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Why Game Stores Fail

KB Updated
There Will Be Games

FLGS versus OLGS.  Just the mention of the two terms is enough to get flame wars erupting gamers are "killing" the Friendly Local Game Stores by buying online.  The secret, of course, is that brick and mortar game stores have been killing themselves for years...and all because they're basically run by two different guys.

First, the usual disclaimer.  I really, really like game stores.  When I'm on business travel or on vacation, I will do my best to hunt down any game stores within range.  When my brother and I visisted my father at a military base in Mississippi a few years ago, we spent two hours driving around, looking for two specific game stores in this podunk little town.

I'll wager that for most of us, there is something about being in an actual game store.  Surrounded by games, totally in your element.  Often there will be gamers there either locked in a game or browsing the shelves themselves.  Okay, sure, you've got your hygiene issues, your gamer funk, but most of all, you've got GAMES.

I think that's why so many of us followed those stories about Barnes' old game store.  It sounded like just the kind of game store most of us wish we had, and it was sad to see the "backstage politics" kill the store, bring it down in the end.  For most of us, that sort of story hits pretty close to home as we've all seen countless game stores close everywhere around us.

We used to have a ton of comic book and game stores in our area over the years, and I visited them all.  Always bought something from them, too.  But one by one, they've almost all but winked out of existence.  And it isn't just locally; probably the biggest shock of this type I ever received was visiting a Chatanooga mall to go to a game store I'd be frequenting for a few years only to round the corner and find out it had become a cell phone shop.

It's easy to point fingers, and gamers all over the internet LOVE to play "The Blame Game."  The rationale seems to be, "YOU PEOPLE buying games from online retailers are KILLING the local game shops!"  This reasoning completely disregards two things:  #1, people wouldn't shop online if they didn't feel motivated to and #2, game stores have been self-destructing on their own for YEARS.  The internet has sadly just accelerated this process to a large degree.

But why?  Why do game stores so frequently and often fail?  There are a few reasons that come to mind, naturally.  First, gamers are cheap bastards who always want something for nothing.  Also, gamers tend to create a "hostile environment" for many casual customers, so game stores end up with a small, devoted, but hopelessly cheap bunch of grifters who mooch from the store until it inevitably goes under.

Those are often just symptoms, though.  The reason game stores fail is that they're often--not always, but often--run by two specific personality archetypes.

"The Nice Guy"

I know you've met this guy.  You often feel incredibly grateful to meet one of these store owners...often, it seems to good to be true.  The guy is nice_guy.jpgpersonable, friendly, knowledgeable about his product and willing to bend over backwards to help his customers.  He often keeps a well-stocked store and doesn't hesitate to strike up prolonged conversations with his customers.  He's likely to remember your name.  He's also likely to remember you have a 2-year old daughter and give you a pack of Bella Serra or something whenever you're in the store with her.

So it's all the more sad that these stores are often the fastest to implode!

The reason for this is that "The Nice Guy" is awesomely and supremely nice...but he isn't much of a businessman.  He cares so much about making customers happy that he makes generally bad business decisions.  And gamers--again, being a bunch of cheap bastards--will take all the more advantage of these nice perks, until they wander up to the storefront one day and find it closed.

It's not just bad business decisions, though.  Unfortunately "The Nice Guy" tends to be a rare breed.  He can't be at the store 80 hours a week, he's got a Perfectly Nice Family to attend to every so often.  He's then forced to hire 'replacements' to fill in those gaps when he can't be at the store.  These 'replacements' are often poorly paid (the guy's not making a fortune) and are either unmotivated, completely lacking job and/or social skills, would rather spend their time talking with buddies who are visiting the store, or worst of all likely to rob "The Nice Guy" blind.  Again, they're gamers.

Here's just one "Nice Guy" scenario from my own personal experience:

The original "Nice Guy" I ran into was during my first years playing Magic.  Someone told me that there was a shop on the southern end of town that sold affordable Magic rares and also did trades.  Like stated above, initially it was "too good to be true."  He was a super-nice guy who had great prices on pretty much everything.  TOO good.  Such as "selling dual lands for $2" good.

Furthermore, his trade policies were not just slanted in favor of the customer, he wasn't particularly choosy so long as a customer left happy, so I'd often see him take a small stank of bunk rares from some kid and the kid would pick out choice rares from the display case.  Slowly, but surely, his singles case gravitated towards shit as the good stuff was gobbled up either at a cheap price or in exchange for stuff no one wanted.

I'm embarassed to this day that I didn't see what was going on, and worse *I* was one of those "cheap bastards".  I bought up as many of his dual lands as I could.  He had Arabian Nights rares for $5, like Juzam Djinn.  (This was in 1994.)  Yeah, I bought those too.  And when the time came to dump my collection, he priced its worth at $1400 and offered me $1100 for it.  I am scum, because I took it, but in my defense I always just assumed he knew what he was doing.  After all, he was running a business, right?

Sadly, we pulled up to his game store one day to find it closed, suddenly and completely.  He'd moved to Florida with his family, apparently in dire financial straits.

There were plenty of others.  Two store owners ran into the "need to hire replacements" situation and the store rapidly went downhill thereafter (the name "Jonah" still brings shudders to my brother and I...Jonah was one of those erstwhile replacements.  "Idiot" doesn't begin to do him justice.)

Another was so nice to his loyal customers he would buy a booster box of cards for $60 and sell them to you for $65.  Considering his rent was $500+ a month, he'd have to move a hell of a lot of booster boxes like that.  I actually had to tell him several times to charge me MORE for items because he wasn't charging enough.  His store closed within seven months.

These stores are always the most painful to see close.  But again, it's inevitable.  Even if *you* don't take advantage of them, there are too many gamers who fall in line behind you to leech 'em dry.

But then, there's always Store Owner archetype #2:

"The Asshole"

comicbookguy.pngHank Azaria once stated that he often got a LOT of people telling him, "Hey!  I *know* Comic Book Guy!"  The response always was, of course you do.  And I'll wager we all do.  He's a joke, and a stereotype, but he doesn't miss the mark by much.

He's not always morbidly obese.  He's also not often completely mired in fandom.  But the personality traits are spot on.  These are guys that do know the ins and outs of the gaming world, and have a decent head for business, but they are completely devoid of people skills.  Introverted and possessing a high opinion of their own intelligence, these are the sorts of chaps who are their own boss because no one else is smart enough to be their boss.

You've met this owner.  He can barely be bothered to engage you in conversation, unless you find that one thing he truly geeks over, at which point he won't shut up.  It won't be pleasant conversation, of course.  If you bother to share a nugget of information or knowledge, the disdain for your uninformed opinion will hit you like waves of Brut cologne.  Haughty to the extreme, and those who do manage to worm their way in to his company are usually also cut from similar cloth.

This is the guy who will tell you the game you're buying is a "dicefest."  This is the guy who will label you "an Ameritrash apologist."  This is the guy who will tell you he's designed the protoype for the best game ever but few people are worthy of even trying it out.  He'll tell you that whatever obscure band you like is "too mainstream" for him.  He'll tell you when you pick up a comic book how crappy it is and you should be reading some manga that's entirely written in Japenese ("Worth learning, if you can.")

I mean, we're used to running into this guy on the internet.  But confronting them in the flesh is often just too much.  You'll want to lay hands on a blunt object just to finally set him right.  Murderous impulses will float through your brain.

The truly sad thing is that even if "The Asshole" doesn't end up running the store, he's often the sort of guy "The Nice Guy" turns to to help him run his shop.  The Nice Guy believes in the best in folks and he will be impressed with The Asshole's knowledge.  Soon enough, the Asshole has set up residence, his asshole friends in tow, cluttering up the register talking about their World of Warcraft episodes as if they're veritable Kings of the World..."You should have SEEN how I pwned this n00b!"

Either way, the result's the same.  Although these stores tend to outlast those run by the purely "Nice Guy", they inevitably become so unpleasant to frequent that the customer base dwindles to those who The Asshole has deigned to allow in his company.  Demise follows shortly thereafter.

The only bright spot is that Gamespot, devourer of worlds, seems to like to hire The Asshole.  We can only hope that Gamestop faces the same rot from within.

Alright, look, these are broad generalizations.  But every one of them based on either personal experience or the anecdotes of others.  Over the years, locally we've had at least 6 "Nice Guy" closings and 3 "Asshole" closings.  The only comic store left in town, The Deep, still survives, somehow, as it has for years.  The Deep was started by one of the truly Nice Guys who found himself devoured by running the store.  He turned it over to a guy who isn't the most personable in the world but he's not The Asshole either, so perhaps there's hope.  He definitely must have a good head for business to have survived these past 15 years.

Even while CCGs artificially kept more stores afloat for longer than they should have--and the Deep once had a very robust selection of CCGs with weekly tournaments--Ed and The Deep have survived even the bottom falling out of that market to a very nice degree.  He even bought out the storefront of one of the "Nice Guy" stores that closed, moving in to much larger and nicer digs.

Now to get him to stock more than Steve Jackson games.  But that's a story for a whole 'nother day.


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Ken is a member of the Fortress: Ameritrash staff.

Click here for more board game articles by Ken.

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