Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time, Wizards.

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.

The Machine

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.

Snowflake Store Ownership

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.

It’s on the national news, it’s happening in Magic, and now it’s happening at my little store.

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.

Something For Your Store To Live For

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.



Alien Gear Holsters, Professional Social Media, and the Dangers of “Living What You Love”

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.

Alien Gear Holsters is currently receiving hundreds of 1-star reviews every hour. If you go to read them before management learns how to turn off Facebook reviews, you’ll find that almost all of them are about the recently-expressed opinions of the company, not the products of the company.

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.


Enjoy the Silence

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.

The Dumping of Archenemy: Nicol Bolas 2017

I promise that this is my last post about Filthy Discounters for a while and that I will return to my regular semi-useful entries soon.

The new Archenemy: Nicol Bolas is a great product. It’s a boxed multiplayer Magic experience where you’re playing Magic: The Gathering, rather than a crappy board game with the MTG assets pasted on. It’s thoughtfully designed and by all reports a blast to play. It should have been great for a casual-focused store like mine.

It wasn’t.

Customers tipped me off early that the value of this product was being shredded before it had even been released. “Are you guys going to carry the new Archenemy box? Are you going to match the online price? Why are you making that face?”

Sure enough, I found that Massdrop had this product on presale at a price that would give a 16% margin over the direct price before fees. Unlike many Massdrop campaigns that have low limits on the total amount of product being dumped, this campaign offered 900 units, which soon became 1200 units as they realized that they were going to sell out.

16% margin doesn’t leave enough money to be able to afford the correct product image.

I immediately cut my preorder number from sixteen to four, and then to two. The sales response that I got after release totally justifies the first cut, though I will probably end up ordering another copy or two.

1,200 units is a lot of units. I had to know where this product was coming from, so I and an out-of-state friend both ordered from the Massdrop campaign on different days. The packages that we received both had Massdrop’s administrative return address and no other information, but the tracking told us that both of our packages departed from Rockford, Illinois.

Of course, it’s possible that there were multiple sources for this campaign, but the posts about increasing the limit from 900 to 1,200 referred to a singular “vendor” that had secured more product. If there were multiple vendors and the Rockford, IL location that sent packages to both me and my friend sent out a modest 50 units, then the odds of both of us drawing the same vendor are 0.17%, or about 1.7 in a thousand.

I really did expect to find a distribution warehouse behind all of this given the volume involved, but as far as I know there aren’t any of those in Rockford. I reached out this morning to the stores in the area that seemed likely to deal in this product.

Black Dog Hobby and Game answered when asked if they were the ones who shipped the product for this campaign: “No, it wasn’t. We don’t deal with Massdrop at all and don’t​ do much with MtG either.” The person on the other end of the chat gave me some great information about the area and the stores that serve it. Thank you!

Cataclysm Games would neither confirm nor deny: “Hi Paul, we sell through many outlets, but we generally do not share specific information regarding products we sell through 3rd party outlets; we always direct people to our web site, I’m sorry, but it’s a policy of ours to not discuss our sales outlets other than our website or physical location.”

The Gaming Goat, which quite honestly I suspected to be the source, flatly denied it: “Wasn’t us! Sorry!”

Hobbytown USA told me that they “do not deal with any magic the gathering products.”

Top Cut Comics: “We are not a seller on Massdrop, however we do have the Nicol Bolas Archenemy in stock.”

You can draw your own conclusions, but it’s always possible that there’s some other business with a shipping/receiving center in Rockford, rather than one of these stores being the culprit. I bet distribution knows. It’s hard to forget a 1200-unit order.

I wanted to get this information out, but other than the full force of my professional contempt being directed at the source of this dumping of a good product, none of this is really actionable, because it’s all within the rules. Wizards of the Coast allows distribution to dump immense amounts of products onto sellers who will happily destroy the market value of an otherwise solid product. Short-term, it’s a big win for WOTC and the distributor, both of whom will get their money whether the margin is 16% or 45%.

Long-term, this behavior eventually leads to a brand full of products that are either ultra-hot, ultra-limited unobtainium, or flogged-to-death racehorse corpses that lurch out of the opening gate and then immediately plow into the mud. It leads to fewer profitable game stores, which means that the stores which remain will be under-capitalized garbage hobby stores, where “hobby” is a descriptor of how seriously the operation of the business is taken rather than a designation of the store’s primary product type. The players who don’t abandon organized play altogether will have to endure the extreme temperatures, mystery fluids, and rodent hazards of their filthy clubhouse stores, owned by suckers who don’t know or don’t care that they’re throwing away the most useful years of their lives.

(The above paragraph is my entry in the Most Vitriolic Blog Post Paragraph Competition, which is a thing that should totally exist.)

There are alternatives. Asmodee recently made a splash by taking steps to more strictly control the flow of their product, and splitting majority-online businesses into their own (crappier) pricing tier. They’ve also implemented a maximum discount policy that protects their products from truly egregious dumping. I never would have predicted this move even a couple of years ago. Frankly, it’s the first glimmer of optimism I’ve had about tabletop games as an industry in a very long time.

The way that margins on many non-Asmodee products in this industry are being driven down is a natural consequence of information and marketplaces becoming more efficient. I would infer from WOTC’s statements about the importance of organized play that protecting these useful intermediaries from destruction would be part of their strategy for keeping their competitive card game profitable.

But if Wizards doesn’t want professionally-operated organized play locations, then they needn’t worry about value protection. They can totally just keep doing what they’re doing.

My Week as a Filthy Discounter, Part II: Early Warning Systems

In Part I of this series I discussed the things I’d learned from slashing prices to match online dumpers in an attempt to recoup some of my investment. Today I’m going to talk about some ways that smaller stores can avoid getting into that situation in the first place. How do you know when a product is going to be something you want to order sparingly?

Accept that, for most retailers, supply is no longer a problem. For a long time, my default position was just to order the maximum allocation from WOTC Direct for any new product. As recently as a year ago I was regularly buying all the product I thought I would need for a set’s lifecycle at the start of the set. I had bad memories of Return to Ravnica shortages, and that had turned me into a hoarder. No more. From now on we order enough to get us through two to three weeks, and then reassess.

Beware distributors bearing gifts. In the run-up to Modern Masters 2017, I received solicitations from my distributors to order boatloads of product. I was getting calls from distributors I hadn’t ordered from in years. We’re a tiny store, and the MTG segment of our business is small in comparison to those of my readers. WOTC employees were telling me that this product was going to be hot. Other retailers were telling me that I wasn’t going to be able to order enough to meet demand. I’m the tiniest of tiny clients to my distributors, so why were they all offering me the moon? If you’ve got a special relationship with your distribution rep and they are hooking you up on a hot product, that’s wonderful, but don’t ever be fooled into the pronoia of thinking that you’re the only retailer getting generous allocation from multiple parties. It is not their job to look out for you. You have to look out for you.

Keep your ear to the ground. Here’s a short list of sources you could check regularly. Most of them are either deep discounters or people living under a popular fantasy that speculating on playing cards is a profitable use of time. In the case of the latter, you’re not checking them out because they’re good advisers. They’re giving incredibly bad advice. But they’re useful in that they and their communities will seek out dumping and deep-discounters so that you can find them more easily. (Thanks to Michael for helping me compile this short list.)

  • Massdrop. Massdrop says they partner with retailers to bring you deals on Magic product, but I suspect that there’s a distribution link in there, too. In the past they’ve stuck to products already determined to be stinkers, but they’ve started doing preorders, too. As I type this there’s a 1200-unit Archenemy preorder: $37.99 on a $60.00 MSRP product that hasn’t even been released. Feel free to take a look at your direct pricing on this product and weep. We’re cutting our order from 16 units to 4. Being on the Massdrop mailing list is tremendously helpful when determining what product is being dumped.
  • The mtgfinance subreddit. Most of the discussion here will be on singles speculation, but this community also tends to upvote “great deals” on sealed product. I find it helpful to skim the headlines every day or two.
  • Longer-format pundits: If you can wade through all the content that isn’t relevant to your dump-spotting goal, Rudy and Saffron Olive occasionally will tip off their audience to an impending deep-discount opportunity on sealed product. I haven’t personally found that it’s worth my time. As in real-world not-silly finance, remember that commentators frequently have a personal financial position in the matters they discuss, and unlike the real world, MTG Finance folks don’t have anyone insisting that they disclose those conflicts of interest. Presumably both the guys I’ve linked would give you the same advice.
  • The #mtgfinance twitter tag is worth glancing over.
  • You probably have a couple of regular customers who have said things like, “I invest in Magic cards as a hobby!” Find these people and befriend them. Don’t trust them, because they’re wasting their time and probably making poor financial decisions, but be there to listen to their excitement about the latest thing. “Hey Jeremy, you do the Magic Finance Thing, right? How’s the new box set looking? Where’s the cheapest place online to get it?” In exchange you can be there for these people when they realize that the game was supposed to be fun all along.

Know that missing a hot product is inevitable. Unless you’re ordering more than you can possibly sell at a healthy margin, there will inevitably be a product that will be in greater demand than your supply. On a long enough timetable, it’s inevitable. If it makes you feel any better, make a list of the last 20 product releases, write down how much you bought, and make some notes about what it took to sell through it. Would missing on one or two of them have been cheaper than over-buying the rest?

More than anything, stop being a speculator. You almost certainly do not have enough information to decide to buy a sealed Magic product and stick in your store’s closet for five years. You almost certainly do not have the cash to invest in that kind of endeavor, and if you do, you’d be better served paying off your house or maxing out your tax-free investment account contributions. You are a retailer. The difference between speculating on Magic releases and buying lottery tickets is that you can probably convince your spouse that speculating on Magic releases is part of your job. It’s not. Why are you hurting your retail business with poor practices in order to speculate on things you’re so frequently wrong about it? Stop it. Your family will thank you.


My Week as a Filthy Discounter, Part I: Lessons Learned

Just over a month ago, I realized that I was doing the right thing by protecting the value of Magic: The Gathering products in my store and being consistently punished for it. I resolved to blow a bunch of this stuff out at market price and change my ordering behavior going forward to better reflect the new reality.

I embraced the salt for my advertising campaign. It was a lot of fun.

Lessons learned:

  • Even at below-market prices, demand is not infinite. We put a bunch of stuff out on the table, but the centerpiece was 20 of my 30 remaining Modern Masters 2017 booster boxes, marked at $175 plus tax. In a week and a half, with lots of paid advertising, we sold 11 of the 20 boxes.
  • Bad transactions drive away good transactions. A customer came in looking to buy two non-discounted Standard booster boxes and a Bundle (Fat Pack) but decided to buy one of our discounted Modern Masters boxes instead. Several days after the sale ended, a customer came in looking to buy two of the discounted MM17 booster boxes, but finding that they were no longer on sale, chose instead to spend $400 on singles. Which transactions would YOU rather encourage?
  • They’ll always want just a little bit more. Several customers became quite grumpy that we wouldn’t, for example, sell them four booster boxes at $150 each. Everyone gets this sort of negative customer interaction once in a while, but we had more of them during this sale than we’d had in months prior.
  • Opportunists will seek ways to take advantage. A couple of our purchases involved a customer buying a box, sitting down to bust the packs, bringing all the rares to the counter to trade them in, and becoming dismayed that we’d dramatically dropped the trade value on the set’s singles in anticipation of this sort of behavior. More negative customer interactions. More disappointment. Some retailers will throw around the #notmycustomer hashtag, but it remains that my relationship got worse with people whose money I’d like to have in the future, and the blame lies with me for sending inconsistent messages about our value proposition.
  • The performance of the product was irreparably harmed after the sale. We’ve sold zero MM17 booster boxes since the end of the sale, and last month’s sales of MM17 booster packs dropped by 70%. If the product was a poor performer before the sale, it’s a total dog now.

We still have about 18 booster boxes of Modern Masters 2017. At this rate, we should run out in early 2019. To think: I could have had 100+ more boxes! The publisher and my distributors would have gleefully enabled my bankruptcy. It’s not their jobs to look after retailers, and we must remember that.

In Part II, I’ll talk about the way to move forward. The obvious answer seems to be, “Don’t order as much stuff.” There’s a little more to it, and some helpful resources that will help you know when to tread cautiously.

Self-Deception and Breakfast in Your Bathrooms

This weekend I heard through a friend-of-a-friend chain of messages about a non-retailer who was travelling and stopped in to see a highly-recommended local game store. The visiting gamer had one primary takeaway from the experience: The bathrooms were gross. Of all the things that could have been memorable about this store, which is somebody’s livelihood, the thing that will be remembered by this customer is that the floor was nasty and the place smelled like pee. I wasn’t told which store was visited, but I’m assured that I would know the name.

“Clean your bathrooms” is so basic and often-repeated that it’s a cliche. Wizards of the Coast actually includes it in their literature about how to run a great Magic tournament. Why do so many stores fail to meet this very basic standard?

Cleaning bathrooms is not fun. It’s unglamorous and it sucks up time we’d rather be spending doing almost anything else. And if you think that cleaning bathrooms is gross, you’ll REALLY hate the mess you make learning how to manage people so that your bathrooms get cleaned regularly by employees.

Because it’s a crappy task and we don’t want to do it, our brains will convince themselves either that our bathrooms are not that bad, or that having really clean bathrooms is not important. But I think we can all agree on the following three premises: Having clean bathrooms IS important. Our bathrooms ARE that bad. Finally, something other than our own willpower and discipline is necessary, because so far our willpower and discipline have not been enough.

Almost nobody will do this, but the ones who do will have clean bathrooms: Next week, pick a random morning to come in early. You want to get this done early enough that your employees won’t find you doing this, because they’ll think you’re a crazy person. Treat yourself, and pick up something nice for breakfast on your way to your business. Let yourself into your store and lock the door behind you. Make sure once again that nobody is in the store.

Choose a bathroom. The worse or more frequently-used one is the correct choice. I think you know in your heart which one you need to choose. Don’t take the easy, more comfortable choice. That’s how you got here in the first place, remember? Take your breakfast into the bathroom and have a seat. Not on the toilet, you animal. On the floor.

Don’t bring headphones, read a magazine, or play on your phone. Chew your breakfast thoughtfully and contemplate your bathroom. Look in the corners. Look at the base of toilets and at the undersides of the bowl. Look at the disordered supply storage and the empty towel dispenser. You pay the same rent per square foot in this room as you do for your best-selling merchandise display area or your cash wrap. Many of your walk-in customers will spend as much time in this room as they will anywhere else in your store. Your regular customers and employees will visit this room five to ten times per week. Why are you here? How did you let it get this far?

You will not be able to deceive yourself about the state of your bathroom when you’re having breakfast on the bathroom floor.

I made a table for myself out of a box of drum liners. I’m not some kind of savage.

If you have employees, and you have a nightly bathroom cleaning checklist, and they learn that the boss occasionally has breakfast on the bathroom floor, they will clean your bathrooms. If you’re a one-person shop, you may need to put this on your calendar monthly or quarterly and commit to doing it on a regular basis. Doing so will ensure that clean bathrooms are something that stay on your mind.

Today was the first time I’ve done this, but our bathrooms are clean. Nobody has used this bathroom since my employees cleaned it last night before close. It was mopped with the whole store yesterday morning, and someone hit it again with a wet-Swiffer in the evening. A clean bathroom meant that this was a pleasant, though unconventional morning, instead of a gross time of self-shame.

You may scoff or laugh at me, but if your bathrooms are in need of more attention than they’re getting, this post is deadly serious. What is it that you do for a living? Why aren’t you doing the things that are required to make your store a great place for your customers? Do you want a successful business that improves your life and the lives of your employees, or are you farting around in your clubhouse until the money runs out?

Yes, eating a Spicy Chicken Biscuit on the floor of your game store bathroom is ridiculous, but it’s not as ridiculous as being the owner of a gross public bathroom.