Gift Horse Dental Care

My professional life has been chaotic the past few weeks, mostly due to some dramatic and humbling staffing shakeups at my store. We’re okay, and the store will be better for it in the long-term, but I have gone from 20 hours a week to 70 this month, and as a result I haven’t had the brainpower to talk about bigger-picture stuff. I have been taking notes about future entries as they’ve come to mind, so when my muse comes stumbling home, I will write more.

Modern Masters was, well… I could say that it was over-printed, or that players are suffering wallet fatigue, or that non-Standard Magic is a bubble built on “MTG Finance” speculators that don’t represent as many players as their dollars would seem to represent. It might be a little of everything, but the takeaway is that I was sadly right:

Over the past few weeks the price has more or less settled at $190 a box. At that price, and assuming the most favorable pricing commonly possible from WOTC direct, the COGS on Modern Masters 2017 boxes is 66.8%. This is very close to the COGS of a regular box of non-allocated Magic product sold at $110, which is 69.2%. (Those selling boxes for $100 face a COGS of 75.9%.)

For years, I’ve treated the “X Masters” and other limited-allocation products as sure bets. I’ve bought as much of them as I possibly could, because I knew that the margins would be great and I’d sell through them very reliably. I came to think of them as love-gifts from Wizards of the Coast to the WPN locations which provide a place to play their cards.

I just did a stock check on Modern Masters 2017. Having stood firmly at MSRP out of principle, I have sold 25% of my product. I will eventually sell it all a pack at a time, but man, that’s a long run for a short slide.

There are no more sure bets on the horizon. With premium releases becoming more like regular releases, and regular releases becoming more like, well, Kaijudo, I can no longer blindly order the maximum allocation on anything. We cut our Amonkhet order pretty dramatically. I haven’t even decided if I want to carry the Commander Anthology in quantities greater than one or two. If I’m wrong, these products will be in short supply and I’ll lose money by not having them.

This isn’t to say that we’re giving up on Magic. It’s still about 20% of my business, and still important. We’re doing events all weekend and we’re busting a case of singles on livestream tonight. As a store we’re doubling down on the enthusiasm. As a buyer, I’m going to work on limiting my potential losses.

Perhaps this is the way I should always have treated Magic. It was just so much easier to take it for granted and work harder on the things that needed more attention to sell. That’s bad retailing, but the price I will pay as a diversified store will be small. What will be the butcher’s bill when the finances settle for all the one-brand card shops out there?

Layman’s Conjecture on Modern Masters 2017 Supply

I call myself a layman, because I am not a Magic player, my store is not a majority-Magic business (though it briefly was when I opened), and though I’ve been open for only six years, I am not a distribution expert.

It’s been a bad couple of sets for Magic. Wizards needs a home run. Most of distribution is crunched for cash and needs at least a base hit. Many Magic-heavy retailers are not in a great cash position, judging from how many of them went out of business following the Red October outages.

My gut feeling after witnessing the unexpected Eternal Masters reprint was that Modern Masters 2017 was going to be printed heavily.

When spoiler season arrived, and the set became more and more ridiculous, I became more fearful as other retailers rejoiced. The set was too good. Acknowledging that I’m probably a little jaded, I expressed some concerns that it might be a cash grab. If the value of your product lies mostly in a back catalog of valuable IP that you can release whenever you want, the correct play would seem to be to restrict it to a steady, modest flow. To suddenly throw the lever all the way over and allow the value to gush out seems to send the same signal as a store throwing a sudden 50% off sale: The customers will rejoice, but partners in the business may see the blood in the water.

My allocation from Wizards was modest, but Distribution told me that I could get more. A lot more. In fact, I haven’t talked to anyone who wasn’t offered at least double their official allocation. Almost everyone I know took it. I didn’t.

Release day. Prices in my neck of the woods were driven down by area competitors selling the $240 MSRP boxes for $200 and $188. That’s sometimes advertised as the tax-included price, which is illegal in this state and hints at wider misbehavior, but that’s the norm. This matches the online price, which at the time of this writing is about $200.

Here’s something to ponder: Look at the industry-standard discount applied to booster boxes of regular sets. My store and many others sell a Standard booster box for $110. This is not an exciting sale for us. The profit from a booster box at that price will pay my payroll for about 39 minutes, assuming my pay as an owner is zero. If you apply that same discount to a box of Modern Masters, then you’d expect the demand curve to meet the supply at a price of about $195. Is Modern Masters supposed to be just another set? No? Then why does it appear to be printed like one?

On Friday, the weekly product list emails from Wizards went out. After rumors of an eight-box restock offer, we were all surprised to see that the offer was twenty additional boxes. If you were Wizards, and you had or intended to print a few more trailer-loads of this product, but you didn’t want to let on that supply was infinite, what would you offer as a first-week restock? One hundred would certainly cause a panic. Even 32 is more than many retailers were allocated, for all that those allocation numbers mattered. Twenty seems right. Many retailers I’ve seen talking about this hurried to get in their restock orders as early as possible. Every restock order is being filled. None have been turned away.

Wizards, being a subsidiary of Hasbro, a publicly-traded company, is not doing anything wrong, and is accountable to shareholders who demand profit maximization. Ultimately Wizards doesn’t, shouldn’t, and legally can’t care whether the margin on their products at market price is 42% or 12%. Their wholesale price is the price they get, so the only question is how many boxes they can ship at that price. I’ve stated elsewhere that the supply of young adults happy to throw the best years of their lives away running unprofitable game stores seems nearly infinite. If you had such a resource, your shareholders would require you to use it.

I want very badly to be wrong about this launch. Many of my dearest friends went deep on this product. If I’m wrong, then I will blow through my allocation at MSRP and be unable to get more. I will have made a good bit of money while watching my friends make a lot of money. If I’m right, then I guess I’ll have the prestige of having called it correctly, but I’ll struggle to sell my product at MSRP among the throngs of retailers desperately dumping the product so that they can pay their terms.

So far I’ve sold one booster box and sixteen boosters. I have heard from other retailers that are selling lots of product and seem to be doing great. There is still time for me to be wrong. Please, let me be wrong.

Jump Ship Carefully

I’m going to make this very brief, because it’s super-late and I am EXHAUSTED.

TCGPlayer just announced TCGPlayer Pro. It looks to be a hastily-designed Crystal Commerce killer. The limitations so far are that it does not have a POS solution, and it does not support multi-channel integration, meaning that you can’t use it to sell on Amazon or eBay.

For many small stores, however, this is just the thing.

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The retailer forum threads predictably caught on fire and are still burning brightly at 200+ posts. Many of the posts are from retailers saying that they are getting up early tomorrow morning to go into work and switch immediately to TCGPlayer Pro. I have some advice for my tier:

  • DON’T jump immediately. You have waited this long, so you can wait three or four more days. The next 48 hours are going to be the sort of madness you can only get by announcing a major rollout and declaring that it’s available RIGHT NOW. You don’t have to do anything right now. You can afford to wait to make sure you’re doing it right.
  • DO immediately do a backup/export of your inventory and sales data. Assume that your Crystal Commerce data could become temporarily or permanently unavailable at any time. This is going to be a period of fundamental change for Crystal Commerce, and whether they will survive it is an open question. I will say only that I backed up my data in 2012 before I told Crystal Commerce that I was intending to leave, and I wound up being very happy that I did so.
  • DO remember to be a professional and a human being. From a business perspective, a company has to do a lot of things wrong to get to the point where 150+ of their customers will sit in a conference room and cheer their demise. Crystal Commerce did it to themselves. From a personal perspective, these are real people with real needs and fears. Not everyone at that company made the decisions that caused you to hate them. PLEASE be professional in your contacts with them, because you’re a professional. If that appeal doesn’t resonate, I’d ask you to treat them humanely, because you’re both humans. Your business has nothing to gain from you kicking them on your way out the door.
  • DO talk to your TCGPlayer onboarding person about your POS options. Right now those aren’t there. I don’t know if TCGPlayer is planning a POS rollout, but my hope is that they would move toward openness in allowing others to integrate with their platform. That would allow me to keep using my point of sale software. It would allow IMP POS to pivot into a POS solution that works great for retailers. It would allow retailers still on software like Lightspeed to have modules developed that allow for integration. Your voice will matter for this. They are listening. (Also, tell them that Paul from Too Lazy To Fail wants to fly out to them and talk to them about their plans for Video Game integration. We can make a lot of money together, guys! Let’s do this.)

GAMA Trade Show 2017 Tips

Next week is the GAMA Trade Show in Las Vegas. It’ll be my second year attending. Vegas is just about the most anti-Paul place I can imagine, but the amount of education and networking I got at the show last year means that I wasn’t going to miss a second helping of it this year. Some tips if you’re making the trip for the first time this year:

  • Bring a fan, white noise machine, ear plugs, or all three. The nightclub thumps permeate everything late at night, and even if you’ve upgraded to a nicer room, you’ll want them if you like to sleep.
  • If you’re not from the desert, bring a baseball cap, eye drops, lip balm, and sunscreen. No convenience store there is selling sunscreen this time of year, and it’s important, especially if you’re planning to drive to Phoenix in a convertible after the show. Ask me how I know. Ugh.
  • Wear comfortable shoes. Last year I brought dress shoes and sneakers. I switched to the sneakers halfway through the first day.
  • Dress code: There are no rules, but I will silently judge you if you wear cargo shorts and a dragon shirt. In my opinion, a company-branded T-shirt is bare minimum, and a polo or button-down shirt is better. You don’t have to wear a suit. Would you say that you are a professional? Then dress somewhat professionally.
  • Don’t take bottled water from people on the street. Be aware of the many scams and cons being run and protect yourself. Carry your wallet and phone in a front pocket.
  • If you think you’ll want a car, consider Silvercar. They run a promotion for first-time customers that is very enticing: I got an Audi A4 for the week for $250. They’re in the app store of your smartphone.
  • If you want the box-o-free-stuff from GAMA, you’ll need to attend one of the Premier Presentations in every time slot. These are the pitches from publishers, and they are of variable quality. Last year I went to every one, and I wish I hadn’t. This year I am going to the ones that I have an interest in, and focusing on talking with other retailers the rest of the time. The free stuff just wasn’t worth it for me. If you’re bringing an employee, it might be worth throwing them under the bus to get the freebies.
  • Attend every retailer seminar that you can. These are the reason that I go to this show.
  • Meet as many retailers as you can, seek out the ones that are professionals running profitable businesses, and try to get some face time with them. It’s particularly important to me to talk to the folks who are clearly doing it right while also clearly doing it differently than the way I do things. This is how learning and improvement occur.

I hope that you’ll consider attending the presentation that Michael Bahr and I are giving on Tuesday and Thursday, which is simply “Video Games” on the schedule. It is very generous for GAMA to give us a presentation slot, given that they self-describe as an association centered around the non-electronic game industry. Used video games are a high-volume, high-margin category that mix very well with the non-electronic games that I sell, and I’d like to help you get there as well. I’ve sold used video games professionally across multiple jobs for about 12 years combined, and Michael is a more traditional game store owner who diversified into video games last year. You’ll hear the perspective of a video game store that also does non-electronic games, and a non-electronic game store that diversified into video games.

If you see me out and about at the show, I’d like to at least shake your hand and hear about your store. If you catch me and ask, I’ll give you a free bracelet that will help you remember what matters in your business. These can also be used with a small zip tie to make a loop that is handy on your keychain. If you’d like to meet with me while we’re both in town, email me or send me a Facebook message. A note on Facebook: I’m very selective about accepting friend requests and I try to keep my current count below a certain number. Just because I don’t accept your friend request doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk to you or meet with you.

Monday is looking very busy, but I’m available and eager to chat on Tuesday afternoon and evening, all day Wednesday, Thursday afternoon and evening, and Friday afternoon and evening. Offers of coffee, cheeseburgers, and small numbers of adult beverages are welcome bribes. I am not much of a party-goer, gambler, or sight-seer, but I definitely want to talk about our businesses.

Discounting, Disintermediation, and the Death of the Professional Card Shop

 

This week I counted four 100+ comment threads in game retail Facebook groups about Magic booster discounting, and I’m not even in most of those groups.

The new Magic set, Aether Revolt, is not selling terribly well. This, on the heels of a winter weather event that caused shipping delays and business slowdowns during what for many is a critical post-holiday cash crunch, means that many sellers large and small are dumping quantities of Magic product onto the marketplace at pennies above wholesale cost. For some retailers it is currently as cheap to buy Kaladesh boxes from StarCityGames as through distribution.

This is an acute moment in what many retailers believe to be the industry’s chronic condition. Many stores, including stores much larger and better than mine, have seen Magic sealed product sales drop to near-zero levels. We’re fortunate to be a diversified store, but the bulk of game stores are actually card shops, and a dip in Magic frequently results in a wave of store closings. When customers can buy their product online for near-wholesale prices, store owners who never made much money may run out of cash altogether, and store owners with more profitable businesses may find that there are better uses of their time.

Leaving aside for the moment that you can always count on intermediaries to be firmly against disintermediation, the evaporation of the middleman in this particular industry matters more than most, since it’s at the middleman’s tables that Magic: The Gathering is played. If you can’t find someone with whom to play, you may soon give up your Magic habit. If there’s no shop to centralize that activity, it’ll be easier for you to play Hearthstone instead.

That’s the conventional wisdom among retailers: “Discounting will lead to the death of Magic!”

I think they’re wrong.

The barriers to entry in the card-shop business are essentially zero: You can get in with a thousand square feet of questionably-zoned space, some tables and chairs from Sams Club, and $1,500 for some stuff to sell. Since Magic product has a turn-rate that is fantastic, this non-business-plan sort of works out in the same way that IKEA furniture is a good deal when you don’t value your time or the result’s durability.

This compounds that online discounting problem by adding to the mix inexperienced business owners who, very recently having been mere consumers, know of only one way to grow their business: discounting. “I’m buying customers,” they say, as they sell unprofitable product to attract players to unprofitable events, or maybe the other way around.

So they chug along, working six days a week, until the end is brought on by the ballooning lease they signed without the help of an attorney, or the need to buy groceries, or the end of their spouse’s patience with their lack of progress. They close their store or sell it at an escape-with-your-life price to some other fool (this is how I bought my store) and then, presumably, they go join a local co-op and start teaching workshops about running a startup.

When the hamster dies, another is waiting to defer its student loans and take the wheel.

And when a card shop fails, like a fairy getting its wings, another poor dumb bastard gets a commercial lease, and commences throwing the best years of their life down an unprofitable well without so much as an index-card business plan. Hakuna matata, it’s the circle of mediocrity, and it moves us all through despair and hope. There’s always a place to play Magic, because there’s always someone willing to sign a two or three year lease to run a clubhouse that keeps the lights on without much left over. Last I checked we are making underemployed twenty-somethings at a pretty steady pace, so I don’t see the cannon fodder drying up any time soon.

Wizards of the Coast will of course insist that they want clean, professionally-run stores, but the resources dedicated to that are mostly a team of web developers and maybe one or two sacrificial lambs that herd cats in the WPN Retailer Facebook group. Wizards doesn’t appear to be doing anything about the race to the bottom resulting in a cycle of mediocre, unprofitable clubhouses because to Wizards, it’s not really a problem. If you accept that their responsibility is to create shareholder value, it shouldn’t be: If you had a nearly-unlimited supply of free labor facilitating the movement of your product out of your warehouses, would you really care if your free labor is making 5% or 40% margin? Would your shareholders allow you to care?

This is all very cynical, perhaps more cynical than I intended it to be. Magic is about a quarter of my business and I don’t see it going away entirely anytime soon. I do anticipate my peer group getting smaller over the course of the next year. Magic is so very sweet when times are good, but running a dedicated card shop is like depending on the only person who knows where you live to keep bringing you food. My hope is that some who will remain will diversify soon and build a cash buffer so that they can survive and thrive and, just maybe, provide a play space for Magic players that doesn’t have big holes in the floor.

Scared Money Makes Plenty of Money

Nope!

About a year ago, in early 2016, I made a short-notice someone-is-closing-their-store trip about two and a half hours away. These trips happen often enough that I keep a bag packed for them, but they’re rarely successful. Usually by the time an owner has decided to bail, they’ve already gone through a series of clearance sales that cause whatever is left to be garbage. This trip was different: The store was fully stocked and hopping. The owner was behind the counter and drunk.

I asked him for his story and found out that he was being forced to liquidate the store because of his pending divorce. When I asked him for his sales records and an asking price for all of the assets of the business, he produced them, and I liked what I saw. He and I were standing outside while I looked over his numbers, when a passing bird pooped on the paper and my hand. I probably should have taken this as an omen, immediately wished him good luck, and departed.

I asked him on the spot if he would lock the door and sign an asset purchase agreement with me as soon as my attorney could send one over. He said yes, excused himself to the bathroom for twenty minutes, then came back and said maybe.

Things kind of went downhill from there, with three increasingly-desperate trips to see him over the next five days. The final trip involved showing up unannounced with $20,000 in a bag. I finally got a handshake agreement to sell me everything in the store if I could get it all out the next day. I rushed over to a storage unit place five minutes after it closed, plunked $100 down, and got a phone call on my way out of the parking lot: The game store owner couldn’t sell me the stuff because there was a bank lien on it. Of course I’d asked him about this three days prior, but he didn’t think I was talking about THAT kind of bank lien. Yeah, it was that kind of a negotiation.

I was bummed that I hadn’t been able to execute my plan of signing the agreement, locking the door, and reopening the store six weeks later under my own brand. Still, I had seen his numbers, and I had spent some time researching the town. The town was seriously under-served. I kicked myself for not having the resources to immediately act, but gave myself a plan to open a store there in May 2017.

In 2016 I gathered a substantial amount of cash. I hired an additional manager, freeing up one of my existing managers to move to the new town and co-manage the store with me while we built a staff. Hastings’ timely death was the perfect opportunity to get the type of fixtures we use, so I chased Hastings stores all over the state. I put 4,000 miles on my truck in one month. As 2016 drew to a close I poured a few dozen hours into working multi-location awareness into my point of sale software.

I made half a dozen scouting trips with my wife and each of my managers, and we picked some likely locations. Christmas was maybe not quite as profitable as I’d hoped, but we seemed to still be in the safe zone for making the expansion happen. If I wanted everything on track to build out and open a location, I needed to have a signed lease by the end of January at the latest. This week I scheduled meetings with five different commercial real estate agents and left for a three-day trip to make my decision about the location. Yesterday I arrived in town, met with my first agent in the most promising spot, and nailed down enough details that all that remained was putting our lawyers in touch.

It was scary in the way that buying a house or a new car is scary, and I told my wife that all I really wanted to do was get back to my Airbnb condo and punch numbers into spreadsheets to assure myself that it would be okay. I’ve done this about a dozen times in my life when I or my wife lost a job, or had an air conditioner break, or had our insurance premiums triple (cough). Putting the numbers on paper and planning out my cash flow almost always makes me feel better about a major decision. This time it didn’t.

I looked at the number in my spreadsheet representing my startup costs for the new store, plus two months of rent and lights. I looked at my cash flow estimates, subtracted out our typical operating cash buffer for my original store, and compared the numbers. They were nearly equal. I could do it safely, maybe? (If you have to qualify something as “maybe safe” then it’s not safe.) If everything went swimmingly, we didn’t have any unexpected setbacks, we didn’t miss any expenses in our planning, and if the store performed reasonably well right out of the gate, then we could make it through the labor and delivery.

If anything went wrong, I’d be out of cash. I always held in the back of my head that I was willing to borrow a reasonable amount of money if we ran into a cash crunch. If things went a little more than slightly wrong, I might not realize how much trouble I was in until the debt was sufficient to harm my net income in a long-term way. I asked myself how much cash it would take to make these fears go away, and the answer was in the low six figures. I wasn’t going to go deeply into debt for a business model that could expire five to fifteen years from now. It was at that moment I realized that this expansion wasn’t worthwhile at the price that it would cost to do correctly and safely.

In the space of about two hours, I went from normal nervousness, to deep anxiety, to a certainty that it was the wrong move if I wanted to be sure of the future of my first store. I called my wife to let her know what I’d decided, then called the manager who was planning to move to let him know. I sent out emails to cancel my remaining appointments, had an adult beverage, watched an episode of Archer, slept five hours, and came home.

Rationally, I knew that there would come a go/no-go moment and I would have to make a decision. I know that I have too many people counting on me to go with a reckless plan when prudence tells me that it’s a close shave. Our culture values hard-chargers and risk-takers highly, but I value this business and the jobs it provides more highly. Emotionally, it’s a mixed bag. I can relax the tightfisted finances I’ve operated over the last nine months. I can make plans that don’t involve working myself half to death. Still, my gut calls softly to my intellect: Coward.

Whatever. My gut has crap for brains. I’m going to write some bonus checks and then take a week off.

Variable Trade Value (Fair Payouts, Great Stuff)

This is a super-crunchy, kinda mathy post, but if you hang in there, you might find yourself making a lot more money running a much better business.

When I started this post I wasn’t really sure who it was for. Really it’s most useful to those who are developing point-of-sale solutions for game stores, but there’s not many of those people, and most of my current readers are game store owners. I suppose that this is still useful to them as both an introduction to what I think is an important concept, and an idea of a feature in their Point of Sale solution that they didn’t know they were missing. Customers of POS vendors: You need to be asking for this.

I’m going to talk about the problem in terms of video games for the most part, because that’s where it started for me and it’s where I think examples will be the most relatable. I’ve now come to see that this is every bit as essential if you’re dealing in Magic: The Gathering singles.

The Problem: Feasts of garbage and famines of quality

When I first started out, I paid a flat 50% cash on all games. My point of sale system didn’t have an elegant store credit solution, and I knew that I couldn’t kludge one together out of index cards or spreadsheets, so we just paid cash for everything. As time went on, I realized that I was getting far too many of some categories (Playstation 2) and far too few of others (Xbox 360, which was still current-gen at the time). I changed our price update routine so that some systems had different payouts. For example, I paid 25% for a long time on NES games.

This was still bad. For NES, I was paying over a buck for Captain Skyhawk and Silent Service, which are two garbage bulk games that few people actually want. Meanwhile, I was making trade-in customers of games like Final Fantasy and Kirby’s Adventure very, very angry. I had a LOT of inventory on the shelves, but it was mostly crap and I paid too much for almost all of it. What little high-quality merchandise I had on hand was the result of us inadvertently taking advantage of someone who didn’t know what they had, or me making exceptions to try to account for the shortcomings of our trade offers.

(Systematizing All The Things is always the goal, because it corrects for the deficiencies of your lackeys and of your frail meatbag brain. I’ll make a blog post on it.)

The Solution: VTV – Variable Trade Value

There are junk games for which you only want to pay a pittance. There are great games for which you’ll happily pay a premium. Even if you were relying on your judgment (which you shouldn’t do), you’d be able to make these calls easily. What about everything in-between? Some systems allow for pricing rules on trade-ins that will allow you to create a stair-step tiered trade-value regime, but even those involve a lot of fiddling, and take a lot of labor to adjust. Here’s the component parts of what I figured out and has worked well for me for four years:

  • LowPercentage – This is the percentage of your sell price that you’ll pay out in store credit on the low-end chaff.
  • HighPercentage – This is the percentage of your sell price that you’ll pay out in store credit for the high-end, desirable items.
  • LowThreshold – At or below this price, you pay out the LowPercentage trade value.
  • HighThreshold – At or above this price, you pay out the HighPercentage trade value.
  • CashPenalty – The percentage taken off the trade value if the customer wants cash instead of store credit.

Everything in between the LowThreshold and HighThreshold price has its trade value determined by a straight line that runs between the LowPercentage and HighPercentage numbers. It looks like this:

2016-03-24-11-10-40

This photo was taken while eating a sandwich at Desert Sky Games in Arizona the week after GAMA 2016. I taught them video games, they taught me comics. I think I got the better end of the trade.

Moving the inflection points of this graph give you a lot of flexibility and power. For categories where the line between good stuff and junk is very fine, you could make the slope of the center line vertical or nearly so. If you want to pay out a flat percentage on a category, you can still do so by setting the low and high percentages to the same number. For categories where the desirability and sales velocity of the items increase steadily as value increases, you could set the LowPercentage/LowThreshold very low and the HighPercentage/HighThreshold very high.

Implementation of this is basically impossible if you’re not running a POS that was designed for game stores. If you look up your prices with a spreadsheet you could probably write this into it, but it would be a pain. In my perfect world, both IMP POS and the Dumpster-Fire Goliath POS solutions would implement this.

Basically, what you want is the formula of a line. This is what it looks like in our system:

Make Money, Improve Life

This is not purposeless fiddling: Very little else in my business changed in the year that I moved to VTV. My total dollars spent on trade-ins dropped by a third, the total volume of my trades increased, and the quality of the inventory I was buying dramatically improved, which meant that sales shot up. My net income jumped by something like 30%. I bought a new vehicle for the first time about six months after I switched this on. These improvements in business process are life-changing.

Examples: Super Nintendo

LowPercentage: 30%
HighPercentage: 65%
LowThreshold: $1.00
HighThreshold: $20.00
CashPenalty: 20%

If you sit down and think about the Super Nintendo games on the used market, you’ll probably come to the conclusion that there’s a handful of garbage low-end titles, a handful of high-value games, and quite a few desirable mid-value games in-between. We’ll look at three examples with their current payouts, and I’ll show you some sales numbers for each going back to the implementation of this software in February 2013 so you can see the larger story for each title and how our pricing has changed.

NHLPA Hockey ’93 – Sell $3.00, Trade $0.70, Buy $0.56

This game is bad. We want some copies of it, but if we paid 50% we’d attract dozens of them. At this payout we’re currently sitting on six copies.

Chrono Trigger – Sell $122.00, Trade $79.30, Buy $63.44

Chrono Trigger is an amazing game, and even if we marked it well above market value, a copy in good condition would be drooled over frequently and eventually sold. We want to give a fair payout for this game, because most people who are getting rid of it know that they could get $120 if they were only willing to deal with the hassle of eBay. If we were paying out a flat 30%, we’d be offering $36.60, which is not a fair trade offer and would upset sellers. We currently have one copy. In the report below you can see how the value of this title has shot up over the last few years.

Super Mario World – Sell $17.00, Trade $10.11, Buy $8.09

This is a common, bread-and-butter game that everybody wants, and I could probably get $25 per copy for it without too much trouble. We are currently sold-out in the post-Christmas crush. You can see from the history that it tends to move a little too quickly, meaning that I should think about adjust the pricing manually for both sales and payouts.

Extra Crunchy Extra Credit

If you’ve got a high enough volume in either games or cards, you can go a little further to protect yourself from anomalies in the trade flow. We haven’t even turned this on in our system yet, but as volume increases it may be useful. For each category we have the following fields in addition to the ones listed above:

  • default_optimal: Each item has an optimal quantity number. This is the default for that field. For most video games that’s 12. For Magic singles it might be 8, or 16, or 32, depending on how deep you want to stock. You can always adjust this for individual items if the need for an exception strikes.
  • over_optimal_penalty: This is the percentage taken off of a trade if you have over the optimal quantity.
  • default_excessive: This is the default for the excessive quantity, which is like optimal quantity but far higher. This is the “hey, there’s something wrong” number. For video games that’s 20 for us.
  • over_excessive_penalty: A very high percentage taken off if the quantity in stock is over the excessive number.

Because I Love You: Our category spreadsheet

Here’s the category spreadsheet with all of our values. You can see that many of them are the same. This is one of those 80/20 things where you get the most impact from a relatively small amount of effort. If I wanted to fiddle with it more I could probably squeeze out more efficiencies, but I am trying very hard not to fiddle for a living. It isn’t a super-pretty spreadsheet, with lots of depreciated categories and placeholder values on categories that aren’t price updated regularly, but if you’re data-minded this will help. Video Game pricing comes from PriceCharting and MTG pricing comes from exports of TCGPlayer‘s price data via Gatherer Extractor, since they won’t give out API access to stores for love or money.

I hope this helps someone.

The Incompetence Trap

How do I say this in a way that is not legally actionable?

I think that Crystal Commerce is awful.

We attempted a migration to Crystal Commerce in 2012. Promised features were not present, and promised development did not take place. We cancelled our service, and it did not go over well. Someone called during dinner to ask me to apologize to their CEO, because apparently he was really upset and it was hard to get anything done in the office. I avoid them at trade shows.

After that disaster, I was able to finally put my Computer Science degree to use, creating a point of sale system that isn’t very good but which my employees adore. It should be a foretaste of what I’m going to say about the state of game retail technology that it made more sense for me to spend hundreds of hours developing software for my one 1,700-square-foot store than to make someone else’s solution work.

Of course, almost nobody was in the fortunate situation I was in.

See, it’s my considered opinion that the entire tabletop game retail scene is propped up by Magic: The Gathering. That isn’t the impression you’d get from looking at pictures of game stores, or from talking to the owners at trade shows. They’re not talking about Magic. They’re talking about Third Place theory and board game nights and hand-selling the new hotness in the short space of time between it getting popular and it getting sold dollars over wholesale on Amazon. Some of these guys are seriously good at running game stores, but if you poke them in the chest long enough and listen to the little bits of information that slip through the cracks, you’ll learn or infer that the biggest category for most of them is Magic. It’s been Magic for years. Hundreds of people who call themselves board game store owners walk the halls of GAMA, hoping that nobody finds out that a pie chart of their sales categories look like a Pac-Man named Magic is about to devour the rest of their business model.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I want to make sure you understand that most of these people have to make Magic move through their cabinets, or they will have to go get real jobs.

If you want to make money in Magic, you probably have to deal in singles, which is a kind way of saying that you sling used cardboard for a living. If you want to deal in singles beyond the four walls of your store, you are almost required to deal with TCGPlayer.com. If you want to sell on TCGPlayer at any kind of scale, you have to have a way of making mass updates to your inventory. You can either manually enter this data on a regular basis (and give up on having unified cabinet/online inventory), or you need a point of sale system that integrates with TCGPlayer.

Do you want a point of sale system that integrates with TCGPlayer? You have to use Crystal Commerce.

TCGPlayer used to advertise that they offered integration with outside software, but now they tell you to just get a Crystal Commerce account. Nobody in retail is quite sure why this is. I figure that either they are under some sort of contractual agreement giving their existing partners exclusivity, there’s some deep-seated underlying dysfunction over at TCGPlayer, or they’re unwilling to go any further down the rabbit hole of crushingly-bad game store technology than they’ve already been dragged.

There’s at least one upstart competitor. He’s a friend of mine, and though he’s developed something that seems like it should do the job, TCGPlayer doesn’t return his calls. I don’t know his work well enough to know if it scales, but I know that he’s mentioned in threads daily on retailer discussion boards, and the repeated refrain from frustrated Crystal Commerce customers is, “I hate this, but until someone else integrates with TCGPlayer, I am stuck with Crystal Commerce.”

I believe that it speaks to the larger state of the industry:

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Most retailers are stuck with a dumpster fire solution that has literally had days of downtime for even basic point-of-sale in the last six weeks. They despise it, but they can’t leave. The most promising alternative is from one guy coding in the back of his game store. He’s got pluck, and he’s doing good work, but he’s a small operation. There is no big software company looking to pick up the challenge and run with it, because there is not much money to be made there. I fear for my friend for the same reason that I refuse to sell my own POS solution to other stores: Precious few in our industry are making enough money to pay what a good solution is worth. An enterprise-level solution to this problem would cost six figures, but retailers will balk at a $199-a-month service package. Have a look at the support board for the existing solution, and ask yourself how much of that you’d be willing to put up with for the paltry amount that most retailers would be willing to spend.

Game retail is small because it’s mostly bad. It’s mostly bad in part because it’s got a shortage of well-developed process and technology. It’s got a shortage of well-developed process and technology because there’s no money. There’s no money because game retail is mostly bad.

Welcome to the Incompetence Trap. I don’t have a solution, but I admire the perfection of the problem.

Will somebody deliver us from this body of death? Will we escape the Incompetence Trap before the eventual end of Magic makes it a moot point? I don’t know, but while we wait to find out, there’s lots of great TV.

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The Only Thing That Matters

Your customers don’t matter.

The number and happiness of your employees doesn’t matter.

Having nice shelving and a freshly-waxed floor doesn’t matter.

Having clean bathrooms doesn’t matter.

Being satisfied with your business doesn’t matter.

Your health doesn’t matter.

What kind of car you drive doesn’t matter.

Your great location doesn’t matter.

Your store’s community doesn’t matter.

Your house doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter how often your kids get to see you.

Your gross sales figure doesn’t matter.

Nobody gives a flying flip whether you’re doing what you love.

The number of your peers that want to talk to you at a trade show doesn’t matter.

Your charitable contributions don’t matter.

How much cash you have in the bank doesn’t matter.

Your products don’t matter.

Your Point of Sale system doesn’t matter.

How many locations you operate doesn’t matter.

The only thing that matters is net income.

Until you have sorted out your net income, none of the other stuff matters, because you will lose that anyway. If you think that you might have to pick something–anything–over net income, then you need to get out of your business and get a real job. At a real job there’s work-life balance, and your employer is nominally prohibited from taking away whatever that thing is that you think is more important than your current business’s generation of net income.

As it is, you can’t have two number-one priorities. Choose this day whom you will serve. All of the things in the list above are awesome and super-important, but if you’re in business for yourself then the first and only question must be: What is your take after all expenses have been met, and what can you do to get that net income number to an acceptable level?

If you’re carrying the products you love and only those products, but you’re not making money, you’re not going to be carrying any products soon.

If you’re building a great community in your store but you’re not making money, that community will soon be gone.

If you’ve got lots of clever ideas and get featured on websites but you’re not making money, you’re going to lose your store. Not very clever.

If you’re able to take off whenever you want and spend lots of weekends with your kids, but you’re not making money, then you’re going to lose that control over your life when your store goes out of business and your personal bills start coming due.

Only after your net income is present and accounted for can you start asking what else might matter. This is a tough thing to require of yourself, and it wouldn’t be wrong to shrug it off and go get a jobby-job. Business ownership is a tough racket (NSFW). There is no net. You have no employer to be understanding when you phone it in for a month because of something else that’s going on in your life.

Let’s review. What’s important? Net income.

Say it with me: Net income.

I know that you just read that instead of saying it out loud. Try again, even under your breath. Come on. Ready? Net income.

It’s ten o’clock. Do you know what your net income is this month? What are you going to do about it?

Net.

Income.

(Acknowledgement: When this post was a draft at about 60% completion and languishing far down on my to-do list, Gary at Black Diamond Games did something similar but different.)

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Stop Closing Early (You Must Be Present to Win)

It’s 4pm on a Tuesday. You’ve done a total of $18 in sales today, and you’re working alone because you don’t have any employees or they’re all off work. You’d normally close at 9pm, but you decide that if you don’t break $100 before then, you’re going to close at 7pm.

It’s Halloween and you’d like to spend the evening with your family, so you close early.

You’re not feeling well on a Monday morning, so you post on Facebook that the store is opening at 2pm today instead of 10am.

Your employee calls in sick on the day you were going to go fishing with your friend. Rather than stand your buddy up, you close the store.

Your business has been doing poorly and you’re not sure week-to-week when you can get the store open.qnalr0s

There’s a video game coming out that you know everyone will want to play. You know that this will lead to a crappy sales day, so you just close that day.

You’re a fool, and I’ll tell you why.

Every time that a customer pulls on your door during your normal business hours and finds that it’s locked, you are not only losing whatever sale you were about to make that day. You also degrade the reputation and reliability of your business in the mind of that customer and their friends, forever. The next time they think about making a trip out to give you their money, they will wonder whether you are going to be there. Yes, I know that they could just call before they visit or check your Facebook page, but you know that they won’t, and in your heart you also know that they shouldn’t have to.

We are open seven days a week. We are open on Veteran’s Day, because it’s a school holiday and we’d be fools not to be available for that. We are open when a new World of Warcraft expansion hits, because our employees can play that night after work, and not all of our customers play WoW. We are open on snow days as long as the store has electricity, even if that means that I have to put my truck in 4WD and work the shift myself, alone. We are open when nobody appears to be buying, because there is always work to do and we don’t have perfect knowledge of who will come in.

If there’s some question in the minds of even a minority of our customers about whether we will be open, we will be open. We’re closed on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, but if we thought we would even do modest business on those days, we’d be open.

We are reliably open because we’re professionals and we don’t want our customers to worry about whether or not we’ll be there when they need us.

Be open.