Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Together We'll Build a New World

So how was your holiday weekend?

I have been so excited about this news I could barely hold it in.

We're turning one DSG into SEVEN.
The Cliffs Notes:

  • Bahr moves backstage to be Administrator only for all stores.
  • Miller takes over as Operations Manager for all stores.
  • Griffin takes over organized play chain-wide, staff development, other authority.
  • Chapman becomes Media Manager chain-wide.
  • Existing managers remain in charge of their stores.
  • DSG -> DSG Gilbert.
  • Tempe Comics -> DSG Tempe.
  • CTC -> DSG University.
  • Chameleon/Bad Moon's -> DSG Ironwood.
  • New branch -> DSG Superstition. (Spring 2017)
  • New hub -> DSG Chandler. (Autumn 2017)
  • New branch -> DSG Payson. (Spring 2018)
  • Most store policies and practices remain as they are for now and will gradually integrate, borrowing the best and most successful aspects of each original store for use chain-wide.

The effective date of the changes is January 1, 2017, but you will see many things phased in before that, and parts of the integration won't complete until much later.

The detailed version:

Desert Sky Games and Comics, the existing location at 2531 S. Gilbert Rd, gains the suffix "South Gilbert."  While our lease is still up in the air at DSG Gilbert, our landlord is gracious and accommodating and has floated several possibilities that would keep us in place where we are.  Best of all, with the rest of our massive expansion underway, we have a lot of flexibility and leverage here.  For the time being DSG Gilbert will serve as the "retail hub" location.  DSG Gilbert will feature TCGs, video games, miniatures, and new-release products in comics and other categories.

Tempe Comics at 1523 E. Apache Blvd becomes Desert Sky Games and Comics - Tempe.  DSG Tempe will serve as the "event hub" location, and will push even further into supporting premium gameplay experiences in the vein of stores like Super Games in Atlanta or Madness Games in Dallas.  New-release comics, minis, and video games will be present, and TCGs will be massively supported at this location.  We will be applying for some FFG Regionals to be held at DSG Tempe this coming summer.

Critical Threat Comics, formerly Pop Culture Paradise, at 715 S. Forest Ave in Tempe, in the heart of my alma mater's main campus, becomes Desert Sky Games and Comics - Arizona State University.  DSG University has heavy customer traffic and a deeply developed casual play community and will emphasize that as well as hosting the massive chain-wide comics library and archive.  There will be no miniatures and a reduced emphasis on products outside the comics and pop-culture categories as this location is better suited to that product mix.

Chameleon Collectibles, formerly Bad Moon's Gaming, at 2015 W. Apache Trail, in Apache Junction just west of Ironwood Drive, becomes Desert Sky Games and Comics - Ironwood.  DSG Ironwood gives us reach into a sizable community of players who have no other store near them, so TCGs and video games will be supported extensively, and this location will also serve as the DSG "last chance outlet store" where bargains are available to those who like to hunt those down.  We may move non-TCG eBay fulfillment to DSG Ironwood to support this until the Chandler location is ready.

A new location will open in Spring 2017: Desert Sky Games and Comics - Superstition Springs Mesa.  We were offered can't-say-no rent numbers on commercial space at the Superstition Springs complex, a commercial center hosting dozens of strip plazas, big boxes, warehouse stores, restaurants, and a traditional shopping mall.  There are multiple vacancies so we have not yet made our final call on the store suite, but the spaces we are selecting from range from 2,000 to 4,500 square feet.  If we end up inside the mall proper, which their management really wants (and the offer numbers back that up), then we get to have a traditional mall store, which has all kinds of side benefits when it's a branch of a chain, and can be restrictive when you're a solo store.  This also allows us to lock in coverage at one of the most important geographic intersections in the entire east Valley: Power Road at US-60.

A new location will open in Autumn 2017: Desert Sky Games and Comics - West Chandler.  (East Chandler is already served by the original location.)  We will reveal the exact location later as we would prefer it be a surprise.  Nestled in the hollow bounded by the I-10, AZ-202, and AZ-101 freeways, this will be the new primary hub location.  We have backup locations prepared but we've got our Letter of Intent in on one that is over 14,000 square feet.  All our shipping and fulfillment and web operations will move here.  Our vintage arcade will be here.  All product lines will be featured, and everything will be kept stocked until remainders are sent to DSG Ironwood.  We get only a portion of that square footage to begin with but once we have it all, DSG Chandler will be one of the biggest game stores on the continent.  Even when it first opens at just under half that footage, it will be the largest game store in Arizona, narrowly edging past two outstanding stores, Game On (Prescott) and Imperial Outpost (Glendale).

A new location will open in Spring 2018: Desert Sky Games and Comics - Payson.  We have a good open-ended rental opportunity and a chance to be the only comic or hobby game store for the entire Rim Country region.  This will also serve as an ideal template location for our pre-planned branch builds, an idea that Patrick Hug came up with earlier this year.  Once Payson is mastered, we can target other areas that would appear to be well-served by a template branch, such as Casa Grande or Kingman.  Payson is a mountain camping/fishing/hiking tourist town that doesn't do much during the snow-drenched winter, so if you can't open there in the spring, you wait another year.  Why even announce a 2018 opening so far off?  We want to give our players a look at the big picture and where we are headed.

But what about the people?  That's where the real value move is in this equation.

Each store location has staff members who make our customers' visits happy ones.  It is easy in this industry for employees to be seen as interchangeable parts.  We try to find people who bring more to the table than that, and once they flourish within our crew, we like to keep them.  To my tremendous delight, it appears we are keeping every staff member across all stores through this transition.

Lauren Alexander and Chris Huish will remain managers of their respective stores.  Store managers, more so than owners, have their hands on the throttle and influence the store culture.  Having both of them flying the same DSG colors strengthens their crews and the brand, and gives customers an expectation of a higher standard and a better feeling of comfort from "home-field advantage."

Dustin Chapman boarded the DSG train in early 2015 as a comics specialist and has advanced since then to broader Media Manager authority, including overseeing our pop-culture deployment for conventions and off-site events.  Comics is a category that gains a lot when you can centralize processing, so it was a natural move to promote Dustin from DSG Gilbert's management team to chain-wide oversight of those operations.

Mike Griffin is an active DCI level 2 judge, bringing current experience with competitive prestige event staging within the DSG ownership group.  (I was level 3 from 1999-2003, but that was forever ago, and honestly, today's level 2s are better judges than I was anyway.)  Beyond that, Griffin is extremely popular in the community, making him an effective public face for the franchise.  He also has additional technical and logistical expertise that will come into play in other parts of the DSG business plan and won't necessarily be highly visible.

Erik Miller has been in the trade for a decade and more, and specializes in front-end operations and customer relationships.  Like Griffin, Miller is also more popular than I am, making him better suited to see and be seen in the trenches, making him another effective public face for the franchise.  Every major organization that has an investor group puts the charismatic members in the spotlight and lets the silent and non-sociable members operate behind the scenes.  DSG should be no different.

Which brings us to me.  My strongest skill set is in administration.  Frankly, I am not optimal as an operational manager and a supervisor of human beings, though my staff at DSG Gilbert has been making me look good for a long time through their strong performances.  My future plans include reapplying for a license to practice law, and DSG gets the best bang for its buck when I administer all the stores and the business entity, including finance, human resources, payroll, legal compliance, procurement, logistics, and so forth.  I will keep writing, I expect.  I am a polarizing figure in the community and I don't want that to be a business detriment.

There will no doubt be questions as we move forward as far as what people can expect from the experience.  I'll hit some of the most obvious ones here, but the real answer to most questions is, we will do what makes the most sense and gives our customers a consistent positive experience while being healthy and sustainable.

Q: Why keep/use the DSG brand with such a massive upheaval?
A: We had a few brands available and involved already from the merging stores, but none were deeply established, and "Desert Sky" lets us operate over a wide area and still capture regional flavor.  It was possible we could have started over under a new brand entirely, but in the end there were too many positives to justify discarding it.

Q: Will store hours, event times and days, etc, be the same at every location?
A: Mostly.  We will phase in changes between now and January 1st.  The best way to assure turnout for a daily event is consistency, so for most things, we're either leaving it alone entirely, or making a definitive change and ripping the band-aid as soon as possible.  The better an event is already performing, the less we want to screw with it.

Q: Will cards cost the same at every location?
A: Eventually yes.  The point-of-sale is not integrated yet and won't be for a while.  Crystal Commerce does not do multi-store.  But the standard for pricing chain-wide is for lightly played cards (according to TCG Direct, which means near mint by most peoples' reckoning) to be TCG Market price.  Buying ratios will also be made consistent.

Q: What will tournament prizing be?
A: To be announced.  Right now everything is staying the way it is at each store, which is not the same across the board.  We want to capture the best parts of each store's offering.  Pack prizing has been enormously successful at DSG Gilbert, especially in building a play experience that is more pleasant for participants, even those who like to play competitively.  However that success for Standard, Draft, and Sealed has not carried over to Modern and Legacy, where nobody wants packs and never will.  It may occur that every store running Eternal constructed events will issue prizes in store credit for those.

Q: If I am banned from one DSG, am I banned from all of them?
A: It's an unpleasant topic but I know it needs to be addressed.  So, good news: Minor bans and short-term bans are going to be disregarded.  We want to give folks a chance to start again with a clean slate.  I also know some people who are not banned dislike DSG Gilbert purely because of me, since I am so polarizing as a person.  I don't want that to get in the way of you having a good time at the DSG location of your choice.  I am going to be far less prominent in the company anyway and you will virtually never see me around regardless of location.  You probably like Miller, Griffin, Chapman, and the store staffers just fine, so why don't we start over fresh?  So we're rolling out the welcome mat for most everyone.  However, for individuals who have been banned due to malicious conduct, such as theft, violence, threats, or making private party cash deals on-site, your ban is now chain-wide.  Enjoy the other stores in the Valley... if they will have you.  I assure you, they don't need your $5 FNM entry that badly, and none of them want to become known as the store where thieves, bullies, harassers, etc, are welcome.

Q: Can I pick up my subscription pull box comics at any location?
A: We are going to ask that you pick one, but you can pick any of them.  Moving a comic box from one location to another should be as simple as a request.  However it's not feasible to have box pickup dynamically on demand at any store... yet.  (This might become possible in the future with good software integration.  No promises.)

Q: Can I use my store credit at any location?
A: Yes, absolutely.  By January 1st we will have a more robust process in place for this, but until then we don't mind doing it the low-tech way, calling from store to store and striking your credit at one store and adding it to your account at the other so you can use it there.  Please allow us extra time to facilitate the transaction, and please don't ask for this at 6:45pm when we're trying to get the 7pm event fired off and there's a line at the registers.

That's about it for now.  Miller, Griffin, and I plan to get together and create a Facebook video or something of the sort later this week where we talk a little about how this all happened and what we hope to be able to achieve moving forward.  I hope you'll be able to tune in for it, I'll link it in a future article.

So there it is!  The comic and hobby game industry is in vast upheaval these days due to forces within and without, and nobody is sure what the outlook moving forward is going to be.  We think we can do something amazing that will change the game and go from a saturated, cut-throat regional metro market to a new world of clean, inviting, accessible fun, with locations within reach of our players and collectors as much as possible.  Dream Theater taught us that the best way to build a new world, a wondrous world, is together.  We hope you will join us!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Trading Card Game Landscape Suddenly Shifts

If there has been one thing retailers in the comic and hobby game trade have been able to bank on since the demise of Decipher a decade ago, it is that there are no viable players in the trading card game category beyond Magic: the Gathering (designed for a broad tabletop audience), the Pokemon TCG (designed for youth and families), and Yu-Gi-Oh (designed for juvenile delinquents).

Come what may, nothing new has gotten into that category and stayed there, at least not healthily, and not sustainably.  Year in and year out, stores could make their hay entirely on those three games; indeed, entirely on Magic if they so chose, given a narrow enough focus and sufficient expense control to ride out market variance.

Check out the rogues' gallery of also-rans that have made wide-release attempts to try to break into the TCG realm (and some are still trying):

Cardfight!! Vanguard - Nearly inscrutable to mainstream audiences, gutted by deep online discounting, has the anime "questionable content" problem in spades.

Dragonball Z - Godawful rarity system, eviscerated by deep online discounting.

The Eye of Judgment - This Playstation hybrid TCG was undone by the fact that you could play the game just fine with photocopies of the cards.

Force of Will - High production value marred by horrible product availability during the critical growth period.  Oh, and by deep online discounting and speculation.  Among all the failed anime TCGs, this one seemed like it might have had the best chance to do something.

Future Card Buddyfight - Nearly inscrutable to mainstream audiences, gutted by deep online discounting.

Kaijudo - Nobody knows why this reboot of Duel Masters failed, only that it did.  It had great support and was no worse than anything else Wizards of the Coast makes in terms of price and brand integrity.

Legend of the Five Rings - In print for decades somehow until AEG finally pulled the plug, deep online discounting made this product utterly horrible for retailers for its entire lifespan.  I am conflicted knowing Fantasy Flight is rebooting it as a Living Card Game.  This is a product I swore I would never carry again.  Or even take special orders for.  Or even accept for free.  I planned to light it on fire if I ever got any.

My Little Pony - A string of missteps by first-time TCG publisher Enterplay basically killed this game in utero, and the fading out of the Brony fad took over from there.  Deep, deep online discounting.

Weiss Schwarz - High list prices, but nobody ever paid them.  A shame for a game that was designed to be a shell for every premium anime license they could find for it.

There's a trend there, if you want to accept it: Anime is basically commercial poison.  Its strongest appeal is to a demographic that perpetually has little money: teenaged boys.  A shame for an old otaku like me who used to enjoy anime considerably.  This was when I was a deadbeat, sure, but the point still carries.

The autumn of 2016 brought the first real potential shake-up to trading card games that I can remember since Pokemon itself burst onto the scene in 1999.  Releasing practically on top of one another earlier this month and a few days from now, Square Enix has brought a legendary video game franchise to the tabletop with the Final Fantasy TCG, while Asmodee Fantasy Flight has dipped into the Star Wars well and added silkscreened dice to the equation with the Star Wars Destiny TCG.
Several of the also-ran TCGs above had some demand in the early going before reaching a cliff-like drop-off largely borne of online dumpers bogarting the supply.  Force of Will took the longest to do this because early supply was so inadequate, but YY Card World apparently prefers to bend over dollars to pick up dimes because there they were selling direct to the public for a pittance of margin before the game had even shifted into highway gear.  What would be different about these two new products?

The latter presents a more obvious case: Asmodee North America's sales channel restrictions and online ban have been proven reasonably effective thus far at reinforcing brand value.  Star Wars Destiny is subject to the same resale terms.  Fantasy Flight threw retailers a semi-expected bone by permitting secondary market sales of singles from the game (and all FFG games, a fact that DSG is hard at work turning into a viable X-Wing and Android Netrunner resale framework).  Will it be enough?  The proof will be in the results, but I think market malfunctions in the mechanical sense won't be the undoing of Destiny, if it is in fact undone and not a sustained success.

Square Enix has taken an interesting approach, mirroring that of the video game industry as a whole and tabletop entities such as Upper Deck: a short margin.  If I sold Final Fantasy booster boxes for the price I offer Magic pre-order boxes, I would end up losing money after sales tax was accounted for.  That is how short this margin is.  It didn't stop the armpit of the hobby trade, the Gaming Goat "chain," from offering presales at virtually no margin at all.  Fortunately, they were only able to ruin this release for themselves.  Any other store that got any product (it was exclusive to one distributor that not all stores maintain volume with) was easily able to make MSRP and then some, even on pre-orders.

The results are informative, though they will not be dispositive for some time.  Both games have gone completely nuclear in terms of consumer demand.  Both appear set to deliver safe and healthy sell-through for at least the rest of 2016 (to the extent we can get product!) and into the early new year.  Both have sky-high production value; the Final Fantasy TCG is, in fact, the finest trading card product ever made from a physical standpoint, and it is not close.

Once we finally had a release date for Final Fantasy, October 28th (which was missed and then missed again before finally releasing on November 11th), I opened up in-store and web pre-orders for starter decks and booster boxes.  I had gotten in early because my store carries video games, and this seemed like a safe carry, but I did not want to go too crazy, so I asked for several dozen booster boxes and starter boxes, and largely received it.  I saw that pre-sales at less than MSRP were long gone and boxes were floating a few dollars over that point, so I launched at $150/box or $210 for a bundle of the box with all three starter decks, with about a quarter of my expected inventory.  It was gone within hours.  I put another quarter up, this time just boxes at $170.  Gone in hours.  More, at $180.  Gone.  I kept the rest for in-store only pre-sales, and it all sold.  This game was a 100% sellout before I had ever received a single card of it.  Even Star Wars Destiny hasn't achieved that, though it's not far behind.  Now, distribution reports that starters will be restocked in a few weeks, but the Opus I booster box will not reappear until February, a mere month or two before the Opus II boosters arrive. Wow.  I sincerely hope Square Enix can do better than that, because their moment is now.

Star Wars Destiny was previewed at Gen Con and at some autumn distributor shows, and the early buzz was positive on the retail side, but I had yet to hear a single give-a-damn from the customer side throughout the summer and fall.  Then, a few weeks ago, someone turned on the light switch.  Sky-high demand materialized seemingly out of nowhere.  Fantasy Flight offered us a "pre-release" of sorts, more of a learn-to-play day, and it also sold out in advance at $15 admission.  I ordered my way into quite a few boxes of the debut set, "Awakenings," and about half of them are spoken for on pre-order as of this writing.  A few displays will be broken for singles, and the rest will become day-one shelf stock next Thursday.  We've already got people asking how soon they can buy more boosters.  The Force is strong with Star Wars, what can we say.

Nobody can know for sure what will happen with these two new TCGs, but we can surely speculate.  I have been dealing trading cards in some form since 1998.  I have seen a lot of games come and go.  The leading indicators for both games are Army Strong, but this is also a different market landscape than any of us have lived in before.  One thing I am confident saying is that this landscape suddenly has shifted.  May it shift us to a healthy and sustainable business scenario.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Thoughts, Part 5

What a difference a week makes.

Image credit to FiveThirtyEight.com.  Don't worry, I have not suddenly gone political on this blog.  I am limiting that discourse here to the vantage point of my business and industry.

This time last week (Tuesday morning) my thoughts were almost entirely operational in-store.  Working on what I was going to do with money that week, what my managers were going to do with events and tasks, and what my staff was going to do with what my managers laid out before them.

By Tuesday evening I was being medicated intravenously in the Chandler hospital emergency room due to a bariatric blockage and severe dehydration.  Serious stuff.  I went out of commission around the time the news talking heads were dithering over whether to call Florida.  I knew about some of the election results by then, and I was even Facebooking about them, but I did not actually know the big one until the next day, which I spent recovering from my brush with mortality.  I told the attending physician when I had my EKG that if a cardiac event had taken place, I wanted him to call the press and say that the election results had given me a heart attack.  Great publicity!

I did not think Donald Trump was going to win, as you can observe when I incorrectly forecast a Clinton victory in an article just a few weeks back.  I also don't think the Office of the President has the most proximate impact on how stores like mine operate.  I differ from President Obama fairly extensively in an ideological sense, but you will observe that he has been the Chief Executive for 100% of my store's days in business thus far, and I have managed not to be nationalized.  What Obama has done from day to day has just not moved the needle much for DSG.  In most respects I expect the same to be true under... sigh... President Trump, a pair of words I never expected to type in that order.

Two down-ticket voting matters portend a far greater impact on my business.

First, Sheriff Joe Arpaio was finally sent packing from the constabulary of Maricopa County, in which DSG exists.  His departure will not only spare thousands from his gross abuses and violations of rights, but will also spare the public treasury the expense of the vast ledger of lawsuits he routinely loses in the course of committing those abuses and violations.  Like the eradication of the Scowrers in the Sherlock Holmes tale "The Valley of Fear," the mere removal of oppressive evil should suffice to elevate the good throughout the community.  When people are happy, they buy things.  Ita vero.

Second, and far more importantly, Arizona passed an increase in the minimum wage to $10 per hour as of January 1, 2017, ramping to $12 per hour a couple of years in.  (It is $8.25 now.)  The political support for a higher minimum wage is, in brief, an expectation that spending will increase along with it.  Setting aside how Hazlitt or Bastiat would savage such a postulate, let us suppose that it will in fact occur.  My target audience includes large portions of people whose base pay is getting increased.  In theory they will indeed start spending more.  How surely, and how immediately?  Well, the answer to that is where small business takes it in the pants.  We are just supposed to pay higher wages until that positive effect kicks in, if it ever does.  Nobody ever offers small businesses any kind of cost mitigation for this, which is ample evidence how confident proponents really are about the spending boost.  And there is only one place for the money to come from, which is my own take-home pay.  My lower-middle-class lifestyle stands further imperiled than before, if that is even possible.

Without giving away core numbers on Al Gore's Internet for all to see, the minimum wage increase amounts to about an increase in costs of about 1.5% of gross most months for my store.  Not that bad, right?  But my net from the store is only 3% to 7% of gross most months.  (I am disbursed money in a form the IRS calls a "guaranteed payment," a compensation mechanism for LLC equity holders who operate their businesses, but my pay is entirely funded by the store's net profits after overhead, and it is anything but "guaranteed.")  This amounts to a huge pay cut for me personally, anywhere from ~20% to ~50% of my actual take-home.  If your boss told you to take a fifty percent pay cut, be honest, your resignation letter would be on his desk within the hour.  Why would anyone expect it to be different for a small business owner?  So this is an issue of scrutiny for me.

As it happens, I have been building a hedge against a minimum wage hike for months now, though I expected it to be the edict of a President Clinton instead of an Arizona voter initiative, of all things.  In general I have sought to reduce labor load where possible and avoid too visible or dramatic a reduction in service.  Categories of goods that required hand-selling, such as board games, were already in trouble; this appears to have nailed their coffin shut.  The installation of kiosks and migration to a cloud-based singles-aware point-of-sale system (in this case Crystal Commerce) further reduces the labor load to administer my highest-volume product category.  My staff are diligent, industrious, friendly, and effective.  They also can only accomplish so much customer interaction at a time, and then add in maintenance and inventory tasks.  Something has to give.  If I have to pay them more, they have to do more, but also I have to find ways to get them stuck less.  This has been a huge part of my personal workload for a while now and will continue to be.

Wednesday after the election saw even less spending than Tuesday, so customer attitudes certainly did not revert right back to joyful consumption, but the weekend was wonderful.  Friday was Veterans' Day and we were packed from bell to bell, along with a minor Magic release, Commander 2016, for which I won't be writing a post-mortem.  It's good, people are happy, and unfortunately there is one deck that Saffron Olive, Rudy, or whoever it is this week leading aspiring MTG Financiers around by the nose, told them to buy, so that's the one we're running the lowest on.

Friday saw the release of the Nintendo NES Classic Mini, for which Nintendo produced approximately fourteen units and shipped them all to a Target in rural Wisconsin.  This item was essentially sold out nationwide within hours.  They probably made four or five million units for release day, which is great except that forty million people wanted to buy one.  Of course there will be pallets of the NES Mini at Costco by March 19th at MSRP, but what happens in the meanwhile?  Hopefully Nintendo can get some more quantity out there to thwart the grotesque levels of scalping we are seeing on eBay and Amazon -- have patience, folks!  Don't overpay for this! -- but absent some great reinforcement, this is going to be our annual seasonal unicorn.  Distribution allocated us zero units, by the way.  We are neither Target nor Toys R Us nor Gamestop, who got the lion's share.

Over the weekend, we had a big retro video game buy including a mint-in-box 1972 Magnavox Odyssey, the first video game console ever made and the only one older than I am!  Look for it in an eBay auction coming soon, or you can make your offers to us directly.  It's absolutely gorgeous and the box is in great shape, especially compared to what's circulating.  It even still has the dry cell batteries with it, and various paper and plastic game aids.  It's very cool to know that even when you're just doing business as usual, really special stuff can still come walking in the door.  The seller was realistic on price and we overpaid slightly but I think it's a reasonable risk.

That's all for today's installment of Thoughts!  I'll be back next week with pre-holiday musings.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Frogurt is Also Cursed

In a classic Simpsons Halloween episode, Homer buys a monkey's paw from a caricatured vaguely Eastern occult shop dealer.  (As a side note, there are similarities between the occult shop and some of the stores you'll encounter in the comic and hobby game trade.)
The dealer whipsaws Homer back and forth between dire warnings to cheerful tidings as he explains that the objects in the store each carry a terrible curse, but they also sell frozen yogurt, and so on.  It is one of the all-time great Simpsons scenes.  All Homer can think to say to each of the dealer's blandishments is "That's bad," alternating with "That's good!"

Imagine if I had to explain the state of our industry today to Homer Simpson...

ME: The comic and hobby game trade has grown into a combined $2.5 billion industry.  Recognition of comic IP has never been more mainstream, and tabletop games have become so prevalent that they are appearing at big-box stores now.

HOMER: That's good!

ME: ...where they are being offered buy-two-get-one-free and rotating red-dot clearances, grossly devaluing the product in the mind and expectation of the consumer.

HOMER: That's bad.

ME: Fortunately there's more product.  More than ever before, and the best games are even better than they ever have been.  Publisher consolidation has put real money behind top titles and given them sky-high production value and broad, effective marketing.

HOMER: That's good!

ME: Of course, where there are haves, there are have-nots, and the stones the mega-publishers rejected have not become the biblical cornerstones.  Those games have instead created a crowdfunding-fueled glut of crap so overwhelming that the retail wharves are outright collapsing under all its weight.

HOMER: That's bad.

ME: But it's okay!  Because board games gangway before the 900-pound gorilla of Magic: the Gathering!  The quality of Magic releases is the highest it has ever been, with more cards players love and more ways to get them than ever before.  Magic is having its biggest year ever and just finished releasing five booster sets in a six-month span!

HOMER: That's good!

ME: Which ran our customers pretty much right out of money and left us all gasping for sales right when we needed to be ramping our way into the holidays.

HOMER: That's bad.

ME: Which means it's a good thing the "other" trading card game, Pokemon, is celebrating its 20th anniversary with an entire year of mini-releases into a market that just snorted an entire barrel of nostalgia cocaine in the form of Pokemon GO, and is so thoroughly dusted that stores could stock day-old fish with the Pokemon logo right now and probably sell through.

HOMER: That's good!

ME: All we have to do to take advantage of this torrent of Pokedollars is accept short margins, channel exclusives, feast-and-famine demand cadence, and a singles market that mainly consists of newlywed Millennials all trying to sell us the same binder of Base Jungle Fossil that they kept in their closets for sixteen years so they could pay off their Sallie Mae loans by trading in that single shuffle-worn Charizard.

HOMER: That's bad.

ME: But do you know who does have great trade-bait most of the time?  Video gamers!  Downloadable content is the future and we all know it, but the retro video game trade is roaring right now and there are millions upon millions of units of software and hardware circulating, making an excellent market for a store that knows how to develop meticulous processes for handling collectibles... you know, like the kind of processes one might use as a dealer in trading card games.  It's a short crossing of a shallow chasm to get from the tabletop to the console, and with the right tools and knowledge in hand, many comic and hobby game stores could achieve the traverse.

HOMER: That's good!

ME: Of course, getting those tools and that knowledge doesn't come automatically, and a dismaying number of retailers in this trade seem to think that the entire world will hold their hand and be their commercial nursemaid as they run a make-pretend business clubhouse.  And when someone of questionable business acumen suffers the turning of the tide, their go-to playbook has been to dump core product.  Just as with board games, this ruins it for everyone.  When luxury goods are reduced to commodities, value perception craters in the mind of the consumer.

HOMER: That's bad.

ME: Some publishers got tired of seeing their entire body of work turned into a flea market booth.  The likes of Games Workshop, Asmodee North America, Mayfair Games, and AEG, to name a few, use vertical distribution mechanisms as a form of brand protection and make dumping product prohibitive or even effectively impossible.  Even when turn rates on their products hit a trough due to seasonality or whatever reason, the asset hold on those publishers' inventory has become more of a safe haven than before they took those steps.  A patient store with a controlled operational expense ledger and good market positioning can feature those products without worrying that it will all become sand beneath their feet as Queensr├┐che warned.

HOMER: That's good!

ME: It's difficult to say whether it's enough.  Consumers are trained to shop the mass market now.  Big-boxes, Amazon, mega e-tailers.  Even when brand protection is in place, many indicators suggest that a substantial number of players continue to press the Prime button rather than buying from their Friendly Local Game Store.  There's nothing malicious about it; humans are simply creatures of habit.  The smartphone dominates all of human society now, and the mass market has the resources to best harness the almighty smartphone.  The retail landscape is in upheaval the likes of which we've seldom seen.

HOMER: That's bad.

ME: I'm not sure it is, in the long run.  Tout change avec les temps.  It has never been easier to be a consumer, and at the same time never more perilous to be a retailer.  Those of us who intend to keep doing this must adapt psychologically as well as structurally.  That is difficult when a game store cannot even articulate what its business psychology or structure is, beyond a rudiment of "I buy things and then charge a little more and sell the things, and I keep the difference."  If that's all you're doing, it's in the market's interest to cut you out of the equation.  I'm not saying we should all become the mythical no-retail board game cafe, or even that "butts in seats" is the Way, Truth, and Life, as one publisher persistently teaches.  I'm saying a comic or hobby game store needs to leverage proximity, flexibility, and execution to present a psychologically competitive attraction to the typical player/collector.  That person has to be able to get to you reasonably conveniently, and then has to want to show up, and then has to be glad they did.  Those are nebulous metrics, but they are the ballgame right now.  They apply whether it's the guy who shows up every night for Magic or the gal who is never in the store for more than ten minutes every week but invariably walks out with a stack of Image books.  And they apply for the kid who comes in every afternoon and looks at the merch for an hour and then leaves.  The grognard shopkeep begrudges the kid's presence.  The insightful one realizes the kid is building up the wish list of his dreams, and is mentally preparing how he will spend every dime of his birthday money next month.  To succeed, the store owner must understand these psychological factors every bit as well as he or she understands the store's structural logistics.  This includes both the self-awareness to detect bias or error in his or her own observational analysis, and sufficiently honest self-reflection to pivot away from a preferred plan into a different plan that might expose his or her own prior wrong decision or faulty judgment, but has revealed itself clearly to be the correct course of action now.

HOMER: ...

ME: That's both good and bad.

HOMER: Can I go now?