In the age of online e-commerce and digital downloads, there aren’t a lot of videogame stores that still occupy the high street anymore. Certainly, CEX are a regular fixture, and have achieved unprecedented success on the high street. But from an independent videogame store’s perspective, there aren’t that many business opportunities left in the bricks and mortar model.
Enter Level Up Games who have been steadily trading as an independent videogame store for 13 years, and are co-owned and managed by the husband and wife duo that is Alex and Gemma Bowness. As part of this, I spoke to Alex Bowness when I stumbled upon his store during a recent day-trip to Canterbury (UK), and got to speak to him about subjects pertaining to videogames retail, the effects of Covid, and how he manages to compete against the likes of CEX. Enjoy!
What was the impetus for you to start your own videogame store?
We rose phoenix-like from the ashes of a previous company that I had worked for who were in a very similar vein of buying and selling guitars, Hi-Fi, musical equipment, videogames, cameras, you name it… So a very similar idea to what we do now.
What was the company called?
It was X Electrical. They had a branch down here in Canterbury, and that closed down. So rather than taking redundancy, I took stock. And my wife (Gemma) had some inheritance, and the bank at the time were willing to match investment. So we started up… The games are going great.
Was it always your intention to set up shop in Canterbury?
It was never our intention to set this up at all. Both of us are trained in other fields. We just landed in it. More by luck than design, but it works. And we’re having fun.
What would you say were the biggest trials and tribulations in terms of starting up, and what would you say have been the biggest obstacles in terms of you maintaining financial solvency during your 13 years as an independent retailer?
Being an independent has allowed us to ride through the waves of popularity or despondency within the market. So we are in charge. So we get to reset our sales – on a daily basis if we need to. We don’t need to run this past corporate to wait for changes to happen maybe six months down the line. If we suddenly decided that PlayStation weren’t going to be a thing anymore, we could just sell all of our products and not ever have to worry about Sony ever again, and reset our sales to do something completely different. Just literally turn on a dime and start again with something different. We have all these different products within our store, so it’s not as if we would be lacking if we were to drop one area. We’ve seen it happen over time, certain media and popularity of different series of games, different consoles, Pokemon cards, all sorts of things. Things come and go in waves of popularity through the industry. So sometimes Sega is being talked about, sometimes Microsoft is being talked about. And this allows us to sort of move with those trends, to really try and stay afloat of things. It’s never easy. It’s a daily one to see what happens, but it’s manageable. We’re working it.
There is so much despondency from a media standpoint, as to how videogames retail from a high street perspective is going down the toilet. Especially when you consider the fact that the industry is moving increasingly digital. I read an article in Gamesindustry.biz where the Managing Director of GAME was being interviewed. He talked about how the industry has gone from 45% pre-Covid… And I assume that this is just e-commerce online sales… To something like 75% post-Covid. With this in mind, how has Covid affected you – where consumer buying habits have changed? And how have you been impacted as an independent in an age where companies like CEX, I assume, are going from strength to strength? And from a boxed product perspective, you’ve also got e-commerce companies such as Amazon, The Game Collection, and Hit – who I assume are also doing really well. But then you’ve also got the various console online stores – such as the Nintendo eShop. How do you figure in all of this, where you’re an independent, but also an independent on the high street, who has to compete against all of these other companies – including CEX?
CEX is the greatest common denominator. CEX is on every high street. They’re the easiest one to level everything against our own business model, because we don’t do new products – apart from Pokemon cards. So if we look exclusively at games, CEX are our main competitor with this buying and selling and trading pre-owned games and equipment, because they don’t deal with the e-commerce stuff either. We’re both trying to carve a niche within the same area. As an independent, we can do everything that they don’t. In that sense, I could take a small stack of our N64 stock to them, and not everything is on their system. There’s a good chunk of those bits and pieces that they don’t have or they wouldn’t take. So we will cover all of PlayStation 1, all of PlayStation 2, anything that they might not necessarily even have on their system, they bleep it. And if it isn’t on their system, then they can’t take it. That’s it. It’s a line drawn underneath it. In terms of competing against e-commerce companies, that’s been a very interesting journey. Every time something old gets remastered or someone brings out a remastered copy or…
Metal Gear Solid?
Yeah, the popularity for the original games have gone right up. I sold one of the NES ones the other day for a large amount of money as well. Every time one of the big manufacturers produces e-commerce stock or remastered games and put it out digitally, there’s always a lot of “ooh” about it within the press and our customers come in looking for other things around it. “I don’t want to buy it like that. I want to buy the original” – because they have their PlayStation, or they have their NES, they’re going to go and fish out the originals. The Switch store is a great example of this with the recent popularity of the N64 games.
You mean the eShop?
Yeah, completely. With the release of the N64 games and the NES games and the GameBoy Advance stuff, that’s all on the subscription service. There’s only a certain amount of titles there. If I want to play something else, how? If it’s not on the list, where do I get it? The emulator scene is very big and strong on the PC, the Raspberry Pi, those mini console arcade units which you can plug into televisions. That’s all well and good, but people like the tactile original consoles and the actual hardware, there’s something intrinsically nostalgic about it that people really, really want the original stuff.
It’s why vinyl has made a bit of a comeback…
It never really went away… Depending on who you talk to.
How do you think Covid affected you?
We were really busy during lockdowns. It allowed us to really consolidate our stock. We did a lot more online trade, which we don’t normally do. It sounds mad in this day and age, but we like talking to people. It’s really important, and our customers appreciate that as well. We care about what we’re selling, and we care about who we’re selling it to, and to make sure that they get all the information that they need, and the support that we can back them up with. But during Covid, we started doing a lot more online, and there were doorstep pick-ups and drop offs… all within the laws of everything. So we were working here a lot, just doing bits and pieces, selling stuff for pick-ups, posting a lot as well. So all of a sudden, just because people are stuck at home, they’re getting everything sent to them. Certain bits and pieces of consoles went right up in popularity. Everybody wanted a Wii again because getting you off your bum, off the sofa and dancing around the living room with the controllers again, especially good for the kids. Many parents wanting Wiis during that time for that reason, just to keep everyone happy and sane. But it’s what I said, being an independent, we were able to reset ourselves really quickly just to deal with things that way.
Within reason, and without telling me any of the trade secrets that you’re working on, what are your future plans for Level Up Games?
(Laughs) There’s not really any trade secrets to tell. We open the doors on a daily basis and see what happens. We’re not entirely sure how long this business model has got legs – looking at the way commerce is going. The economic climate at the moment is sketchy at best. But we’ve ridden out other wobbles of the economy in the past few years and we’ve seen it happen. So we’ve got our long view glasses on to see what will happen. And we’ve got enough legs on ourselves for a good few years yet.
Given that the industry, from a consumer standpoint, is now 75% online, is there any chance that you might close up your high street shop and go online only?
So you’ll always maintain a shop presence?
I don’t mean to say this in a disparaging way, but it’s a bit crowded inside your store. Does that mean that you’re going to get a bigger shop, or maybe relocate elsewhere and getter a bigger shop there?
Not with the high street rates the way they are at the moment. We moved six years ago from a premises twice the size of this – because we couldn’t afford to maintain a premises of that size. The business rates, the rent, all the associated paraphernalia… If we hadn’t moved to this shop, we wouldn’t now be in existence. We would have gone under.
How do you think rent rate is going to affect you, because from what I understand, the rates are going up even more now post-Covid.
We’re fairly stable actually. We’re on good terms with our landlords, so we’re okay.
You’ve got 13 years of experience as the co-owner of Level Up Games. You also used to work for X Electrical before you embarked on this phoenix-like project. What advice would you give to people who are thinking about setting up their own videogame store? Do you think that’s something that’s even feasible in this day and age?
It’s hard to say. Location would be everything. So we’re lucky here with the student draw. The tourist draw, which is close to London, as you yourself are an example. You found us…
Your shop is on the high street…
Just off (laughs). But all the best shops are around the side…
We can’t afford the high street. So many of the independents can’t. This is the nature of it. You look at Brighton as a perfect example. The seafront is full of cookie cutter stores, but as soon as you get off the main strip, all sorts of interesting places…
I went to Brighton a few months ago. Brighton is actually really boring, to be honest. But that’s probably because I just walked down the high street. I was kind of dismayed by the level of cookie-cutter-ness, and didn’t really want to venture any further… if that makes sense.
Completely. Every high street has been homogenized. They’re all the same. There’s a McDonald’s, there’s a Greggs, there’s a CEX, there’s a Boots…
But that’s how you know that you’re part of a civilized society – because there’s a CEX. It’s like, “Yes, I’ve made it” (laughs)… What do you think the future holds for videogames retail from a high street perspective?
Tricky. Our model works here, but you couldn’t uplift us and put us in someplace like Reigate. It wouldn’t work necessarily. You’d need to have the right kind of draw. We’ve created our own gravity over the years. People come to us because they know how we operate, and our price structures, and the services that we offer. But it’s not an easy one. It would be really wise to look at the local area, do some homework, spend some time actually checking whether it’s actually viable within that area that you’re looking at. We’ve thought about moving, but would there be enough draw in X town or Y town? Where would we go? How would we make it work again? Would it actually succeed? All those little factors. It’s very, very tricky.
Having previously mentioned CEX, what would you say is your biggest unique selling point when it comes to competing against the likes of CEX – who mainly operate on the high street?
Specialization, pure and simple. We are videogames and closely associated products. They are a technology and multimedia shop who are… looking at them objectively, over-reaching potentially. They’ve started to branch out into all sorts of other things… Audio equipment, beauty products, hair dryers…
Hair dryers (laughs)… Yeah, yeah… I was like, “wha?”… That’s like a license for me to trade in my pube straighteners that don’t really work anymore (laughs).
It’s Jack of all trades, master of none. It’s everything to everybody. If you’ve got a device that you want to sell to, CEX. If you’ve got a console you want to sell, CEX. If you’ve got some videogames, movies… great. Anything like that, they are your one-stop buy and sell place for anything pre-owned.
They’re basically Cash Converters.
They took the market by storm. They looked at Cash Converters, figured out what that company did well, and then figured out how they could make a better version of Cash Converters, and went with that. And credit where credit’s due. I remember 10-15 years ago, you would see a Cash Converters everywhere on the high street. Nowadays, they’re a bit of an endangered species. You don’t really see that many Cash Converters on the high street anymore, whereas on the flip side, CEX are everywhere. CEX have really leapfrogged Cash Converters in terms of popularity… Which makes me realise, this interview has probably gone on for a little bit longer than I expected.
That’s all right.
Any last words?
No. Thank you for coming along… Support your independents.
Last question… What would you say are some of the highlights, as well as your proudest memory in all the 13 years that you’ve been associated with Level Up Games?
Highlights for here? Just doing what we’re doing, and having great fun every day. Being our own boss, you can’t really beat it. There are times when we’d like to be off duty, but running your own shop means that you always need to be on duty and ready to rock. But at the same time, it’s given us a great lifestyle, a lot of freedom, and a lot of fun.
Thank you so much.