Monday, May 15, 2017

Chasing Tornadoes

Talula, Talula,
I don't want to lose it
It must be worth losing
If it is worth something...
And I never cared too much for the money
But I know right now, honey
That it's in God's hands,
But I don't know who the father is.
-Tori Amos
In the "games" business there are products that go white-hot seemingly without warning, that become instant unobtainium, and then either just jump beyond reasonable presence, normalize and meet demand, or fade out into obscurity, their moment wasted and demand withered on the vine.

The Nintendo NES Classic has never been readily available on retail shelves for longer than minutes at a time, and that's reasonably mainstream.  Here in our niche we have games like Star Wars Destiny, Gloomhaven, and Scythe that never came close to meeting market clamor.  We have games like Dice Masters that went thermonuclear on day one and never caught a second wind because the longshoreman's strike kept reinforcements away for too long.

And then there are times when the stars align and something blows up in the mainstream market and crosses over into ours.  And it makes the NES Classic and Gloomhaven seem moribund by comparison.

Have you ever heard of fidget spinners?
These plastic ball-bearing doodads have blown up to the point at which any amount we can put on the shelves sells out within days or less.  China is already making them in staggering quantities, so for a brief and scintillating moment, we can order huge-margin items, wait with trembling hands as our crates cross the Pacific Ocean, and then turn that money into much more money as soon as customs is done with its customary striptease.

The fidget spinner, like its spiritual cousin the fidget cube, was originally developed as a sensory toy for people on the autism spectrum.  Autistic neurotypes are known for "stimming," short for "stimulating," making repetitive muscle motions such as snapping, flapping hands or fingers, cracking knuckles, grinding teeth, rocking back and forth, and so forth.  The self-stimulation actually has a calming effect, paradoxically, because it helps deaden the autistic person's high sensitivity to external stimuli.  Thus, it helps them focus, in the same way that closing your office door helps when you're trying to decipher a complex document.

Naturally, the neurotypical mainstream can't let anyone have anything to themselves, so ordinary kids who are hyperactive and accustomed to a high-stimulus environment have apprehended the joy and contentment of stimming.  Fidget toys then blew up at a rate that's staggering to behold: in February we started to see distributor offers from our various overseas factory sources; in March the first few stores to gamble were getting their boxes full and selling out; in April those box orders turned to cases, and in May those cases turned to master cartons.  And since my stores are like mediocre NBA point guards who can't create their own shot, it took until April before I was finally ordering them.  Within hours of their arrival earlier this month, they became the top selling items in the Toys & Figures subcategory.

And it's already over.  The Asian supply chain has already caught up to big box integration.  The spinners we readily sell for $10-$15 are showing up at Wal-Marts for half that (but disappearing fast enough that we still get business).  No carton or case or box of fidget toys that I order now is going to appear in time to get ahead of mass market entropy.  By the time I adjust to half the price, Wal-Mart will be at a quarter of the price.  And then they'll start getting container loads from Guangzhou for a tenth of what I've been paying, or less, and in half the transit time.  And then the public will stop caring and the fad will have passed.

I've got near-zero risk here with Phoenix Comicon and a slate of convention and movie release table dates coming up for the store, and there's no way we fail to clear a table of fidget toys at an event where we already sell out of every doodad we bring.  But for ordinary small specialty retail store shelf inventory purposes, the window of opportunity for these things opened, and now it is closing.  It was that fast.

It was incendiary hot for the shortest time you can imagine, and we were basically printing money at the speed these things moved, but now it's over.

This has been a good lesson for the hobby game trade because there was some money available on the table for anyone with the prescience to act quickly, but a store that simply stayed the course and focused on fundamentals probably did just fine and had less work to do and less uncertainty and less credit card balance tied up in a transoceanic supply chain.  A store that just stood pat probably ended up very close to breakeven with the stores that, you know, did anything with regard to fidget toys.

An ideal scenario is perhaps a full-line game store that plans to keep the fidget toys around regardless of the fad, perhaps to supplement an existing deployment of educational and construction toys.  They'll become like other products that the mass market has destroyed, where we have them in stock but most people gripe that our $9.99 spinners are $2.99 (by then) at Walgreens.  Our mainline distributors will have the really nice design-print spinners and cubes, at the awful margins we've come to accept, and they'll fit right in next to the 65% COGS Diamond statues.  We'll tell stories to new retailers about the margins we got for two brilliant weeks when the fidget spinner trend first exploded, and they'll call bullsh*t and won't believe us.

Chasing tornadoes, attempting to catch the leading edge of a trend, is something that feels very right and appropriate for a hobby game store, and especially for a comic store where trends and the product are often one and the same.  But it's akin to speculation.  It's something less than a "spec," while still being speculative.  It's like a steakhouse adding in a trendy fish entree to capitalize on publicity.  They may sell some, but the reality is they disrupted their menu and added process and created exceptions and did all this despite the reality that most of their patrons came in because they wanted steak.

Fundamentals.  Make sure you're still selling steak.  Make sure your steak-eating customers still get what they showed up for.  And if you think you have that mastered -- well, none of us do, but if you think you've got it under control -- then sure, be my guest.   The occasional dalliance with some market darling can be excused, but don't let a cheap thrill cost you your marriage.

EDIT JUNE 12TH: IT'S OVER!!!  That was fast.  Wal-Mart is under five bucks now.  We can still make some sales here but it went from worth-it to not-worth-it essentially.

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