Taking Scissors to the GRG: 10 Updates to Improve Your Value

If you are thinking about buying the Game Retailer Guide, you might be concerned about the publication date. The industry has changed since that book’s release over ten years ago.

Phone Books

What’s a phone book? Don’t worry about it. Just understand that it’s no longer a main source of new customers.

TV Ads

Formerly an advertising staple, don’t make it a core part of your initial plan. You can still explore it on your own.

Other Advertising Media

Technology has presented new opportunities, especially regarding the cost-effectiveness of advertising. It used to be that advertising in many places had a pretty big buy-in. Now you can spend a couple of dollars at a time if necessary.

The Numbers Have Changed

The percentages are still largely the same, but you won’t find a suite to rent for $1,700 a month. Keep that in mind as you go through the book and laugh longingly at how low the costs are. The good news is that every category of sales has increased, so the expected revenue numbers are higher, too.

Malls

Indoor malls are still around, but in some cases only by inertia. They probably aren’t a factor in your thinking.

LANs

I’m not even mentioning LANs in the new book.

Manufacturer Tools

Already in decline when I wrote the GRG, manufacturers provide retailers with very little in the way of sales tools. You might get a dangler here and there. Several companies offer merchandising displays, but they tend to be a one-time deal; if you miss it, it’s gone. Co-op advertising money is entirely gone, as far as I know. Even demo volunteers are not a big factor in the environment anymore.

Rent Negotiation

Continued consolidation of commercial properties into remotely-owned corporations has reduced the ability to negotiate rent. Many of these companies have non-negotiable terms, and the local property manager’s job is expected to maintain the property, not to haggle over rent.

Game Distribution

Distribution continues to offer less and less and stock fewer copies of what they carry. More manufacturers are going direct to stores. I had to switch my Reaper restocks directly to Reaper because they never bothered to restock my primary distributor. Other companies—especially those that launched on Kickstarter—are going directly to consumers and bypassing game distribution entirely.

Buying Used

I made second-hand merchandise a big part of my business model. FLGS sold used RPGs, used miniatures, used board games, used Legos, and even GW bits. Customers used to bring in carloads of these things for sale. Now customers have easy options for selling directly to each other, and they expect more for their goods. It’s harder to stock a large selection of used goods. You can still do it, but it takes more work, and you need a more curated section than the hundreds of RPG titles I used to be able to carry.

Conclusion

Disregard these components, and the remaining content still provides a great value. The key instructions on estimating startup costs, planning for a capital reserve, and using events to drive sales are all still valid. The processes for finding the numbers you need still work, even while the numbers themselves change.

Six Hours

At the average American reading speed of about 250 words per minute, you can read the Game Retailer Guide in about 6 hours. Within six hours of research, you have the groundwork for laying out your own plan to become a game store owner, ready for a full-time job playing games.

Or so goes the perception from people who do not do this for a living.

In reality, you won’t play many games for fun—at least not for a couple of years. You’ll play games so that you can sell them, which is not as fun. Protip: it’s scripted so that the customer wins.

One Hour

In one hour you’ll know the broad-brush topics to think about when planning your store. You’ll know how you can—and can’t—finance your store. You’ll have some tips on finding a location and negotiating the best price. You will learn about some gigantic cost-reduction and risk-reduction measures that you ignore at your peril.

Two Hours

By the end of the two-hour mark you’ve read through a store’s financials, know where you’ll spend your money, and know what to avoid. You know what you need to decide on before you open, and what you can afford to figure out as you go (it’s mostly the former).

Three Hours

In three hours you’ll know where to go to buy your games, how to order them, how much to spend, and how to choose how to spend your budget. You’ll know how to display them for maximum sales. You’ll probably have a good idea of your floor plan by now.

Four Hours

Four hours after turning the first page, you’re well into the meaty stuff: getting customers in the door and what to do with them now that you have them. You’ll know the trifecta of increasing sales: advertise to get them in, run events to get them to come back, and upsell and merchandise to get them to spend more. I increased revenues at FLGS by 2,500% largely by focusing on these basic elements.

Five Hours

Within five hours, you’ll know how to staff your store, how to schedule those people cost-effectively, and what you should expect them to do with their time. You’ll have a training guideline you can customize for your own business. You’ll have some tips regarding keeping them from stealing from you and keeping them from suing you. Finally, you’ll teach somebody else how to teach them what they need to know.

Six Hours

After six hours, you’re an old pro. You’re reading about how to manage your veteran store and preparing for growth into multiple stores or other directions. You’re working to replace yourself as owner-operator so that you can focus on growing the company, of which a retail store is just one component.


I often say there’s more than one way to be right when it comes to game retail. For every rule I can think of, I know somebody successful who breaks it. However, you can’t copy what works for one person unless you understand how that rule works within the confines of a holistic business model. The GRG shows you how to create your own model so that those individual components fit like square pegs in your square-peg framework.

I sandbagged a little bit on the reading time. Reading technical material is a little slower than average. You should take notes as you go, too. You’ll want to come back to some sections, spend some time re-reading the elements with which you’re least familiar, and ask questions about anything unclear.

But even if reading it takes 8 or 10 hours to work through, that seems like an easy time investment that can change your life. If you don’t know if you want to do this, you’ll know if this investment and lifestyle is right for you. If you’re already determined to open or buy your own game store, the Game Retailer Guide can prevent some missteps hundreds of other people have already made.

If you open a store and this book doesn’t save you 100 times the cover price somewhere along the line, I’ll give you your money back.

Short on Cash? Triage Negative Cash Flow

Retailers sometimes have difficulties managing cash. It could be for any number of reasons—another store could have opened too nearby, the owner could have health issues, or the owner could have made some bad decisions. The reason matters less than the fact of the emergency: bills are due, and there’s no money.

In some respects, emergency cash management is like managing a brand-new store. You need to lift sales at minimal cost.

First Priority: Check For Theft

If this is a change in cash flow and you can’t immediately pinpoint a reason, look for all the theft hallmarks.

Do not assume that your friend of 20 years is not stealing from you. It happens. Check everything. Here are some ways to find clues.

  • Check the cash percentage on each shift. Normal retail sees about 90% electronic payment. The exact figure varies by a small amount from shift to shift, but if one person suddenly starts collecting cash on only 1-2% of sales, that person isn’t ringing up those cash sales and is pocketing that cash.
  • Likewise, watch order cancellations—an order is rung up but not completed. It’s part of the above process.
  • Anyone can get a Square account on their phone and divert your electronic payments, too. To identify that, monitor your cameras.
  • Watch store credit. An employee might be giving a dummy customer store credit, then using the store credit to pay for an item. Your inventory count is correct, and your till is right, but the money went into the employee’s pocket.
  • Watch purchases. Employees might make a purchase for $10 and record it as $20, pocketing $10 for themselves. I know of a trusted employee of many years who stole about $80,000 this way.
  • Spot-count high-theft merchandise like Magic boosters and Warhammer 40k boxes daily. Count areas more frequently if you find discrepancies until you can narrow it down to someone’s shift.
  • Go through your shift-change procedure randomly during the day when you are not on the register. Sometimes employees steal cash with the intention of concealing it later. If you catch them with a shortage midshift, you know where the problem lies.

While you’re checking for unlicensed withdrawals from the till, check your bank account for deposits. One time early at FLGS, I discovered no money in the bank, and it turned out my electronic processing had a glitch. A broken receipt printer kept my processor from sending deposits.

Scrutinize all your theft opportunities and procedures.

Prioritize your Debt

The slow accumulation of multiple purchases on time or loans is one of the major contributors to cash-flow difficulties.

  • Pay down higher-interest rates first.
  • If you can, consolidate multiple debts earn a lower overall interest rate.
  • Negotiate longer terms with distributors.
  • Avoid new debt.
  • Avoid receivables factoring (like Square loans).
  • Pay on time to avoid late fees and start restoring your credit score.
  • Review your credit score for invalid reports.

Work More Hours

Maybe it’s because I’ve never operated a company at a giant scale but I don’t understand corporate layoffs to “save cash.” Every one of my employees should generate more profit than the cost of their wages. You, too, should apply that principle to your staffing. If your employee positions aren’t making you money, restructure their job until they are.

The point of this brief aside is this: don’t cut the employees’ hours as a first move to save cash. It engenders ill will that can cost more than you save.

Do look for wasted hours. If you have 2 crew on for a 6-hour shift that normally sees $200 in sales, that’s wasteful. Reschedule one of those employees to another shift that needs it.

A friend, Marcus King, used to say “If what you’re doing isn’t working out, work another 10 hours a week. Repeat until it does work.” You can work more hours to improve performance but retain your staff.

Spend your time on promotion. Get on social media and engage with customers. Create new events in the store. Schedule a painting workshop, for example, and paint miniatures with some people. Even if you aren’t great at painting, you almost certainly know more than people who have never done it before. Have a terrain-making day in the store; the process usually relies on castoff materials and already-open supplies, so it’s a low-cost way to create customer appreciation. Other events with little cost in materials:

  • Run a deck-building clinic for Magic players.
  • Schedule a character-building session for D&D players.
  • Paint some miniatures.

If you absolutely need to cut employee labor, talk to your crew before making decisions. Sometimes a college student wants more hours to study for a couple of weeks. A retiree might be willing to give up a shift.

Sell Online

If you’re not moving clearance online already, identify some dead or surplus stock in the store and move it to a quick online channel like Facebook marketplace or eBay. You might have some success with Craigslist; I personally did not (but advertising sales on Craigslist might be a way to increase visibility, even if you don’t make the sales you list).

Continue to Advertise

Advertising often feels like a discretionary expense that you can stop when you need with no repercussions. Advertising gets you customers. If you want sales tomorrow, you have to pay for advertising today.

Cut back to only your most cost-effective ads—if you know what they are. Lean more heavily on free promotion, like social media. Concentrate on the basics of creating and supporting your community. If you maintain a 6% advertising budget normally, drop it to 4% temporarily.

Cut Costs

If you increase sales by a dollar, you might earn a nickel or a dime in cash after expenses. If you cut costs by a dollar, you increase your bank account by a dollar.

Recurring expenses are a part of life these days, and merchants expect that some percentage of their customers will forget about the expense after they stop using the service. Scrutinize your bank records for these disruptive costs. If you’ve stopped using Meetup, for example, and you’re paying their fee to moderate a couple of groups, something needs to change. Either actively manage the groups again or stop paying the expense.

Look especially hard at any personal indulgences. I’ve heard many allegations of retailers opening a store to obtain games at cost (although investing $100,000 now to save $20 here and there seems unwise). Holding off on a new Warhammer 40,000 army to keep the lights on is worthwhile.

Cannibalize Merchandise

Typically when you place merchandise orders, you do so in this priority: place customer request orders first, new releases second, then spend your remaining budget on restocks.

You can’t cut special orders. Those are guaranteed sales (or at least highly likely sales). You can trim new release orders to the highest certainty of sales. If you have pre-orders for 30 booster boxes of Magic but think you’re likely to sell 45 booster boxes of Magic, order closer to 30 than 45. In other words, order to sell out. Don’t order any quantity “just in case.”  Remember that this is emergency cash-flow management advice, not ordinary procedure advice.

The most flexible of these three areas (special orders, new releases, and restocks) is the last: restocks. Reducing restock expenditure means that your stock level decreases over time, but it saves cash now. It’s detrimental to long-term success, but if you’re not open next year because you’re running out of money today, then your long-term prospects are irrelevant. If you sell a high-dollar board game with no expansion, you probably don’t need it tomorrow. You can defer that restock until your emergency is under control.

Focus on low-price, high-turn items. When restocking, check your POS records for items with the highest turn rate. Booster packs are a necessity here. At FLGS I had a display of “Board Games Under $30.” Displays like that are good candidates for keeping in stock. Instead of carrying every single color of card sleeves, stock the 5-10 most popular colors that make up 80% of your sleeve sales.

Encourage pre-orders for upcoming titles without offering discounts. Remind customers that, in the event of allocations, customers who pre-order receive their goods in the order in which they placed them. Ordering late or not at all means you might not get it. Fear of missing out will generate pre-orders. Games Workshop is a fantastic product line for this—despite having 40 years of sales histories, they regularly and inexplicably under-produce items guaranteed to be extremely popular.

Restock frequently. Announce these restock arrivals on social media. Normally I advocate for discretion because this sort of announcement, although popular if used infrequently, wears out its welcome, so to speak. Mix your social media messages. In a temporary emergency situation, post them all. Tag people who might be interested.

Reach Out for Help

“Reaching out” suggests different things to different people. I have seen game stores appeal to their customers with a candid statement saying that they’ve had difficulties and they would appreciate a token purchase to help. I’m not a fan of this method, but stores have had success with it in the past.

In this case, I am suggesting communicating your problems to other retailers through a networking group like the Facebook page Opening a Tabletop Game Store or the Discord channel Game Employees Retreat. Ask what’s worked for them. I am distilling the best advice here, but the back-and-forth of a new conversation in which you actively engage can tailor a better answer for your unique situation.

It can also mean reaching out to a professional. I know that paying professional fees when you are strapped for cash can be impossible, but I have deferred payment plans for stores in exactly this situation. Click over on the troubleshooting page and we can discuss your situation.

Level Up Your Sales Game: Proven Techniques for Success in Tabletop Game Retail

We talk often about the mechanics of operating a game store—things like opening procedures, POS tips, and event management. All these things are intended to help facilitate sales, but we don’t see much discussion about the customer interaction that makes these sales happen.

I’ve avoided that talk is that there’s so much available for general sales discussion, but as part of the effort to gather everything you need under one banner, here’s a sales overview.

Prepare for Sales

As I’ve mentioned, I have a background in restaurant management. Restaurant management is all about using down time to prepare for peak times. The better you prepare ahead of time, the more productive and more profitable critical times become.

Employees should wear uniforms so that customers can identify them in a full store. We usually discuss uniforms in terms of branding, but it’s also a customer interaction benefit.

Staff according to projected sales, not necessarily foot traffic. If you don’t work the sales floor yourself normally, be prepared to fill in as necessary. In my case, I have cameras on the sales floor, but I work from the office. If the store I’m in gets busy, I can fill in as additional sales. You might not have that flexibility, but if you do, let your crew know when you are or aren’t available to help.

Train sales procedures. Roleplay sales techniques, and share tips among the crew. Crew meetings are a good opportunity for sharing tips and for practice, but training should be ongoing and continuous, not reserved for once a month.

Lastly, prep should include an ongoing education in product knowledge, which is important enough for its own section.

Product Knowledge

Product knowledge is important to the customer. While some shoppers learn as much as they can before walking into a store, strike the thing they’re after like a raptor on a dove and then preen back out with their prize, others enter the store with a less clear notion about what they want. They rely on you and your crew to guide them to the right choice.

Product knowledge should be something you train regularly. Knowing a product as a gamer and knowing it as a retailer are different bodies of knowledge. Here’s a comparison

Players Know

  • Game mechanics
  • Player dynamics

Retailers Should Know

  • What other games are similar. If a player had a good time with Dungeon!, what other games is that player likely to enjoy?
  • What product a player needs first. If someone wants to start playing D&D, what do you sell them?
  • What expansion adds value to the game experience. Some expansions detract from a game. Others vastly improve it. Recommending the right one can lead to a happy customer who introduces many friends to a game, and the wrong one leads to a game staying on a shelf and a negative association with your store.

Both Want to Know

  • How many players is the game for?
  • How long does it take to play?
  • What’s the recommended age?

Greet People

Greet customers a moment after they enter the door. Give them a beat to look around and adjust to their environment.

Greet everyone. If you ignore one person out of a group, you alienate that person immediately. Unfortunately, this behavior can also be perceived as discrimination. If you greet a man and disregard the woman with him, you might upset both. Egalitarian behavior is best.

Introduce yourself. Shake hands. One of my best employees worked his name and the names of anyone else working into the conversation as soon as possible. I was not doing that yet, and I introduced it as a standard policy right away.

“I’m Taylor. If you need anything you can ask me or Sage.” Of course, a motion of the hand indicates who Sage is.

Likewise, get the customer’s name as soon as possible. Often, they introduce themselves when you provide your own name. If not, you can ask. If they decline to answer, that’s fine, too.

Body Language Matters

Most human communication is non-verbal. How you stand and behave while you engage the customer affects the customer’s perception.

Stand at “the right” distance. Be close enough to have a personal conversation but not close enough to invade their personal space.

Make eye contact. You don’t need to stare at them non-stop like a Twilight Zone mannequin, but don’t flinch away when they meet your gaze.

Maintain good posture. Good posture shows alertness and attention.

Smile like a normal person who enjoys the gaming community.

  • Don’t interrupt when they are speaking
  • Don’t cross your arms
  • Don’t sigh or roll your eyes
  • Don’t fidget
  • Don’t check your phone

Remember, each customer is unique, so it’s important to adapt your approach based on their cues and preferences. Building a positive and genuine rapport leads to more successful interactions and satisfied customers.

Ask Open-ended Questions

Avoid questions with one-word answers. Ask questions that encourage dialogue. The more they talk, and the less you talk, the better.

Examples of good questions.

“Can you tell me about some of your favorite board games and what you like about them?”

Find out what they’ve liked, and why they liked it. If they tell you they loved Santorini, but you don’t know what aspect of the game they liked about it, you might miss by suggesting Azul, Spirit Island, or Elysium when Tiny Towns is the one that mirrors the part of Santorini they liked.

“Do you prefer games with a strong thematic element, or are you more focused on strategic gameplay?”

“Are there any specific game mechanics or features you find particularly appealing or challenging?”

Question structures to avoid

“How many people are in your play group?”

While you need to know that information, find a better way to encourage dialogue while getting it.

“Tell me a bit about the people in your play group. How many people are usually there, and are there any favorite game genres or themes that everyone enjoys?”

Avoid Confusing Language

Don’t use jargon, acronyms or and verbal shorthand. Don’t talk about drafting to a Magic player for example, unless the customer exhibits knowledge of drafting or you ask if the customer is familiar with it. Likewise, it’s Dungeons & Dragons, not D&D.

Don’t assume knowledge. You could ask “Are you familiar with the Richard Garfield?” before telling somebody that he designed Keyforge, for example. Better yet, “This game was designed by Richard Garfield, who designed Magic: the Gathering, Bunny Kingdom, and 30 other games.“

Provide Options

Suggest more than one when it’s appropriate. If a DM comes in and says the D&D group is finishing up a year-long adventure and needs another one, have a couple of suggestions ready. 

Avoid too many options. If they get “analysis paralysis” and can’t decide, they choose not to act. It’s true in games, and it’s true in game sales. Offer no more than four titles; proposing three options is ideal.

Never judge the player. Leave your personal opinions at home. If the player plays games solo, don’t assume that person can’t make friends. I know a man who’s very engaging when he comes into the store once every couple of years. Except for a few hours reprieve here and there, he takes care of a parent full time. We are fortunate that he spends some of those free hours with us. You won’t always know why they do what they do, and it doesn’t matter. Assume the best.

More often, judgment comes from a player’s choice of games. If their favorite play style for Magic is mono-red, and a thought bubble appears above your head with an image of Simple Jack from Tropic Thunder because you have an elitist attitude about your blue and white deck, keep it to yourself. Instead, offer them the new Deretti commander deck and some red deck protectors to go with it.

This game preference veers into important territory: never pitch one product at the expense of another. Don’t tell potential players that Malifaux is a great game because it’s “so much cheaper” than getting into Games Workshop. You might convince them to buy into Malifaux, but in three months, they might see a game of Necromunda and want to get into that and then maybe move into Warhammer 40k—except for your warning about how expensive it is. Leave those doors open.

Additionally, we have customers for whom cost is not an obstacle. I’ve had customers in my play group whose gross income was comparable to the store’s annual sales. Remember that your personal shopping preferences are not shared universally. Let players make their own decisions about how much is too much. If you make the game attractive enough to them, people find room in their budget.

Avoid Exaggeration

Don’t oversell. If you’re pitching a game that’s regionally popular, don’t tell them they can find players everywhere.

Say No Sometimes

If a customer won’t enjoy a game, or they don’t need it for what they want, tell them. If—and only if—that’s your honest assessment of what they like. If you discourage a sale, you show them that you have their best interest in mind, and you’re not trying to get their money no matter what. They’ll appreciate your honesty and you having their best interest in mind.

Close The Sale

I’ve mentioned Marcus King elsewhere in this book. I almost bought a game I already owned from him. The man knew how to close a sale.

Once you have determined what a customer needs, put the game in their hands. They have to make an effort to return it to you or the shelf. Once they have it, they might be reluctant to let go of it again.

If you have learned enough about what they want and you know you’re giving them the right product, confidently say “This is what you want.” Repeat back the traits they’re looking for. Explain how this game has it. Not all sales are board games, so let’s go with a roleplaying example. “This adventure is a campaign-length adventure with sandbox elements, lots of undead so Dana’s cleric can feel important, and a really satisfying ending. ”

If you have kept their needs in mind during your conversation, they’ll trust you.

Thank the Customer

If the customer says thanks at the point of sale, and you say “No problem,” I will hear it, and I will castigate you for it. While I acknowledge that “No problem” is a suitable response among the younger generation, it’s not always appropriate, and this transaction is one of those situations. In one sense, you and the customer are making an equal transaction. The customer gives you cash and you hand over something worth that amount of cash. However, you benefit financially from the exchange. You should always be expressing the final “thank you.”

Finally, Follow Up

“If you need anything else, let us know. We’ll take care of you.”

Vary the dialogue, but the important component is to reassure the customer that you will continue to provide the same level of support in the future.

The Heartbeat of Community: Small Brick-and-Mortar Stores Power Local Economy

small town shops

I assess my company’s value on the local community: how much of my revenue is spent locally, and can I do anything to improve it?

Labor

Obviously, all our employees live in town. You can’t do brick and mortar retail remotely. That’s about 11% of our expenses. Also, wages are reinvested in the community. None of my employees are billionaires. People who earn normal, people-level amounts of money spend all of it. None of it is removed from the economy through hoarding. These salaries are spent on local rents, local utilities, local car purchases, clothes, medicine, and other goods and services.

I’m at 100% here. I can’t improve this figure, but it’s a lot of money reinvested into the community.

One important difference between the small business and the large megacorp is that the CEO salary also stays local in a small business.

Rent

The owner of our shopping center lives in town and occasionally visits the store. The property manager lives in town. The property is not part of a major chain. All the properties they represent are in Jacksonville. My landlord’s taxes get passed on to me as part of a CAM (which is really more of a triple net).

Rent is about 12% of our expenses.

I can’t improve this figure.

Service and Maintenance

Our HVAC person is a local independent technician.

I’ve had to shop around for plumbers because I haven’t been happy with any of them. Sometimes I use a chain. I could improve this figure by a small amount if I could find a plumber who a) fixes plumbing, and b) doesn’t charge 3 times as much as other plumbers. I’m astonished and dismayed at how hard that is.

My light guy is a local independent.

Merchandise

Our largest supplier has multiple warehouses, but they are based in Florida, and we order from their Florida warehouse. One of our secondaries has a Jacksonville location, but they are not based in Jacksonville. Of course, we have multiples sources of merchandise to get stuff that’s out of stock at our primary or exclusive to that vendor (like Games Workshop). We also stock nearly any game-related products we can source locally.

We have a display of locally designed games that I gathered from their sorted-by-category placement throughout the rest of the store and merchandise below a sign displaying their local status. It’s intended to be a focal point for customers who are eager to support the community and an enticement to any local game or game accessory producers who haven’t already reached out to us.

Our Jacksonville-based merchandise purchases are only about 1% of our expenses, but if we extend our definition of local by about 100 miles, I can add another 35%. Peach State Hobby in Orlando is our primary distributor, providing us with all our role-playing games, Magic, the Nolzur’s miniatures line, almost all of our non-GW hobby supplies, and a large minority of our board games.

I am creating more merchandise so that we can improve this figure. While my publishing division won’t ever supplant Wizards, I’d like a fair bit of our sales to eventually come from our own products.

With a large franchise, the franchisees buy nearly all their merchandise from…themselves. The local Domino’s buy from Domino’s National Commissary, owned by corporate Domino’s. So roughly 30-35% of that national company’s local consumable budgets go right back into the company.

Utilities

Electricity is a local expense, and—this being Florida—it’s a lot of money. It’s not cheap to cool a 5,100-square foot building filled with gamers. Phone and internet expense goes to the necessary giant mega-corporations. Insurance is underwritten by a large corporation through an agent in our shopping center.

At one point, Jacksonville was the insurance capital of the world. During the 90s, a lot of those companies moved their corporate headquarters out of town. Back then, I could have claimed my liability insurance premium stayed local, but that’s not the case anymore.  

I don’t think I have any Jacksonville-based options for insurance carriers or Internet carriers that have a reputation I trust. I tried a local phone carrier once, and it inflicted almost terminal damage.

The local portion of our utility expense is about 3.5%.

I can’t do anything to improve this figure.

Taxes

I pay the Florida sale tax, of course, on sales collected in the store. Without providing detail to give, let’s just say that it’s…enough. I owe various small fees to the city of Jacksonville and the state of Florida. Payroll taxes are federal, so that’s a zero.

When I talk about sales, I always talk about net sales (and so should you). That’s the amount of sales you conduct not counting sales tax. If I ever make a statement here about seeing $10,000 in sales, that figure doesn’t include the $750 I collected and turned over to the state of Florida. However, the aggregated smaller, fixed figures fees might be another .5% (it’s not, but I’m rounding it up because my running total isn’t even, and I want it to be).

Marketing & Advertising

I didn’t spend a lot on paid advertising. Social media provides a fantastic method of reaching people without having to spend money.

I did attend most local game conventions. The convention organizers are all local, the venues are physically local (but their owners typically are not), the staff, and much of the convention’s revenues tend to stay local.

I did pay to boost a specific type of Facebook post. That expense was never more than 2% of my sales.

My sign company was a local independent.

I could have spent a little more money on local advertising. It’s more expensive and hit-or-miss, but a small budget devoted to that avenue could have been productive.

Summary

If we include our nearby inventory purchases, 63% of our expenses stay in the community or the state. That’s a larger impact than I expected, and it demonstrates how big an impact a local purchase can make.

Compare that to an Amazon purchase, in which 0% of the money goes to the community. Sure, a few pennies go to what’s called “last mile” delivery, or getting it to your door, but nearly all of it goes elsewhere. Buying local matters.

Sound Business: Playing In-Store Music Without Paying the Piper

speaker

Playing music where customers can hear it provides three main benefits for stores. First, it can support your brand. You can choose a tone that’s peppy, moody, dramatic, or whatever works with your brand. If you have a consistent sound across multiple locations, the music you select creates a strong association with your store.

Music can make other noises, such as that created by other shoppers, working crew, or a small amount of noise coming from gamers in the game area. Don’t count on the background music to cover up a big Magic tournament.

Lastly, music reduces perceived wait time at the counter. While we collectively don’t lose many customers to wait time issues, even when we don’t, a long wait time does affect customer happiness and it can result in fewer visits, poor reviews, and other signs of a negative customer experience. Anything that reduces perceived wait time is almost as good as reducing the actual wait time. When both efforts work in tandem, customers have the best experience possible.

Background music can provide other benefits, but those are less critical and harder to measure. Studies say that the right music can encourage spending; those studies are less conclusive about which music is the right music and in which circumstances.

Music volume should be loud enough to hear when the store’s quiet but not so loud as to discourage talking and certainly not loud enough to make customers flee. Some people avoid loud noises, especially those with migraines or neurological conditions.

Licensing Your Tunes

Unless you own the rights to the music you play (which you might, if you are also a musician and create your own), music volume in the workplace can be loud enough for an employee to hear but not loud enough for customers. If customers can overhear it, you have to pay a licensing fee. I do not recommend connecting your personal playlist to a speaker and taking your chances. That’s one of those situations where the liability risk can greatly outweigh the cost savings.

You don’t need to hunt down every musician whose work happens to come up in rotation on a playlist. Instead, you sign up with a service provider for a monthly fee. Some licensing providers also allow you to play your own commercials in between music. You can encourage people to sign up for your events, highlight new products, solicit pre-orders, remind people about changes in hours for the holidays, or whatever message you want to share.  

Most of these services have larger plans with more features for a greater cost, and most of them have a free trial period (usually 30 days). Some services offer an app that allows customers to make requests, which I think is a very neat feature.

Provider                            Basic Monthly Fee

Rockbot                                  $25

SiriusXM for Business           $27

Mood Media                           $27

Pandora for Business              $27

Pandora                                   $35

Soundtrack Pro                       $39

The Free Option

If you don’t want to pay at all, you can research public domain music on your own, create a playlist using your own music management service and play it in the store. It’s free.

Are You Sabotaging Your Own Business? The Deadly Pitfalls of Inventory Mismanagement

In the last week, I’ve encountered 4 game stores who failed to optimize their inventory dollars.

I want to keep this article short, because the message is simple and I want every word to count.

In one example, the offending item was an overstock of a D&D book. Most books in the line right now are $50 retail–about $27.50 at distribution cost.

If the owner had put that $27.50 into, for example, Reaper Miniatures (I know it’s my go-to example for everything, but it could be whatever you can enthusiastically support, like plushes or fancy dice), and that product line turns 6 times/year, it could be earning $300/year instead of sitting on the shelf unsold.

This particular game store didn’t have one extra copy of a D&D book. It had at least 13. The owner is missing out on $3,900 in annual sales if instead of ordering a stack of books he had ordered 1 for the shelf.

That’s just one title. If you do that across 10 SKUs in the store, that’s $39,000 in potential sales you’re missing.

“If I run out, I’ll miss a sale.”

True. In fact, that’s my whole point. My doubling up in that one SKU, you’re missing hundreds of potential sales for other items.

In most cases, you’re only a couple of days away from a restock. Most of the country is within a one-day ship from a distributor. If you sell that low-turn D&D book, get another. It’ll be there tomorrow. Unless you’re selling 5-10 a week, you only need one in stock.

For reference, my go-to stock numbers for D&D are 5-4-3 (Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Masters Guides). Everything else was one copy until sales frequency created stockouts, then they went 2 deep.

When first starting out, make sure you have representation for each of the biggest sellers. Once someone in the community expresses interest (“When are you going to start doing tournaments for x?”), expand your offering. If no one ever bites, it’s safe to drop it.

By big sellers, I specifically mean these

  • Dungeons & Dragons
  • Pathfinder
  • Warhammer 40k
  • Age of Sigmar
  • X-Wing
  • Star Wars Armada
  • Star Wars Legion
  • Pokemon
    Magic: the Gathering
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!
  • D&D Miniatures (not Frameworks)
  • A small selection of card sleeves and boxes that you will expand over time
  • Low-priced board & card games (Munchkin, Codenames, Gloom, Dungeon!, Guillotine, Happy Salmon, etc.)
  • A representative sample of hobby supplies (knives, brushes, tape measures, etc.)
  • Dice and battlemats

Once you have starting representation for each of these categories, expanding your offering by prioritizing turn rate. In other words, buy those things that you will sell most often. Those quick sales will provide you with the cash you need to keep adding merchandise.

When I bought Sun Coast and rebranded it as FLGS, it was doing less than $6,000 a month in total sales. When I left, company revenues had increased over 2,500%. My inventory management skills weren’t solely responsible for that growth, but they did drive it, especially during the critical early growth stages.

Telling a Secret: How Shutting Down one Store Launched My Business to New Profits

Closed storefront

The single most critical launching station with my game stores was leaving the register full time and moving to a position where my full-time job was “improving my business.”

It took some staging to reach that point. I couldn’t have started out like that.

Staging: Procedures

Prior to this step, I had to create written procedures for everything. How to greet a customer, how to ring up a sale, how to buy Magic singles, how to open the store, how to count money—everything. If it came up and I didn’t have a written description of the procedure, I made one. This isn’t a project you do and put to bed. It’s an ongoing process that shapes your business. It must adapt to technology, trends, and the scale of your business.

Staging: Tools

I had to create as many tools as necessary to give crews (and later managers) the ability to do their job. Some of the things I created were

  • a price sheet showing how to price goods according to cost
  • a budget utility for placing orders
  • a detailed spreadsheet to help with counting money
  • count sheets for counting merchandise (both a shoplifting spot check and ordering tools)
  • a training guide for training new crew
  • systems for promoting events and along with that, procedures and guidelines for social media use

 Staging: Staffing

I had to hire people, but that’s ironically what led to me taking the final jump. I had acquired a second location, and the storefront that came with that purchase didn’t work out. I closed it (fortunately the purchase price was worth it for the other assets). I did not want to cut anyone’s hours while closing the store, so I merged the two crews. That gave me hourly coverage for every hour we were open—something I didn’t have before. I had been doing about half the store’s open hours myself, about 50 hours a week.

I didn’t hand over everything at that point. I did not have a store manager. I made the schedules myself, placed the orders myself, and still led monthly crew meetings.  

How Did This Help?

First, it allowed me to prepare for growth. By watching my crew instead of doing most of the work, I could see where I needed to refine the written techniques. I could lay down procedures that would help us expand into our next (successful) location.

There’s a cost to me not being at the register. I can turn $100 hours into $150 hours. My sales staff can’t. I have to be profitable to make up for that dual cost—the expense of the payroll and the opportunity cost of the lost sales. What did I do with this 50 hours a week?

Well, it’s not 50 hours a week. I still have to spend part of that time managing the crew. If I take myself off the sales floor for 50 hours, I might recover 40. Also, I still had to do some tasks I used to do while on the sales floor. Maybe 30 hours a week.

I could pay detailed attention to merchandising. Merchandising needs change over time. As product lines grow or shrink, you need to adjust the amount of space they receive and their placement in the store. Optimizing this placement helps. One of my favorite merchandising coups was card sleeves. I moved the card sleeves from a spinner rack at the counter (that’s how few we had at the time) to a wall display where they were much more visible and better-ordered, and sales tripled.

Analyzing procedures as you write them down helps optimize your buying costs and sales prices. I realized that my crew who weren’t familiar with Games Workshop weren’t buying minis when no expert was on staff because they couldn’t identify the models. My first reaction was to fire that person. My calmer, “fix the problem” reaction was to change my buying procedure. I noticed that I could almost always predict how much a new model costs based on its size. to one of “this size base always costs this much. Here’s a template you can lay the model down on.” They still have to do some adjudication (small tank/monster vs. medium tank/monster) but it’s much, much easier. With this procedure in place, the crew can do its job and we bought more models. The reduction in complexity also allowed for some optimization in pricing, reducing how much we paid for the models.  

Time Enough At Last

While I didn’t make more time magically appear—I still worked about the same number of hours–I had more efficient time. Instead of workflow being interrupted by customers and register activity, I could engage in a task until it was done. I could place orders in less than half the time. I could conduct interviews on a more flexible schedule. I could explore new products lines in detail, giving each a hard assessment for viability and fit. Perhaps most importantly, I could spend more time and effort on promotion, which had been inconsistent before this move.

Did It Work?

Less than a year later, I managed my next acquisition, which increased my personal income and again helped standardize procedures for the next growth stage. It completely changed the course of my business for the better.

Percent vs. Dollars

One of the major advantages of this kind of “lead from the rear” strategy is that everything is a gain of percentages, which only increases in value as you grow. A 10% increase in profit when you’re doing $200,000/year in sales gives you dinner at Applebee’s. A 10% profit gain at $500,000/year in sales might give you $7,500. That same profit gain when you have 3 stores or 5 stores or 10 stores is worth far more than the hourly wage you replace yourself with (although, admittedly, diminishing returns means the percentages are harder to find).

Using This Strategy

I don’t recommend this strategy for everyone. I suffer from contact fatigue if I don’t get a break from the counter, so removing myself from the counter and allowing me to interact at my own schedule works well. You might want to keep your finger on the community pulse a little more tightly than I do. As with all things, there is no one right answer, and you need to find a model that works for you.

Things I’d Have Done Differently

Occasionally on discussion fora, somebody asks existing store owners “What mistakes did you make when you started”, or “What would you have done differently”?

These topics usually receive good input from the community, so I don’t always participate, but I will share my thoughts here.

Friendly Local Game Store

FLGS was nearly perfect. With $10,000 initial investment, I bought an existing game store (financing most of it over a year’s purchase), paid my first month’s rent and a deposit (using more than half my cash) and used the rest as operating capital to buy some critical merchandise—mostly Magic and core D&D. I concentrated on high-turn stuff so that we could get cash to replenish what we sold and reinvest in the company. We were cash-positive within a month, and everything went swimmingly.

With such little cash available, I turned a lot of time rather than money into sales. For example, I sorted the comics alphabetically—28 long boxes. It was tedious, but it increased back-issue sales. I also went from a flat price across the board for back issues to a price that scaled with demand. I didn’t sell many more comics because of that, but I earned more profit from the same number of sales.

However, since I’m optimizing the experience, let’s see what could have been even better.

  • I would have brought in a person with a better comics background. The guy I had the longest did not have much experience. He was a good salesman, but he talked too much and could have been more focused on tasks. He might have deterred as much sales as he earned, which is a problem.
  • I would have put more safeguards against internal theft into place sooner.
  • I would have switched from Square to a more conventional payment processing system sooner. That would have saved me about $1,500/year when I first initiated it, and it would have been over $6,000/year by 2022, when I finally started the process.
  • I would have switched from the paid loyalty plan we used to an in-house system supported by our POS. That would have saved me nearly $5,000/year by the end of 2022.
  • I would have taken Pat Fuge’s advice regarding directing as much traffic as possible toward our own website more seriously from the beginning.
  • I would have pursued our game publishing division full time from mid-2019.
  • I would have pursued hosting our own convention more aggressively. A previous attempt in 2012 had five investors—4 of whom agreed on everything, and one dissenter who caused the effort to fall apart. I now believe I could have removed him from the group and continued to pursue the effort without any permanent ill will.

War Dogs

However, this is really fine-tuning stuff that is already working. For examples of more serious errors, I should go back to my first store, War Dogs Game Center, back in 1999. 

  • I should have charged market price instead of SRP on Pokemon. Yes, I know. It’s embarrassing. I thought I would create loyalty in my customers by sticking to SRP and I would keep those customers as players of other games afterward. I planned to turn them all into Magic or L5R customers (my main game at the time). I was 100% wrong. This mistake cost me at least $50,000 and the downstream missed revenues were more than $100,000.
  • I should have written a “right of first refusal” clause in case the owner sold the building, or at least a survivor clause that obligated a new owner to honor the duration of the lease. I lost that suite when the owner sold half the building to the restaurant next door, and the new owner kicked me right out. The emergency move was very costly and damaging.
  • For nearly 3 years I tried to service historical gamers with whom I had no interests in common and who were not very big spenders. Don’t get me wrong—I love history. I’ve played miniatures games. Playing historical minis games is not in my Top 10 favorite activities. Overall sales increased when I finally cleared out that category and utilized that space for other merchandise.
  • My predecessor used a simple method for pricing used games: buy at 25% of cover, sell at 50% of cover. That works great for some products, but it leaves on the table a lot of collector value. I fixed this in time, but it should have happened sooner.
  • My (at the time) wife should never have been behind the counter. She resented any time spent there and didn’t have much product knowledge to share with the customers. The wages saved with her sweat equity were not worth the lost sales. I should have had an enthusiastic gamer who would have contributed more than their labor cost to the bottom line.
  • Likewise, I should have communicated better with my first employee. Our work relationship soured, and it was all my fault. I am sorry, Ed.

Survivor Bias

When you read these stories on a page like Opening a Tabletop Game Store or Game Store Retailer, you’re seeing stories from people who survived their mistakes.

When you’re reading about my thoughts and Rob Placer’s thoughts and Pat Fuge’s thoughts, you’re reading about survivable errors. They’ll help you optimize a successful store, but they won’t show you what to avoid that will kill your store. You’re getting survivorship bias. These failures are survivable. You need to avoid the mistakes that have destroyed other stores.

Terminal Mistakes

When a store closes, you can’t tell from the outside what happened. It could be that sales fell to unsustainable levels. It could have been that the owner had a medical diagnosis that prevented him or her from continuing. It could have been destructive internal theft. I know a great many stores that have closed, and I don’t always know what happened. I’ll share a few stories where I’ve been able to confirm fatal errors by communication with the owner or (better yet) actual analysis of the books.

One owner had trouble managing short-term debt. High-interest loans like the ones Square offers all the time will crush you more than the late fees you’re trying to avoid and prevent you from growing so that you can repay the terms.  

One store I know of had a partnership fall apart, and the division cost him part of his customer base—too much to recover from.

I’ve seen a store die from neglect. The owner tried to operate it remotely, and sales fell more than 80%. It was unsustainable. They had a suite of problems stemming from this one core issue.

The most curious store I’ve seen had a terminal assortment problems. Here’s an example of their “math.”

  • Step one: have a Magic draft below cost (losing money)
  • Step two: buy back singles from the draft at 100% (nominally a break-even but losing money on card processing on some of these sales)
  • Step three: sell the singles on TCGplayer for the same price they paid in store (nominally a break-even, except for the time and labor spent on the listing, and the roughly 20% lost from fees, payment processing, errors, returns, etc).

If anyone can explain how that’s supposed to make money, please point it out to me. Besides their loss leader/loss follower combo, they had a tiny and understocked store, were openly antagonistic toward neighboring stores (who stands a sign waver across the street from a competitor?) and generally underpriced themselves. Also, an app that provides traffic count information shows “Nothing found at this location” for their street address. I estimated it to be less than 1,000 cars/day. We can sum this up as “making the worst choice over every issue.”

What’s Your Story?

I would love to hear from stores that have closed or sold a store to avoid debt. What went wrong for you? I’ll be happy to keep your identity private and share the general terms for the benefit of others.

Top 5 Mistakes Retailers Make When Writing A Business Plan

Entrepreneurs apply for a business loan

Since I’ve been writing plans for others who want to open a store, I’ve read a few business plans that clients have assembled themselves, and I’ve noticed some consistent gaps and omissions. Let’s talk about them so that if you decide to undertake this huge effort yourself, you don’t make the same mistakes.

Mistake #1: Using a Template

A template can have its uses. It’s good for establishing structure. It’s good for reminding you of topics or needs you might not have thought about in your excitement over operations (the fun part of the job for most people). But templates you find online aren’t meant for you and your situation. General business advice might not apply here. Relying on it can lead to inaccurate assumptions about how the industry works or how your store should operate.

For that matter, I’ve seen templates that talk about game stores or game centers, and they’re clearly talking about other industries—like video games or even casinos. They use general jargon that’s meant to sound specific but could apply to any business.

Mistake #2: Insufficient Market Research

Sun Tzu said “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

I spend quite a bit of time reviewing local competition before writing a plan for my clients. I always ask clients about their local game stores, and they often under-estimate how many game stores are in their area. I use my Store Comparison Checklist as a guide.

You can find these stores with a simple google search of “table game store” and your city’s name. You can sometimes find more through the large retailer locators on the Wizards of the Coast and Games Workshop websites—if they’re not carrying their products, don’t worry about them.

Often, the existing stores are weak and not a worry. While they’re fewer in number and prevalence than they used to be, the Magic “clubhouse” style of store, with minimal inventory, weak branding, partial open hours, and unattractive fixtures still exists (and likely always will because of how cheap they are to open). For one of my recent plans, though, I found a store that was virtually identical to the plan proposed by the client—and they were awesome at it. The only saving grace was that it was almost an hour away.  That brings up a crucial point—if you’re not better than the competition at something, you’ll have a hard time reaching your full sales potential. The last thing I’d want to do, for example, is try to plop a game store in the middle of Gnome Games’ territory.

Competition is okay. Strong competition near your intended location with a great deal of overlap with your business model—the combination of these factors creates a problem.

Mistake #3: Underestimating Operational Costs

You can’t anticipate everything. Most people get the big things: rent, payroll, cost of goods. But they project low on most of these costs and they overlook loss (which includes shoplifting but also damages, distributor errors, POS mistakes, and others), cleaning (you’d be surprised how fast mop-heads, air fresheners, carpet cleaning, Swiffer replacements, etc. add up), maintenance (air filters, light bulbs, ballasts, replacing broken chairs and broken glass), and other minor costs. Payment processing fees are another 2.75% that’s forgotten on most plans. At $300,000/year, that’s an $8,250 oversight! The totality of these oversights could exceed your “fudge factor” and leave you broke.

Mistake #4: Inaccurate Sales Projections

Predicting a store’s sales is extremely difficult—and even moreso if you’re not already involved in game retail. If you’ve worked in a game store before, you have some insight. Otherwise, you might not have any idea where to start.

Let’s look at two scenarios: one where the business owner estimates low, and one in which the estimate is high.

Aaron projects his opening sales at $10,000/month and slashes his planned inventory purchases to adjust. He has one copy of each of the core D&D rulebooks. He starts with two booster boxes of Magic. He doesn’t buy the Asmodee best-sellers rack but does buy a single copy of most titles. Likewise, he cherry-picks titles across the board and puts one of each on the shelves. He opens in a 1,500-sf suite instead of the adjacent 3,000-sf suite he could have chosen.

When he opens, the first day or two is slow but then customers start to come in. They tell their game group about the new store they discovered, and their friends come in. The first groups buy up the best-sellers, leaving nothing on the shelf for the others. So for the other 3-5 friends who come in, the store’s empty. People come in asking for Games Workshop, which Aaron didn’t bring in at the start, planning to bring it in later when he grew. They go home empty-handed, maybe buying a paint jar or two.

Aaron did well than anticipated but he’s created a poor impression on some customers. Certainly good customer service can fix many of these cases, but some damage has been done that will take time to recover. Refilling the shelves immediately can fix some image problems, but there are others.

Magic players fill the game room on Friday night, leaving no room for D&D or board games. So that category grows to its limit while others stagnate. Also, if the game room isn’t large enough to fix everyone who wants to play, some players will go elsewhere. And that’s dangerous. One time at FLGS, I lost one keystone Magic customer, and an entire play group went elsewhere—10-12 weekly, loyal customers who took their spending to another store. Nine years later, they still play Magic, having spent tens of thousands of dollars collectively at other stores. That group often fostered new players, so the total downstream loss of that one player is incalculable.  

This mistake is recoverable, but it does stunt the store’s long-term growth. The important point to note is that Aaron’s not broke. He has a lot of missed sales opportunities (maybe $200,000 worth), but he’ll survive to move into the larger suite at the end of his lease. Let’s go the other way.

Brad is very excited about his game store. He thinks he’ll open to $30,000 his opening month and he’ll reach over $400,000 in his first year. He buys a frame for his first dollar three months before opening.

Brad turns the key and flips open the sign on day one…and crickets.

The marketing machine he put into motion before opening does bring in customers, but the difference between his expectation and actual sales forces a reality check. His first week is $1,800. His first month is $10,000. His rent is due, and he’s crying. He’s committed to a $6,000 lease (plus 3% annual escalation, plus CAM) for 3 years—he signed as personal guarantor for over $400,000 in commercial rent, and at this rate he’ll be out of money in 4 months. He cannot recover from this.

I can keep you from being Brad.

Mistake #5: Not Identifying a Unique Value Position

Identifying and emphasizing your unique value proposition is crucial in creating a business plan that sets you apart from your competitors and attracts customers. Your UVP is what makes your store the only store in the world (or at least in your market) to provide that service or product to your customers. Ideally, it should be something that a competitor can’t easily shift his business to match. If another store in your city can remove your uniqueness with a new policy or a product display, your UVP isn’t very strong.

Unfortunately, identifying your UVP is the one essential skill that requires real genius. I can’t create that for you. Sometimes it arises organically from your business model. Sometimes it’s a key reason why you’re opening a store and it’s closely tied to your business model. Whatever it is, the sooner you identify it, the more successful you’ll be.

Conclusion

Reading a few articles won’t keep you from making mistakes. I can help you avoid the business-destroying ones. Forgetting to buy a scale for buying used Legos can be fixed with a $30 order on Amazon. Be thorough, and be careful.