On Thursday, March 15th of the 2012 GAMA Trade Show there was a panel on Online Retail in the Pacific Ballroom, which is where the lunches and dinners are held. Based on the size of the event’s room, I figured it would be important and made my way to a table in the front of the room. As I began to write down notes, I turned on my voice recorder, in case I missed anything. The following is my transcript of the fascinating, 50-minute debate that ensued. I have made very minor edits for the sake of clarity.
Introduction to the Online Retailing Panel
Michael Stackpole: Our esteemed panelists here represent both online retailing and brick and mortar retailing. What we wanted to do – instead of having a knife fight, which would have been entertaining, but the room is too big and we didn’t have it in the round, so we just sort of scrapped that plan – we want to have a dialogue about this, the whole idea being that we want to take a look at what strategies, what solutions people have been using, how we deal with this both as an industry and as manufacturers and as retailers. Hopefully, the intention is that by the end of this particular seminar you’ll have some ideas, you’ll have some information, you’ll have some perspective so that you’re not worrying about this overmuch, and you’ll have some strategies then that you could work with both by yourself and in consultation with manufacturers and with other retailers to find a way to make the internet and everything work for you.
So I’ve got a series of questions and our panelists have been prepped with these questions. We’re going to go with somewhat of a presidential debate debate style. We will have the question being asked, we will have a commentary and a rebuttal, and we will switch back and forth. We will probably at some point go off-script just because, as this discussion goes on, we’ll want to emphasize certain things. I don’t know if we will have time for questions. If we do, I’ll attempt to facilitate those. For right now, we just want to sort of have a discussion and get information out.
The Advantages to the Game Industry From Online Discount Vendors
Michael Stackpole: So the very first question I’ve got for you guys is this, what are the advantages for the industry – not just being individual merchants – of online discount vendors? What do online discounters bring to our overall community to keep it vibrant and going? John, you’ll go first.
Jon Huston: This would depend on which kind of online discount retailer. But I would say that the number one thing that an online discount retailer brings to the industry is not the discounted price, it’s the selection of goods. In almost every case, a good solid online discounter retailer is able to provide far more selection of goods in their storefront than would either make sense or be suitable for sale in a brick and mortar store. Our impression from the customers that we get is that the majority of customers that buy from us, buy from us because the particular good that they want to buy is not available to them locally. They’re not buying from us because they’re trying to get a better price. Now, in that particular regard, this is where I got to admit that we are not the cheapest online discount retailer. In fact, we’re probably not even the top twenty percent on most of the stuff we sell. So for those who are focused entirely on price, we should probably not be their first choice, but those who are looking for selection that’s where we emphasize our product line. By being able to offer such a wide selection of stuff, it’s allowed manufacturers who are more into the long tail of goods to be able to have a platform to sell those goods from. I don’t think we would have five or six thousand different board games in print right now, if there was not an online retailer presence, because such a small number of those board games would be able to be carried by any one store. I was just at the Store Design seminar earlier today, which was a store [Titan’s Entertainment Cafe] that won an award last year for Best Designed Store and the store is very proud that they actually carry 200 different board games and I know from going to stores that 200 different board games is an incredible selection, but that also represents about three percent of all the board games currently in print today.
Michael Stackpole: (Jon, just give yourself a brief introduction just so…)
Jon Huston: Alright. I’m Jon Huston. I’m the CEO of Troll and Toad. Troll and Toad started off as a mail order game retailer in 1994 and as the internet came into being we switched from being mail order magazine advertiser over to an online website and currently we’re one of the larger presences on the web for the hobby game industry itself.
David Wallace: Good afternoon. I’m Dave Wallace. I’m a brick and mortar retailer. I opened our first store back in 1981. I’ve got 4 stores in St. Louis right now. I’m going to surprise, I think, a lot of people at this, by telling you that I agree with a lot of what Jon has to say. I don’t see the internet seller as an extreme danger to us. I think it’s important to keep a few key facts in mind. Let’s assume for the sake of argument, brick and mortar stores. There are three stores in your town and everybody is doing 300,000 in sales, and one of the stores goes under, does that mean that the other 2 stores are now going to pick up that 300,000? No. It doesn’t. No, usually it’d be tough and a stress to pick up 5 to 10 percent of it. Most of those customers simply leave the market. If we have two stores doing 300,000, somebody else opens up a shop and they go up to 400,000 in sales, does that mean the first two are now out of business or struggling? No. The point is that each business builds its own customer base. We only tend to poach about 5 to 10 percent of our customers off of each other. It seems like a much higher number, but the reality is each business generates its own customer base. Online sellers generate on the most part, their own customer base.
Remember too that most of the stuff they sell is stuff we don’t sell, secondary market, out of print material. Jon carries more product than you could fit into most of our stores. If we don’t sell the product, then we’re not very well in competition with him. If they sell to people who aren’t interested in buying from us, then we’re not much in competition to him. I would argue that this industry as a whole is seeing more money coming into it because of internet sellers. However, I think it’s key to note, that the internet sellers primarily sell only to existing customers. They don’t create new customers. What they’ve done is they’ve captured, they’ve retained some of those customers that would have left the industry earlier, but now with the option of buying online, we have more of them sticking around, especially because they can also sell products to people and Jon. So do I believe that the industry is larger? Yes, because I think that we’ve retained people that we would have lost otherwise.
However, most of the money that’s being made by the online people, I don’t think [remains] in the industry. Selling secondary market and out of product materials, doesn’t put money into the new manufacturers’ pockets, it doesn’t help the new retailer, it doesn’t help the industry as a whole. It’s certainly great for the online discounter, but it’s not necessarily helping the industry, so yes, I think we’re a larger industry, I think we have more money, I think we’re retaining more people, and I think that the online people are benefiting from that tremendously, and I don’t see them as as much competition as most people fear them. But I also don’t see that extra money as benefiting the industry as a whole, so much as benefiting just the online retailer. Thank you.
Controlling Online Discounting: Realistic or Not?
Michael Stackpole: These guys are being a lot more reasonable than they would’ve been if we’d just given them sharpened spoons and tossed them into a locked room. [Laughter.] Really annoying. Alright so given what you guys have said, given that online retailers seem to be selling a lot of product that’s not available in store and Dave’s contention that the customer base that they’re selling to may not be a customer base which is attached to a store, the next question that I have to ask is is it then realistic then to suggest or suppose that online discounting, or discounting in any sort can be curtailed? Is there a way to control this?
Just to steal something that John and I in an earlier conversation had, you know, one of the largest discount retailers in the world on the internet is not a game retailer, it’s Amazon. And we’ve seen what Amazon has done elsewhere, so do you think that it’s possible that there are going to be efforts to curtail this stuff and control this stuff that would be effective? And if not, what are the strategies that we have to use as an industry to promote what goes on? Do we run a risk, if everybody looks at the internet and says “Because there were discounters, internet is bad, therefore I will keep my store firmly in the 18th century.” Or is there a way to sort of say, “Let’s decouple the ecommerce the e-commerce side and the negativity there and look at the other good thing the internet is good for, which is delivering information.” Are there things that our stores can do to use that half of the internet to both grow the industry and to increase what goes on? And I’ll start with you, Dave.
David Wallace: Alright, I think to address the subject, the first thing we all have to recognize: discounting did not come into play with the internet. I mean, come on, 30 years, how many stores out there discount? How many of you retailers [are] listening to “The guy down the street will sell it for 20, if you’re not going to match his price, I’m going to buy it elsewhere.”? It’s nothing new. However I do think the internet has changed discounting from the way it used to be. The two key elements that come into play here is that first off the threshold to enter business has dropped to nothing. If you want to open up a brick and mortar store, even if you’re doing it on a shoestring, you need to have enough resources to get a good shot at it. If you want to open up an online discounting store, 12 year old kids working out of their bedrooms are doing it. 60 year old grandmothers are doing it to supplement their business. You don’t have to have any resources. You can simply go into business. You don’t have to have an infrastructure. You don’t have to have a warehouse. You don’t have to have inventory. You don’t have to have employees. So that has certainly changed from what discounting used to be. That lack of infrastructure is what leads to customers saying to you “Well, you bought it for 10, why don’t you sell it to me for 11? You’re still making a profit.” I’m still making a profit? You’re right, it’s 1 dollar. The problem is is that inventory is only one of the things that I have to pay for, my infrastructure, my fixed costs, my labor costs, exceed that 10 percent that the dollar represents. I cannot run my business in that fashion. The business model will not allow for it. But for that 12 year old, inventory cost is the only expense he faces. Now John ironically here has larger fixed costs and labor costs than any of the retailers in this room. Trust me, if you look at his bills, you’d appreciate how well you have it. He knows that he can’t get away with that on the internet, but that 12 year old can. That’s why we see this incredible push towards, you know, I have to sell it for a 1 percent profit margin. Do I think that the manufacturers can change this?
Manufacturers, please don’t misunderstand me, thank you. I appreciate your gestures. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but the reality is, it’s all symbolic, you can’t stop discounting from taking place. Nobody can stop discounting from taking place. John is not buying direct from the manufacturers. He’s not signing contracts with them agreeing not to discount. They can’t control it. I do appreciate their efforts, mainly because I appreciate their support. It says that we believe in you and we want to see you successful and I’m going to argue a little bit later that they need us to be successful. But in the end I don’t really see manufacturers curtailing discounting and stopping it from affecting us. Like it or not, it’s what we live in. In an ideal world, if discounters didn’t exist, would we be better off? Come on, we don’t live in an ideal world. Realistically let’s get on with what we need to. John?
Jon Huston: What I’d like to focus on is talking about what some manufacturers have done so far in their desire to control or reduce online discounting. Dave was actually wrong in one of his facts, that we did not sign agreements with manufacturers about price. We’ve actually signed agreements with two manufactuers about price and stuck to that agreement. One is Mayfair Games, one is USAopoly. And before I came here, oh! And actually a third one about location. We’ve actually signed an agreement with Games Workshop. Each of those three companies have a different set of rules. The Games Workshop rule is if you sign a deal with them, you cannot sell online, at least using a cart. Since we use a cart we don’t list their stuff on our website. We signed the deal with Games Workshop because we sell Games Workshop in both of our retail stores. USAopoly, that was something that only happened in the last 3 to 6 months. USAopoly had us sign an agreement that we would sell things only at Suggested Retail Price, I think that’s what it was. And Mayfair’s had an agreement for several years, 4 or 5 years, something like that, that we have to sell everything at a maximum discount of 20 percent. That is, we have to sell everything at 80 percent or more. That puts Settlers of Catan, by the way, [at] $33.60. So I had one of my staff study the internet just before I came here to look for the effect on those three manufacturers. He found that Games Workshop, which is not supposed to have anything for sale on the internet, actually found vast quantities of their stuff for sale on both Amazon and eBay. USAopoly which is supposed to have everything Suggested Retail and hopefully USAopoly won’t be mad at me saying this about them, is they don’t seem to be enforcing it, or they don’t seem to be successful in enforcing it, because he [John’s researcher] was hard pressed to find the stuff at suggested retail from anyone. But the third company, Mayfair, which has been enforcing their policy for a number of years, it was very difficult for him to find Settlers of Catan for less than $33.60.
There’s actually a website out there, if you want to study Amazon pricing on any item for the last two, three years, the website’s called camelcamelcamel.com. See you don’t even have to write it down, a brilliant name, you go to camelcamelcamel.com, you can pick Amazon off the list, type the name of the item or its UPC code, you can look at Settlers of Catan and see that other than two or three ocurrences over the last year that Settlers of Catan has been on Amazon, it’s stuck at $33.60. That’s what their price has been. What my staff member said to me, and I agreed with him, is that if a manufacturer wants to set a reasonable online price and is willing to enforce it and spend the time to enforce it, I believe that that manufacturer could probably be able to maintain that price as they have for Settlers of Catan. I’m not sure whether or not that enforcement of that price really ends up having any effect overall on the success of that item among gamers or for the manufacturer themselves, but as far as it goes, manufacturers do have some ability to control online pricing, if they want to do so.
Do Game Stores Need to Shift to Serving as Community Hubs?
Michael Stackpole: Yeah, I think that one point I would just add to that as we saw in the book trade when Borders went out of business last year, that immediately affected Barnes & Noble, in terms of the fact that they were selling off all this stock, there’s no chance to enforce things at Manufacturers’ Suggested Retail Price and that did damage to Barnes & Noble, did damage to some independent bookstores. And if you have a retail outlet and the store on the other side of your town goes out of business and starts selling everything off, there’s going to be no enforcement, you’re going to take that hit regardless. So the enforcement of those discounts becomes a really tricky thing if that’s all you’re going to trust your future to. You need to be looking at certain other strategies, which brings me to my next question, and again, everybody who’s here probably already knows this. I know that we do have some brand new retailers and so I hope that your answers can address some of this for them.
What I’ve seen in the Phoenix area in the book market is that two very successful independent book stores have shifted from what they used to be to now being, in essence, event venues with a rather large gift shop attached to them. That’s how they’ve shifted what they do, it’s not just you’re going for the books, you’re going there because an author is going to be there or they are holding a class or they are having a workshop. And then you purchase those ancillary things. And again, you guys, what is that you see-, what are the resources that retailers have got, in this business, to do those sorts of things? Is that sort of shift neccessary? Is providing essentially that community hub, going to be the thing that successfully allows stores to flourish regardless of the availability of product on the net? What are your thoughts on that and what do you see, especially with your retail areas, that you do to make sure that your store flourishes regardless? So, we’ll start with you, John.
Jon Huston: This is where I have a good perspective, because we just opened a second retail store a little over three weeks ago. And we opened it in a small town of 7,000 people, only 7 miles away from a major online discount retailer. And we put everything in our store at Suggested Retail Price and keep in mind that that meant anyone coming into our store can, they can just drive 7 miles away and get it for a cheaper price from those Troll and Toad.com folks down the road and what’s even more embarassing is in our store we have a sign that says that the store is a Troll and Toad store, so some of our customers coming in want to know why we don’t match the prices online and we just let them know, that if they would like to buy from online, we recommend that they do. But in our store we don’t match online discounts. [Some laughter].
“For centuries, we’ve had places called taverns, and what a tavern is, it’s a place you can go in, and pay for alcohol 3 or 4 more times than a local store. So why the hell do people go into a tavern to buy a drink when they could just go across the road and get it cheaper? It’s because of the environment.”
– Jon Huston
Our store is doing very well. But the reason that our store is doing well is because we’re not trying to match the online discounter’s price, we realize that trying to discount is not going to be a successful way to do profit. I’m very sold on Dave’s talks that he’s done in earlier years that I’ve listened to, and he continues to preach that discounting in your store is ultimately just a way for you to get less money into your store. Instead, you should be focusing your store on what the online discounter cannot provide, which is the immediate experience of being able to provide them with a product in hand, to give them that community, to give ’em a store where they feel it’s worth paying more money. For centuries, we’ve had places called taverns, and what a tavern is, it’s a place you can go in, and pay for alcohol 3 or 4 more times than a local store. So why the hell do people go into a tavern to buy a drink when they could just go across the road and get it cheaper? It’s because of the environment. If you can put together an environement that makes people appreciate the environment they are in, most people are going to be willing to spend the money to help maintain that environment because they appreciate it.
David Wallace: I certainly want to address what they’re talking about, but before I do, I want to make what I think is a key point. Mike talked about brick and mortar stores being a portal into the industry, a way of creating customers. This is where I think that the industry in general has to wake up. I said earlier that the online discounter, the online retailer, basically services the existing gamer. They’re not creating new gamers. That’s what we need the brick and mortar stores for. 2-3,000 stores filled with goobers who love what they do so much that they can’t wait to share it with anybody that’ll stand there long enough to listen to them. This is how to create new people. Every industry suffers from attrition. You’re always losing people. If you don’t have a greater influx of new people than you have people going out the door, you’re going to eventually suffer and go out of business. This industry needs the brick and mortar store to create new customers. We are the missionaries who convert the heathen into gamers. [Laughter] As good as the online store can be, it will never succeed in doing that. The industry requires it. Now, how do we go about doing that?
Yes, values. Price is a value. There are people who like getting more for less money. That’s pretty much everyone. There is a percentage of our market share that price is the single most important value there is and they will shop online at those discounters no matter what. They’re not your customers. Stop thinking of them as your customers; they don’t belong to you. You will never get their business. If everybody else goes under and you’re the last store on the face of the earth, they still don’t want to give you any money. Alright? Price is all important to them. Fortunately price is not the only value that’s out there. I’ve listened for 10 to 12 years, people preaching to me, that I’m dead. You are a dinosaur. You’re extinct, you’re just too stupid to know it, lay down and die like you’re supposed to. You cannot compete on product, because they can get cheaper online. The fallacy behind this is that everybody that preaches this sees the buying public as one homogenous mass, that all value the same thing. I don’t know about you, but my sales are going up. And it’s not because my customers are too stupid to know that they have options out there. They have other values. John’s right; don’t compete on price, because that’s not what they were coming to you for in the first place. If you want to give away the money, they’ll take it. But they’re there for other reasons, they like your location, they like the time they spend in your store. It’s like walking into a garden, all the stress goes out of it, you’re just happy to be there. They love talking to people that share what they like. They like finding out about new stuff. They want to pick it up and hold it in their hands. They like the people that they meet in your store, the community that you have.
The key here is to recognize that not only can you not compete on price, but you don’t have to compete just on community. I’ve been told for 12 years, that the only way I’ll stay in business is by having an organized play and selling chips and soda. That’s crap. I can sell product from here to the next 50 years, because I provide other values, not price, and not just community service. There’s 50 ways you can go back and improve your store right now and improve the fact that people love shopping with you. Every one of those is bringing new people in and that’s where this industry’s getting its new customers.
What Should Game Manufacturers Do to Help Retailers?
Michael Stackpole: Again, no blood? This is really surprising me. I did for, just so you know, I did for a while manage a Flying Buffalo game store, so I have got a certain amount of experience and I’ve always felt that community is a core part of what we actually do. But I also notice that one of the problems that we have, and I’ll label it as a problem, is because we’re all gamers, we look for the rules, we try and figure out what the Victory Conditions are, and we invariably attempt to hack the rules. And we think of it as just this game and we tend to miss the idea that selling to people, retailing, is actually a much bigger game. And there are other places that do it very successfully and play very successfully. I think one of the things which is incumbent upon it, and I did this when I was managing the Flying Buffalo store, it’s incumbent upon all of us as retailers to go out to some of those other retail outlets whether it’s a Target or it’s a Wal-Mart, or it’s a Nordstrom’s. You know, I think if every retailer here went to a Nordstrom’s or a Neiman Marcus and just see how that they treat customers and we looked at how we can apply that to our audience and what we do, we would benefit greatly as a community.
So my next question, I’m going to start with Dave, is in this idea of we want the brick and mortar stores, because as you say, they are apostles, I’ve always seen games as being more shared as a disease vector, so this would be a virus hot spot. But we’ll go with missionaries and chapels and that sort of things, because it’s much more pleasant, and we are in Vegas where people are praying all the time [laughter], so what do you see, what are the things that you want to encourage manufacturers to do that they’re not doing enough of, or that have been really really successful that helps you spread the word, that helps you be that missionary to go ahead and grow. And you can talk about successful programs that you’ve seen or things that you would like to see, or things that you remember companies having done in the past that were very useful, and you know, have just fallen by the wayside, because unfortunately some of those companies have been culled down through the years. And that’s a question totally off script, so if they look like they’re deer in the headlights, now you know why.
David Wallace: Yeah, I’m going to start off by “Where did that come from?” Again, we add value, but we add value in different ways. A brick and mortar retailer that panics and sees the online business as competition, that thinks that the only way that they can match that competition is by matching price is cutting their own throat. First, let’s recognize the fact that they’re not competition, not seriously. We tend to deal with this as an emotional thing. Every one of us has had customers come into our store and say “You’re a crook. How dare you charge retail price. What the hell kind of a fool are you?” I love this story I heard from a guy that worked for Dream Pod 9. He had a guy come to their website, order a bunch of stuff, and when he gave him the price, the kid said “Well, why aren’t you giving it to me at cost?” And he said “Well, what would we pay our bills with and make a living?” And the kid told him, “Go out and get a job like the rest of us.” [Laughter]
Competition would suggest that we share something in common. If John sells two million dollars worth of Magic singles and Yu-Gi-Oh singles over the course of the year and you don’t sell singles, are you in competition? If he sells to customers who would never come into your store, is he really competing with you? The fact of the matter is that we don’t actually share a lot of competition. It’s the emotion. I don’t like being accused of being a crook because I charge full price. It hurts when somebody comes into my store and says “Even though I got into it because of you, and I love you, and you know, you came to my wedding. I’m going to buy online, I can’t support you anymore.” Emotionally it’s very difficult for us and mostly it’s fear. If I’m not successful, can I find a scapegoat? Can I blame it on someone else? But the reality is we don’t have that much competition. So if you turn around and give in and say that I have to compete with them and that I’ll do it on price, you’re not going to get anywhere. You can compete, but there’s not much competition to begin with. Don’t focus on the online store, you’re a brick and mortar store: they’re not your customers.
Most of them want to be in a place that they like going to. That’s what it comes down to. I enjoy being in your store. If coming into your store means you’ve got product on the shelves, somebody sitting behind a counter painting a fig, and they finally look up and say “Did you want fries with that?”, you’re not adding much value to their time in your shop. On the other hand, if you have some kickass displays, if being in your store is fun, if you’ve got hands-on, interactive, if you’re employees aren’t sitting behind a counter, if they’re out working with customers, if you’ve got demos, if you’ve got events, if you’ve got just wonderful product mix with unique and interesting things, and something new showing up every week, now you’re bringing value in in a lot of different ways. The only way that I’ll disagree with Mike: communtiy absolutely, positively, it’s an absolute value and you should take advantage of it. But to suggest that it’s the only one is ridiculous. You can run a store without any gaming space whatsoever and be tremendously successful by providing other values. You will never be able to please all the people all the time. It’s a guaranteed way to bankruptcy. This casino certainly doesn’t please all the people all the time. You don’t have to. Please the ones that you’re trying to take advantage of. Oh, that came out bad. [Laughter.] Please the ones that you’re there for, your targeted audience. Make your competitive edges line up and reinforce the people that you want to please. That person that wants you to sell at 35 percent off isn’t your customer. Stop trying to please them. Go back to the ones that you’re making money on. Those customers belong to John. Let him have them. They’re not yours.
Michael Stackpole: (…manufacturers?… Any one dream thing that you’d like to see from manufacturers?)
My sales are up. My store is healthy! I love what I do and I’m going to keep doing it.
– Dave Wallace
David Wallace: You know the only thing I can really say about manufacturers is not what I want them to do for me, it’s what I want them not to do. I don’t want them to panic. I don’t want to believe that we’re dinosaurs, that we don’t have a future. I don’t like it when a manufacturer starts trying to cut into my customers and cut me out of the loop… Paizo. [Applause.] I want my manufacturers to stand behind me. We are the sales force to them. What sense does it make to fire your sales force? If you go back to your stores and fire everybody that works behind the counter, what do you think’s going to happen? I don’t need them to give me any special deals and I don’t need them to break his back [Jon Huston and other online retailers] and tell him he can’t sell at a discount. I just need them to recognize that I’m not dead. My sales are up. My store is healthy! I love what I do and I’m going to keep doing it. Don’t give up on me. They don’t have to help me. They just don’t have to abandon me. [Applause.]
Jon Huston: I believe the essence of your question was “What could manufacturers do to help brick and mortar stores more, correct?” First, I’ll start by two things that I dont think actually help them. One is making limited edition items where you only get a few for each store. From my perspective, I see this as a way of just antagonizing people in that store, who want to know why they weren’t the ones who got it, the person behind the counter got it, or his best friend got it. It seems that that just kind of does a negative thing. And generally what will happen is this is going to drive up the price between those few lucky people that got into your store, [they] buy it, and then they send it to us or put it on Amazon or eBay themselves and make the extra money so that they can get the full price. The other thing that I’ve seen manufacturers do is do only a certain amount of product for each store location and I think that is a self-limiting factor because, again kind of like the limited edition thing, it means that you’re capping the success of any of the brick and mortar stores that you sell to. A brick and mortar store, say, in Chicago is probably going to be able to sell a lot more than a brick and mortar store in, say, Anchorage, Alaska, though the one in Anchorage, Alaska actually kicks pretty good butt; I’ve been to it. I probably should have picked Idaho instead. [Laughter] But those limitations aren’t good.
Where I could see manufacturers really helping out brick and mortar stores over online is first putting together really effective demo units for stores that would promote the merchandise, for when people see the promotional unit, they’re driven to buy the items right there. There’s a local K-Mart that has this beautiful display of all the Skylander figures in little rows. Now mind you that Skylander is so hot there’s no need for them to promote it anymore, but I was looking at that, thinking “Wow, if those kinds of things were made for retail stores, where they could buy them and put them in…” And then I realized that some retail stores do that; they have people paint the figures and bring them in and set them up in a glass showcase and they look so cool, people want to buy the figures so they can paint them themselves or often want to buy the painted figures and want to know why you won’t sell them to them. [Laughter] But the point is demonstration. Demo stuff like that, especially three dimensional demo stuff would, I think, be very strong for brick and mortar stores. This is what I’d like to ask, one question of the audience: for those of you who carry the Fantasy Flight Games iPad demo device in your store, if you feel that it’s increased the sales of Fantasy Flight Games in your store, could you raise your hand? Alright, so that’s an example, I think, of a rather low cost, you know, doesn’t take up a lot of space, and yet a manufacturer can use that and other things to promote sales in brick and mortar stores.
Is the Game Industry’s Current 3 Tier Distribution System Sustainable?
Michael Stackpole: To take from what both of you said, something that I always felt was very important again when I was managing the store, was something that I looked at, was that it is possible to manufacture demand for a particular product line in your store, provided you find a way to push it. I remember this was back in the Dark Ages, there was a game called Arduin Grimoire, which some of you may remember, and this again, back in the Dark Ages, saddle-stapled book, very hard to read, small type, horrible illustrations, but we stocked it just because we wanted to stock one of everything and back in those days you actually could. And I suddenly noticed that the game started to sell. And so we’d replace it and it would sell and replace it and it would sell. In the course of six weeks, we moved six copies and then it stopped selling and I was totally baffled as to why that had actually been [the case]. Then I found out that one of our regulars had started running a campaign and so all of his players came in and they bought that product and they got it out.
So finding those people in your stores, who are opinion-makers, finding those people who look to new product, using them to perhaps teach classes on how to GM this particular game or using them to run demos of the game becomes a way that you can begin to drive demand for what goes on. I’m going to get to our last question and I think in many ways you guys have answered it, but I want to sort of gather your thoughts together, and this is the dreaded question #6, which I hoped I would never get to on our list. Do you think that the industry’s current 3-tiered system is sustainable? And if it’s not, what’s the impetus to stop manufacturers from going direct? We’ve already talked about what stores bring to the industry. If manufacturers went direct, what do you see as – for both online retailers and brick and mortar retailers – what do you see the future of the industry to be?
Jon Huston: I think the 3 tier distribution system is critically important to keep brick and mortar retailers to be able to continue to get their product. From my perspective, a small retail store, if they had to buy all their product directly only from manufacturers to carry in their store, they would severely cut the number of different manufacturers’ products that they would be carrying. They simply wouldn’t be able to and the industry in the far past has had this experience in a similar manner in the comic book industry when Marvel, they got to be at a point where they were somewhere around 60 percent of all comic book sales, changed to a system where they would sell direct to all the comic book stores. And the comic book industry took many years to recover from the disaster that ensued and Marvel themselves, the drop in sales that occurred by trying to go direct to all the stores. After a few years they ended up giving up and that’s where Diamond Comic Distributors ended up becoming pretty much the only distributor of comic books out there. And I lived through that experience, because that was long before I had a mail order catalogue, I had a comic and game store. So I don’t think that that would be good for the industry at all and I think it’d especially be bad for smaller manufacturers and the smaller manufacturers are often those who bring in innovative new products. So in that regard, I could see a major presence like there is, in fact, one manufacturer who’s gone direct: Games Workshop. But as a result of going direct, has that really benefitted Games Workshop that much? From my perspective I don’t think so. I think it would have been better if they’d continued to distribute through the 3 tier system and not go direct. I think they’ve struggled for a number of years with their growth, that they couldn’t have experienced if they stayed in the 3 tier system.
David Wallace: I’ve already suggested that my fear is that manufacturers will lose faith in us, that they will think that we are no longer a viable alternative and I don’t think that’s the case. Why is that happening? We have to look at a basic assumption here. Has more money entered into this industry as a result of online retailers? Yes. There’s no question about it. There is more money in the industry. Unfortunately most of that money, as I said, is tied up in secondary product, out of print material, it’s not coming into our industry, it’s staying in the online retailers’ pockets. And the natural assumption is, that if they’re doing well, we must be doing badly. Otherwise where’d their money come from? And this overlooks the idea that they are helping us retain gamers and that’s where the money is coming from. Just because they are doing well, doesn’t mean that we are doing badly. But because, again, we get emotional about it and because there are always stores looking for a scapegoat because they don’t want to accept responsibility for themselves, we point the finger and say that they are stealing our customers away. It’s a misunderstanding. It’s a bad assumption.
Our industry is not hurting. We’re not in trouble. We picked up additional monies. That’s not a bad thing. The only way it really hurts us is that the online discounter has got so much money coming in from customers that we no longer deal with. As John told you, he’s carrying product that you don’t have in your store. Not because you can’t get it, because you can’t sell it to your small local market. He’s got the world to deal with, he can sell to a larger market. It’s still valuable material for him, it’s still generating money for him. You’re not in competition with him, it’s just generating money that wasn’t there before. Because he can make money doing that – this is obviously not addressed at John, I’m talking about the online retailer – it allows them to also sell new product at a lower price. They are subsidizing their ability to sell products that you do carry at a reduced price because of the money they are making on the secondary market, the out of print, the long tail. It’s not fair – that’s an emotional term – but the only real harm from it, is that it effectively devalues that product. “How can you possibly justify selling Settlers of Catan for X number of dollars when I can buy it online for 30 percent less than that?” So do we have competition? Absolutely. But it’s not that much, it’s only in limited areas, and it’s not going to drive you out of business. Most of their success did not come at our cost.
There’s nothing wrong with the 3 tier system. We should embrace it, we should run with it, we should do everything we can to make all parts of the industry as healthy as we possibly can. We need to remember that we’re the incubators; we generate the new customers. If we do away with the 3 tier system, we do away with our ability to generate new customers, although ironically, you finally hit upon a solution that will do away with most of the online discounters: if the manufacturers are selling it direct to the customers, why would they sell it to anybody else at a cheaper price? Unfortunately doing away with the online discounters that way is also committing suicide as a hobby. It’s not going to help our industry. So it’s not a solution to our problem. Manufacturers that don’t support us are going to do better in the short run, but in the long run, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you suffer attrition, retailers can’t sell your product, therefore they’re not going to push your product, you’re not going to pick up new customers, you’re dealing with a smaller clientele. It’s happened before. Columbia Games cut us out of the loop. How well are they doing right now? Hero Systems sent out an email saying we’re in trouble, stop buying from your store, come and buy from us. How well did that work for them?
“Talk to the retailers here at the show that are really working their stores. None of them are telling you that they are having problems, they’re going out of business. They’re all telling you that my business is going up. We’re not in trouble.”
– Dave Wallace
We are the sales force. We are a neccessary part of this. The wonderful thing about all of this is if you get past the emotion, if you just look at this from an objective viewpoint. We’re not doomed. This is not out of your control. Every last bit of this is strictly up to you. Go run a successful store, push the values that are available to you, and you will do just fine. Talk to the retailers here at the show that are really working their stores. None of them are telling you that they are having problems, they’re going out of business. They’re all telling you that my business is going up. We’re not in trouble. Don’t give into the fear, don’t give into the emotions. Deal with this as an intelligent businessperson and go back and take care of your own business. The danger here is that we tend to see this like an episode of “Survivor”: there’s only one winner. But you don’t get paid because your comptetition does badly; you get paid because you did it right. Nobody’s going to come to you at the end of the year and say “Everybody else went out of business, you’re the winner, here’s your million dollars.” Stop looking at it that way! Competition has nothing to do with it. Forget the stores in your city, forget the online, just run the best damn store you can. You’ll be fine. [Applause.]
Michael Stackpole: I’d like to thank both of our panelists and you for being very solemn and listening and having interest in what was a very important discussion. I think ultimately if you listen to everything that was said, it comes down to this: know your customer base, figure out what it is that they need, and then figure out how you’re going to deliver that to them. And that is, if you are a manufacturer, your customer base are the distributors and/or the retailers; figure out what they need delivered. If you’re a retailer, look at your customers, figure out what they need and deliver it. That’s the way we run. As Dave succinctly said “Run a successful business and you’ll be ok.” And that’s the way to do it. Thank you very much.
Fantasy Flight Media Center image copyright Fantasy Flight Games, used with permission. Titan’s Entertainment Cafe store picture copyright Titan’s Entertainment Cafe, used with permission.