The explosion of Internet services had changed the way America shops. Merely a decade ago, nobody had hear of Cyber Monday. Now, the Thanksgiving holiday doesn't JUST mean awesome in-store deals on Black Friday. It also means that there will be numerous sales online. I'd bet dollars to donuts that you, dear reader, purchased at least one of your Christmas gifts online, and received at least one Christmas gift that was purchased online.
I can't really blame you. After all, shopping online tends to be cheaper. Physical, brick-and-mortar stores have to raise prices in order to accommodate their overhead costs--insurance, electricity, employee paychecks, leasing or buying property.... Depending on their size, most online stores either don't have to deal with such things, or only have to worry about them in a limited sense, such as paying for storage space or paying for server upkeep. Because of the lower upfront cost, online stores can afford to offer discounts with which brick-and-mortar stores can rarely compete.
There's also the convenience of sitting at home watching reruns of The Office while shopping on your computer. If you're willing to wait up to four weeks to receive the product your bought, that's hard to compete with. Brick-and-mortar stores win when it comes to speed--if you need a crescent wrench to fix that broken pipe, or an emergency birthday gift, or fresh batteries for your wireless mouse, you aren't going to wait for an online store to ship it to you.
But if you're willing to wait, online stores are hard to beat. And that's the problem.
Game stores sell (surprise!) games. Most people are not desperate to get the next expansion of Dominion or Munchkin the day it's released. Gamers are willing to wait a couple weeks. They've got plenty of other games, after all, with which to occupy themselves while they wait. This works out well for online stores. But brick-and-mortar game stores are really hurting.
In the recession economy, board games and card games did and continue to do surprisingly well. Yet game stores have struggled to capitalize off this. They struggle to get gamers into the store, spending money. Too many gamers are like my wife and I: We enjoy games, but don't really do the tournament thing. If we want a good multiplayer game, we just invite some friends over. Subsequently, we don't hang out at the local game stores. There's a game shop within easy walking distance, Dragon's Keep. I have been there perhaps five times over the past year. Let me tell ya, as much as I enjoy games, I don't like going to this store. There are too many stereotypical smelly gamers that hang out there. It makes for an unpleasant environment for those of us who shower and eat the occasional vegetable.
Game stores can't really do much about their parasitic customers--you know, the D&D freaks and the fat Magic: The Gathering players who lack the ability to interact with females. If you have games and a few tables, such players will be in your establishment. It just comes with the territory.
Here are some suggestions that game stores can use to make visits by less-frequent customers more frequent:
1. Be personable. When new faces walk into your store, smile and make pleasantries. I loved going to a small game shop not far from my hometown in Illinois called Just for Fun. The owner was in the store all the time, and he clearly loved his job. He always greeted customers, asked to help them out, and was quick with suggestions and advice. He was just a pleasant person to be around, which made shopping in his store a treat.
2. Know your products. When I go into a game shop, I am either browsing and looking for a new game, in which case I will find games on the shelf about which I will ask generic questions; or, I have done research and want to know more about a specific game. In each case, I expect the employee with whom I am speaking to be able to answer my questions.
3. Take lessons from chain retailers. Barnes and Noble gets customers into the store (or onto their website) by tempting them with coupons and discounts. "Sign up for a membership!" they say. "You'll get ten percent off of everything you purchase! It's just twenty-five dollars a year." As a consumer, I think, "Heck, I only need to spend $250 to get that money back. I spend at least that much on books and DVDs in a year." Which is true, but I wouldn't necessarily spend that money at Barnes and Noble if they hadn't offered some incentive to do so. In addition to the member's discount, they also offer coupons. "Fifteen percent off your next in-store purchase." It's brilliant. It gets customers into the store. And as every store knows, if you can get customers into the store, they will spend money.
I would recommend that game stores attempt the same thing. Obviously, you can't be as ambitious as a huge chain like Barnes and Noble, but you could still attempt some sort of interesting membership. "Become a member for fifteen dollars! For every one-hundred dollars you spend at the store, you will receive a coupon for ten dollars off your next purchase." The consumer thinks, "Heck, I only need to spend two-hundred dollars to get the membership fee back. I spend way more than that on games in a year." Which is true, but now this consumer has a reason to spend that money at your store.
In this hyper-connected world, brick-and-mortar stores no longer just have to compete with other brick-and-mortar stores, but with online stores, which steepens the competition significantly. Presenting a pleasant atmosphere, being knowledgeable about the games, and creating customer loyalty would help generate revenue for stores that really ought to be doing better than they are.
Also, I wouldn't mind a better snack selection. Having spent eight hours in a game store for weekend tournaments before, it would be nice to have something better than chips, chocolate bars and soda. Just a thought.