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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Tapestry In Progress

Warning: Navel-gazing ahead.  This is not the norm for this blog, most of the time I'm writing articles about the business side of the comic and hobby game trade.  If you don't know me personally, this one is probably a "skip."  Scroll down and enjoy the much more relevant goodness! :)

I turn 42 years of age at the end of the week.  Rest assured that I am under no illusion that I am still a strapping young lad.  However, due to a combination of general healthy living, refraining from drinking alcohol or smoking with any frequency, avoiding physically deleterious activities, and dumb genetic luck, I look a decade younger, aside from the gray bits in my hair.  I usually feel pretty damned good.  Energized, optimistic, capable.

Three hours into Grand Prix Albuquerque 2016, I was ready to curl up and die.
I'm getting too old for this sh*t, as Lethal Weapon's Sergeant Roger Murtaugh so famously quipped. 

My original version of this article recapped the weekend and why I found it such a stark combination of enjoyment and misery.  A delightful time road-tripping with my friends was punctuated by a remarkably un-fun series of Magic tournaments.  Even in the events where I fared well in the wins column, having to deal with opponents' soft cheats and engaging in he-said-she-said with judges was about as fun as a canker sore.  Some of the ensuing recreation was spoiled for me by the lingering worry that my own customers could potentially be experiencing this kind of thing with any frequency in my store.  I cringed in shame at the notion that I offered fun and entertainment and then delivered such a false bill of goods.

I realized after about eight paragraphs that my recap was a bore to read and added nothing to my article message.  So you'll have to take my word for it that some things happened and they affected my outlook on all this.  Deal?  In the end, a substantial amount of my suffering was due to bariatric distress, and I'm just reaping what I've sown on that.  The reality is that a long day of game competition, even tabletop, can be punishing to the diminished stamina of an old geezer like me.

I thought more of it later and wondered why I let the business implications of my unpleasant player encounters bother me so much that they overshadowed some of the fun that came later.  I did enjoy things like running through the nearly-snow drizzle to a casino to discover free cake.  Or defying my diet to experience an authentic Laguna Burger on Route 66, enjoying that Adrian was getting to do the same thing as a visitor from abroad.  Or engaging in Matt's increasingly legendary Unified Life Theory discussions, which always find a way to incorporate money, work, kids, religion, mixed martial arts, and the adult content industry somehow.  But in the quiet chasms in between, I dwelled on whether I had picked the wrong horse by architecting a business predicated on being able to sell an experience.  I had just seen how easily that experience could be corrupted before delivery to an end customer, despite a staggering budget deployment from an excellent and reputable event organization.  What chance did I have?

Hearing about my travel companions' career successes (and they deserve every bit of them) reminded me that I've given up a lot in order to have control and investiture.  It was beneficial that when my state employment had run its course, I had a landing spot already waiting where my administrative skills were desperately needed.  A fleeting benefit, however.  I have a law degree that I paid (by means of indebtedness) a king's ransom to obtain, and yet the most I am doing with it right now is having a perpetual edge on my competition in terms of risk mitigation, HR, accounting, payroll, compliance, and so on.  To set aside a career in health care administration and facilities licensing enforcement for a career owning and developing specialty small retail is a sufficiently dubious move on its face that I, a paragon of confident arrogance, entertain real doubt.

I pondered this in the days after the road trip.  Despite my health conditions, I am usually a wellspring of hope and action, as I mentioned at the top of the article.  And yet I had picked open a sore that had me questioning everything that I was doing.  It made matters worse that I had a frustrating week at the store after that; my business partner was called out of town on a family emergency, and I was unable to do much to advance the business while covering both our watches and putting out fires for the duration.  By the weekend I was chewing bullets in exasperation, despite April 2016 being the store's best revenue month in history (and clinching that spot with over a week still to go).  However well we performed on the scoreboard, I fume knowing how much better we could have done if only I had been able to get X, Y, and Z implemented and on board for the staff to utilize.  Can I even do it?  Can I even keep up?

Ultimately, was this all just whistling in the dark against the inevitability of a better future if I packed it all in and took some position better monetizing my legal education and business experience?  For all I know, I'm the perfect purple squirrel to land an executive spot at some mass-market retail chain.   Logistics, development, whatever.  So why don't I?  I can always sell out, either my share of DSG or the business in its totality.  I can hit the reset button and restart the level, my post-J.D. career.  I don't even have to go back and pass Slippy Slidey Ice World or Lethal Lava Land again.
In "Tapestry," one of the high points of an already strong sixth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jean-Luc Picard is faced with the classic choice of what he would do differently if he had the pivotal moments of his early years to live over again, with the benefit of the wisdom and restraint he learned later in life as a Starfleet captain.  Of course, it was not that simple, and his changed decisions still bore consequences, some pleasant, but most unwelcome.  Picard discovers, as he put it, "Pulling at the loose threads of my youth unraveled the tapestry of my life."

It's naive to think that the Butterfly Effect would so overwhelm rational preparation that I would fail to benefit in some measure from the effects of a reboot.  Even if you accepted that my Big Life Mistakes had to happen to shape me into the person I am today, I tend to think that avoiding some of the worst disasters would bend the graph so far back up from the negative that better navigation from there was assured regardless.  My hacker-wannabe escapades of my teenage years.  My botched multi-level-marketing endeavor.  My first marriage.

But mostly I think the thesis of "Tapestry" holds true.  I had to fail at Wizard's Tower Gaming Center to learn how not to run a business.  Not just a game store, but a business overall.  All along the way the failures led to future successes by teaching me what does not work.  By process of elimination it becomes possible to craft a Unified Life Theory of things that do work.  It's surprisingly compatible with the gloriously explicit version Matt has been developing all this time.  And let me tell you, knowing how failure looks, the telltale signs, the leading indicators, is a huge motivator for me to stay on the ball with my business efforts now.  We're safe enough to weather some rough seas now if we encounter them, but it only takes a little bit of inattention for fissures to appear in the foundation of this kind of enterprise.

So does this mean I'm content in my retail reality and cast aside all regrets of the legal career that still hasn't left the hangar bay?  Oh, goodness, no.  For the right amount of money I'll drop what I'm doing like it's hot, Snoop.  There are attorneys working well into their septuagenarian years, and they use my chips for coasters.   I'd have to pass the bar exam and the MPRE again, but it's like riding a bicycle, you never really forget how.  I've been a fairly upstanding citizen lately and should be able to pass muster for character and fitness this next go-round.  And beyond that there is still the professional writing that I wish more than anything I could do for the entirety of my livelihood.  But those things are goals to be attained, journeys to be traveled.  Right now I have a thriving business that demands a downright coarse amount of my time, attention, and effort, but is building resilient value and capital for later.  And in which, whatever else happens, I encounter an outstanding gallery of humans on a regular basis, many of whom I now call friends.

There needs to be some way I can buy Frontier Restaurant sweet rolls and just have them frozen and shipped to me or something.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Pour Some Sugar On Me

Every comic or hobby game trade store worth its salt these days, lease not prohibiting, sells snacks and beverages in order to monetize the presence of gamers in the room during organized play.  Rather than exploring the theory of it, I thought this article would be a neat place to look at logistics.  I don't think I am necessarily "doing it right," but I am doing a lot of parts of it as optimally as my resources will allow.  And by "resources" this time I really just mean facility space, because the overall cost of concessions is trivial.  My full load of concessions on the premises is about $700 in cost at any given time.  Probably $500-$525 of that are beverages, while the remainder are snacks.

I bought a merchandiser refrigerator so we could store whatever we wanted in it.  Beverage vendors will provide a free merchandiser if you ask, but you have to meet minimum order requirements at their pricing, which is not always great, and you cannot store a competitor's drinks in their equipment.  In the early going, DSG had fully three refrigerators: one from Pepsico, storing Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Gatorade, Rockstar, and Starbucks; one from Hensley/Kalil, storing Monster, 7-Up, Dr Pepper, and not much else; and our own, storing Coca-Cola products, water, and miscellaneous.  The volume level to keep draining those refrigerators never materialized, and the utility bill socked it to us.  To this day I don't need more than our single fridge.  A larger one will probably be needed once I have enough physical space to run a lot more organized play.
The above photo is from last summer and is not significantly different from what we're doing now.  There has been some optimization of drink flavors, as you'll see below.
This spring you see the above in that space, and it is indeed very similar.  Here is the candy rack now:
 
The current candy rack is small, but sufficient.  Would I like a gigantic candy rack like at the Circle K?  Of course.  But I don't have that kind of floor available to devote to it, and the rack you see there is refillable by staff within the turn speed we typically observe.

Bottled water is, of course, the nut high.  Cost is minimal and it's good for 75 cents each time, and players want it more than any other beverage.  At least, that is fully true in sunny Arizona.  There might not be an amount of bottled water that is "enough" for a game store deployment.  Water and soda alike are mostly sourced through Sam's Club.  I am not a fan of Wal-Mart, but money talks, and time is money also.  I get good pricing, a resale sales tax waiver, and a mobile app that lets me place my order the night before and have it waiting at the dock for me when I get there.  They even take American Express, so I earn points.  My second source is Pepsico Direct, despite their poor pricing at my volume tier.  They do deliver, and they have a lot of exclusive flavors, such as special Mountain Dews and Kickstarts.  It's worth it.  One of the business partners goes the extra mile for other sourcing, roaming the town for special soda deals from Smart & Final, Restaurant Depot, Walgreens, and so forth, and loading up when he finds them.

Energy drinks are tremendously popular and sell briskly at $2.50 per.  The various flavors of Monster turned out to be too many.  Monster "green," the original flavor, outsells everything else by a lot.  Monster Lemon Citron is a limited-time flavor that doesn't hold much demand, so we phased it out in favor of the Orange Sunrise, not shown in that photo.  The orange soda flavor profile is a consistent winner, while lemonade is hit-and-miss.  I do still have a few cases left of Lemon Citron, but I won't replenish them.  The red and blue Monster are sold in a Neapolitan pack with Ultra Zero (white can) at Sam's Club, but Zero is also available solo, and is the best seller of the three anyway.  I discontinued red and blue.  There is a new Black Zero flavor out that we're trying, as you see in only the newer photo.  Customer feedback indicates it tastes like battery acid.  How they know this, I can only guess.

I am the only person who drinks Rockstar Recovery, so we moved the Orange to the employee fridge in the back room and discontinued the lemonade entirely.  I am post-bariatric so I don't drink anything carbonated.  RRO gives me that caffeine kick I unfortunately keep craving, while sparing me the stomach-stretching agonizing pain.  It appears that the rest of my customer base is under no such limitation, because aside from water and coffee, they have only ever consumed the bubbly liquids.  Rockstar Recovery Grape was the greatest beverage ever made, as this review will clearly explain, and has passed into history to the land of wind and ghosts.

I do carry Monster coffees now (Mean Bean and Loca Moca), but they sell poorly.  The Starbucks Doubleshots with Protein that you see on the ground floor were mostly popular with ownership and staff, so I only buy them now when I need to fill a Pepsico Direct minimum order.  Canned cold coffee is never going to hold a candle to a properly brewed mug, and maybe that's what will finally impel me to move into the coffee bar business down the road.  But it's a flavor profile that I have found you need to have at least one of.  The glass Starbucks bottles spoil too quickly as they are mostly milk.  I just buy whichever canned coffee Sam's Club has that month.  I also brought in AriZona Iced Tea, which is a consistent winner by virtue of cheap price and large volume.

Surge!  I buy this from Amazon when it's in stock in Prime Pantry, and mark it up not really keystone (given the Pantry shipping charge).  Despite this not being the most profitable drink to sell, it is popular and players love it, so I keep it around just for happiness value.  Five senses, five ways to make people love the business.  IKEA doesn't pump that vanilla spice through the air ducts by accident, people.  And if I'm the only place in the local orbit with Surge on the shelves, that forms a sensory and emotional association with DSG and having fun.  People crave that endorphin release.  I guess I'm a drug dealer of sorts after all.  Please don't hate me.

Twelve-ounce sodas, which I run at a dollar a can, start with Mountain Dew.  You need the green regular Dew in quantity, and you must never run out.  Diet Dew will sell modestly but consistently.  The rest?  Open season, try whatever you like and there are few ways to fail.  The special flavors, some of which are direct exclusive and others of which are found on store shelves like any other soda, are popular across the board and I stock as many as I can round up.  It looks like this photo was taken when Sam's had Code Red and the Kickstart main flavors, and distribution had Baja Blast, High Voltage, Pineapple, and Cranberry Whatever-that-was.  Oh, and the bottles of Game Fuel, always popular.  I also look for Throwback, Live Wire, White Out, and Pitch Black, when available.  Dewshine seemed like a good bet earlier this year, but I'm still sitting on cartons of it.  Kickstart Midnight Grape was fantastic but appears already to have disappeared from distribution.  I do have a little bit left, as you can see in the newer photo.  I also brought in Red Bull to serve its niche but consistent following.

The regular sodas are a little more pedestrian.  Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi are never both necessary; they sell slowly if at all, and we've stuck with zero to one rows of Diet Coke lately, mostly just in case Kelly Powers walks in.  Pepsi Throwback tastes about 73 times better than regular Pepsi (all figures approximate) so we roll with that.  Coca-cola and Coke Zero are mandatory flavors.  Never run out.  Just don't.  Same goes for Dr Pepper, the single best-selling soda beverage in the building.  Diet Dr Pepper outsells the diet colas and is almost on par with Diet Dew.

The Kool-Aid was an experiment that didn't go too well; it's gone.  The Gatorade sells like mad during the summer (which in Phoenix runs from March through October) and is not touched during the desert winter.  And tucked away on the far left is Mexican Coca-cola, which if you can drink it, is the superior cola beverage of all.  We've since returned to offering Mexican Fanta and Sprite, and all of them sell, but mostly the Coke.  The newer photo shows those as well as some bottled Sprite and Mt Dew, both of which we bought upon good opportunity.

Over on the snack rack, we've had trial-and-error for quite a while ongoing, and it's trickier because things spoil.  From the earlier photo I am seeing Hostess Twinkies and Cupcakes, both of which I only carry sporadically and only when they first appear at Sam's Club, because they expire faster than I thought and that spoilage means loss.  (Even though we all know the Twinkies are probably safe to eat a century later.)  The memory of dumpstering six or seven cases of Twinkies burns brightly, and stays my hand when I consider doing more with them.

I also dropped chips (Fritos, Doritos, Ruffles, etc) because they take up too much space for what they earn, they rack messily, and they sell slowly.  You'd think there would be more demand for savory snacks, but apparently not.  On the non-chocolate candy side, I've had various Skittles flavors from time to time, and they don't go bad for eternity, but their sales aren't the best.  I'll still bring them back once space is available.  For now I offer Skittles, Hot Tamales, Jelly Belly, and Mike & Ike in the candy machine, as the newer photo shows.

The photo has us out of Snickers, which I always carry.  Must have been a replenishment week.  (The newer photo has them all the way at the bottom barely shown in the frame, but I assure you, they are there.)  M&Ms are also a perpetual winner, as are Twix and Reese's Cups.  All other chocolate has failed to gain any traction, so I shed it from the line-up, and only include it now when we are able to procure some at a really great price.  Special M&Ms flavors like peanut butter and mint chocolate are also good sellers when you can get them.

Oatmeal Creme Pies are a spoilage risk but one I think is worth it, as their turn is fast and I can't remember any recent disposal necessary.  The opposite happened with Grandma's Cookies, which failed to sell through.  The Sam's Club Donuts (chocolate or crunch only, you don't want powdered sugar all over cards and merchandise) are so popular we've never had any spoil.  You can't eat them all though, they are like 480 calories per pack.  No wonder gamers struggle to maintain weight.  Finally, the Nabisco cookie and cracker snacks are solid sellers, except for the Ritz Bits, which move slowly and get spoiled out periodically.  Mentos are practically currency.  And ye gads, don't even think about gum.

One thing you may notice I don't carry is healthy fare.  I tried moving even slightly in that direction with muffins, granola bars, energy bars, etc, and gained no traction.  This might be a place where a focused store could do better; I don't doubt that being in a plaza with a huge grocery store and multiple restaurants has had some impact on whether anyone is going to seek non-sugary refreshment in-house.  There would also be the constant disposal of produce if I went that way, though by itself that's not a deal killer in my mind.  Fresh food generally did not move.  Cupcakes, cookies, and so forth.  Straight from my wife's oven to the snack counter, mmm-mm good.  For whatever reason, buying that stuff simply did not happen.  That was very early in our tenure, though, and we might have greater confidence from customers today.  Especially if the coffee bar thing eventually proceeds.

Whatever you do with edible concessions, I hope you are able to gain some notes and ideas from the foregoing.  I am always on the lookout for the next special thing I can bring in that will get a player interested.  It is completely legitimate to stick to the old standbys if your sourcing is limited: Coca-cola, Pepsi, Dr Pepper, Mountain Dew, Monster, Gatorade, and whatever coffee drink you are feasibly able to procure.  Snickers, cookies, donuts, and one candy flavor that appeals to you.  You're off and running, and likely to turn good revenue.  But making your concessions offering something special, that gives your brand extra reach, and it's not that difficult to add some flavors and expand just a bit off the beaten path.  On the other side of the coin, if you are in a position to go full-on coffee bar and serve prepared edibles, it is absolutely worth considering, as the profit margins are healthy and the ongoing costs tend to be minor once you've recovered from the expense of the initial capitalization.  Plus, that mug of cappuccino probably tastes a lot better.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Shadows Over Innistrad Release Post-Mortem

I've written articles like this for every Magic: the Gathering expansion released since this business blog began!  They are some of the most heavily read and linked articles on this blog, so evidently people enjoy these observations.  Good enough for me!  (Enough that I basically copy the template and write in the details afresh each time.)  Here, then, is DSG's experience with the release of Magic: the Gathering: Shadows Over Innistrad!
This expansion returns Magic to what I believe is its best-realized setting: the plane of Innistrad, a gothic horror milieu right out of Lutheran Germany where angels and demons battle over the fate of humans.  But something terrible is happening now, and the harvest moon offers only mysteries: the Archangel Avacyn (pictured above) has gone mad and is butchering her adoring followers as punishment for their lack of perfection.  Tropes new and old return for this go-round, including allusions to Kafka's Metamorphosis, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, the Mountains of Madness, the World of Darkness, and many others.  I've been playing Magic since almost the beginning, starting when Revised Edition and The Dark were on store shelves, and as much as I enjoyed the Rath Cycle, Ravnica: the City of Guilds, and the Time Spiral war, none of that hits the spot for me like Innistrad did.

Oath of the Gatewatch sold reasonably at its release in January and turned tepid after that, resurging nicely after the Pro Tour when the top players told all the hopefuls what cards to play.  Unfortunately, that wave of interest evaporated when Oath made possible an Eldrazi deck that ruined the Modern format utterly and resulted in the eventual ban of its linchpin card, Eye of Ugin.  Oath-Oath-Battle Limited was also miserable, so drafts ground to a halt aside from our three- or four-pod norm at Friday Night Magic each week.  Khans-Dragons-Battle Standard settled into sort of a business-as-usual tempo for DSG where attendance was down from Khans-block norms but not out; reports of daily events failing to fire around town became a regular occurrence.  With pack openings down overall, that's about when singles sales found their footing and started pushing serious dollars again for the first time since Dump-o-Rama 2015, when the entire world sold their Magic cards to pay those credit card bills from chasing Zendikar Expeditions.  By late March, we were seeing singles sales higher than any time in the store's history.  Shadows Over Innistrad arrived, and I would kind of liked for it to have waited a while longer!

I called it in my Oath post-mortem article: Wizards of the Coast announced Eternal Masters, a reprint set including cards from Vintage, Legacy, Commander, and Cube formats, for release in June.  Then we have the Shadows Over Innistrad sequel, Eldritch Moon, in July.  Then, a sixth booster release (counting the September expansion we already knew to expect) was announced for the dog days of August: Conspiracy 2: Electric Boogaloo.  After several name changes, we learned its real subtitle, "Take the Crown."  Folks, this is a lot of product.  There is still a From the Vaults ("Lore") due in August, and Commander 2016 in November.  Even if they announce nothing else, how can most players possibly keep up with it all?  More on that later in this article.

Here is a quick bulleted list of what Shadows Over Innistrad gave us:

  • Fun!  Magic became fun again, after being mostly not fun since around Khans of Tarkir.  So it was nice to get back to a game actually being fun.  Someone tell the grinders.
  • The defining card mechanic of Innistrad and Dark Ascension: Double-faced cards that turn over to "transform."  What strikes me about the "DFCs" is that Wizards has still barely scratched the surface of what they can do in the game to merge mechanics and flavor.  
  • Normal production properties.  For the first time since last summer, we have a set with no ultra-mega-OK chase cards to pull once every umpteen boosters.  No Expeditions, no special Innistrad-flavored sacred jewels or anything like that.  And honestly, I'm glad for that.  We needed a break from the game being like a Topps sports card case break.
  • Cards for Standard.  You'd think every new Standard expansion would have these, but Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch had surprisingly few (at the time) because of the ratcheting down of the power level after the wedge-flavored craziness of Siege Rhinos of Tarkir and the rainbow mana bases that the Onslaught fetchlands made possible.  Virtually every push mythic and push rare in Shadows appears tailored for the smaller environment and should result in some authentic deck technology, especially with the fall rotation and ultimate departure of Jace, Vryn's Hundred-Dollar Bill.
  • Enough fat packs, redux.  In fact, after the insanity of the special fat packs for the previous block, players appeared to have been conditioned to seek fat packs right away this time.  I ordered a lot of them and saw them disappear, while my supply of boxes, concededly big from the start, remains ample after release weekend.
  • Meaningful rare lands.  They're an allied color cycle like their precursors in Battle for Zendikar, and that makes the entire environment heavily supported by allied mana with only the Magic Origins painland reprints doing much for enemy colors.  And like the fetchlands they "replace" in the Standard environment, the "Shadowlands" or "Showlands" (Port Town, Choked Estuary, Foreboding Ruins, Game Trail, and Fortified Village) cooperate well with the Battle lands, thanks to the latter's land subtypes.  These were only rares, not mythics, and most players have what they need after a modicum of opening, trading, and drafting, but it's important for cards like this to see print.  They become part of the value base of the set and shore up paucities elsewhere.
  • A delightful limited format!  Granted, this is after only two weekends of sealed deck.  For all I know, the booster drafting is terrible.  (Though I doubt it.)  It takes some practice to understand the Werewolf cadence, both for and against.  There are some intriguing build-around uncommons, and Madness is value-town just as before.  The Dark Ascension/Innistrad limited format was top three of all time (in some order with the Invasion block and original Ravnica block) while the Avacyn Restored limited format was a sewer fire, so it was nice to see the former reprised and not the latter.
  • A werewolf planeswalker that controls her own shapeshift, which is very cool.  We just need that werewolf commander legend now.  And,
  • THE HYPNOTOAD.  ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD.

Meanwhile, here is what Shadows Over Innistrad did not deliver:

  • Heavy pre-order activity and heavy booster box sales.  Some of this may be distortion due to my placing a large bet on the set and ordering deeper than I usually have lately.  Patrick and I had gotten pretty reliable at forecasting demand to the point where our initial order more than pays for itself with pre-orders and then we end up running out right as the post-release week gets halfway through, just as replenishments arrive.  This time everything moved as predicted except... booster boxes?  I guess of all the things to be overstocked on, those aren't bad.
  • Marquee reprints from the previous Innistrad block or otherwise.  Nope, practically the entire set is new cards.  In fairness, we've got at least two reprint booster releases on deck in Eternal Masters and Conspiracy 2, so it's entirely possible Wizards is just pacing themselves on this.  Recall the uproar over Thoughtseize not appearing in Modern Masters 2013, and then there it was a few months later in Theros.  I would have expected at least one heavyweight, though.  It didn't have to be Liliana of the Veil or Snapcaster Mage.  We would have relished Cavern of Souls, Griselbrand, or one of the tribal mythics from Dark Ascension.  Something though.
  • Modern- and Legacy-oriented cards.  The set is solidly tailored for Standard and Limited play.  There isn't even much for Commander here, for the first time in many releases.

Attendance for the Pre-release tournament came up second only to the record-breaking numbers we had for Battle for Zendikar, and with the guidance of Wizards' social media outreach team, we were able to require all players to be seated for at least one round, and hit our highest total of actual reported humans at 391.  Our allocation would have allowed us to seat another few dozen people, but instead we had extra Pre-release packs to sell, and they disappeared quickly.

Our ongoing point-of-sale migration is still unfinished, and thus we had no online registration... again.  Stop me if you've heard that one before.

The DSG case breaks went off without incident, loading up a dozen or so playsets and all that comes with them for our singles inventory.  We lucked out on foils for resale purposes and opened two shiny Archangel Avacyns.  The foil I wanted for Commander, The Gitrog Monster, is one of only two or three foil mythics that haven't passed through our hands yet.  I can live with that.

I am very happy with Shadows Over Innistrad on multiple levels.  Hopefully the various formats will be healthy for its tenure in print, and will drive consistent sales of a large set for the first time since Khans of Tarkir and the second time since Return to Ravnica.  As of this writing, the September expansion has not yet been revealed.  Such intrigue!

I'm off to Grand Prix Albuquerque this weekend to test my sealed-deck mettle in this format against players far superior to me.  Wish me luck!  I'm sure I'll write about something else entirely when I get back.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

We're Super Absorbent!

We just had a whirlwind weekend with the Magic: the Gathering Shadows Over Innistrad pre-release, but with the release weekend ahead, I will hold off on discussing that until afterward as usual.  Next week or the week after.

As it happened, last week brought with it a far bigger bombshell to Desert Sky Games and Comics, and it occupied my attention to the point where I ended up writing this article with mere hours to go before publication.

My largest, strongest, nearby competitor... closed.  Permanently.  April 2nd was their last day.

Empire Games, established 2007, was a miniatures mecca the likes of which most players have never seen.  For years, Empire was the largest Games Workshop dealer account in the western United States.  No joke.  Two years running, Empire Games hosted one of the largest X-Wing Regional Championship tournaments in the world.  This store was titanic.  And it was healthy.

And, it may surprise some of you to hear me say this about a store only eight miles away from mine, but Empire Games was a great neighbor.  We did not cross over our entire product offerings, so we each had room to thrive.  We were divided demographically and drew from different parts of the city in many respects, despite being close to one another as the crow flies.  And the owner, Brock Berge, has been a friend of mine since the 1990s.  I have been his customer and he has been mine, during times when only one of us had a store and the other did not.


So, again, Empire was healthy.  It closed because Brock chose to close.  He had other things he wanted to pursue.  Let me tell you, after almost four years this go-round with DSG, I can guess what his mindset was like with Empire Games nearing the nine-year mark.  I can absolutely appreciate his perspective.  Within the next two years I am going to need a significant sabbatical of some sort.  Now double that and you get an idea of how the owner of such a deeply-developed store must be feeling.

Had Empire been unhealthy, it would have been apparent.  When an unhealthy store is in the death spiral, it diminishes.  Event attendance craters.  Shelves start thinning out -- running low on staple goods, rather than outages of flashy glimmer.  Store credit use is curtailed, which is almost always an illegitimate devaluation, should a customer opt to pursue it.  Store hours are cut back sharply.  Sometimes the store even retrenches into a smaller part of its space, though that can sometimes be a sign that ownership is taking steps to right the ship and get back to profitability.  But in most cases, when a store withers, it's on its way out.  By the time it closes, it barely has any business left to lose.

What about when a healthy store closes?  We have so few data points for comparison, we can only guess.  It turns out the following is what happens, and this is what has occupied our ownership and staff ever since the March 28th announcement that Empire was winding up:

  • Player communities moved in force to find a new tabletop home.
  • Publisher support came fast and furious.
  • We scrambled to prepare our facility for the storm ahead.
  • Sales exploded.

Player communities moved in force to find a new tabletop home.  We were immediately inundated by requests to find room on our calendar for all of Empire's gameplay groups.  We have been able to take care of most of them.  For the group that was hoping to play D&D at DSG on Friday nights, I'm really sorry.  Honestly.  Maybe when we've opened a larger facility, we can make that work.  The regional X-Wing community already had deep inroads to our stretch of the woods, so that was an easy transition.  Warhammer is running hot for us lately, so I'm not sure whether I will be able to measure any attraction increment aside from observing, "Yes."  And I was on the fence and months away from potentially adding minis lines like Infinity and Malifaux, and now all of a sudden I am running the numbers and seeing how much I can get on the shelves quickly.

Publisher support came fast and furious.  Games Workshop in particular reached out to us right away to help us prepare so that Empire's massive Warhammer hobbyist base would not find itself without options.  We would have done our best to roll out the welcome mat for those players anyway, but it is tremendous to have the mothership pointing the true believers our way.  We just got the Tank Shock organized play kit from Games Workshop's GAMA rollout, and it appears we will not lack for opportunities to use it.

We scrambled to prepare our facility for the storm ahead.  Yep, our too-small store suddenly became even more inadequate.  Knowing we were about to get a whole customer base worth of first impressions, and with the Shadows Over Innistrad pre-release lurking ahead, we went into a mad scramble to open up additional space within the room so I could achieve the twin destinies of more retail rack and more space in the gameplay area.

Anything where I could even realistically question whether it was the best thing I could possibly do with that space right now, went out the door.  Coin vending?  Gone, six out of seven units moved to storage along with our pinball machine.  Comic back-issue rack?  Gone, library reimagined as a browsing station near the front.  RPG racks?  Three compressed to two.  I merged a front counter refit to what I was already doing in the preparation for the RMS rollout (which was getting close to finished and took an absolute week's delay now).  My staff built additional gondola racks for product to get material away from the backcounter and out to customer examination.  I now have an entire store worth of rack and fixture and coin-op in storage.  My branch store start-up cost is going to be minuscule.  Security deposit and labor, at this rate.

And oh man.  The sales.  We do a lot of things well every week and I don't want to take anything away from the hard work of the staff.  But this was well above even my best expectation for that.  Usually the week before and after a pre-release sees a somewhat muted activity on the Magic card front, business-as-usual for comics and miniatures, and who the hell knows what board games are going to do on any given day.  This time, with all deposits in and clear, we simply had our best week ever... and it's already looking like we'll break that record by this weekend.

Industry expert Gary Ray observed that when a store closes, most of its customers just disappear.  They take a break, they lose interest, life moves on.  Those that still love tabletop may go dormant for a time until another store reappears near them.  Only about ten percent of the closing store's customers migrate to other area stores.  And that's across all the area stores those customers might wander to.  Let me say this right now.  If the customer migration that has reached DSG is only a fraction of ten percent of the Empire player base... if it is even the entire ten percent and no other stores got anybody... and this customer visit level is only a week in!... the implications for how great Empire's reach must have been, is staggering.  That store was a juggernaut.  An absolute juggernaut.  It will absolutely be missed.

Things are bound to calm back down.  (I kind of hope I'm wrong about that.)  In the meantime, I am going to be reaching out to as many players as I can, doing anything and everything I can think of to persuade them to give us a chance to earn their business.  The victory condition would be that my store absorbs that player base to the greatest extent possible.  I will be inviting that vast cohort of players to have a great experience with us.  I have deep confidence that the humans in my organization can make good on that promise.  I sleep better knowing that.