There was an error in this gadget

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Frogurt is Also Cursed

In a classic Simpsons Halloween episode, Homer buys a monkey's paw from a caricatured vaguely Eastern occult shop dealer.  (As a side note, there are similarities between the occult shop and some of the stores you'll encounter in the comic and hobby game trade.)
The dealer whipsaws Homer back and forth between dire warnings to cheerful tidings as he explains that the objects in the store each carry a terrible curse, but they also sell frozen yogurt, and so on.  It is one of the all-time great Simpsons scenes.  All Homer can think to say to each of the dealer's blandishments is "That's bad," alternating with "That's good!"

Imagine if I had to explain the state of our industry today to Homer Simpson...

ME: The comic and hobby game trade has grown into a combined $2.5 billion industry.  Recognition of comic IP has never been more mainstream, and tabletop games have become so prevalent that they are appearing at big-box stores now.

HOMER: That's good!

ME: ...where they are being offered buy-two-get-one-free and rotating red-dot clearances, grossly devaluing the product in the mind and expectation of the consumer.

HOMER: That's bad.

ME: Fortunately there's more product.  More than ever before, and the best games are even better than they ever have been.  Publisher consolidation has put real money behind top titles and given them sky-high production value and broad, effective marketing.

HOMER: That's good!

ME: Of course, where there are haves, there are have-nots, and the stones the mega-publishers rejected have not become the biblical cornerstones.  Those games have instead created a crowdfunding-fueled glut of crap so overwhelming that the retail wharves are outright collapsing under all its weight.

HOMER: That's bad.

ME: But it's okay!  Because board games gangway before the 900-pound gorilla of Magic: the Gathering!  The quality of Magic releases is the highest it has ever been, with more cards players love and more ways to get them than ever before.  Magic is having its biggest year ever and just finished releasing five booster sets in a six-month span!

HOMER: That's good!

ME: Which ran our customers pretty much right out of money and left us all gasping for sales right when we needed to be ramping our way into the holidays.

HOMER: That's bad.

ME: Which means it's a good thing the "other" trading card game, Pokemon, is celebrating its 20th anniversary with an entire year of mini-releases into a market that just snorted an entire barrel of nostalgia cocaine in the form of Pokemon GO, and is so thoroughly dusted that stores could stock day-old fish with the Pokemon logo right now and probably sell through.

HOMER: That's good!

ME: All we have to do to take advantage of this torrent of Pokedollars is accept short margins, channel exclusives, feast-and-famine demand cadence, and a singles market that mainly consists of newlywed Millennials all trying to sell us the same binder of Base Jungle Fossil that they kept in their closets for sixteen years so they could pay off their Sallie Mae loans by trading in that single shuffle-worn Charizard.

HOMER: That's bad.

ME: But do you know who does have great trade-bait most of the time?  Video gamers!  Downloadable content is the future and we all know it, but the retro video game trade is roaring right now and there are millions upon millions of units of software and hardware circulating, making an excellent market for a store that knows how to develop meticulous processes for handling collectibles... you know, like the kind of processes one might use as a dealer in trading card games.  It's a short crossing of a shallow chasm to get from the tabletop to the console, and with the right tools and knowledge in hand, many comic and hobby game stores could achieve the traverse.

HOMER: That's good!

ME: Of course, getting those tools and that knowledge doesn't come automatically, and a dismaying number of retailers in this trade seem to think that the entire world will hold their hand and be their commercial nursemaid as they run a make-pretend business clubhouse.  And when someone of questionable business acumen suffers the turning of the tide, their go-to playbook has been to dump core product.  Just as with board games, this ruins it for everyone.  When luxury goods are reduced to commodities, value perception craters in the mind of the consumer.

HOMER: That's bad.

ME: Some publishers got tired of seeing their entire body of work turned into a flea market booth.  The likes of Games Workshop, Asmodee North America, Mayfair Games, and AEG, to name a few, use vertical distribution mechanisms as a form of brand protection and make dumping product prohibitive or even effectively impossible.  Even when turn rates on their products hit a trough due to seasonality or whatever reason, the asset hold on those publishers' inventory has become more of a safe haven than before they took those steps.  A patient store with a controlled operational expense ledger and good market positioning can feature those products without worrying that it will all become sand beneath their feet as Queensr├┐che warned.

HOMER: That's good!

ME: It's difficult to say whether it's enough.  Consumers are trained to shop the mass market now.  Big-boxes, Amazon, mega e-tailers.  Even when brand protection is in place, many indicators suggest that a substantial number of players continue to press the Prime button rather than buying from their Friendly Local Game Store.  There's nothing malicious about it; humans are simply creatures of habit.  The smartphone dominates all of human society now, and the mass market has the resources to best harness the almighty smartphone.  The retail landscape is in upheaval the likes of which we've seldom seen.

HOMER: That's bad.

ME: I'm not sure it is, in the long run.  Tout change avec les temps.  It has never been easier to be a consumer, and at the same time never more perilous to be a retailer.  Those of us who intend to keep doing this must adapt psychologically as well as structurally.  That is difficult when a game store cannot even articulate what its business psychology or structure is, beyond a rudiment of "I buy things and then charge a little more and sell the things, and I keep the difference."  If that's all you're doing, it's in the market's interest to cut you out of the equation.  I'm not saying we should all become the mythical no-retail board game cafe, or even that "butts in seats" is the Way, Truth, and Life, as one publisher persistently teaches.  I'm saying a comic or hobby game store needs to leverage proximity, flexibility, and execution to present a psychologically competitive attraction to the typical player/collector.  That person has to be able to get to you reasonably conveniently, and then has to want to show up, and then has to be glad they did.  Those are nebulous metrics, but they are the ballgame right now.  They apply whether it's the guy who shows up every night for Magic or the gal who is never in the store for more than ten minutes every week but invariably walks out with a stack of Image books.  And they apply for the kid who comes in every afternoon and looks at the merch for an hour and then leaves.  The grognard shopkeep begrudges the kid's presence.  The insightful one realizes the kid is building up the wish list of his dreams, and is mentally preparing how he will spend every dime of his birthday money next month.  To succeed, the store owner must understand these psychological factors every bit as well as he or she understands the store's structural logistics.  This includes both the self-awareness to detect bias or error in his or her own observational analysis, and sufficiently honest self-reflection to pivot away from a preferred plan into a different plan that might expose his or her own prior wrong decision or faulty judgment, but has revealed itself clearly to be the correct course of action now.

HOMER: ...

ME: That's both good and bad.

HOMER: Can I go now?

No comments:

Post a Comment