Today's sermon is going to be as brief as I can make it, but I can't lie to you, it's a huge issue so it might go on for longer than I initially intend. As I say, I don't want to bang on about this topic any more than I have too today, but I think it's something that needs wider discussion within the industry and people seem to be pussy footing around it. Primarily I'm talking about the sustainability of our hobby. I'm not just talking about whether big retailers like Maelstrom Games are actually sustainable in a fiscal sense, but how the whole industry seems to be in a bit of a mess from top to bottom, and how us as hobbyists aren't exactly helping things. We have Games Workshop who have all but confirmed they have an annual above inflation price hike every year to keep their business 'sustainable'. May I humbly suggest if the largest player in our industry feels the need to do something that ultimately will prove inherently unsustainable, we as a hobby and industry have a problem. A big problem! Also how many of their stores in the UK are hitting their extremely modest targets? If store managers I know are to be believed not many.
But why is that important? Well because we have a model of business in this industry that is massively antiquated, it's so old that even the Victorians were trying desperately to evolve it, yep I'm talking about passing trade. This is a model that says to pull people into our hobby we need to expose them to the product in person, and the only method we've come up with so far is via bricks and mortar stores in the center of towns, where people will hopefully stumble across them. It's hardly cutting edge marketing techniques, but we know for a fact that it has worked, what seems less certain is whether it's still working now. You see in this day and age, with Internet retail already such a huge part of most of our lives, and all the 21st Century has to offer, bricks and mortar retail is becoming increasingly difficult in all sectors, let alone niche sectors like ours. Companies like eBay, Amazon, Play.com and many more besides are selling us goods from the comfort of our own homes (depending on how comfy ones sofa is). They're shipping them to us, and undercutting high street retailers who have their massive overheads and sales environments to manage. The same is true of our industry. Yet it's only a problem because we as invested hobbyists don't support our local shops. Why should we as rational consumers? Sustainability is important but shops shouldn't be treated as charity cases that need our support.
In North America I guess you guys have the Warstore and Mini Wargaming, while in Europe we've had Wayland Games and Maelstrom Games, with the new kid on the block Firestorm Games trying to cut out its own piece of the gaming market. There is no question that such large discount online retailers have had an impact on our hobby, for starters people like Maelstrom Games have introduced people already in the hobby to HoMachine, Infinity, Mofaux, Freebooter's Fate and many more besides. Whether that is positive or negative impact remains to be seen in the long-run. I'll be honest here and say that I looked into opening my own shop a few years back, I wanted to run a shop in a town center, not on an industrial estate miles from any recognisable high street, because I know that the lifeblood of our hobby is new customers. There were a few snags for me, first was professionality within the sector, or the lack thereof... but I might return to that at a later date. The other was the inconsistency in what companies said they wanted, and how they actually behaved, I guess that's professionality too.
The crux of it, or the biggest issue was that the maths simply did not stack up. If you were to match the prices that some of these large discount retailers were selling stock at the margins would be negligible at best, and the overheads incurred would mean any town center store would be lucky to generate enough money to wash its own face. Let alone provide a modest income. So why is this the case? Well our hobby is expensive for starters. Producing little toy soldiers is fairly labour intensive, and material intensive process, and shipping said items isn't cheap because this stuff is heavy. Plus the product ranges are necessarily huge, and take up a large physical space relative to other goods. So why aren't distributors more savvy about how they support the stores that are likely to bring in new customers? Because they don't care about that, that's what Games Workshop is for. I've heard that time and time again. These distributors want to make money, like any company, nothing wrong with that. But, short-term their best bet is to support those able to shift stock at discount in large quantities and that's large retailers in out of town locations basically operating as online retailers. Sure they say they want to see bricks and mortar stores, but it's lip service to be honest with you.
|The future of retail.|
Truth is the only way to make the business work is to rent a large warehouse, pretend it's a bricks and mortar store so you can get around that 'caveat' in the contract, so distributors can and will supply you. This then allows you to undercut the guy in the high street who is bringing the fresh blood into the hobby. The very people the industry, IF it wants to stick to the current model, should be supporting. So something isn't staking up for me when companies told me they wanted bricks and mortar stores in central town locations, in big towns and cities, not relative backwaters and industrial estates. I asked a few whether such prestigious or useful central locations would lead to preferential discounts? Or perhaps a higher allowed allocation on orders, while those in fields in the middle of nowhere were given more stringent restrictions? I was being deliberately mischievous, because I know when somebody is blowing smoke up my ass or being disingenuous... hell I've worked with enough politicians to know when somebody if towing the party line and doing so with a lack of conviction. Games Workshop though strangely did say they were concerned about these very issues, and spoke to me about enforcing caps on ordering because this online distribution model didn't fit with their business plan. You could look at it two ways 1) it's a noble endeavor or 2) it's a futile effort and they should just embrace the change... it is however a blunt tool and not a finessed one.
Just to be clear, I'm not pissed about these large online retail companies, and the fact that they do what they do, hell I use them. If I were to start my own company it would certainly be the business model I'd look to pursue because the other way lies obscurity and eventual bankruptcy. As I've said, I truly believe with the way distributors currently work it's the only way I can see to make a retail business work. But, is it sustainable? I'm sure those companies that are still operating the model would say yes, and maybe in a fiscal sense they are indeed right... despite the calamity that has befallen Maelstrom, others seem to be able to cope just fine. Though only time will tell if others will succumb to that malaise. But, I think it's only sustainable for now. I seem to be hearing almost every other week about some hobby store in the States closing down. I've heard of a few in Mainland Europe that have gone to the wall, and indeed in the UK. These are stores that used to be in our towns, you know where actual real people still live and work and might be exposed to the hobby. Many of them will have introduced many of you to the hobby, and they're dying. They used to bring newcomers into our hobby, and for all the criticism of Games Workshop, their model is the only one that leads to a sustainable future for the hobby as a whole, it's just they seem to be managing it in an unsustainable way.
|Mmmm... tasty. Lets kill all of them and have none left for the future.|
Trust me, we all need Games Workshop and their large network of bricks and mortar stores, because without them we don't have the fresh blood coming in, and these large online retailers don't have new customers to feed through the sausage machine. So the likes of Privateer Press, Battlefront, Wyrd and others don't get a ready supply of customers and ultimately the whole thing implodes. Quirkworthy, or Jake Thornton as he is known in the real world, asked the question what would happen if Games Workshop went the way of the dodo? Many of the responses were blisteringly short-termist, claiming we'd all just hop on to other game systems and online retailers for our toy soldier fix. Yeah we probably would, but there would be attrition rate no doubt, people would drop out of the hobby. But, what of that fresh blood? How the hell does a kid in Stoke find his way to Firestorm Games in Cardiff or Wayland Games in Hockley? Sure, I'm pretty certain that for many companies it'd represent a great opportunity, but how many would grasp it properly? How many would ensure there was always a new generation being brought into the hobby? How many would pick up the gauntlet and conduct the thankless task of generating new customers for others to pinch?
I think there is a slow dreadful drift in society towards the death of many bricks and mortar stores. Economic development officers in our local authorities might tell us it's because of the economic downturn and things will bounce back... but I've seen the retail figures for the UK. The trend has been away from city center retail, towards online retail, out of town shopping and huge supermarkets. For 10 years the trend has been consistent and the economic downturn has just sped things up. Wargaming is so painfully niche and always will be that bricks and mortar gaming stores must be at the top of the most endangered list. As a hobby we have to accept the model is a bit broken right now, it's not working. In this light it's almost understandable that Games Workshop would impose Rest of World bans on these large EU retailers. Why? Because how many intro games in Brisbane did Maelstrom Games run? None. How many intro games have Wayland Games run in Sydney? None. They aren't supporting the continued growth of the industry in those territories, so why allow them access to them and kill off those who are? If there were marketing on TV, in newspapers or whatever... then manufacturers could factor this into the cost of their product...
|How to get ahead in advertising.|
But, there isn't is there? Our industries advertising remains the shop front on the high street, and the product on the shelves. Our sales pitch the intro game. I've had it suggested to me that perhaps the Internet is the way forward. That this massive social network that we have is somehow perfect for our tactile, physical hobby... anyone spotting the sarcasm? The thing with the Internet is that it is true if you look hard enough you will find all sorts of weird and wonderful crap. The trick has always been knowing where you need to look for it in the first place. Websites like Bell of Lost Souls, Beasts of War and Tabletop Gaming News etc. might be great for those of us who are already in the hobby, but what about those of us who have yet to be exposed to the hobby? Beasts of War have now teamed up with Geek and Sundry, which will hopefully expose there show to a wider audience and by extension our hobby to a wider audience. It's a good move and one I applaud, but it's not really enough. I'd still argue that the viewers of geek and sundry are likely to be geeks who have already been 'exposed' to the idea of toy soldiers. If they haven't jumped on board yet they're actually not like to do so now. Maybe the broader rainbow of product we offer now could pull a few more people in, I hope so, but I feel it's still not likely. People like Will Wheaton though, that's a different kettle of fish. People already with a profile being advocates is different.
Because here's the problem and conundrum at the core, and heart of our hobby right now... we have never, and I repeat NEVER had it so good in the hobby in terms of product. I've spoken about us currently going through a Golden Age of Gaming, and in terms of quality of product, depth of product and breadth of product we really haven't. I look at the games I've got upstairs, the range of product and how much fun can be had with it is bewildering at times, and for every game I play there are probably ten more out there I don't... actually it's probably way more than that. Yet I feel the health of the hobby as a whole hasn't felt more precarious. It's a real conundrum and one we should be able to wrap our heads around. Maybe it really is as simple as us consumers supporting our local stores rather than going to discount online retailers... but I'll be honest, that seems a little like pissing in the wind to me. We can see which way the wind is blowing, it's now up to all of us to find a way to make it work, one that reels in fresh catches. We have the product, now we need the new, innovative and convincing sales pitch. Because, simply put I don't think we're sustainable as a hobby if we continue down this same path without acknowledging we have structural issues and need to change. We all have a role to play too. Peace out!