Tuesday, May 15, 2018

I Was an Oblivious Customer

This is a story about when I was an oblivious game store customer.  But so you understand the significance of what I was doing and the bad assumptions I was making, I first must teach a lesson about the product that was central to my behavior.

Once I graduated from law school and didn't yet have a multitude of children occupying my time and attention, I re-indulged myself in the video game collecting hobby.  One of the rare items then, and one that was visibly getting rarer as we went, was the Nintendo Gamecube Official Component Cable, shown in this photo.

The GCN OCC was only marketed in Japan and thus only available via import distributors or stores that did business though them.  The OCC used an ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit, or in other words, "a custom chip with secret innards") to process video for output.  Nintendo never published the specs of the ASIC, so third-party cable manufacturers could not create substitute cables.  For 16 years, if you wanted to get 480p video out of your Gamecube, it was the OCC or nothing, and there weren't enough OCCs to go around.

(Aside: As of 2006 we could play most Gamecube games in 480p on the Wii, which had a cheap and abundant component cable.  However, the Wii did not work with all Gamecube games, it did not work with all third-party Gamecube accessories, and it did not work with the Game Boy Player, a non-trivial drawback at a time when the Game Boy Advance was getting hot titles like Metroid Zero Mission that played great on a television.  And if you wanted to speedrun or play competitively, you had to use the original hardware for your time or score to count.)

At the time I was seeking it, the OCC ran anywhere from $80 to $140 on Amazon and eBay, depending whether it had the original packaging or was used, and if so, its condition.  I tried to hunt one down in the wild, naturally assuming that any video game store that had one would be unaware of its value and would surely sell it to me for the MSRP of $29.99 or so.  After all, knowing the value of video game merchandise was only how they literally made their living, so surely they'd punt that and I could roll them.

Every time I visited a video game shop of any stripe, I would browse what they had, and naturally I wanted to be left alone because autism.  But I knew I'd eventually be greeted and asked if I needed help.  The question I had locked and loaded for that was "Do you have any Gamecube Official Component Cables?"

They never had the cable and only rarely did they offer to "special order" it, which I imagine meant getting it at a haircut less than full market value from an import distributor and marking it up, because they would throw back numbers like $200 and $250, to which I would reply "never mind." I wanted it, but not enough to really pay for it.  I wanted it to be essentially given to me for way less than it was really worth.  This was not a realistic expectation.

I would then judge that store to be "not a serious video game store" or "worthless" or "incompetent," depending what mood I was in at the time or whether I thought the owner had sufficiently kissed my ring and acknowledged my clear and impressive expertise in knowing to ask for such a rare and sought-after niche product.  It was self-centeredness to the point of narcissism, the kind of oblivious "whatevs, I got mine" attitude that is becoming more common every day, especially among the youth.

I eventually got an OCC in a Gamecube collection buy.  The other guy knew the value of it, and thanks to combining up the games and system into a lump sum, I ended up paying $150 or so for the cable at a time when the average eBay sold listing was around $175.  Not too bad and we both got what we wanted.  I made a joke post to Facebook with a photo of the cable complaining, "I bought a Gamecube and the stupid TV cable has the wrong colors!  What the hell!"

Today, the GCN OCC market price is down to around $250, after a couple years in $500 territory for complete-in-box and $350 bought loose.  The reason the price actually started coming back down to earth is that players finally got another option.  In late 2017, sixteen years after the Gamecube hit the market, someone finally reverse-engineered the OCC ASIC and produced direct-to-HDMI output adapters for the Gamecube.  We carry them in the store, the EON GCHD, and it's $149.  Not cheap, but far cheaper than the alternative, and it works beautifully and is well-suited to modern televisions which don't even always have component input jacks anymore.

So, anyway, the point was that I was an absolutely oblivious customer and my behaviors were way out of line with reality, both in terms of the market overall and in terms of how I interacted with store personnel.  And at the time I had no awareness or insight into that.  I was just another blowhard who had no idea how stupid I looked to the pros behind the counter, and I was a tire-kicker to boot.

Most of my customers today don't behave the way I behaved.  Most have realistic expectations, or more to the point, they want a thing and it's within the core of what we offer, and that's why they showed up, and all is right in the world.  Most understand intuitively that the store makes its hay selling the stuff that's new and/or broadly in demand, and that we won't necessarily be sitting on a secret stash of GCN OCCs or graded Summer Magic or an unopened case of NBA Elite 11.  It's not that we don't want to sell such things, obviously we do.  It's just that rare things are, well, rare, and the economics don't reward us for seeking out such goods and then deep-sixing them into the vault for who knows how long, rather than reselling them now.  Most people understand that, and those who do seek holy-grail-level collectibles aren't offended when the object of their desire isn't in stock all that often.  Most people don't obsess over having us kiss the ring.  But sometimes we get people who exhibit exactly one or more or my regrettable former traits.  And that's just how it goes, it's part of the trade.

Our solution to this from the staffing side is to be attentive toward new arrivals and to put a bit of extra care into how we service the more friendly and sociable of our regulars.  By starting people off on the right track and then providing a social payoff for exemplary behavior from the people we already know, we send a message that an inclusive and fun experience is what we're about, everyone who's on board with that are going to get our "A" game, and the scrappers are welcome to go be somebody else's problem.

My solution to this from the ownership side is to understand the psychology of the behavior I am seeing out of the one guy who's acting as I once did.  If possible, there may be common ground from which a positive experience can result.  There may be good in him yet.  If not, I accept that we're not going to please everyone, and reorient my focus toward the next visitor who arrives.

These solutions are imperfect, but a general goes to battle with the army we've got, not the army we wish we had.

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