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!

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