familiar with your store, that is when your business’s entire body of work is tested.  If you pass the test, you probably receive moneydollars.  At the very least you may generate goodwill that can convert into a bounceback visit or a positive referral.  And sometimes you will jackpot and find either an angel customer who becomes deeply supportive, or an angel “buy” source who will bring you resellable merchandise they no longer want or need.  Maybe they’re decluttering, maybe they are in distress, maybe they bought in low and are cashing in at a profit, whatever.

If your store is not ready to meet the expectations of that customer, you as the owner have not done your job, and your body of work requires attention.  Fortunately, for most comic and hobby game stores, there are some general guidelines that are proven effective.  Some are easy to implement and some are excruciatingly difficult.

First, let’s dispose of the exception.  There exist comic or hobby game stores that are pure “destination” locations, such as Mox Boarding House in Bellevue, Washington or the Reaper Game Store in Denton, Texas, that are located in light industrial plazas, not commercial real estate, and do not have walk-in customer traffic in any meaningful sense of the term.  For such stores, meeting an arriving customer’s expectation is more straightforward.  These stores have, by definition, attracted arrivals who know where they are going and generally why.  Even a first-time visitor to Mox very likely knows what a tabletop game is and wouldn’t have made the trip out unless they wanted one.  For these stores, meeting the expectation is as simple as delivering on the advert promise.  If your advert said your destination store is the comic headquarters of Westlake City, and that customer walks in and is impressed by a huge new release wall and a vast back issue library and shelves of Batman statues, your store probably met the expectation.  This does require labor.  The store has to be clean, bright, and inviting to some extent.  But if you are what you say you are, your destination store has returned serve.  Your work is front-loaded to the task of generating the arrival in the first place.

For the rest of us, stores in shopping centers, arrivals will perpetually be a mixture of walk-in traffic, much of which may be unfamiliar with our trade, and destination traffic, otherwise known as existing customers.  We need both, of course.  New blood is the only way to offset attrition and grow a clientele.  But much of the product in our industry is oriented toward devoted hobbyists who are deeply familiar with comics or games.  (Or both.)  Meeting the expectation at first glance for sustained success requires that your store appear welcoming and relevant to both types of arrivals.

General retail principles apply.  Ample parking helps, though that situation was likely set in stone (quite literally in stone) at the time you chose your location.  Good lighting is a must.  General cleanliness is important.  Clear walkways with room to browse are essential.  Allowing customers to touch and handle the merchandise makes a huge difference.  A clean restroom is important enough that a deficiency in this area is a dealbreaker for many customers.  And of course, smiling faces.  My own store is not meeting a high standard of execution on some of these items, in my estimation, and it does cost me business.  Maintenance is an ongoing process.  Buildout is more difficult to improve once the barge is on the river.  These issues will demand and must receive attention.  I am happy with the way my staff interacts with new customers, but my physical plant needs work.

Moving from the general to the specific, the product mix a walk-in customer encounters is a huge part of the impression your store conveys, and whether that impression matches the customer’s expectation, whatever it may be.

Comic stores have the advantage here.  A walk-in customer who knows nothing about the game trade can see a comic book and will instantly understand what it is and what the store is.  If only all categories were so accessible.  On the comic side of things, most people who have seen Big Bang Theory or Mallrats have a notion that a comic store should have books and toys on the wall and a library of back issues to browse.  This is why every comic store has such a library even though it takes up space, takes labor to curate, and doesn't create nearly as many sales as the store's subscription boxes.  The back-issue library is there because a back-issue library is supposed to be there; a tautology.  If the walk-in customer does know about comics and doesn’t see good coverage, they mentally dismiss you as “not a real comic store” and will buy instead from one that met that expectation.

With many pure game stores, a walk-in customer is authentically disoriented.  If the first thing that customer sees is a store full of six-foot tables and glass cases full of Magic cards, in many cases they have no idea whatsoever what the store is for.  It looks like a cafeteria, or a church social hall.  They wonder what strange place they have wandered into.  They are uncomfortable.  They don’t play Magic, or they would have known ahead of time about the store, likely by finding it on the DCI Event Locator.  They may even think it’s a poker room of some kind, which has its own set of messaging negatives.  So they are well and truly flummoxed and the impression that wallops them is to leave, now.  This is true even if the tournament area is clean and spacious.

It improves only a little bit if the first thing they see is a Warhammer 40K table with a swarm of miniatures bristling and glinting off their gun barrels, but it’s better than the Magic cult chamber.  At least the visitor might recognize miniatures as models, especially if the store has prominent paint racks and hobby supply racks.  OK, now they get it, sort of.  It’s not for them, but they could imagine their child or relative who is into “nerdy things” being involved in such a hobby.  Toy soldiers or whatever that is.

The next step up is role-playing.  I separated that from board games because while RPG materials start with books, which you’d think would be a familiar thing, it’s not that easy.  Not only does the RPG hobby involve miniatures (overlapping with miniature wargaming and modeling), complicating the merchandising mix, but many RPG books have pictures of fiery demons and the like on the cover.  Young whippersnappers in the audience might find this hard to believe, but there is a distinct cohort of mostly older people who think Dungeons and Dragons is evil or involves devil worship.  There was a big fit of bad publicity in the early 1980s when some college students who had other problems committed suicide, mumble mumble steam tunnels, and the media seized upon the most salacious scapegoat they could find, which was that several such youths owned D&D game materials.  To this day I have grandmothers walk in, look at the RPG rack, and walk out shaking their heads muttering “devil.”  So while a game category made up of books and miniatures is a little more accessible than a Magic cafeteria or a ping-pong table full of Tyranids, for purely artificial reasons it won’t help you much in terms of the impression you want to make.

The next mainstream-friendly step is to hobby-market board games, such as Eurogames and strategy tabletop generally.  This is a category that gets grouses from typical store owners because of how badly Amazon discounting has devalued it, but at least the idea of a “board game” is a little more recognizable.  Indeed, if your store carries USAopoly licensed games, it gets simpler still: If a customer doesn’t know what Monopoly or Yahtzee is, I hereby absolve you of any sins you committed in the maintenance of your store, as far as that arrival is concerned.  In very rare cases, yes, it is hopeless.  But mostly what you’re going to find out is that even evergreen titles like Catan, Ticket to Ride, Axis & Allies, and Splendor are a little off-the-beaten-path to the walk-up customer.  They don’t call those “gateway games” by accident, but it’s going to take work and finesse to convert that arrival into a customer.

A lot of people see the word “games” in the store name and assume console video games, since obviously those are the only games that exist.  Okay, maybe not.  It’s just a much, much larger market.  Your store has exactly two options in that case.  Be prepared to tell phone callers and walk-in customers every single day that the games you have are tabletop, not electronic.  Or else just carry console video games.  The latter option is non-trivial and in many cases is cost-prohibitive, site-prohibitive, or community-prohibitive.  But you understand the expectation.  A substantial portion of walk-in customers expects you to have console video games.  It’s up to you whether or how you want to field that punt.

There is a category that kind of bridges strategy tabletop and simple mainstream fare, which is party games.  The behemoth, of course, is Cards Against Humanity, a game that is essentially Apples to Apples with dirty jokes.  The frustrating retail situation with that game could fill an article by itself, but suffice it to say, it’s on my shelves and it’s not going anywhere.  Usually for your store to be in this category and have a casual mainstream customer in a frame of mind to buy, however, you need to have done something more to meet their expectation of understanding what kind of store they are in.

This is why you see so many stores bring in chess, mahjongg, cribbage, and the like, even though sourcing and merchandising on those games is cumbersome.  Everyone over the age of ten knows what a chess set is.  The sales aren’t tremendous in this category but they are there partly as ornaments.  They are there to help convey an impression.  They are there so that the moment a customer walks in, they understand that this is a Game Store.  Yes, Games.  Fun games!  Like Chess.  Be at peace, weary traveler.  Lay your burden down and exuberate.  And try to ignore the goat sacrifices going on at the back table near all those booster wrappers.

Not all game stores have the square footage or the open capital to sink into an entire category of mainstream games that exist partly as decorations.  However, the stores that last, the stores that don’t depend on a treadmill of hot Magic expansion releases to live from quarter to quarter, the stores that are sustainable, find some way to meet the customer expectation at first glance that your store be something they can recognize and understand.  Mainstream games can do it.  Comic books can do it.  Sports cards, actually, can do it, though that market is a colossal dumpster fire right now and most people from Generation Y or later don’t care about sports cards and never will.  But at least anyone who walks into the store knows what a baseball card is, or a signed jersey, or a replica helmet.  Video games can do it.  They are ubiquitous.  Console video games are a labor-intensive, capital-intensive, space-intensive category, but it can be very profitable and anyone who walks in “gets it.”  Or you could be one of the game trade’s new pioneers, offering a coffee bar or arcade or some other new value-add that ordinary non-hobbyists understand.  Pick your path.  Multiple paths are okay, and I recommend taking them on one at a time until you master them and they turn from expensive projects into revenue streams.

…Oh yeah, the devoted gamers and collectors.  How do you make your impression meet their expectation?  It’s easier in principle, just more expensive and time-consuming in practice.  You show that your store loves what they love, cares about what they care about.  You have the goods and you stand behind them.  If the guy walking in plays Netrunner and you have a good stock of Netrunner and you’re running a monthly FFG kit tournament, you won.  Barring a negative experience, you just won a customer, in part or whole.  If the girl walking in loves the Walking Dead and you have the Image library in stock and some swag to boot, you won.  If the couple walking in with their two kids passes by your Pokemon rack and the kids’ eyes go wide at all the decks, packs, and holofoils, you won.  A lot of stores assume they will have to fight price resistance every time.  That does happen sometimes, but it usually doesn't.  And if you don’t have the goods… price doesn’t matter.

This very day, if you’re in a commercial suite, the odds are good that a visitor who has never been in a comic or hobby game store will walk in your door.  That arrival will look around, see all that you have built at a glance, and they will draw a conclusion.  What have you done, or what can you do now or in the future, to make that person conclude that they belong?

When you can answer that question, your way forward becomes clear.


  1. Do you tear down the most front/visible tables in the playing space when you don't have a big event? I presume that's most of the time, and converting that into some roll-in display(s) that have more accessible items could be a better use of idle space. That also implies the need for labor, capital for the extra items, and storage space, though...

  2. There's a little bit of room modification we can do to run high capacity or low capacity, and some sideways stuff for games where the table size and layout is different, like X-Wing or Pathfinder. Square footage is only so malleable of course. The bigger store always has better options, that space just comes at a cost.