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.