Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Hunkering Down

We got as low as 54 stores in the Phoenix metro after Around the Board, San Tan Toys & Games, and Odyssey Games closed their doors, and then Amazing Discoveries opened a second location and three more stores announced openings in the months ahead: Baxter's, Games U, and Untitled Food Hybrid Game Store.  I think this might be a good time for me to riff on my thought process when facing the onslaught of aggressive competition.

As you've read on this blog before, I've owned stores or otherwise worked in this industry since 1998.  Some of my stores were successful, some less so.  With my current store, I had to withstand both planned and unplanned partner separations, in each case prompting equity divestiture.  DSG isn't up against the most vicious competition I've ever faced, but it's definitely facing the highest volume of competition I've ever seen.
Readers from outside Arizona might be surprised to know that, for as much Magic: the Gathering business as I do (and it is a lot), DSG is not considered a competitive Magic store in the Phoenix area anymore.  This is by choice.  I still host competitive prestige events that get raves, and they should, that expertise comes from my time as a Level 3 judge working at Pro Tours, Nationals, Grand Prix events, and so on, and I have been fortunate to work with excellent judges locally as well.  But I have opted as a business move not to focus my daily events on hardcore grinders, and almost every new store that has come along since 2014 or so does focus on those players.  This has created a dispersal effect.  Competitive players have many options where before they had few, so they go to the store paying out the highest EV, or the store closest to their home, or a store where their friends play that is an acceptable mix of EV and location, etc.  That is only sometimes DSG.  I still get two dozen or more players for Standard nights, and my FNM total floats in the 45 to 55 range, but that's a steep drop from the 100+ players DSG used to draw in two years ago.

My business reply to all the new stores seeking to poach a piece of the action has been to retail effectively.  Some degree of diversification, if you can execute it, provides the safest haven for hunkering down.  Oh, you're going to dump Magic boxes?  I sell more non-Magic product every month than your total sales, have fun leaving money on the table like that while I just switch gears.  My Magic inventory is already built up nicely; it will still be worth as much or more when you're exhausted on the rocks and people come back to me.  Oh, you're going to run free tournaments?  Because what I just heard you say was that all the casual players at my store won't have to have their night ruined by the regional try-hards anymore.  Thank you for guaranteeing my casual player base will flourish.  And for giving me enough room to let the X-Wing players have another night, or the Warmachine players, or the Netrunner players.  Oh, you're going to run escalation leagues for every miniatures system under the sun to corner that market?  Enjoy.  I concede the entire Malifaux player base to you.  I'll stick to metrics in that category, and in the meanwhile I'll be over here selling Batman books.  Everywhere you can competently service a market segment, that gives you that much more resilience against pressure in other market segments.

Because as much as diversification is the big-picture best move, what we're really talking about is how to keep hold of a Magic customer base when it's the lowest-hanging fruit out there.  It hangs so low you have to brush the dirt off those grapes before you eat 'em.  And even though Magic isn't necessary for me to survive, it's still the largest single product line I move by units and dollars.  And you can't have wholesale access to Magic without running a bunch of events.  That makes most upstart stores focus on organized play to the exclusion of solid retailing.  They're following the incentives they are given by Wizards of the Coast, so I can hardly blame them.  But tunnel-vision on event success can be a trap.

For one thing, events are supposed to be promotional and feed sales.  If I am achieving sales, whatever event attendance we have is just fine; in fact, lower becomes somewhat better because it's more comfortable and relaxing for those who do participate.  In 2012-2013, Girard and I used to grit our teeth when players would buy their cards at another store and then compete at ours, earning us little (or nothing, at breakeven EV).  Now, I have people buying cards from me to go play at other stores.  While I would prefer to dominate both aspects of that equation, I would rather be on this side than the other side.  This side is economically sustainable.

To get to a sustainable place with Magic despite an increasingly divided player base, I focused on growing the singles inventory to a respectable level, then keeping pricing down.  This way the stores tying steak around their necks so the dog will play with them are unable to "make it up in singles" as effectively.  I'm scoring those sales, and I did it by finding the right index and positioning aggressively beneath it.  TCG Market Price was hated when it first arrived on the scene, but I understood what it was trying to accomplish, to do for cards what Pricecharting does for video games.  I hitched my wagon to TCG Market instead of Mid.  Lo and behold, what should happen a few months ago?  TCGPlayer themselves have deprecated the Mid pricing, relabeling it "Listed Median" in tacit acknowledgment of how often it was used for pump-and-dump schemes, and now TCGPlayer pushes Market as the par price for cards, and the public has accepted it.  DSG was in on the ground floor.

I now have pricing at a point where it's not even a question, thanks to the migration to Crystal Commerce.  Players understand where the prices are coming from and there is a kind of default acceptance that I can honestly say was better than I expected.  I usually batch update cards worth $20 or more to 95% of TCG Market (or whatever bootleg feed of Market that Crystal Commerce uses), then cards $3-$20 to 90% of TCG Market, and cards below $3 to 85% of TCG Market.  (I set my TCG Direct pricing up slightly from this.)  This makes my prices highly competitive across the board but especially so on the cheapest cards, which are now often at or under TCG Low.  This also lines up well with buys, most of which are stacks of cheap cards.  This pricing model has made it feasible to open massive amounts of new product, ensuring that DSG doesn't run out of hot Standard uncommons, as is reportedly common at local shops.  Starting with Shadows Over Innistrad, the only non-rare I've had difficulty keeping in stock has been Lightning Axe, and only briefly.

So, great pricing and deep inventory.  That's how I've competed without needing to fight for event attendance.  It's telling how habit-focused the competitive community is, because a substantial portion of them still don't know this.  If you talk to ten grinders at random around town, eight of them will tell you DSG singles are expensive and I don't have stock.  (True as recently as 2014.)  Of those eight, four know it's not true, they just don't want you tapping into their supply.  The two who tell it straight will be DSG regulars.

There is a portion of the competitive player base that is more vocal than its numbers truly reflect, that dislikes me personally.  My refusal to sell product at a loss, my refusal to run events at a loss, my unapologetic transparency regarding why I will not (because it's not sustainable) and my absolutely intolerable support for casual Magic and, ye gads, for other games, has offended these players deeply.  For many of them, Magic is their escape, their means of validation.  Believe it or not, I can respect that.  I've been there and that mindset makes perfect sense when it fits that situation.  But it's business poison for me to entreat with that.  The haters are not interested in being won over.  At root they know DSG is simply not for them.  I am not going to put on a charade for them.  I am 42, they are mostly millennials, I will not become their drinking buddy.  I will not tell them everything they want to hear, the Henry Rollins Store Owner Plan.  There's nothing wrong with doing those things if that's your business plan, plenty of bartenders put their kids through college performing a role for their regular customers.  But I don't see that as a viable plan for DSG, and it becomes fragile at scale.  I deliver the goods, reliably, consistently, with a friendly staff and a great location.  Just focusing on those fundamental basics yields excellent results and happy customers.

The experts say that 95% of martial arts is just kicks and punches.  In other words, training on fundamentals to the point where they are muscle memory and you have the freedom to spend your thinking on tactics, getting into the opposing fighter's mind and winning before the punch or kick is even thrown.  In retail, fundamentals get the job done.  It's why I am still here and still advancing despite headwinds from every direction: Partner buyouts, product line weaknesses, online devaluation, high overhead, and a never-ending treadmill of new stores opening to jump on the market bandwagon.  I think if I ever sell out from the hobby game trade, I'll move into a business that's easier and less competitive.  Perhaps fast food.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Case for Comics

Desert Sky Games became "and Comics" in November 2013.  Since then I've seen some peaks and valleys, but a general slow-grow trendline that became cash-flow positive in a few months and became authentically profitable right around the time I hired Dustin, the employee who is now my Media Manager.  While I had learned enough of the logistics of comics to make money on them, it was Dustin's product knowledge and understanding of how to cultivate a healthy clientele and a focused offering for comics that put us over the top.

June was gangbusters for comics, with the DC Rebirth cycle being a huge hit.  However, DC's resurgence largely masked a tepid, mild decline for Marvel beginning right around then.  July plateaued, with DC leveling off and Marvel continuing to disappoint.  Then August was down considerably across the board -- and the trend line continued into September.  It didn't help that Star Wars Darth Vader drew to an end and Dark Knight III was perpetually late.

Right around then, I learned that my efforts to find a new lease for the store had failed to bear fruit.  The logical business approach to the rest of 2016 was to run as efficiently as possible at my existing 2531 South Gilbert Road facility.  And with comic sales declining and the store badly out of space to store the various collections we had bought and our ongoing back-issue stock, I had to ask a serious question: Would the business be better off if I sold out of the category?

I will tolerate no straw men, so I will make the scathingly bare case for why stores considering comics should stay away, and how my situation applies.

Cost - It takes cold, hard cash, and lots of it, to get into the comics category.  I tell people, all told, no less than ten grand for an existing store to add comics right.  No comic collector will take a store seriously unless that store has essentially all the major new releases, every week, and stores must forecast and order months in advance.  Comprehensive DC and Marvel coverage is a must, while a modicum of Image, Dark Horse, IDW, Boom, Titan, and Zenescope will often suffice.  But the comics category punishes dabblers.  Think you're just going to have a few books and maybe some trades?  False.  You won't draw a comic audience so you might as well be bringing in flower pots if you're going to waste money on dead inventory.  Comics also spoil -- aside from keys and special issues, yesterday's books are virtually always worth much less commercially than tomorrow's books.  They still sell, but not nearly at the 26-turn to 52-turn velocity* of a store's new release wall.  Much older books that aren't keys or complete runs in top condition are sometimes worth next to nothing.  Donation or dumpster bait.  This aspect would put me into five figures of recoupment, assuming I could find a buyer, because while I know my stock is mostly depreciating, I have a metric ton of it.  Not even a figure of speech, DSG in fact possesses over 2,205 pounds of comics, which is the weight of a metric ton.

*A viable comic store will clear no less than half its new releases every week, counting box pulls.  If they aren't doing this, they are likely not profiting in the category.

Space - Comics must be presented well.  For new and recent releases, it's essential to cover-face out the books and make them maximally shoppable.  The public accepts that back issues will be in browse bins, but that also takes up a lot of room due to the sheer number of them as they grow.  As of this writing, DSG has even more comics just sitting in storage, off the main floor.  Any store getting into comics that is operating under space constraints already will be buying themselves quite a bit of additional grief.  The days of the old small hole-in-the-wall comic store are largely over; those stores still exist, but have mostly yielded to the money machine of Magic: the Gathering and/or Pokemon, which demand square footage for organized play.  This aspect would save me about 140 lineal feet (80 horizontal feet at almost double the standard merchandising height span) of wall space, rack space, and bookshelf space, for the new and recent releases and trades alone.  The back-issue library is so big I can't even host it in the store's daily merchandise setup.  For a store like mine that is struggling to find every last square foot to allocate to customer needs, the space savings from selling off our comics business would be game-changing.

Labor - The comics category is a festering labor hog, dominating your Tuesdays for new product intake and then requiring extensive admin to keep track of subscriber accounts, followup with delinquencies, handling Diamond damages and cover tears, and all of that is before you get into the profitable arm of buying collections for resale, for which you need expertise on the payroll and a ton of staff-hours to break down, sort, collate, package, prep, and merchandise the goods for resale.  By the way, if you want to sell online, the labor needs grow further.  Speaking of which, Diamond can be difficult to work with due to their fine-grained requirements and process quirks, most of which are the natural result of the immense scale of their operation.  You print millions of books every single week and get them collated, sorted, allocated, and delivered to a worldwide audience on time.  Go on, give it a shot.  We'll watch.  But even if you accept the reality that some amount of Diamond frustration cannot be avoided, it still sucks badly when you're on the receiving end of an expensive error.  My store largely has the process down pat, and the errors do still affect us sometimes.

The Present - This affects me more than most stores that might consider comics.  The return-on-investment for comics is many years long.  The economics of the category are focused on creating stable and continuous cash flow, punctuated by nice spikes where you get healthy, from such events as Free Comic Book Day, Halloween Comicfest, local comic conventions, and holiday shopping.  If you have less than three years left on your lease, maybe think again before adding comics.  I am in the final year of my lease and if I don't find a solution by late spring, the store could very well wrap up operations and close in August 2017.  (That would not be my preference, obviously.)  A downsizing step now where I separate from comics could buy me enough space and labor savings to put off further category contraction for eight or nine months, or in other words until I have a clearer picture of the store's outlook for future operations.

The Future - How long do you think tree corpse media is going to be a viable thing?  Comics have been dying or dead for decades now, according to the pundits, and yet are selling better today than they ever have in history, even during the 1990s glut.  But this can't go on forever.  All winning streaks eventually end.  Depending what your business horizon is, you have to consider whether there will be a long slide down (no problem!) or a sudden cliff-like ending (big problem!) to the category.  I'm already carrying comics so this factor is mostly speculative for me.  I think comics have healthy years ahead... but probably not healthy decades (plural).

With all that in mind, why would a game store touch comics with a ten-foot pole?  There are reasons, and they are compelling.  Just as I gave the nay side a strong argument, here is the pro side flexing, including how each aspect affects my situation and decision.

Profit - The bottom line is that comics are profitable.  Margins on the books themselves tend to be a little over 50% at volume, though that's deceptive because Diamond charges full freight on every box and you had better believe tree corpses are heavy.  The real effective margin, which does scale, is somewhat worse for comics than it is for board games and TCGs -- but you actually get it, because nobody balks at pulling a $2.99-$3.99 comic book off the wall and paying for it.  It is such a small expenditure in the grand scheme of things that only the most price-sensitive shoppers pay heed.  Them, and the devoted comic fans who buy many books, which adds up.  Of course they will subscribe to your pull box to qualify for a small discount, and it's still profitable and you get some risk mitigation.  It does not take long to get comics as a category to be cash-flow positive, and it does not take much longer than that to be profiting dependably, week into week.  I have to see other factors loom extremely large to consider disgorgement of a profitable business component.  The whole point of investing into new business components is so they may become profitable!  Why bail when I'm in the middle of enjoying the ongoing payoff from that risk and cost?

Bounceback - Comics generate arrivals.  They do this across multiple customer cohorts.  Those who subscribe to your pull box will be back at least once a month.  More often we see them first thing every Wednesday morning or on their way home from work.  A comic store becomes a destination for the mainstream shopper, even the dabbler, because everyone knows who Batman is or who the Walking Dead are or, increasingly, has seen Harley Quinn on every media outlet imaginable.  No category like comics gives a store the ability to see real footfall aggregation driven by a reasonably high-quality, clean, well-lit, inviting facility.  A comic store becomes a place that people remember.  Pure game stores, for whatever reason, don't tend to have that same social grasp, perhaps because everyone knows what a comic book is and recognizes the store's purpose in an instant, while tables of Magic players or a bristling army of Chaos Space Marines in the ruins are somewhat more opaque and uninviting.  Also, people naturally go to comic stores to sell or trade in all kinds of pop culture memorabilia.  I had a gentleman come in over the weekend offering to sell me a bunch of collector toys.  They were a bit outside my purview and I had to graciously pass, but it was awesome that he brought them in to begin with!  Any time we can feasibly resell a thing, we want to snap it up.

Crossover - The intellectual properties that drive comics reach deep into other domains, from tabletop games to video games to movies to toys.  And, the intellectual properties that drive tabletop games, video games, movies, and toys often end up being adapted into comics!  The crossover transcends comic content and reaches comics collectors and readers as well, being consumptive media as varied as the day is long.  Comics reach across genders, ages, backgrounds, and personalities.  In the entire hobby industry overall, nowhere is there greater diversity.  In terms of your store's ability to attract a blue ocean audience, you will have a hard time finding options as good as comics.  DSG is in an upper-middle-class suburb full of families who are going to be living in their single-family detached dwellings for the better part of the next two decades, on average.  With a local audience like that, crossover is the reach multiplier that makes comics nuclear strong for me.

The Present - Profit now!  I mentioned that before, did I not?  Comics are hot right now.  How much longer will they be hot?  Shrug emoticon.  Even in their down months, they're still selling.  For the fan who craves to be the first to know where the story's going to go, comic books is where they find out.  And mainstream commerce is aware enough about comics that the IP is a part of everyday life everywhere you are, so why not monetize what people are already consuming?  This does mean competition, but there is not wide knowledge within the rest of the hobby trade as far as what to do.  It's not easy to manage product flow via Diamond orders.  This means a comic store is often paying the bills without a hiccup during times when the greater game trade is in a trough, such as after a bad Magic set or during an economic downturn, without as much risk of nearby game stores grabbing at the comic store's low-hanging fruit.  I'm already there so this is an easy question for me; bailing out would be a good way to flip the bird to the sunk-cost fallacy, but ultimately I'd rather just keep churning revenue.

The Future - The IP lives on even if the books don't, and you can be positioned in the market.  But for sure, the championship window for comics is open now; they are not rebuilding.  Get in because you want to ramp up fast and turn product right away.  What's going to happen come 2021?  Hakuna Matata, buddy.  Life is short.  Take your shot.

So there you have it: The case for comics, positive and negative polarity offered as strongly as I think I'm currently knowledgeable enough to make it.  I hope you've found it useful or interesting, and please do feel free to leave a comment on this web zone and like and subscribe or however that newfangled stuff works.

Have a great week!--wait, what?  Oh yeah, what did I decide?  I should probably tie up that loose end, yes.  It's only fair.  You read the article this far, no lime-green golf ball jokes today.

On balance, I have not only decided to keep comics around, but to double down my focus upon them -- while at the same time taking the immediate step of clearing out space, the most acute of the current issues that was steering me toward the "bail" camp.  Dustin went ahead and did a preemptive cull of the recent release wall and pulled aside keys and top variants, and we commenced with a Comic Celebration 2016 sale offering the entire DSG back issue library for 99 cents per book.  Twelve books for $9.99, 25 books for $19.99.

The Facebook blast went up Saturday morning, and it took until Saturday evening for the sale to gain traction.  But once it did, oh, man, how it did.  Even with books reduced that far in price, in two days we grossed more than we'd have gotten selling off the entire lot to bulk buyers, so we're free-rolling now.  Every few days we'll refresh the bins with more comics from storage.  If I have my way I'll be down to 25% or less of the previous back-issue inventory level by Halloween.  Since this is all overload from two years' buildup, there isn't even a COGS component; it's just pure recoup.  Perfect as a way to lay in some more cash capital for our eventual move.

Following that, and with the ongoing inventory adjustments in other categories that I may perhaps write about in the weeks ahead, I hope to have comics featured somewhat more prominently right in the front area of the store, where mainstream shoppers first drift.  The more comfortable I can make them, the better the business will perform.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Board Games at Retail: Cause and Effect

I play more board games these days than any other type of game, including Magic: the Gathering and video games.  That is partly a function of how busy I am, but also a matter of deliberate preferences.  In case you're curious, my latest few enjoyments have been Costa Rica, the Panic series, Dominion Empires, and Lanterns.  As a player, I am deeply invested in the board game world and I care a great deal what happens to it.  That's why it bothers me that board games are in such a rough spot right now at brick-and-mortar retail.

There is a common refrain I hear and read from veteran board gamers nowadays, and it sounds a lot like this:
I remember when my FLGS (friendly local game store) used to have all the best games for aisles and aisles.  They had great sales and specials and the owner was friendly.  But now when I go back, it's just a Magic store.  The tables are always taken up by card players or sprawling Warhammer games.  They don't have anything I want, everything is priced double what it costs online, and the guy working the counter just sneers at me.  I don't bother going there anymore, I'll buy online from now on, and those stores need to die off like the obsolete dinosaurs they are.
If you think I'm exaggerating, you think incorrectly.  Every week or so there is a trainwreck thread of hundreds of posts on the Board Game Geek forums or BGG's Facebook page in which this narrative is thrown about and store owners, store champions, community builders, and publisher advocates argue against the growing throngs of, shall we say, thrifty board gamers who are delighted to blame the FLGS for forcing them to develop their Amazon crack habit.
The problem with that narrative is it reverses cause and effect.  It has the situation exactly backward.  Those board gamers didn't move their purchasing online because of their FLGS becoming a Magic den; that's merely a rationalization that lets them evade the truth: their FLGS became a Magic den because those board gamers moved their purchasing online.

The Board Game Geek grognards love to sneer, "Adapt or die, losers!" to store owners, but what they don't grasp is that the store owners did adapt.  They adapted by turning the spotlight toward Magic, Pokemon, comics, miniatures, and/or video games, and away from board games.  That's why they were abrupt with you when you went back.  They didn't dump you, you dumped them.  Now you're drunk-dialing them a year later at three in the morning.  How do you expect them to react?

This is not to say that Magic is the only means of survival for an FLGS, though privately many retailers I network with suspect that Magic is propping up more stores than we realize.  The truth is that board games aren't a great match for brick-and-mortar retail stores in the smartphone shopping landscape/era anyway, and that is rooted in the nature of the product.

A typical board game is a self-contained entertainment module, and most are neither scarce nor collectible.  The board game is procured and taken home to be played by close friends or family in a private setting.  There is no need for organized play, for the most part.  There is no need for a community of players, a "network of nodes" as WizKids President Justin Ziran put it.  A constructible or collectible game tends to get stronger the more places it's being played.  So you have games like Magic, HeroClix, Warhammer, Netrunner, and X-Wing, all of which become tremendously better if there is organized play at an FLGS, and it makes sense for the publishers to take steps to reinforce their brand value and drive customers to retail rather than online, to create as many nodes as possible for that network.  But once I buy a copy of Dead of Winter, I have zero need for an FLGS to facilitate anything.  I take it home.  I play with friends and family.  Aside from curation, immediacy, tactile benefit, and maybe a modicum of guidance, there isn't much of a value proposition at retail for board games.  Unless you count social factors, which I do not, and neither does the thrifty Board Game Geek hardcore contingent.

Curation, immediacy, tactile benefit, and guidance.  The board-game centric stores that are succeeding right now are hitting it out of the park in these areas, often all of them.  They have enough square footage and staff development to demo the latest and greatest on the spot, and industry numbers suggest this creates up to 400% improvement on sell-through of the demo'ed title.  The results suggest that what these stores are doing has value.  For a busy working professional who knows that his or her time is valuable, I think you'll see recognition of that, and maybe that informs why these great stores are often located in affluent employment epicenters: Seattle, Chicago, New York, the DC/Baltimore/Philly corridor, San Francisco, and like such.  Your typical division head at Microsoft who enjoys casual tabletop isn't going to scour Board Game Geek for ratings, reviews, and a walkthrough on how or what to buy for Thanksgiving weekend with the in-laws and cousins visiting his Bellevue dwelling.  That guy is going to walk into Meeples Games, they're going to teach him how to play two or three great new titles, he's going to pay them MSRP for them, the cost will impact his budget not one iota, and a good time will be had by all once Dallas is done losing to Washington that afternoon and the game table and mixed drinks come out.

What happens when a board gamer is not in that value scenario?  When she follows the hobby enough not to need curation, or he has more time than money and can scour the webzones for that last 5% of bargain, or she is in no particular hurry and can defer gratification until that parcel arrives?  Ask these people why they don't shop at an FLGS for board games, and the answers are consistent.  Actual real quotes from one of the Board Game Geek threads:

  • "I will either save the $10 or not buy the game." - J.M.
  • "I do [shop at] both.  It makes financial sense to buy a $50 game for $30 online, whereas a $15 expansion only saves a few bucks." - R.S.
  • "The prices are lower elsewhere." - N.G.
  • "If every FLGS within 200 miles ceased to exist today my life would remain unimpacted." - B.C.
  • "I try to shop local, but sometimes online is 50% of the price." - R.C.
  • "Saving money is saving money." - N.W.
  • "You can't expect people to change economic behaviors so drastically." - I.S.
  • "My FLGS doesn't stock the things I want." - G.R.
  • "I usually play at the homes of friends." - C.B.
  • "I go online for value on pricing." - J.N.
  • "Money is the ultimate.  It doesn't matter how nice the local store is, price is king." - K.M.

Shall I continue?  I omitted the especially salty ones, such as those brusquely calling for the extinction of the FLGS entirely, whether to be supplanted by the mythical no-retail, all-service Board Game Cafe (approximately zero of which have succeeded under a typical capital deployment in the United States thus far) or to leave behind a world of Amazon drones dropping off Dead of Winter XIV: Zombie Summer Camp just in time for a game night that is only ever at home.  K.M. is a particularly tough audience, even the gorgeous, large, curated FLGS offers nothing he wants if the numbers on that tag aren't paired to a phrase ending in "percent off."

My board game stock at DSG is by no means the defining word on what board games to carry.  I see magnificent stores like Millennium Games, Imperial Hobbies, Rainy Day Games, Imperial Outpost, Games & Stuff, and Common Ground Games (to name only a few) stocking a far broader mix of board games with the heavy-hitting titles or the new hotness in depth.  But my stock might be informative as a look at what board games are punching their weight class in a category that has multiple intrinsics working against it.

Right now, I reorder to full on the following board games:

  • 7 Wonders (all SKUs)
  • Agricola
  • Android Netrunner (complete series, LCG)
  • Ascension (core only)
  • Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn (all SKUs)
  • Betrayal at House on the Hill
  • Boss Monster (all SKUs deep)
  • Castle Panic (all SKUs)
  • Catan (core only, deep)
  • Civilization
  • Codenames
  • Cosmic Encounter
  • Costa Rica
  • Coup
  • Dead of Winter (Long Night is fine, it's newer)
  • Dixit (all SKUs)
  • Dominion (core and newest set only)
  • Five Tribes (all SKUs)
  • Forbidden Desert
  • Forbidden Island
  • FUSE
  • A Game of Thrones v2.0 (complete series, LCG)
  • Gravwell
  • The Great Dalmuti
  • Guillotine
  • HeroClix (ongoing, hybrid CMG)
  • King of Tokyo
  • Kittens in a Blender
  • Kitty Paw
  • Lanterns
  • Legendary (newest set and Marvel core)
  • Love Letter (base and pick a few licensed versions)
  • Mansions of Madness
  • Munchkin (base set and latest expansions)
  • Mysterium (all SKUs)
  • Mystic Vale
  • Pandemic (all SKUs, core deep)
  • Risk Legacy
  • Runebound
  • Seasons
  • Shadow Hunters
  • Small World
  • Smash-Up (core and newest set)
  • Splendor
  • Star Trek Panic
  • Star Wars Imperial Assault (complete series, hybrid minis game)
  • Star Wars X-Wing (complete series, hybrid minis game)
  • Storyline
  • Takenoko
  • Ticket to Ride (all SKUs)
  • Timeline (all modules)
  • TIME Stories (all SKUs)
  • Tokaido (all SKUs)
  • Yardmaster

And recently discontinued but I will stock plentifully while I can:

  • Blood Bowl Team Manager
  • Fury of Dracula
  • Penny Arcade DBG (both SKUs)
  • Talisman (core only)
  • Warhammer Quest Card Game

That's not my entire board game stock; all of the above at full shelf quantity amounts to a little under one-third of the total.  But the rest are not designated for replenishment.  They are either intentional one-and-dones, "system" games that are on their way out of production (such as the 40K Conquest LCG), and so on, or most commonly, games that failed to meet turn rate.

Can a new game win its way into the live rotation?  Absolutely!  I have a case of Lotus coming in and the early reaction within the trade is that it will be a winner.  Mystic Vale is still on its initial bleed and it will stick around if it hits turns by end of quarter.  I was overloaded on Quadropolis and Via Nebula thanks to the case-exclusive bonus items, but they might be safe keeps at one count; the former did eventually sell down to shelf level in a reasonable span of time at MSRP.

How does my stock measure up industrywide?  Against Amazon, it's absolutely Pareto-efficient: I have most of the 20% of titles that make up 80% of sales.  I fall utterly short of the online long tail.  I am of the belief that no independent retailer can ever really catch up to Amazon in that regard, mainly because Amazon fulfillment is mostly made up of third-party retailers anyway.  Your typical "alpha gamer" who craves all the most cutting-edge board games won't be able to get much from me; one would argue that they aren't going to get much from any source other than Kickstarter anymore.  The full total of my board game stock is a fragment of what the larger board-game-focused stores keep on hand.  At the same time I am a mile ahead of the dabblers and the mass market.  Your typical mainstream board gamer whose needle points just a shade more casual than average will find that what I stock is often uncannily close to what they will most enjoy playing.

How does my stock measure up locally?  There are two stores in metro Phoenix that stock board games more heavily than I do, and they are Imperial Outpost in Glendale and Game Depot in Tempe.  Neither of them sells comics, neither of them has a developed TCG scene, and neither of them sells video games.  It is easy for me to coexist with them these days, and not just because of distance, but also both are sufficiently tenured that they don't run off doing random stuff like the new stores that pop up and start dumping product in an attempt to buy a customer base.  Those two stores know what they're doing, and I can usually assume they are going to do the prudent business option, and then they do it.  I am grateful enough for the level of business certainty that they offer, that customer requests for board games that go beyond my depth level get an immediate and cheerful referral to them without hesitation.  I've said before a store should always make the referral, but usually we're silently kicking ourselves for not having what the customer wanted.  No regrets here.  They've earned that peak portion of the board game market and I render unto them that currency.

There exists one deeper hazard in the board game industry, and it's one that is not being discussed much yet because we are only barely becoming aware of it.  There are some outstanding board game retailers who put in countless hours and tremendous scouting and networking to "pick the hits" in the board game category, and they stock deep on those titles and make sales at MSRP for a month after the rest of the channel has run dry on a hot game.  But for all that effort, what if the bottom line dollar outcome is not that different than if they had just put those resources into business-as-usual for Magic, comics, miniatures, and/or video games?  In other words, what if a successful outcome with board games still isn't all that great, objectively speaking?

While we work out the answer to that question, the sharpest edge of the Board Game Geek contingent will continue to shop online and back Kickstarters, and will appear at retail grudgingly and only when all other options are exhausted.  They will then become upset because their former favorite game store is full of tables of people playing Magic and Warhammer.  Every now and then a dreamer will deplete his or her life savings in a failed attempt at a board game cafe, where the product doesn't meet turns at margin, and the tables don't meet turns at tempo.  If you figure out the endpoint of these trend lines before the rest of us do, please let us in on it: an entire industry wants to know.

Monday, September 5, 2016

DSG Autumn 2016 Pricing and Organized Play Changes

The market always evolves, and stores must adjust in order to serve their customer base and ensure it will continue to grow.  Desert Sky Games and Comics is no exception.

Here are the changes we are making for the remainder of 2016, with pricing effective immediately, and tournaments changing effective Tuesday, September 6th.  Following the changes will be a brief explanation of why we made them.

Scheduling and Hours:

  • Summer hours are over; we'll close at 10pm from Mondays through Saturdays.
  • Pokemon weekly open play moved to Sundays from 3pm to 5:30pm.
  • MTG Standard on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays is discontinued.
  • MTG Commander added to Tuesdays with rolling pods beginning at 5pm.
  • MTG Wednesday Booster Draft moved from 5:30pm to 7pm.
  • MTG Saturday Booster Draft added at 5pm.

MTG Pricing:

  • In-print MTG boosters are reduced in price to 3 for $10, tax included.
  • In-print MTG booster boxes are reduced in price from $114.99 to $109.99.
  • MTG Singles sell prices are reduced to 95%/90%/85% of TCG Market (by value range).
  • The store credit trade bonus multiplier is increased from 140% to 150% on all items.
  • MTG Singles buy prices are increased to 50%(75%)/33%(50%)/Bulk (by value range).

Tournament Formats:

  • MTG Constructed tournaments move to "Everybody Wins" format: $5 admission, tax included, 3 fixed rounds, increase in overall prizing to 1 pack-per-win plus 1 participation booster to all players.
  • Tournament prizes no longer exchangeable for store credit.
  • MTG Booster Draft entry fees reduced to $12.50, tax included, with pack-per-win prizing.

I'm going to hit these in a slightly different order than the quicklist above, and you'll see why.

1. Everybody Wins at DSG
2. Cards Cost Less at DSG
3. Playing Your Way at DSG

Desert Sky Games and Comics has become a MTG home for casual players.  By "casual players," I mean like I described in my article last winter.  A casual player is not necessarily a newbie or bad player; it can be a limited format specialist, an older player who doesn't like to play against kids, a younger player who finds adult players intimidating, a former grinder or occasional grinder who doesn't have time to run the PPTQ circuit due to busy work and life schedules, and so on.

Unfortunately, our focus on casual players in the DSG community didn't fully sync with what we were doing in tournaments.  We observed that most of our casual audience didn't want to join in organized play because they found it less fun lately; it was too hardcore.  Moreover, even among our competitive audience we found issues: that fourth round was a bit much on the weeknights, and that when there was another high-value event in town, we were struggling to fill events that day.

I reached out to owners of hugely successful stores around the country, where they have Magic events that do better than anything in metro Phoenix.  With gratitude to Super Games in Atlanta, Madness Games in Dallas, Epic Loot with three Ohio stores, and Millennium Games in Rochester, as well as others, I'm adapting their wisdom to build their superior player experiences here at DSG.

These changes are meant to reduce the barriers that keep casual players from enjoying MTG.  If competitive players want to take advantage of the best singles prices in town, both buying and selling, I have no problem with that.  Please come right on in.  But the prize structure will now be much more inviting for casual players to join in with us more often.

Everybody Wins at DSG

Store credit is still allowed for entry into events and for buying anything in the store.  Same as cash, as always.  Just making that clear from the outset.

Pack-per-win is extremely overdue, and we're ripping the band-aid now.  The participation pack is the added ingredient that makes it work for 3-round constructed events.  Madness Games has the largest FNM attendance in the world doing pack-per-win.  Consistently, stores reported that the players' first reaction was negative, but after a short while they were happier.  Casual or competitive, any player can appreciate being able to unwind after work for a few hours and be assured they will go home with something to show for it.  Being in contention for prizes every single round is great for players who are still climbing toward consistent performance or who want to test rogue decks.  And even if you punt the whole night, you at least get the house booster just for playing.

Pack-per-win plus a participation booster to constructed players also represents a significant EV (expected value) increase for all events.  With 2.5 boosters per player allocated to prizing, that would have represented a $10.76 expenditure at the till, but costs only $5 including tax for entry.  To make this work, there is no longer a store-credit equivalent.  (Otherwise being over 100% EV is nuclear-grade hazardous.)  Players may pick any in-print booster set for prizing, and may mix and match.

Booster drafts use the same underlying math now as well.  For constructed, there are effectively 1.25 prize packs bought per $2.50 with tax spent.  Thus, if you take the prize packs only, and boosters are 3 for $10 everyday, then pack-per-win on a $12.50 tax-included draft lines everything up perfectly.  (Looked at another way, it's a discount compared to 4 packs for $13.33.)

Starting with the Kaladesh prerelease, we'll be doing the same prizing: 1 participation pack to all players plus 1 pack per win.  This will require us to issue some vouchers if the weekend is a sellout, since it's a higher payout than the packs supplied by WOTC.  But we believe it's worth it for the player experience this delivers.

These changes will not apply to PPTQs or other special events, which will have prize structures announced with the event.

Cards Cost Less at DSG

Casual players don't live from deck to deck as much as grinders do, so they typically need to maintain a larger collection, pound for pound, in order to have immediate access to the most tools for deck building.  A competitive grinder will not hesitate to dump an entire deck to finance the deck he or she thinks will have the best percentages a week later.  A casual player painstakingly tailors gorgeous Commander decks with foils, promo cards, and rare or autographed pieces; a casual player depends on booster drafting to fill out his or her Standard card pool, and tends to stay with variations of the same Standard build until the next expansion arrives.

The best way I could serve casual players foremost, while still remaining relevant to competitive players, was to reduce singles prices, and increase buy ratios.  So we're doing that.  Most stores cannot do that for long because Magic is all they have; they will fail if their one product line runs lean, even at volume.  DSG does other things too, so we can allow Magic to run a high-volume structure the way we did with board games last winter, and it balances out.  If it achieves the desired goal of vastly increasing sales, and 3-for-$10 boosters usually does so, the pricing will be here to stay.

DSG uses the Crystal Commerce pricing system, which allows us to update prices of many cards at once using a percentage of the "Market Price."  Originally CC Market Price resembled TCG Mid, because stores followed that metric.  Now that TCG has set Mid aside as Listed Median, and instead uses TCG Market as its benchmark price, TCG Market has increasingly filtered its way through to the CC Market Price.  It's not always exact, but it's more than close enough.

Our batches will price cards over $20 to 95% of CC Market, cards $3 to $19.99 to 90% of Market, and cards under $3 to an extremely low 85% of Market.  This is often less than TCG Low.  And that's for near-mint cards, a grade we usually only use on cards we opened ourselves.  Most of our stock is light play and is thus priced even lower.

Our batches will set buy prices for cards over $20 to 50% of CC Market for cash buys, which with the new 150% trade multiplier will provide our players with a staggering 75% ratio in store credit.  Cards from $3 to $19.99 will be bought at 33% cash (50% store credit).  Cards under $3 are at bulk purchase rates, but "hot" smaller cards will earn higher ratios as market needs indicate.

I am confident that across most transactions, DSG will be the clear price leader in this region, for buying cards from us and selling cards to us.  We also have a gargantuan inventory that is still in the process of being added to our website; we're so busy every day filling your orders that we haven't been able to keep up with the volume of buys coming in!  If you've done business with us, you already know: Others talk, but DSG delivers.

Playing Your Way at DSG

The local market finds ways to specialize, and with our casual focus, we saw tournament attendance reflect player preferences to an exacting degree.  Our Standard and Commander events are the most attended of what we run, even in light of the issues described earlier in this article.  Our FNM Drafts fire multiple pods.  Even our Wednesday drafts, which became dormant as one store after another popped up around town throwing offerings into the mid-week, have lately become active again.

The two events that have shown the steepest drop-offs are Modern and Legacy.  This is not an accident, as those two formats are among the least-liked by casual players, even skilled ones.  Regular Modern and Legacy play is the domain of the grinder.  This is neither good nor bad, it is simply a player preference like any other, and it's up to stores to adapt accordingly.  We will still keep those two formats on the calendar, but now each will be scheduled alongside a more popular casual format.

We've run Standard four days a week for years now: Monday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.  We tried adding the other days, but it didn't take.  Ah well.  It was worth the shot.  Instead we're going to add Commander to Tuesdays, make our Wednesday draft a little later so players won't have to fight traffic so much to make it on time, and Sunday was actually fine with Commander and Sealed Deck so it will revert to that (and occasionally host prereleases and special tournaments).  We want to play our strongest hand with events that our player community has already shown that it prefers.

We also heard from a lot of players that they want to draft on Saturdays, but want it at a set time so it is more likely to fill and fire.  Also they don't want to be grinding a win-a-box until 11pm.  They just want to play for a little while and then get on with their Saturday night festivities.  We think a booster draft at 5pm is just what the doctor ordered.

Moving Pokemon from Saturday nights to Sundays was mostly about scheduling other things; we have a growing demand for paid/prized events for miniatures, LCGs, HeroClix, and soon streaming video game tournaments, and Saturday night was the natural landing spot for all of that.  We simply don't have the capacity to do a free open play event that takes up the entire room at the same time.  We love our Pokemon Trainers and we promise once the store has moved, we'll find a better way.  But for now this is what we have to do with the time and space we've got.

Wrapping Up

Few people embrace change for change's sake, and I'm sure there will be an adjustment period here.  Some of this is new pool for the Arizona player base and at first glance may appear questionable.  But results speak for themselves in the places where they do it this way, and their gigantic player attendance and MTG sales were made possible by a combination of more inclusive tournament prizing, more accessible card and pack pricing, and scheduling to meet the community's proven preferences.  We have a lot of confidence that once things are rolling, everyone will wonder why we didn't do it this way all along.

Thank you for being a part of our player community, and thank you again for your tremendous patience and understanding during this highly transitional year.


Mondays: MTG Standard 7pm
Tuesdays: MTG Commander 5pm, Modern 7pm
Wednesdays: MTG Draft 7pm, Legacy 7pm
Thursdays: MTG Commander 5pm, Standard 7pm
Fridays: MTG FNM Standard 7pm, Draft 8pm
Saturdays: MTG Standard Noon (Double Stakes), Draft 5pm
Sundays: MTG Commander 11am, Sealed Deck Noon, Pokemon Open Play 3pm-5:30pm.