It used to be the case that 20 years ago, working in a videogame store was considered to be one of the coolest jobs a gamer could ever ask for. Now, and with so many retailers struggling for survival in 2018, including Gamestop looking for a buyer, whilst Sears recently declared bankruptcy, it remains to be seen as to whether anyone would want to consider bricks and mortar games retail as being a viable career option. Indeed, this was reflected by a Polygon article where Jason Brassard (owner of Trade N Games in Fenton) argued that “I don’t think this industry, in retail, is left in 10 years… No, not in the least bit. I mean, there will be some collectibles, but paying two employees who work full time and paying a few thousand in rent, nah. No way. Not a chance.” Indeed, I even touched upon this when I lamented the passing of notable gaming landmarks after visiting Central London a few weeks ago.
Despite this however, there could still exist a sizable niche for a new kind of videogames retailer. One that is regarded as being a forward thinking guiding light that acts as a veritable beacon within the games community. Even though the market has settled towards conventional business practices of buying and selling used videogames, as well as dealing with publishers for new stock.
In the digital age, and with so many retailing options, one often wonders as to how physical stores can instill customer loyalty, and have them frequent their premises on a more frequent basis. At the same time, and even if the same stock can be acquired from numerous physical and online retailing outlets in a cheaper and more convenient manner, how can a store ingratiate itself towards its customers? What is its USP? And how can a store carve out a unique identity that will allow it to differentiate itself from all of the other high street players who are more concerned with maximising their stores’ profit potential whilst also minimising their stores’ individuation?
With the digital-to-physical split on AAA console games now exceeding 45% in the UK, some are arguing that this divide will increase even further in the coming years, to the extent that digital sales will account for 93% of all game sales by 2021 and 100% by 2022. That’s just a paltry 4 years from now.
These trends have already begun to play out in the market, with FIFA 19, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, and Battlefield V all showing that consumers are moving away from physical goods, whilst favouring the convenience of digital purchases. And then there is the rise of streaming and subscription services that forgo the need for bricks and mortar retail entirely. All of this, together with the trend for games publishers to incentivise buyers into picking up new copies of their games – by including pre-order bonus content, as well as extra DLC such as Season Passes – and it’s not at all surprising to discover that these factors are going to play a major part in curtailing the demand for second hand physical software (which bricks and mortars games retailers earn the majority of their business revenue from). Indeed, Gamestop’s second hand games business model has already begun to show worrying states of decline, whilst CEX is also showing prominent signs that it’s moving away from second hand games in order to further cement its reputation as a pawnbroker – much like Cash Converters and online reseller Music Magpie has done. And Steve Oliver (CEO, Music Magpie) would support this as he argues that “the market for new physical entertainment is in decline… The future of this business is inevitably not in physical media”.
“The market for new physical entertainment is in decline… The future of this business is inevitably not in physical media” – Steve Oliver (CEO, Music Magpie)
Despite all of these market trends however, how can one still operate a videgoames store in today’s market whilst ensuring profitability? Or more to the point, and if one had money to burn, what would constitute as being “The Best Videogame Store… In The World”?
If one can buy games online and via digital means, what would compel the average consumer to visit a bricks and mortars videogame store in today’s market? How does a lone videogame store stand out from all of the other gaming retail outlets? And more to the point, what kind of bricks and mortar videogame store would I like to visit in today’s market?
As with any bricks and mortars retail organisation, having high visibility is key, and the most important factor to consider when taking up retail residence would be location. As such, the store needs to be centrally located in a major city as not only does this ensure a high footfall, but the store’s location also allows for the recruitment of high calibre staff who are highly knowledgeable of the industry, and who can easily access the store.
At the same time, and as with any retail store, especially with the decline of physical media in full swing, it’s even more important to consider factors that would aid in increasing overall customer engagement and experience, whilst also ensuring that shoppers find their visit to be both pleasant and welcoming – so as to increase customer retention. With this in mind, a retail store can effectively do this by making sure that not only is it clean and well-lit, but is also adequately warm. At the same time, and by applying the basics of feng shui in terms of its overall design, a store can play to its strengths of developing atmosphere, whilst also maximizing its overall commercial sales viability. Indeed, one way to do this would be to have a coffee lounge section (with a large monitor / TV) that would allows gamers to utilise the store as a social hub and hang out (similar to what Loading Bar have done). And by doing all of this, the store essentially positions itself as an upmarket gaming emporium – an “Electronic Gaming Boutique” as it were.
“The thing about this business which is very difficult is there’s no exclusivity”
Every videogame store practically sells the same gaming products – whether it be AAA games (like Call of Duty) or “collectibles” (like Nintendo themed key-chains). But if one were to look at hardware platforms (like the Playstation 4, Switch, and XBox One), and to make the analogous assumption that a bricks and mortars store is also a platform (that allows for the commercial exchange of ideas, content, and goods), then one way as to how a store can maximize its Unique Selling Point is by offering “exclusives” that aren’t at all available in any other competing retail organisations. Not only does this enable the store to differentiate itself from its competition, but by doing this, the store can help further bolster its product line-up and eco-system, thereby ensuring that its staff will be more highly respected by customers (who’ll have no choice but to toe the line in case they risk being barred from buying any exclusive items from the store in future – effectively making the eco-system more “closed”).
As part of this initiative in determining the humble videogame store as a platform, and in order to raise its profile amidst the plethora of other retail outlets, there’s a number of exclusive product lines which the store can launch that will effectively help cement its reputation as “The Best Videogame Store… In The World”. Some of these are detailed below:
An In-house Magazine written by Store Staff
At a time when there are very few gaming magazines left, and with the vast majority of them costing around £5, there exists a sizeable niche within the market for a new type of videogames magazine which is low-cost (ie £0.50p) and / or £free. Not only is this a great branding and marketing tool for the store, but by having the staff write for the magazine, it dispels the very public perception that retail staff have low prospects and are nothing more than mere shelf stacking till monkeys. And in an age when everybody feels entitled to an opinion, by having the staff have their opinions reified in print format, it gives them a voice that’s a cut above the internet chatter, and allows them to extend their influence well beyond the spheres of the retail institution – effectively making them modern day taste-makers and celebrities (ala Jaz Rignall of Mean Machines fame). And then there’s the idea that having a low-cost/free magazine can help drive customer footfall, as customers would be making the effort to pop into the store on a regular basis so as to grab the latest issue.
In 2009, I launched my very own (free) print based videogames magazine. I was able to get pre-orders of 25,000 copies from over 40 different videogame retailers, as well as a London-wide distribution deal (that is similar to what NME, Shortlist, Stylist etc currently enjoy). Since then, and whilst my magazine may have folded, a number of imitators (because I did it first) have sprung up so as to help fill that void – including free magazines from GAME and Loading Bar. Their existence obviously proves that an untapped niche for a low-cost / free magazine does exist (despite what all the arm-chair critics may think).
An In-House Games Development Studio and Publishing House
With publishing houses enjoying certain success via the release of niche indie games in physical format, there’s a sizable cottage industry that’s recently emerged in recent years. These include publishers such as Soedesco, Rising Star, EastAsiaSoft, PQube, and 505 Games. At the same time, and with Retro City Rampage DX having started the trend, the market’s seen an emergence of companies that only publish limited runs of highly sought after digital releases – including Strictly Limited Games, Limited Run Games, and Special Reserve Games. Major retailers (such as Best Buy) are also catching on, and have gone all out to secure distribution deals of limited runs.
Despite the threat of digital sales, there still exists a sizable demand for physical releases (as evidenced by certain forum threads and websites including Limited Game News). And in this climate, a bricks and mortars videogame store can leverage its physical premises by ensuring that not only does it publish its own games physically (via its own development games studio) but that it also partners up with developers and publishers and help release their digital-only games in physical format (including retro). At the same time, the store can also enter into distribution agreements with all of the limited run publishers. Finally, and assuming that mail order facilities aren’t at all offered, thereby making the physical releases “in-store only”, then all of the aforementioned initiatives can certainly help drive traffic into the store.
Developer Talks, Signing Sessions, and Product Launches
With developer conferences at GDC and EGX proving that there exists a sizable audience for round-table interviews, the game store can leverage its physical premises by having prominent developers come in and give presentations and talks. At the same time, developers can showcase their upcoming games (via demo pods in the coffee lounge area), and partake in exclusive product launches whereby they are on hand to do signing sessions – like like Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear Solid fame has done. And then there are hardware launches to consider (including future consoles).
All of this can help dispel the notion that a videogame store isn’t part of the games industry, as “The Best Videogame Store… In The World” can certainly forge links that will allow it to become a sizable powerhouse that no longer operates on the industry’s fringes.
A branding exercise that would help increase the marketability of the store. After all, if Nike can do it, then why can’t a videogame store offer up its own line of t-shirt designs and tote bags? And like Nike and Gap have done, their store staff can help endorse the clothing line by adopting it as part of the store’s in-house “uniform”.
As evidenced by the emergence of companies such as iam8bit! and Data Discs, there exists a sizeable demand for videogame soundtracks in vinyl format. At the same time, “The Best Videogame Store… In The World” can also release vinyl soundtracks for games that it has exclusively published (in physical format). Not only this, but physical releases of music have once again begun to outsell digital releases, with vinyl making a massive comeback – which all bodes well for “The Best Videogame Store… In The World” as the store can further diversify its product-line portfolio by working with music artists and helping release their albums exclusively on vinyl. And the in-store magazine can help promote these initiatives as not only will it document/ interview game composers, but it can also document / promote music bands. These individuals can also provide the soundtrack to the in-house development studio’s games.
By establishing links with eminent musicians, “The Best Videogame Store… In The World” can gain (early) access to key releases, and promote the tracks as part of its in-store music policy. Voila… “The Best Videogame Store… In The World” now has its very own in-store music station that not only acts as a formidable taste-maker, but also rivals the very best local and national radio stations.
A marketing and promotional tool that would help increase brand awareness of “The Best Videogame Store… In The World” (including its staff). This would help build better relationships between the store and its audience. And on top of that, highly engaging snippets of audio can also be added – including developer talks and interviews for those who don’t live within the store’s vicinity.
Youtube / Video
As Robert Rodriguez once stated in his seminal book Rebel Without A Crew, the most basic element from which any movie production is formulated is its setting / location. With Clerks being based in a convenience store, and High Fidelity being based in a record store, why can’t there be a movie (or serialized web series) that is based in a videogames store? That would be pretty awesome, and would make for an impressive display of both the store and its staffs’ talents. And further down the line, assuming that a web-series was actively considered, then prominent customers and ex-staff members can also make guest appearances in future episodes (similar to how George Clooney appeared in the last season of the hospital drama ER). Finally, the soundtrack would feature many of the musicians that are associated with the record label.
To conclude, and whilst many of the aforementioned ideas were proposed to CEX 15 years ago (back when the company was more of an indie games retailer, as opposed to it being the soulless Cash Converters wannabe that it is today – although it’s done pretty well with its McFranchise-esque business model, even if it now tends to attract drug dealers and meth users), there’s no reason as to why “The Best Videogame Store… In The World” can’t (still) enjoy an illustrious reputation in an increasingly digital marketplace. And much like how the premier department store Harrods has done, it too can position itself as an internationally renowned mecca that gamers from all across the world will want to come and visit. At the same time, and given that so many gamers suffer from morbid obesity as well as personal hygiene problems, if “The Best Videogame Store… In The World” can carve out a sizable niche, then there’s no reason as to why it can’t also enforce the same strict (dress and hygiene) entry codes as practiced by Harrods. For not only will this help protect staff from negative influences, but will also help drive up overall standards by attracting a better class of customer.
In short, and given that many gamers are pathetic individuals who never venture outside (which is why Pokemon Go got to be so popular), then “The Best Videogame Store… In The World” can fulfill an even bigger community role by forcing those who suffer from arrested development (ie Nintendo fans) into reintegrating themselves into society – thereby making them become fully fledged (functioning) adults.