Part of running a game store, or any business, is customer acquisition and retention. One of the big struggles a game store faces is, somewhat counter-intuitively, what kind of customers to pursue, charm and win over to their fold. Some of this is based on the demographics of a stores’ region, but much of it is based on how that store presents itself to the world. Now, in theory, a given store with a given business model can serve any kind of customer its shareholders want to reach, but in practice what happens is a store picks a demographic it believes it can reach and serve well, and focuses on them.
One staggeringly obvious issue that occurs because of this is customer / business mismatch. This happens when a customer, perfectly innocently, attends a business which does not intend to serve their particular brand of gaming. It’s an easy error on both the customer and businesses part. Let’s take an example that comes up a lot: a customer moves to a new area, goes to the Wizards of the Coast website and looks for stores holding Friday Night Magic. They see 4 stores, all holding Standard Constructed. How do they choose one? The answer we hear the most is “geography” at least for the first night out, but often that is the only criterion used. So, with an aim toward helping gamers find stores that match, I present this guide to properly identifying game stores in the wild. These are general statements, and assume a store run well to maximize it’s demographic draw. As a generalization, you will find many stores vary in their specific strengths, but hopefully this can help you find
The Event Center
This store will be 8000+ square feet. It will have a calendar chock full of “tournaments” and “championships” and “qualifiers.” They will run pre-releases for Magic, but expect the competition to be fierce. These stores run big events because they have a lot of space. They are typically focused on “filling the house” because the cost of their rent demands that they do so. This will typically mean a very competitive atmosphere, very little personal interacting with staff unless you are “an alpha gamer,” and frequently a delay in policing and preventing all but the most egregious cases of cheating and player misbehavior. It’s not that the stores don’t want to police their events, it’s that having 6 staff run a 300 person event means that you have 2% coverage at any given moment, and it’s simply impossible to provide anywhere near a personal experience. One exception is that these stores may, if well run, provide an amazing staff-run demo experience for minis or board games, because when tournaments aren’t running they will still have extra staff around preparing materials (singles, support, seating) for their next event. Events will often be viewed as “marketing” meaning they may be run at or close to cost. Furniture and seating will generally be of the minimum sufficient quality to withstand repeated use. Store frequently has an excellent working relationship with smaller stores, and may be a great choice to go to “one in a while” for a big event, while spending most of your time with the Neighborhood or Specialist that is geographically or culturally a better fit for you.
The Neighborhood Store
This store will be 2000-5000 square feet, rarely larger. Larger tends to verge into Event Center, because the actual amount of floor space required to have a strong stock of the full spectrum of the game industry caps out around 3000 sq ft. Everything after that becomes event space. It will be located in a place that is geographically or perhaps culturally isolated – not downtown, not central. Suburban stores serving a community and surrounding areas are a good example. Because of the small size, this store’s selection will be more limited than the Event Center. However, if well-run, this store will possess a well-curated selection of the top selling 30% or so of games in each category and a robust special order or pre-order system. They frequently will not stock everything. However, what the Neighborhood Store lacks in stock on the floor, it should make up for in excellent customer service. Staff here will frequently know your name, and the communities of players will be smaller and know one another better, making for a more casual, new-player friendly atmosphere. The events will have similar costs to elsewhere, but the prizing will be less robust both because it is not affordable for a business this size to view their events as marketing, and because this store if run well is purposefully prizing their events in a way to encourage new players and discourage tournament “grinders.” Fixtures and seating will often be of above average quality and comfort, because the store spends its extra event margin on retaining strong existing customers and charming new people. This store will rarely get a regional event or major draw, simply because manufacturers want to work with the biggest player in a region, and the Neighborhood store ain’t it.
This store does one thing, and does it very well. It can be of any size, but it will tend to be smaller, around 1000 square feet. Unlike the Neighborhood and Event stores, which are really just cousins in the same family, the Specialist is hyper-focused. They may do just one type of product, or event a single manufacturer such as Warhammer or Warmachine. This store will often be miniatures or CCG focused, and are frequently one-person operations with minimal or no additional event staff. Customer service will vary according to the owner’s personality, which further specializes the kind of customers that will enjoy this shop (e.g. a shop run by a single, white, male proprietor may have difficulties attracting anything other than single, white, male miniatures players). The shop will have an amazing stock in their category, for example: all the SKUs in Warmachine, plus high-end terrain, plus variant tokens, mats, you name it. They may not stock a Player’s Handbook for D&D, but if you want the 10-year out of print pewter version of a model, they’ll likely have it in stock. They may have custom products, or not, as the owner’s skill-set dictates. A well-run Specialist will be unbeatable in their category, as they will have access to and a customer base for items that the other two species of store will never be deep enough or heavy enough into to achieve. Accordingly, because of their limited staff and limited focus, many niceties such as a recently cleaned bathroom or well-stocked vending may fall by the wayside for this store. If you’re looking for a varied gaming experience, this store isn’t for you, but if you’re into what they’re into, it may be your best choice.
Bear in mind that this is a snap-shot of what I’ve seen in visiting over 100 US-based game stores between Minnesota and New York. Nothing indicates to me that the market on the west of the United States is significantly different. Outside of the US I cannot comment or assist in you finding a hobby shop.
If you’re a store owner that has somehow found this, consider: which of these models do you fit into? Do you have a significantly different store?