So much for the calls for WOTC to protect the value of their brand. That’s about as definitive an answer as we’re going to get.
And now, for abbreviated reviews that I should have written two weeks ago.
GAMA Trade Show 2018
After swearing in May 2017 that I was done with trade shows for a while I turned around and attended the next GAMA Trade Show. With a brand-new game room expansion and Magic’s slump giving room for the rest of the industry to catch up, I felt that I owed it to myself to give the show another chance in hopes of learning things that would help the tabletop portion of my business make sense.
The venue: The Peppermill is vastly superior to Bally’s. My base-price room was clean, comfortable, and quiet. I didn’t hear any shocking stories of used condoms under mattresses or butt-prints on windows, which were a yearly staple in previous years. The staff at Bally’s treated us as an annoying side-event, while the staff at Peppermill was unfailingly friendly and helpful. There are tables, chairs, and sofas throughout the building at Peppermill, where at Bally’s you had to trespass into conference rooms carelessly left unlocked if you wanted to have a relatively quiet place to meet with someone. There is WiFi available. Good WiFi. It’s easily the best internet connection I’ve ever had while traveling. At one point to test it I started a streaming video in my hotel room and took a 15-minute walk to the other end of the resort. It never hiccuped.
The technology: The projectors available in retailer seminars were a huge let-down, starting with (I’m totally serious) some $70 clearance-bin RCA projectors that were never intended to serve a large room. Eventually some of the hotel’s projectors were wheeled out, plenty bright even if they were the best technology 2003 had to offer, and many retailers found themselves scrambling to adapt their equipment to work. There were emergency Best Buy runs involved. Retailers, my advice if you are presenting next year: Bring your own projector, or perhaps buy a bunch of adapters and extension cables and make bank selling them to panicked presenters. You’ll make a mint.
The town: A couple of years ago a friend observed that Las Vegas is the anti-Paul: I don’t gamble, I don’t like sightseeing, and I don’t like crowds. By the end of each week on the Las Vegas Strip, I could feel it closing in around me. Reno is the same flavor but scaled way, way back. Think the Alliance Open House in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but with slot machines. Some retailers who previously used the trade show as an opportunity to write off a week in Vegas have complained bitterly. All I can tell you is that, when it looked like weather might trap us all there for the weekend, I was not worried about my comfort or productivity. Which brings us to…
The weather: Getting ready to go to Las Vegas feels to someone who lives in Tennessee like preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. Reno is a different climate altogether, with lows reaching into the 30’s at night. At the end of the week Reno experienced what I’m told is a very unusual Winter storm. The airport there is well-kept and most of us who flew out had no trouble, but there were a few cancelled flights. Retailers from California who drove over Donner Pass either left early in all-wheel-drive vehicles or got stuck at Peppermill for an extra couple of days. Much was made of the weather disaster, but I really don’t think that they’ll be likely to have these problems every year.
The cost: The price of airfare for those flying coach was significantly higher. Those flying first class found the cost only marginally higher. Many retailers who previously had nonstop flights from their hometowns to Las Vegas found themselves in Layover Hell, especially risky since most flights in and out of Reno are on American Airlines. These cost increases were mitigated by low hotel costs, waived resort fees, and two free nights comped by GAMA. There was talk of the free nights going away next year. If it were up to me, I would rather keep the low hotel cost and significantly cut back the box-o-freebies that retailers receive in exchange for sitting through a dozen hours of publisher presentations.
The verdict: Reno is a tremendous upgrade from Vegas, or at least from Vegas at the budget that an organization like GAMA wields. My understanding is that outgoing board members Travis Severance, Paul Butler, and Steve Ellis had a lot to do with the improvements in the show and the programming offered. It really can’t be overstated how big a difference was evident at this year’s show, and incoming board members will have to work very hard to have the kind of positive impact these gentlemen had on the retailer side of the show and the organization. I know that everyone crazy enough to serve on the board is going to give it their very best shot.
If you consider yourself a professional game retailer, have never been to GAMA, and won’t have to close your store to leave town for a week, you should go at least once. Was it worth it for me, personally, this year? Well, before I left I confided in my wife that I figured on a 30% chance of positive return from the trip, but that our game room expansion was such a potentially massive shift in the way our business works that there was enough upside to take the risk. Whether it pays off this year and whether I attend next year will depend on how tabletop does between now and then. I certainly don’t intend to be a passive bystander during that time, but I’ve failed at this before.
Friendly Local Game Store
My friend and retail spirit animal Gary Ray has published his book, Friendly Local Game Store. The subtitle is “A Five-Year Path to a Middle-Class Income” which goes to show you that it’s nearly impossible to horrify someone out of getting into this business. Gary doesn’t hide the grueling hard work, the disappointments and setbacks, or the crunchy math, choosing instead to present a frank and honest picture of his business and the industry, Speaker for the Dead-style. This probably sounds like criticism, but it’s not: There are aspiring retailers who will be frightened away from this line of work by this book. He’s doing them a tremendous service. Those who remain convinced that this is their calling will either internalize some of the lessons in the book, specifically the bits about capitalization and having a business plan, or they will fail.
Established retailers who have been doing this for a long time will probably find out some new things about the way Gary approaches some of the challenges of the trade, but I think that most of the value for them is in commiseration. Giving the book to your managers will likely result in better understanding of the business, which will lead to them either cutting you some freaking slack once in a while or demanding more professionalism from your work, depending on how things were going before. I think that carrying the book in your store for the benefit of customers who aspire to open their own stores will lead to lots of them looking at you like you have lobsters crawling out of your ears. If they listen to Gary, they’ll either understand that opening a zero-capital clubhouse to give the community what they really want is a path to ruin, or they’ll open a competing store that grows the pie instead of trying to swipe slices. Many of them probably won’t listen to Gary, but this is the game trade. It’s standard in the industry.
I read half the book on my way to the show, half of it on the way back, and spent a good portion of my time with Gary in between, so it all kind of runs together, but overall I would say that the influence helped me to zero in on what I think is important in my business. We do this work because we like it and it’s mostly what we want to be doing, but at the end of the day, we have to get paid. Go work towards that.
I am in an abusive, manipulative, on-again off-again relationship with Facebook. Not everyone has the problem-set that I have, but combined with a lack of self-control and discipline, it is a very real obstacle for me. There’s a fix, but it’s not without cost.
Facebook is, first of all, a time suck. It has frequently been the first thing I checked in the morning, and the last thing I checked at night. I have compulsively checked it, sometimes reading all of my notifications and closing the app only to open it again to check my notifications before realizing that I am acting like a crazy person.
I frequently do not like who I am on Facebook. Facebook brings out my worst affirmation and attention-seeking behavior. Any time I crack a joke, or see something adorable, or do something that I think is impressive, my first instinct frequently is to document it on Facebook. This isn’t healthy. I sometimes joke with my wife when I see her taking a photo of something that “this ought to be worth at least… twelve likes.”
I do not like who my friends are on Facebook. I don’t mean that I didn’t like the people. I like them plenty. What I mean is that everybody responds to the pleasures and pressures of Facebook differently, and some become dramatically different people with the distance and barrier of a keyboard or phone between them and the rest of the world. It isn’t the only issue, but I think I only have to say “2016 Election” for most of you to know exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. Almost all reason, patience, and love vanished on my Facebook feed on both sides from August 2016 to January 2017.
I tried to moderate this in my immediate sphere of influence with an annual event I called Frienderdome, where I posted ridiculous, over-the-top callouts in hopes of showcasing how ridiculous my behavior and that of everyone else was on social media. Nobody got the joke. They just cheered me on while I was mean on the internet, and the worst part was that I really enjoyed the attention. I rarely lost anyone during this event, because brutal behavior is what everyone is used to, anyway, and nobody wants to wimp out when the pain can be perceived as a test.
So over the last several years I came to hate Facebook, but I was restrained from leaving by my business. I needed a Facebook account to manage communications with my millennial employees, to administer the store’s page and ad accounts, and to communicate with what I consider to be my very tiny actual-peer group.
On August 18th of 2017, my affection for Facebook was at a particularly low point, and I woke up early with a thought: What if I just unfriended everybody? It was an immediately appealing idea, and a few hours later, I culled everyone. My wife wanted me to unfriend her last. I made a short public post explaining my decision and left it up for anyone who navigated to my profile. I created a copy-paste template to use in responding to messages from concerned users, explaining that I was okay, but that I’d decided to set some boundaries between myself and social media.
I kept Facebook itself, with Messenger, the business tools, Events, and Groups. The only change I made was to drop my friend count to zero.
Facebook gets really confused when you remove all Friends from your account. A zero-friend account is assumed to only happen when an account is brand new, so despite having an eight-year-old Facebook account, every morning I got a set of “Welcome to Facebook” items in my feed. I had to close more intrusive tutorial pop-ups on the desktop site about once a week.
Because Facebook assumes that you will never want to friend someone that you’ve previously unfriended, the suggested friends algorithm gets thrown for a loop when you unfriend everyone you ever loved. I’ve come to believe that, in addition to never suggesting that you friend former friends, it also filters out friends-of-friends even if you’ve never unfriended them. For the first few weeks I only got suggestions for what I think are friends-of-friends-of-friends who I’d never unfriended. This was an interesting set of users for me that was comprised mostly of people who hate my guts, either from my former pool of fellow police officers, or from the pool of game industry retailers and publishers, or local gamers and people involved with my competitors. Imagine a suggestion list of ten people composed entirely of your worst enemies. After a time this cleared up and Facebook just started suggesting that I friend fairly obvious fake sexbot-type users.
Groups became one of the few places on Facebook where I seemed to exist to others, but having no friends complicated matters there, too. You have to be friends with someone to invite them to a group. There was frequently confusion as users saw my temporary friend request, saw that I had no other friends, and assumed I was an automated malicious bot impersonating their buddy.
Of course, the real cost is in loss of connection to and coordination with other people, and the cost is greater than it would be if you went back in time to a pre-Facebook era, because people depend on social media to the exclusion of other forms of communication. You’re going to miss announcements about life events. You will lose connection with childhood friends. You’ll miss opportunities for social get-togethers, and traveling friends will sail through your town without stopping to have lunch.
Still, misanthropy strikes deep, and into your life it will creep. You might have missed your uncle’s announcement about his dog dying because you unfollowed him after a series of political posts. You probably didn’t have that much in common with your childhood friend, now a dentist who doesn’t believe in washing his hands. You hate parties, and who has time for lunch, anyway?
The cost of disengagement is high. It’s probably too high. In November while on a retreat with friends I was talked into adding Facebook friends again. I carefully selected who from my previous list would make it. I ended up with about 80 friends, down from 130 before my experiment and close to 500 at the peak in 2015. Of the 80-ish current friends, about a third are people with whom I authentically want to connect. Another third are people I love but don’t particularly want to spend time with, and the remaining third are people I’m friends with out of obligation, like family members and church friends. If you think this sounds like I’m immediately veering back into dissatisfaction with Facebook, you’re right.
This week I unfriended two long-term friends following their posts in response to the recent school shooting. Their posts were not designed to change minds but to berate those holding different viewpoints. The posts of those who nominally agree with me on that particular subject aren’t much more productive. On the walls of my more friend-count-rich friends, I’ve been called a unpatriotic scumbag by right-leaning people and a Bible-thumping fascist by left-leaning people. There may be people who thrive amid this sort of discourse, but I’m not one of them. Those arguments are not actionable or beneficial in the same way that most news stories are not actionable or beneficial.
I’m totally open to the possibility that I’m doing it wrong, have the wrong friends, am just fundamentally a broken human being, or all three, but I’m having a very hard time believing that I’m alone. Facebook is essential. Facebook is useful. Facebook is fun. Facebook is a waste of time. Facebook is counterproductive. Facebook is agony. I’m going to give myself a week to decide if I’m going back to a zero-friend account.
Magic, as we know it, is dead. The “as we know it” part is important, because Magic isn’t going away completely anytime soon, but it appeared that Wizards heard the complaints about the ridiculous release tempo of their product and the declining quality of WPN stores, and in response doubled down. That’s a big raft of products being pushed out in a few months, hot on the heels of Masters 25, which is being presold by many retailers at 30% off.
Magic is no longer the “press button, receive bacon” product that it was five years ago, and the butcher’s bill is real, with 100+ game stores closing in 2017. Undiversified binder-and-table stores that existed only to push Magic boosters across the counter are being squeezed on one side by customers who are fatigued and disillusioned from the fire hose release schedule, and on the other side by competing retailers and para-retail sales channels racing to make less than 10% margin on product. I recall a retailer after a TCGPlayer presentation at a trade show lamenting that he can’t set his buy prices higher than everyone else, his sell prices lower than everyone else, and make a living thereby. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the Invisible Hand smacks the snot out of free riders every single time growth stops. For these low-effort, low-investment retailers the good times are over, and I can hear their plaintive wailing in the WPN Facebook group even from the outside through the closed door.
Could it be that Wizards is bleeding Magic in order to save it? Possible, but unlikely given the shareholder interests at play via Hasbro. In either case, it doesn’t change my store’s next move.
Magic is still a part of our business, but it’s no longer the only thing propping up the tabletop side of things. We built our premium game room expansion last year amid the flames of Magic’s self-immolation, much to the concern of my employees, but it’s paying off. RPGs and Pokemon are both shocking us on a regular basis, with casual players and parent/child teams demonstrating that they will cheerfully flood into and pay premium rates for a nice place to play run by people who are happy to be there. Board Games and Miniature Gaming are slower to take off in the aftermath of shaking off the scummier side of the local community and the drama that followed, but the more level-headed from those communities are poking their noses in. I suspect that these other categories will hit critical mass quickly as the first few test the waters and find a supportive, healthy environment amenable to community growth.
None of this would have mattered if Magic had remained the powerhouse it was in years past. We would have been too busy keeping up with that one line to make sure that the rest were healthy.
In light of these developments I’m leaving my island long enough to take a chance on the GAMA Trade Show. There are things I want to learn about running a tabletop game store that I never exposed myself to before, since I didn’t have the space to pursue the techniques that are successful for others. To be very honest, I don’t know if it will be fruitful for us or not, but I’m eager to give it a chance. Perhaps the present chaos is not a pit, but a ladder. It’s possible that the decline of Magic is giving many of us a chance to finally run a better game store.
Well, now they’ve gone and done it. DCI-banned dirtbag Jeremy Hambly, with his libelous allegation that the Wizards Judge program is full of pedophiles, has done tremendous harm to Magic, which of course appears to be his intent. Not content to weather in dignified silence the ravings of a disaffected millennial memelord, Wizards of the Coast announced today that they’re requiring all WPN locations to conduct background checks of all employees and keep the results on file. It’s in the new paperwork, and we all need to have it done by February.
As Gary Ray says, it’s a problem because they’re basically passing the burden of an absurd allegation onto retailers at their expense. I have a different objection: I don’t expect WOTC to enforce it.
WOTC doesn’t want us to send them proof that we’ve conducted background checks on our employees. They want us to keep proof on file of the background checks, and make that proof available on request. It’s a great way to shift responsibility, because it adds no administrative burden to the publisher while still allowing them to say that they’re doing something. When some tournament organizer or store owner is inevitably caught doing something bad, WOTC can request the background check and act really surprised on the revelation told that no background check was performed. Then they can revoke the WPN status of the store, watch it go down in flames (to the extent that the offending event did not already doom it), and grant status to the next no-plan, no-capital card shack weeks or months later. That there is no actual protection against harm is beside the point. What’s important is that Wizards of the Coast is able to shrug and say that it’s not their fault that someone didn’t follow the rules.
Compliance with this new rule is going to cost my company about $100 per head, not counting the time spent having each employee fingerprinted, which conservatively brings the total to $150. I own a very small store, but I have six employees, plus my wife and myself, so this will cost $1,200, or approximately $400 more than my nearest competitor appears to have spent on the retail buildout from which they sell $85 booster boxes.
This is a requirement with very high compliance costs to my professionally-operated business, but zero costs to a clubhouse owner who wouldn’t know a profitable business model if it came up to him in traffic and tapped on the windshield of his Ford Escort. The shacks can’t afford to spend the money to be compliant with the agreement. In most cases they couldn’t even afford matching folding chairs.
Please, Wizards of the Coast, I’m begging you to make a big deal out of enforcing this correctly. Have us all sign the thing saying that we’re going to conduct background checks. Six months later, out of the blue, start calling for proof, and revoke the WPN status of stores that aren’t compliant. I double-dog dare you to actually do what you’re only intending to appear to do.
I suspect that Wizards of the Coast won’t do this, and so the policy will be effectively unenforced. I’d really like to be proven wrong.
At a fundamental level, your business consists of the following:
- A location.
- Some goods or services offered.
- Policies and practices that you have instituted and/or allowed to continue.
- Decisions you have made either as exceptions to the above policies and practices, or as expedients when a situation outside of the routine requires them.
Your business is a machine for which you, the owner, are solely responsible.
The distinction between things that are inside of the machine and things that operate outside the machine is important.
In a conversation on a friend’s social media feed, someone gave the anecdote of a toxic player saying something very cruel at the end of a card game tournament. My friend’s friend said that when the owner was told about this, he stated, “I can’t kick him out. He buys two booster boxes every set.” Do the math on a customer like this, and you’ll find that if they drive away ONE customer who would have bought three or four booster packs per week, then it’s a bad deal for the business. The store owner in this story kept an unpleasant jerk in his community so that he could lose money.
Another anecdote involved a female sports team trying out a new bar and being driven away by a leering regular who made inappropriate advances. The owner cited the long-term relationship with the customer, as if misbehaving somewhere long enough excuses misbehavior. The sports team picked another bar and meets there weekly. What did the owner give up to save a bad customer? How many times was this allowed to happen?
Your customers may offer suggestions or make requests, but in a healthy organization, they should operate outside the machine. Even their own personal habits in proximity to your business will set the tone for the entire operation if you allow it. They will not be grateful that you turn a blind eye to their misbehavior, and you will gain little or nothing in return for your misguided long-term tolerance. How many times have you over-invested trust and favors into what turned out to be a mediocre customer, only to have them vanish (or worse, become an advocate for your competition) without even saying goodbye? Good, bad, regular, and infrequent customers all come and go.
The machine offers customers functionality in that your business should be offering a carefully-considered value proposition. If they accept that proposition, they are welcomed and appreciated at the business. If they reject that proposition, then they can go eat rocks. They get to interact with the machine, but they don’t get to make changes to the operation, add parts, remove parts, or stand nearby and throw pennies into the gears.
Inside the machine, the decision about who turns the gears is important.
You may have employees who are empowered to make changes to the way you do business, or who are trusted to make decisions when you’re not around. Regardless of the independence with which those employees operate, they serve at your pleasure, so they’re unquestionably part of the machine.
I have allowed bad employees to stay too long because I cared for them. By the time they were gone, they had done real damage to my business. They were a part of the machine as they should be, but I allowed them to turn the gears in ways I would not have chosen. As employees, they are parts of the machine, and malfunctioning parts should be corrected or replaced. As people, their time spent in jobs that were not suitable for them was not a net positive in their lives, and the seemingly cruel early firing would have been a mercy to them in the long run.
Examine every part of the machine.
I see posts from business owners all the time in which they state that they’ve HAD IT with a vendor or supplier. Six months later, they are still grumbling. They have taken for granted that certain parts belong in the machine. If a product line isn’t performing, reduce its footprint or kick it out. If an entire segment of your business is costing you money, make a plan to improve it or get rid of it. It’s better to lose a part of your business that you love than to allow your entire business to fail because of it.
If the problems are annoying but do not threaten the operation of the machine, then learn to love the Dirtbag Dividend. It may be that there are mitigations to the problems that part of your business is experiencing. Friction is a problem in machinery, and even if it’s perfectly designed, it will probably still need oiling to function correctly.
If you spot a gear in the machine that works against the others, spins uselessly, or doesn’t spin at all, it’s your responsibility to change or remove it. The successful operation of the machine is more important than your idea of how it was supposed to operate.
Protect the machine.
If you step away from the machine and it manages to produce the desired result, then you have rolled the dice and won. A rudderless ship may occasionally travel someplace useful, but usually not. The most beneficial decision you can make for the operation of the machine on which you’ve bet these years of your short life is that you will approach as many aspects of your business as possible with intentionality and presence. I think that we have a tendency to wish that difficult decisions would go away, and that frequently manifests in delaying decisions until an outcome is already decided. Choosing to not turn a gear when its position is changing is still a choice. Deciding to step away and let things sort themselves out is a decision. Give some thought to which parts of your business could use your hands on the gears this week.
Warning: There are some brutally offensive words used in this blog post.
It’s late 2017. Celebrities and politicians are dropping like flies as it is suddenly realized that the rich no longer have comfortable control over the popular narrative and the public recoils against the abuses of people who have never been told no. It’s a bad time to be lecherous, and I believe that the shockwaves are spreading beyond Hollywood and Washington. Like a lot of outrage-driven social changes, this one built up pressure quietly but is now spreading so quickly and comprehensively that we’re not sure how we missed it before.
In November we expanded, opening a small dedicated game space attached to our retail operation that is easily the nicest place to play for hundreds of miles in any direction. Our in-town clubhouse competitor closed up weeks later. I like to think that they saw our game space and immediately decided to close in despair, but they were on the ropes already and it may have just been the month when the money and patience ran out. Either way, they’re gone, and we suddenly were faced with the prospect of their tiny customer base joining ours.
My managers and I had meetings on the topic of how we were going to handle this. We’d been watching from the sidelines as some truly egregious things happened over there, and though we disagreed about how to approach it, we all agreed that the market had spoken and we didn’t want our store to become any more like theirs. We agreed that all current store bans would stay in place, and that we would ban the most-recent owning partners from the play space in response to their tolerance of vile behavior and their unprofessional conduct in the local market.
I figured that I’d never have to deal with it because those guys hated my guts anyway, but less than a week later one of them was in my store asking about playing. I had him banned, and the floodgates opened. The rage I witnessed in local social media was everything that I’d feared and worse. Nearly every player on our “give them one more chance” list blew it within hours. There was one word in particular that kept being used about my staff and I both in regional groups and in screenshots of other groups that I received later: Snowflake. It’s an interesting insult when applied to a lifelong conservative-turned-libertarian who attends a Baptist church, but here I am.
The intent behind calling somebody a snowflake is traditionally pejorative, but since I seem to always have it directed to me when I ask people to exercise a tiny bit of care in the name of human decency, I’m taking it back and claiming it as my own. Here are a few simple truths that I’ve accepted as part of Snowflake Life:
- When the word “nigger” is acceptable in your game store, you assure that not only will you lose every minority customer you have, but also a ton of them that you never knew you could have had. You’ll also lose anyone else who doesn’t want to select their friends and colleagues based on something as arbitrary as ancestry.
- When the word “faggot” is acceptable in your store, you not only drive away any openly-LGBT individuals you may have had, but you also inflict a pretty substantial amount of stress on closeted, questioning, or denying homosexuals in your community. The percentage of the general population that are in that group is between 2% and 4%, so I can almost guarantee that you cross paths with someone in this category, even if you don’t know it, and even if they don’t know it. All they know is that the slurs uttered in your store make them intensely uncomfortable. They’ll soon find a reason to spend their time and money elsewhere.
- When you allow your players to make casual jokes about rape, you are creating an environment that makes light of the sexual violence experienced by 20% of women. You will not find many women who will stick around for that particular brand of levity.
It’s not enough that a player not act this way in my store. If someone’s behavior in public or on social media is bad enough that word of it consistently gets back to me, they’ll find themselves unwelcome in my establishment. It’s been my experience after a long road of many mistakes that most toxic individuals are unable to compartmentalize their awfulness once they’re regular customers at a game store. I agree with them that it’s not my place to police anyone’s actions outside the store, but I do get to police the quality of player that we host here. If they can’t behave like human beings when in public, then I’m happy to let them play at whatever clubhouse opens next to receive them.
In stores that accept toxic behavior, this sort of bad player drives out the good. What remains? About 30% of the population, minus the gay ones, and minus the ones who are uncomfortable with awfulness? I’m in favor of making businesses welcoming to straight white males, given that I am one of them, but I want more. I want everyone’s money, and the best way to do that is to treat people like people. The bar is shockingly low, which is why I believe that it’s becoming socially acceptable to expel those who manage to slither under it.
Which brings me to the final Snowflake Life truth: The toxic players haven’t been missed, and the decent gamers who have been driven away from local game stores by toxic behavior are out there in greater numbers than I ever would have expected. After the ridiculous drama and my definitive responses on social media late last week, we had a raft of new players for Unstable weekend. Many of these were couples, most were already playing kitchen table Magic, and several commented to me that it was great to have a nice game store to frequent. Given that my store has been open nearly a decade without drawing these players in, I must assume that some combination of our new premium play space model and new insistence on humane behavior had something to do with this growth segment in the playerbase.
You may think that your toxic players are indispensable. You may rationalize their behavior as “rough around the edges” and plead that you can’t afford to lose them. I’m here to tell you that if Net Income is your goal, you can’t afford to keep them.
Come to the Snowflake Side. We have disposable income.
I’ve noticed a disturbing trend on social media as game stores have seen a general decline not at all helped by disappointing Magic releases: Store owners, maybe even some who have read this and other blogs, will acknowledge their clubhouse status and embrace it, telling their customers that they’re not in it for the money, but rather to serve the community and the local gamers. I wanted to talk to the owners of those stores.
While it’s always possible that this sort of statement is made out of some nefarious intent, I believe that it’s usually made to save face. The context is almost always that your store has fallen on hard times and needs help, or that your store is cutting corners in fixtures, cleanliness, or product selection. Maybe you’re doing something you’re not supposed to be doing, like selling promotional materials given to you by a game company, or maybe you’re not doing something you’re supposed to do, like collect sales tax or pay employees over the table.
Somebody objects. This isn’t how things are supposed to be done! This is not what I expected from a business. Aren’t you trying to be successful? Your response, finally: “I’m not trying to be successful. I’m giving the people what they say they want for little or no personal benefit, so how about you lay off? I’m the good guy, here.”
I believe that in the moment, you are being sincere. Everyone is the protagonist in their own story, and it’s natural when confronted with one’s business’s failure to produce the intended results to draw the bulls-eye around the place their arrow landed. A place where people can play games for free is nominally a public good, so that’s what they’re going to do. With the way that our culture lionizes the impoverished small business owner, it’s a tempting out.
You know what your community needs? You.
I’m not even talking about the state of your store. More fundamentally: They need to have a store owner if they’re going to have a store.
If your community is going to have your services, you have to be fed. You have to be able to depend on the store to pay your bills. You have to be able to go to the doctor when you get sick. You have to have reliable transportation to work. You have to pay to some sort of a future to look forward to, unless you’re planning to live on Social Security and Medicare in your golden years.
But those are just your base needs. You can meet those by doing the game store gig part-time, or by partnering with several other folks and sharing the load.
After your base needs are met, your community needs your patience and your endurance, and those things cost money. Let me explain.
I have been applauded at anniversary events in my store. I had an employee tell me that I’m the best boss they’ve ever had. I’ve seen customers gasp in wonder at finding something in my store. I’ve flown first class to a trade show where people wanted to hear what I had to say. I got to have a schedule where I made my own hours and could leave the store in the hands of my amazing employees while I went on adventures. I drove a convertible through the Nevada desert in the springtime to go spend a week with a friend in the industry.
Those are amazing things. Those are the things people want when they talk about owning their own business. I would do those things for free.
I’ve worked 90 hours a week for three months right after purchasing the store. I’ve laid in bed at night and felt stabbing pains in the bottom of my feet, then gotten up for another twelve-hour day. I’ve sold personal possessions to have money for one of my Prereleases. I’ve gotten up at four in the morning to meet the police when the alarm went off. I’ve fired employees that I considered close friends, and been faced with the fact that they could have lasted if I’d trained them differently. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on products that turned out to be a mistake. I’ve scooped human waste off the floor and into the toilet because there was nobody else to do it. I’ve been generous to customers that I thought were my friends, only to have them transform into enemies later. I’ve been scammed, shamed, shunned, and vilified.
I could go on, but it would sound like whining, and that’s the last thing I’d want to do, because on the whole I’ve gotten a great deal and this business has been one of the best things to ever happen to me. My goal is to convince you there were moments in my ownership of this business when I would have walked away without the paycheck, or at least the promise of a future paycheck. Without that paycheck, you’ll walk away, too.
The pressures might be external, like a sick parent or a spouse who is tired of paying the bills alone. It might be internal, like a break-in at the store, your key employee leaving you with no notice, or a player revolt over a tournament ruling. There are going to be bad times, and they will wear on you, and you are going to want to quit. Most game stores, or at least game store owners, last less than three years. The previous owner of my business didn’t make it to three years. We have a local competitor that changed hands this year, and that store’s first owner didn’t make it to three years. Ask anyone that has been in this industry for any amount of time, and they’ll tell you that burning out and going home before their store has even found its feet is among game store retailers’ core competencies. There are exceptions, but they’re rare. The churn is real, and for every owner who closes up “to spend more time with family,” there’s at least one more who thinks that they’ll be different, and that they’ll finally be the ones to give the players what they want.
Break the cycle for the good of your players. Yes, even you, local competitor. If you want to provide a store for your community, you will need a paycheck. They are not likely to understand, but if you’re going to be there for them in year five, or year ten, you need to make some money. It’s nearly impossible to live a life devoted to totally selfless service. Most ministers draw a paycheck and almost every non-profit organization pays people to manage its affairs. If your aim is to provide a game store where your community can come together, then your first responsibility is making sure that your store has an owner who will have a reason to stay when things get tough.
Many of my retailer readers, possibly the majority, are anti-gun or live in a place where there’s nothing resembling a “gun culture.” That’s okay. Please bear with me, because I promise that this post isn’t really about guns or police shootings, and it is relevant to your business.
In 2014, a man led police on a high-speed pursuit which ended in a gunfight where he was killed. This week, dashcam footage of the shooting was released. You can read about it and watch the video if you like, but I don’t really advise it. It’s horrific, and the incident itself is only backstory for this post.
Alien Gear Holsters, a small gun holster company, took to social media in a post critical of the number of rounds fired by police in the shooting.
I have watched the video and have an opinion, but I’m not going to share that opinion with you here, because it’s not relevant. What is important is to consider that there are people who are sure that the shooting is justified as a whole, people who are sure that the shooting was unjustified, and people who believe that the shooting was justified but some aspect of it was unjustified. Almost everybody who has an opinion about this shooting feels strongly about it.
What do you think that the owners of this company want? Do you think that they’re interested in social justice? Do you think that their goal is to make a difference in police use of force training and policies? Those may be interests of the owners, but I can nearly guarantee that their first goal is Net Income, because nothing else matters if you don’t have Net Income. Net Income means that they can have lots of great employees that make the company operate smoothly. Net Income means they can send their kids to private schools. Net Income means living in nice housing, driving reliable cars, and having the money to care for sick family members.
So what happened? What happened is that Alien Gear started enjoying their 1,000,000+ Facebook followers and forgot what was important. They, either the owners or their employees, forgot that their customers are real people who form real opinions. Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether Alien Gear was critical or supportive of the police involved in this shooting, because no matter where they took their stand, they’d be standing against some segment of their customer base, and that’s a foolish way to throw business away.
I recently researched a guy running a game store startup
scam consulting firm and found one phrase being used over and over in his marketing: “Live what you love.” It’s incredibly bad advice, my friends. Sure, you probably wouldn’t be in the business you are in without your interest in your product leading to a knowledge of the product and a discovery that you could make a living selling that product, but it’s crucially important to remember that your customers are not doing business with you primarily because they like you personally, no matter what they say. They want what your company has to offer, and that’s a wonderful thing, because your products are awesome and offer a tremendous value, right?
My store does not care about school vouchers, health care reform, balancing the budget, transgender soldiers, gun control, abortion, congressional prayer meetings, 9mm vs. .45, coffee vs. tea, or almost any other controversy. I have opinions on all those things, but my store does not. My store offers beloved products that are not controversial, but our customers certainly may have various strongly-held views on controversial topics. My store wants their money whether they feel that #BLM, want to #MAGA, both, or neither. My store loves everybody who is not unkind to us, and my store wants what’s best for them. The moment my store is seen taking a side in a controversy, it will almost certainly lose the business of people who hold an opposing view.
Alien Gear Holsters will probably not go out of business due to this misstep, but the profitability of the company will be impacted significantly in the short-term, and will be somewhat impacted forever as people with strongly-held opinions hold long grudges. This loss of business will manifest in a slightly-less-nice car, a slightly-less-cushy retirement, maybe a slightly inferior nursing home. These are impacts of allowing the personal to bleed into the professional and they’re hard to see in the moment, but they’re very real.
Remember when posting on your business social media accounts to stay on-message. Your products are great, you welcome everybody, and you’re happy to give them great stuff in exchange for their money. Your politics and your opinions need to stay at home, because you are at work to make a living first and foremost, not to change minds. Every decision you make about your business matters, either a lot or a little, and everything you do raises or lowers your chances of success.
I’m taking a break from blogging and most social media to more fully enjoy my island. Posts will come sporadically as inspiration (or strong feeling) strikes. In the mean time, enjoy this actual footage of me watching the Autumn wave of store closures, which seems to have started in July this year.