Let’s talk about independent retailers and Cards Against Humanity. I’m not here to discuss the merits of the game, because the market doesn’t care about whether you or I think it’s a good game, or a sophisticated game, or whatever. It’s a game that people want to buy, and that’s what should be important to retailers.
Cards Against Humanity does not sell their game through distributors like Alliance and GTS. They sell direct to a very few brick-and-mortar stores, but the vast majority of their product is sold direct through Amazon. It has been so hot that I and many other independent retailers buy the game on Amazon, mark it up above MSRP, and sell it in our stores. It sells anyway. Recently they’ve made waves on my side of the industry by bypassing independents almost entirely and partnering with Target. In so doing they’ve probably killed the side-channel cash-cow of the marked-up copies sold at your local game store.
There’s a lot of hate among independent retailers for Cards Against Humanity, but the discussion of it is frequently disingenuous. Apparently they showed up at GAMA in 2014 and announced that they would be taking applications from stores to sell their game. They started small, signing with just a few retailers seemingly at random, and then suddenly started telling retailers that they were not approving any further applications for the indefinite future.
And why would they? We are, on the whole, awful. The barriers to entry on the retail side of our industry are essentially nothing, and some among us are pleased to sell games for 15% over wholesale online. Trying to enforce Minimum Advertised Price is like herding cats, with recent ongoing attempts requiring the clout of some of the largest publishers in our industry, who surely can’t be certain yet of the outcome. Some retailers wail bitterly about what lying, dishonest jerks CAH are for taking clean, indisputably legal steps to protect the value of their product, and that evening will post about how awful it is that other publishers allow scumbag online discounters to drive margins down to nothing.
Cards Against Humanity is the Soup Nazi of the tabletop gaming industry. They have a product that is so in-demand that they can decide exactly what stores get to do business with them. They have learned their lesson about independent retailers from their final trade show appearance and the backlash that continues in retailer forums to this day. If I were in their position, with a product so popular that I could freely choose my partners, I wouldn’t want to do business with us either.
It makes me wonder about what place the independent retailer has in the tabletop gaming business. Many of my well-respected and successful peers insist that the local game store has an important role as a driver of enthusiasm for new games. We demo and sell games locally which creates community, they say, and drives sales for the new thing across the entire ecosystem.
Whether you think that that’s true or not, and whether or not you believe that publishers will need us in ten years, you can’t deny what Cards Against Humanity has demonstrated: If your product is good enough, you can make lots of money while cutting out the petulant middle-man. Then, when you’re ready to try something bigger, there are mass-market retailers who are willing to sit down with you and do business like professionals.
Publishers, perforce, will continue to say reassuring things to us at trade shows. All we have to know is that Walgreens is getting their own Munchkin exclusive to understand that, right or wrong, we may not be considered indispensable forever. I can’t blame them, either way. Walk circumspectly, retailers.