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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Confluence: GTS Come and Play Day 2015

Two weeks ago I attended GTS Distribution's Come and Play Day in Atlanta.  While the title is playful, make no mistake: This was a trade show, and a substantial one.  I learned a lot and made quite a few observations.  If you're interested, read on!

Until October 21, 2015, I had never set foot in the state of Georgia.  The weather was absolutely gorgeous.  The endless rolling hills and pines are a bit disorienting with no mountains to make one's bearing, but we have smartphones now so it's all good.  The main Atlanta metropolitan area is very compact, seemingly the size of Tucson, but that's a relative perception as I am acclimated to the wide-open Phoenix metro; it takes a gargantuan sprawl the likes of Dallas-Ft. Worth or Los Angeles to try my patience.  And as you leave Atlanta it's still civilization in every direction, whereas five feet south of the Bush Highway in southern Chandler is where town ends and desert commences.  Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is practically a city in itself.  There are Circle-M convenience stores, which are clearly two letters better than my hometown Circle-Ks.  Warehouses exist in the middle of the woods for some reason.  Waffle House is the truth, Coca-Cola was everywhere, grits go well with almost anything, and "southern hospitality" is real.

GTS Distribution is one of my primary vendors, receiving a plurality of my procurement business and topping the ranking list that continues with Alliance, Diamond, Wizards of the Coast, Games Workshop, PepsiCo, USAopoly, Amazon, and several others.  I wrote about GTS back in June after they visited my store, and attending this trade show was another step in developing the business we do with each other.  My success is their success, and they said as much during the presentations.  GTS, the result of the decade-ago merger of Gamus Distribution and Talkin' Sports, has grown to a network of something like a dozen locations from Boston to Hawaii, and with that kind of growth has come the challenge of keeping their physical infrastructure on the cutting edge.  It's a process.  Their massive Atlanta warehouse, nearing completion on a comprehensive bin-system rebuild, is a promising sign of things to come.  My local warehouse in Tempe is pretty far down their priority list for the bin-system refit, but that's understandable knowing that they've completely outgrown it and likely have to move to bigger digs before implementing new tech.  But I'm getting ahead of myself; that was Day Three.

Day One started with happy hour in the late afternoon.  I don't drink much alcohol due to my bariatric surgery, but I got to visit with owners of some of my neighbor stores, Matt Murphy from Shuffle and Cut in SoCal and Jamison Sacks from Common Ground in DFW.  (The names become a whirlwind from then onward so you guys who are also my Facebook friends whom I met are going to have to pardon me for not name-dropping all of you here in this article.  I enjoyed meeting you, I promise.)  After talking shop and baseball scores, we were treated to dinner by Asmodee, and then I played a friendly Splendor match with some other attendees.  At the end of time, I won with nine points on board to my opponents' 7, 4, and 4.  The prizes in warehouse credit for Asmodee products were issued by drawing, and I didn't win any, but I had fun all the same.  As it happened, I already liked Splendor, but had I been new to the game, this would have been an ideal introduction to it.  Filing that away for opportunities later.  Afterward, Matt and Jamison headed to the first demo night in the game room, but I was hitting the wall with fatigue at that point and retired.

Day Two was the meat and potatoes of the convention.  Fantasy Flight treated us to a protein-heavy breakfast that even I could enjoy, and the morning consisted of twenty-minute publisher pitches where we had a chance to look at some upcoming releases and also get insight into the direction each publisher was moving in the months ahead.  For example, Ultra-Pro is making extensive changes to their product line, and they definitely have my attention.  Asmodee is entering the second iteration of their AsmoPlay tournament series.  Fantasy Flight has a substantial rack of new releases in the channel.  A few board game publishers presented, and then I had to step out for a bit to manage a situation that had arisen back home at the store.  (And due to the miracle of modern connectivity, I was able to resolve it all from my hotel room and its free wi-fi.)  I forgot who sponsored lunch and I'm sorry about that, but we got a few informative publisher pitches and then a brief invitation from Travis Severance, GAMA's Retail Division Chair.  I'll be at the GAMA Trade Show in March 2016 in Las Vegas, and I strongly recommend it to any store owner in the comic or hobby game trade who hasn't been there (and every few years even if you have).

The afternoon had the opening of the exhibition halls, which bristled to overflowing with publishers and vendors looking to showcase their goods and get store owners interested, and of course to network with one another.  I saw neat things on display from Atlas Games, BCW, Passport Game Studios, Stone Blade Entertainment, and Max Protection, where I had a nice productive visit with SunMesa's Glenn Godard, whose path mine often meets or crosses.  I skipped meeting with Asmodee again because I intended to visit them later that evening with Matt to learn 7 Wonders Duels.  (Ruby Nikolopoulou graciously taught us the game herself, even though it was pretty deep into the evening by then.)  Wizards of the Coast completely humbled me by actually knowing who I was on sight and thanking me for being a voice of reason in their WPN Retailer outreach channels.  Say what you will about the 900-pound gorilla, WOTC has a knack for hiring extremely personable people who make you feel happy to be a part of their success as much as yours.  They also sponsored the tenderloin dinner, which turned into an extended and delightful pow-wow with store owners from across the Atlantic coast and some note comparison on point-of-sale system migrations.  After a brief autism break, I rejoined Matt and Jamison in the game room.  Jamison and I played some Warhammer Quest with Fantasy Flight, and after some more hanging out with folks in the trade, I called it a night.

Day Three was the GTS warehouse raid/sale.  I kind of wish I had come in a day earlier or something so I could have toured some of the local game stores.  As it was, I only had time to drop in on Titan Comics, and only because it was on my route.  Cool store, friendly staff.  The GTS Atlanta warehouse, grown deep in the jungle primeval, is a mammoth operation, going beyond product movement to include in-house playmat printing and other such offerings to boot.  This is actually the last time it will be open to the public; they closed for inventory the following week, and then activated the bin system and presumably are operating that way now and moving forward.  In the bin system, much like what Amazon does, there is no rhyme or reason to where items are located in the warehouse except where pallets and cartons fit.  Each bin has a bin code location and each item is matched to it in the system.  When orders come in, the computer system does the work of mapping out which bins to pick the products from and in what quantities, and even maps out the route for the pickers so they can work faster and with fewer steps.  (I am not kidding, this is a thing.  Fewer steps.  Time is money.)  A given picker's route may cross over multiple orders and sections.  Ultimately the merchandise is delivered to a packing and processing point, where a human being divides items into each outgoing order, verifies that it matches the invoice, and Tetris-es the goods into cartons and boxes.  They fill with inflate-a-pack, seal, and onto the dock or truck it goes.  The entire system makes even the more ambitious shipping operations at the store level look like crayons and construction paper by comparison.

I bought more than I probably should have, but less than I could have, at the warehouse sale.  There were items I had wanted that GTS Tempe didn't stock, items I had missed on the first go-round and forgotten about, a couple of specs, and quite a few things where the price was just really good.  As I've said, I don't shop exclusively on price.  When I'm at Fleming's or Mastro, I don't ask them to price-match Sizzler or Outback.  But there's nothing wrong with getting in on an available deal.  Visited with my rep for a while and enjoyed the afternoon, and soon enough it was time to roll out!

GTS Come and Play Day was absolutely worth the trip and the time.  It's not even a question.  And I could have done even more with it if I had planned a bit more flexibly, which I'll try to do next time.  There's just so much going on at these shows that you can't do it all, and that's entirely beside any opportunities you might have to tour the locale.  I had wanted to visit Super Games, Giga-Bytes Cafe, and at least one tourist-trappy Civil War memorial of some kind, and didn't have time for any of the three.  GTS tends to rotate their show locations around their various warehouses, so time will tell which city will host the next one I'm available to attend.  And even more so than ever before, I realize how badly I have to go to the Alliance Open House in Fort Wayne, and the Diamond Retailer Summit in Baltimore, both of which usually take place in the late summer.  The business development that takes place is essential, and the personal relationships and social enjoyment are a delight.

Thanks to everyone who was a part of that and I look forward to seeing you again!

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