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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

All the Small Things

My store "works" really well in general.  It turns a profit, however modest.  It's enough to provide a living for two of the owners and still pay our staff for all their hard work.  The rack and fixture are functional and generally present product in a manner that is inviting and accessible.  It's clean generally in the sense that one can be there and play games in comfort, in an environment largely free of odors and dirt, and on tables and chairs that aren't falling apart, and with use of restrooms that are sanitary.  The above is really barely a minimum level of competence by the standards of commercial establishments generally.  It is dismaying that in the comic and hobby game trade this represents the top 10% or so of stores.

Every day, though, I see things about my store that I realize can be done better and need to be done better.  They are not done better yet due to some combination of prioritization, resources, process failure, poor time management, laziness, and to a far lesser extent, facility limitations.  Prioritization is the overwhelming culprit.  A lot of what should be done, would be done, if it ever climbed to the top of the actionable items list on a given day.

One way I can motivate myself to make my business better is to make myself publicly accountable for it.  Here, then, is a photo tour of all the small things that are wrong with Desert Sky Games and Comics.  Hopefully having shown them to the world will be sufficient to impel me and the partners to take action.
This is the store as you first see it when you walk in the door.  There is no uniformity to this.  No signage, no indication of which way to go or where the merchandise is (other than what's right in your way, it's mostly to the right).  The entire pathway to the back room is visible and every mess between here and there is evident.  That empty Games Workshop rack on the right is not there; that happened to be getting moved at the time I took this photo.  The store is bright and the place does project abundance, but that's as much as I can say for it.
Some dice on the front slatwall, just sitting there not properly pegged or merchandised at all.  This looks like a remainders rack but nope, it's right in front of you as you enter.
Turning to your seven-o-clock as you enter is this corner.  The mirror holds a camera placement, and is not meant to be too concealing of that fact.  The shades help keep the desert sun from broiling my customers and merchandise alike.  This is one of the few places on the wall where I have properly run slatwall all the way to eight feet, but as you can see, it's possible to go higher (next photo).  The glass cases full of display armies for Warhammer look great but this is a bad placement for them.  They will be moved this week.
Looking to your left as you enter you can see a rack with some sleeves and binders.  The merchandising is extremely haphazard here but the bigger problem is that empty space above them on the wall.  I first opened thinking a minimalist appearance would be cool, but it turns out that is just wasteful.  I learned on my visit to Wii Play Games East in Las Vegas that this kind of space needs to be filled with merchandise.  I have the grid panels; mounting brackets are on the way.  The Batman DKIII poster is cool but should be hung on a less valuable piece of wall.
Turning to the ten-o-clock, that same wall.  I bought a bunch of the Spider-Man poster so we could actually display it and sell it, because we had good results from top-loadering posters and selling them off from there.  It turns out the mass market solved this a long time ago with the "pages" poster display.  I procured one from a closing record store yesterday and it will go up in the store this week. I will need to order deeper on single poster designs to make the best revenue from that.  Further to the right you can see the KMC sleeves and some WizKids bricks.  That area is actually behind the counter.  While it needs improvement it's not as irksome to me.
What a mess, right below that.  A glass display case that's tough to see and tougher to shop.  Samus Aran is guarding nothing!  And those gorgeous Norse Foundry dice need to be where people can see them!  In fact, hang on a moment.  I'm fixing this right now.  The dice are moving to the front case.  I'll revisit our favorite Nintendo heroine later in this article.
The westmost aisle, directly to your three-o-clock as you enter the door.  From right to left: Comic new releases, comic trades, Image and independents recent, DC recent, IDW recent and some Star Wars statues above them, then on the gondolas, board games A-Z, board game new releases, a segment with a haphazard mess of board games, and my Haba/Blue Orange endcap that looks wretched.  The comics are mostly okay.  The rest has to be revamped, badly.
This is the next aisle in.  Marvel recents on the back wall.  On the right: Loose playmats, random clearance board games nobody can see or shop, Munchkin, Heroclix and Dice Masters, then Fantasy Flight for several segments (heavily shopped despite its shoddiness), and on the other side, random stuff not merchandised in a rack ultimately intended for video games, then some prepainted miniatures boosters and singles, and finally various playmats.  This is the worst single aisle in the store and needs extensive work.  Moreover there needs to be a plan-o-gram so that new releases don't metastasize like a cancer and ruin the setup over time.
The third aisle, entirely miniatures and accessories.  This is the best looking aisle but is terribly uncompressed and wasteful.  It is not urgent that it be remerchandised, and it's not just for the sake of change.  The merchandising process is optimization of having the product be inviting and enjoyable to shop, balanced against eliminating wasted space and racking.  I am happy now to see that on all the gondolas and on the back wall (more Marvel recents) none of the merch would be damaged by an industrial floor cleaner here.  Merchandise on the floor is one of the things that makes my fists clench.  As a customer I don't want damaged goods, and I assume in turn that my customers feel the same.  At the same time to keep our floors looking good, we are going to need better cleaning processes, which will ultimately involve heavier equipment.  The solution was to add height and have the bottom rung be non-wire shelves.
The bottom of the comic new release rack, and it's pretty ramshackle.  The Previews sit poorly and those wire rack shelves aren't of great quality.  They need to be replaced with wooden shelves, which I will do soon.  The very bottom shelf is t-shirts and it's some of the better designs we've got, and they sell pretty well.  Imagine how much more they would sell if they were put where people could shop them.  T-shirts are a known problem point; I have some waterfall displays that are helping but we really just need a proper grid box where people can see the shirt sample and then take their size from the bin behind it.  I had better solve this soon because we ordered half a grand worth of Off World Designs shirts at the GAMA Trade Show two weeks ago.
The New Releases sign, which has the obsolete Notayak mascot and the "funny pages" themed font that I like almost as much as having my teeth drilled.  This needs to be replaced and thrown out.  The Desert Sky branding uses the Pirulen font and needs to be used for this as well.   I love the Alliance LED light boxes.  The Catan is turned off because I was changing out its power strip.
Luke, Vader, and Chewie are cool, but that wall space could be used for real merchandise.  The grid gondolas here are the Image and independent recent releases and then to their left the DC recents.  I don't like how messy the paint looks along that top drywall strip.  That needs to have merchandise up there or get repainted.
This is the southwest corner of the store, directly right of where you walk in.  Another mirror with a camera rather visibly hidden behind it.  The statues are something we've never displayed well.  Having them out of the box in the glass towers didn't help sales much and made it difficult when we had to put them back.  I've seen good statue placement high on shelves in stores in Colorado, Florida, and Nevada.  I'm going to try doing the same.

Also, I looooove me some Firefly.  But those Firefly "Les Hommes / Les Femmes" posters up there are taking up merchandise space.  Do people even look up that high?  Yes they do.  I am asked all the time if I will sell the Firefly posters.  (When people discover the going rate for them, their interest tends to deflate a bit.)  I will gladly sell all ten, including the rare Saffron/Bridget, for whatever the market price is on any given day, if you're interested.  I will not break up the set.
I deliberately shot this angle because I think it makes this section of wall look its worst.  It's not actually that bad in person but I want there to be no illusions about how aware I am of the issues here.  The slatwall ends here because the gameplay area begins here.  However, it does not end evenly.  There are posters strewn about and some Diamond Marvel Select figures that would be perfect candidates for being on high-up grid racks rather than taking up valuable slat real estate.  Further down the wall there are prints, which are earning their keep and are a growing category for us, so I'm not seeing as much urgency to change those.  Behind the prints, that wall was repainted a few months ago and is the least-worst white wall in the building.  The TV gets the job done and I'm content with how the cables are hidden away.  (Don't tell the other retailers online, though.  They don't want to think about such things.  Trust me on that.)
These two endcaps are reasonably satisfactory to me.  Youth comics and Star Wars comics, respectively.  In both cases they use the space mostly well and are presented professionally.  In this frame you can see the left side of the X-Wing section, which needs work.
Jumping to the counter till area.  Chessex dice populate some shelves right in front of the main cash counter.  It's a good assortment, but as you can see, it gets pretty messy as it gets shopped.  It's probably enough to straighten this up when I get dice restocks, but Chessex has had so many stockouts lately I have let it slide for a couple of weeks to wait on availability.  I just need to bite the bullet and get whatever I can next week instead of looking for the top-off.
Hatred Shelf #1, behind the counter and the main merch displays.  This was meant to be organized play storage combined with store supplies.  It turned into an amalgam of everything of course.   The overstock board games need to be out on the floor because they won't cycle properly upon purchase, that never gets proper attention because it's a bad workflow.  This is part of why "backstock" is a four-letter word to me and I get so touchy about it.  This is wasted money.  Lost money.  This is going to be redone entirely.
Box stock for Magic and some extra Charizard Generations sets for Pokemon.  No, I'm not worried about having too much Charizard.  Trust me when I tell you that of all the Pokemon product out there, the demand tail for this is going to be among the longest, and the eventual value range among the healthiest.  The most current Magic set, Oath of the Gatewatch, has a few cases' worth right behind the cash till but you can see some sealed cases to the right, which we do get asked for every now and then.  I love the D&D banners but that area needs to be filled with merchandise.  (Stop me if you've heard that before.)
So, this area just came into existence.  I had created two small work areas for comics and minis and discovered that I botched it; both areas were too small to do any meaningful work.  The minis area was not possible to use for modeling or supplies, and the comic area had no room for the shrink-wrap machine and was too far from the subscriber box cabinets.  I've made them into one larger workstation that should be usable for both, but as that isn't a priority, right now it is serving as a storage dump area for other items.  Fortunately, it is not highly visible to the public.
Moving back further out of the public area we have racks full of sodas and supplies.  This is part of the challenge of a small store.  One of the business partners loves roaming town in search of the absolute best prices he can get on beverages, and then he buys deep.  Problem is, in a building with only 2400 square feet, we have only limited room to put it all.  This space is sorely needed for other things, but I cannot deny the benefit of getting a great price on inventory that sells.
 This is the back office, and the less shown about that, the better.  Suffice it to say, if it were clean, it would be a splendid operational base for the store.  It is not clean.
One of two things I will show you from the office is our massive computer server farm, the vast and powerful mechanism behind our entire technological deployment.  One Mac Mini.  That's it.  (For RMS we had to buy a proper Windows server rack.)
The other thing I will show you from the office.  We can actually get out the back door, but the sandbags are necessary because the builders messed up and poured the rear landing concrete wrong, and when it rains, water floods into the back room.  Because of this, it makes a poor access door even though it would and should be great to be able to get product right to the back room.  And because it is poor and is seldom used, we tend to throw crap there when we don't have time to put it away properly.  And then Bahr gets to grind his teeth some more.
All the grid and slat hooks were organized, once.
This is the side of one of the RPG book displays, and it's near a customer through-way from the shopping area to the play area.  Notice that the constant abrasion of backpacks has worn the paint away as people walk by.
The other side of the RPG book displays.  Got them on the cheap from a closing K-Mart.  They are about to fall prey to lack of space and be compressed from three to two.  I'll store the other one for the new location on the horizon.
Unfortunately the back of those RPG book racks is unfinished.  For lack of a better solution, here they are facing... the play area.  Where the players spend most of their time.
Part one of the prints: Jamie Tyndall, whose style is immensely popular for some reason.  Why is one print situated below the others?  I don't know.  I assume Patrick put it that way to anger me.
Two more sets of prints we sell: Marvel and Disney artist Mindy Wheeler (right) and various properties in a new "tykes" assortment by Jason Meents (left) that just arrived.  We can't keep Wheeler's Disney stuff in stock, it's so popular.  Her Rey & BB-8 print is our single best selling print, just ahead of Tyndall's Lady Mechanika.  I'm generally okay with how this display turned out because it works, but I keep thinking it would be more professional if the prints were mounted more durably.
Our two modular miniatures tables, manufactured by the esteemed Mike Jackson.  The FAT Mat table covers are sweet.  In the background you can see the toppers that Adam Johnson and Mark Zawacki, two of our prominent players, built with X-Wing in mind.
The corner by the staff and ladies' restroom.  Notice the dirt on the walls.  I rarely notice it, but then when I notice it, I can't un-see it.  This section of wall gets brushed by constantly.  Simply repainting it won't solve this.  It has to be cleaned, which means there has to be a process in place, which presently there is not.
This is the door handle of the staff and ladies' restroom.  Same dirt problem.  Constant contact, constant soiling, and no process in place.  It's not quite as simple as spraying some Simple Green every week but that's how we're going to start and we'll see where that leads.
A visiting store owner from out of town, Paul Simer, pointed this out to me.  Smudges on the wall around the light switch.  I swear I never noticed these until he said something, and it serves to illustrate how easy it is for a store gradually to become dingy if the ownership and management don't stay on top of it with diligence.
Yours truly surveying the staff and ladies' restroom.  As you can see, it's generally clean.  It's the small things that bother me.  Such as...
Well, such as the fact that I've had to co-opt both restrooms for materials storage.  Table legs aren't quite as obtrusive as the two huge stacks of chairs in the men's room, but here we are.
At the entryway, the baseboard is missing a piece, and the linoleum floor is a disaster.  If I had thought about it back in 2012, I would have torn out the linoleum and added the restrooms to the concrete polish process.  With only a year left on my lease, I am not going to purchase such services now.  If we end up renewing at this location, then yes, that needs to happen.
Water fountains mandated by town ordinance.  Fire exit occluded by trash; it gets taken out, but for brief durations on any given evening, it's not technically meeting code until that gets taken out.
Cleaning rack, mixed with other-things storage.  This is an area that needs attention.  I may turn loose some staff on this and see if they can impress me, because as much as this bothers me every day, I can delegate it.  I can't delegate many of the things on my duty schedule.
We didn't have carpet, so the municipality required us to have a mop sink installed.  It doesn't really bother me that the wall near this is soiled.  In fact, I kind of want it to be.  Proves it's being used.
A nearby wall corner by the men's room.  Tremendous pass-through traffic leads to excessive paint scraping and wear.  Some of this can get cleaned, some will need a repaint, and some just won't really ever be solved until our store capacity needs change.
Exterior of the men's room, where our tournament admin workstation used to be, there are hard links to the HDMI-over-ethernet for displaying event pairings on the TVs, and an internet connection.  We use it for streaming major events.  I wish I could get it rolled up and put away somehow but there's no room in the wall and too much cable to tuck in.  I'm sure this is solvable.
Men's room light switch, same problem again.  We don't even see it, and then when we have seen it, it's very apparent.  Process failure.
The men's room door handle, complete with smudges of dirt on the door that need to be cleaned.
Clean toilet?  Check.  Clean floor?  Wrong.  This does get mopped, but obviously we are either not mopping often enough, or are not using the right equipment or detergent.   This is a process failure.  Some combination of the foregoing will be necessary to fix this.  And again, if I renew the lease, this linoleum is gone.  Polished concrete cleans much more readily and is more sanitary.
Decorating the men's room wall is a map I've been hanging in garages and bathrooms for decades now.  I got it in 1979 with the National Geographic "Our Nation/Our World/Our Universe" book gift set, which I read about fifty thousand times a week back then.  This map features such nations as the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Yugoslavia.  When people ask me what it is, I quip that it's "the world I grew up in."
I am not amused by the mirror streaks.
The soap dispenser we bought finally just separated clean off the wall at the three-year mark.  Which I guess is okay for a bolt-on device from Restaurant Depot.  Needs replacement.  Also, wall needs to be cleaned of soap scum.

That's enough yucky restrooms.  If you're still with me, why?!  But if you are, we've almost reached the end and it gets a little better now.  Thanks for sticking it out.
This is the pick catalog for Magic singles for non-rares.  Alphabetical by set and then by card.  It's extremely functional, it fits nicely in 3200-count bins in the IKEA Expedit bookcase, and it scales gorgeously.  We typically only put 12 to 16 of a given card in the bin unless it's hot and a regular seller right now.  The rest get culled off to bulk.  How many Chimney Imps does a store really need?  I'm a believer in deep stock but I think we've got this workflow in good shape.
More pick bins and the binders.  The binder spines are godawful.  The binders include all rares and mythics, including foils, that are overflow beyond what fits in the four glass cases.  Thus the binders are mostly dollar rares and there are a few $2.99 and $3.99 cards mixed in.  Technically using pick bins for everything and just taking orders on an electronic system would be superior.  With RMS we'll have all singles inventoried.  Many stores use Crystal Commerce, DeckedBuilder, and now IMP POS for this.  However until our singles can be ordered on peoples' phones, they need to be shoppable, and the binders facilitate that.  Merchandise is augmented by tactile value as well.  Even in this world of e-commerce, customers have remarked that they enjoy shopping right from the binders.  I'm glad to make that available for now, until such time as scale makes it unfeasible.
One of the things I like most about our singles deployment.  I learned this from the Reaper Game Store in Denton, Texas.  Two-piece 25-count gem cases serve as the perfect modules for presenting higher-dollar cards in the cases.  Honestly, having seen it, I am surprised that every store does not do this.  Unless you are like Amazing Discoveries in Tucson and have all cards picked to order and none in showcases, this is currently the best merchandising technology in the trade for this presentation.
There she is!  I knew we'd find Samus Aran somewhere more appropriate for a bounty hunter of her stature and reputation.  She's guarding our Small World Designer Edition and our uncut sheet of foil mythics and rares from Born of the Gods.  Looks like Baby Groot made it up there too, to share her vantage point.

So there we are.  After all that, you might think I find my own store a ghastly dumpster fire with a laundry list of problems that seems to have no end.  The reality is that running any business at scale results in action items constantly adding to the agenda.  When these are solved, others will spring up to replace them.  The objective is to get the action items to improve in relevance to sustainable profitability, rather than being "keep this ship afloat" items.  A great majority of all the issues that face comic and hobby game stores are the latter, and we've largely conquered them.  The entire ownership spent a week in Las Vegas at GAMA and lo and behold, the store did not burn down.

Right now the core business processes and continuity are strong, and with the RMS deployment will get stronger.  That, of course, makes it all the more baffling to see some of the little cleaning and merchandising things not getting done.  The good fortune is that these are closer on the spectrum to the "want" end than the "need" end.  One would say a store "needs" to have these little things done to be professional, and I would agree.  But we'll survive until they get done.  And we'll thrive even more bountifully once they finally do.

In the meanwhile, if you see something small that is bad, hit me up.  I want to know.  Even if I already know about it, I'll be glad to know that you saw it.  Because then I will know it's not just something I'm being obsessive about, but is a genuine customer-facing deficiency.  Thank you in advance.

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