Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Being In Two Places at the Same Time

This past weekend brought with it the second year of the Phoenix Comicon Fan Fest out in Glendale at the Cardinals' Stadium, and Desert Sky Games and Comics was there with our most elaborate booth thus far with the most merchandise we've featured to date -- all while running a full itinerary of events at the store in Gilbert.

Weekends like this are when a store gets to enjoy some of the payoff for the expense and effort of scaling up.  At the same time, it became painfully clear that there is still a much higher ceiling we could reach in scale, and there is much more efficiency we could get out of our current scale by optimizing our convention/festival/carnival booth deployment framework.

Thursday morning, my two main business partners and I drove the 50+ miles to the stadium for load-in.  Thanks to an early arrival, we were allowed down the ramp into the parking area behind the field tray and were free to disembark all our gear right away.  We drove back up and parked in the main lot to make room for other vendors, and Patrick, the other Mike, and I spent a fairly busy few hours rigging up a gridwall fixture structure and deploying all our merchandise.

We've done this a few times already so a lot of the learned-my-lesson stuff was routine by now, including our technology and our sundries.  The big leap for Fan Fest 2015 for us was no longer being bound to the booth table, plastic garage racks, and hanging things solely from the pipe-and-drape.  Building a gridwall fortress would be utter overkill at the local church carnival, and we'll gladly run a smaller booth at such an event and break out the plastics, but for Comicon, even the little stepchild of Comicon, elaborate booths make an impression.  And next year for PCC Prime in June, we'll be even bigger and further-reaching.

Once the setup was done, I still had a day's work to do at the store!  I was there until almost ten in the evening, which does happen sometimes.  The midnight oil hasn't been necessary for the most part since Patrick and I got into the grooves of our respective roles.  I'll be pulling plenty of late shifts this month as I ready our Microsoft RMS point-of-sale changeover, but that's a one-off project.

Friday, we had Patrick with two staff members at Fan Fest, while I worked the main store along with fulfillment and the front-of-house staff.  The early December frame is notoriously slow in our trade, with students studying for final exams and the working world alternately finishing year-end deliverables and attending weekend holiday office parties.  Patrick gambled that we'd only need two staff for Friday Night Magic, and we almost got there.  It was a busier night than expected because attendance hit the marks we forecast but walk-in sales in general exceeded par.  It would have been really great to have another fully trained staff member available, and we're very lucky there were no illnesses.

We've been on the verge of another hire for a while now, but we know the belt tightens substantially just after the beginning of January, so we're reluctant to pull the trigger with all of our current crew performing solidly.  As I write this article, I think we may just move ahead with interviews and get the hire done.  DSG's business is growing and we're diving into some new categories in early 2016 and returning to an old one we never wanted to leave (console video games).  We need more human beings and we need them to get their sea legs sooner rather than later.

Saturday served ample notice of where scaling up still had work to do.  Patrick's convention crew operated as scheduled, but I had a morning of multiple family and friends events taking place and we had forgotten to start our opening staffer a half-hour ahead of time so the Imperial Assault tournament could get set up.  It ran strong and the day continued into Netrunner, MTG Standard, D&D Attack Wing, and Warhammer 40K.  In fact, our day's sales had a huge spike right at the end from Warhammer sales.  I was especially pleased with that because those were hours we weren't open a few months ago.  Gambling that holiday business would be solid and that our metrics would reflect growth, we returned to being open later on Saturdays and Sundays.  Thus far that bet has paid off.  But during the time I was on campus, I frequently had to set aside my administrative work to help coordinate events and work on sales exceptions, much like a manager on duty.  Usually Patrick would be doing this on a Saturday, the store's biggest mainstream business day.  But he was across town making us as many new friends as possible, so "janitorial duties" fell to me.  We've got an up-and-coming staff member learning his way into management, and he's going to have a very lively December with us once the holiday shopping switch flips "on" around the tenth or eleventh of the month.

Sunday was busier than expected at Fan Fest, which had been mediocre up until then, and far busier than usual (though we expected this) at the store, with the Pokemon City Championships underway.  An onslaught of nearly a hundred Poke-players basically blew the rest of the day's gameplay right off the map, and for hours we ran umpteen microtransactions for concessions.  I bolted mid-afternoon for more family time before heading back to Glendale for load-out, and discovered that no sooner was I out the door than the sales truck rolled in, with our daily take tripling between 2:30pm and close of business at dinnertime.  Sweet!

Unfortunately, as is typical for Phoenix Comicon, load-out was something of a fiasco, with long waits to bring vehicles down the ramp even though I arrived there ahead of the show closure.  The staff and I ended up just hoofing it up the ramp multiple times with our utility cart -- a tool we could probably stand to own another of -- and we allowed ourselves an exhausted dinner and debriefing before dumping the entire rig at the store for Monday morning clean-up.

Proving we have the workflows to have, essentially, two stores for the weekend, optimization to be desired of course, now how do we get more efficiency out of this scale?

An obvious answer might be "Just open another location so you'll have two stores all the time."  Down the road that's likely to happen, but the reality is that a second store when you haven't scaled up sufficiently just ends up being twice the risk exposure and little of the benefit beyond maybe somewhat better branding reach.  You take all the problems and challenges of a store and then double that, and since you're almost always going to cannibalize from your own clientele at the new location, it takes time and expense to grow to where you're actually ahead of your previous performance pound-for-pound.  It's tempting in a world with "just good enough" turn-key solutions like Crystal Commerce to multiply a game store and chain up with a flourish.  I think you end up putting too much stress on an inadequate backbone structure, and eventually something's gonna give.  To chain up sustainably, you need to start doing things like the professionals do, and that means a far vaster framework of scale than most comic or hobby game trade stores can even sniff at.  Do it right, and the growth potential is sky-high.  Just look at GameStop, or even Starbucks.  Do it wrong, and you pour a lot of money down a rat hole.  A friend of mine owns and administers two, just two, large sporting goods stores.  He has shown me how the great mechanism works from behind the scenes, and his level of scale dwarfs anything I've encountered in our trade, period.  If I'm going to multiply my everyday retail footprint, I'm following his playbook.

Based on emphasizing our strengths and using our resources at hand, I believe expanding our convention presence and operation is the winning agenda for DSG right now.  Even small festivals and carnivals tend to have far greater customer traffic than an average retail day at the shop, and the cost of entry can be as cheap as zero and is usually only a hefty sum when the event is very hobby-focused and very large.  The risk exposure is orders of magnitude less than opening another full store location.  The deployment process can be mastered; the deployment kit can be improved and refined. The merchandise mix can be gloriously modular and can be quickly and easily fine-tuned for any expected audience.  And the best thing about the remote operations option is that with enough attention and labor to allocate to it, we can run it with incredibly high frequency -- which then increases visits to the main store, allowing us to grow into the larger staff roster organically.

I don't know that the Booth Barker plan is for everyone, or even most stores, but in our trade it should be something every retailer at least explores.  The Jedi Master of doing this is probably Pat Fuge of Gnome Games, a triad of stores in eastern Wisconsin.  Fuge has his finger on the pulse of virtually every community activity of consequence.  If a public event is happening, Gnome Games is there.  Every municipal office knows who he is, every merchant association around has him in their iCloud Contacts.  As soon as you finish paying for that funnel cake, there's a friendly face asking if you want to learn how to play Splendor.  It's not a bad circuit to traverse.

Now if you'll pardon me, I think I need to be touching base with the Amazing Arizona Comic Con organizers about some booth space.

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