4 Stages of Competence and Game Stores

Psychology includes an explanation of understanding referred to as the four stages of competence, formally summarized by Gordon Training International in the 70s. Summarized, they are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence
    A person does not know how to do something, and does not recognize their lack of knowledge. They will make mistakes they do not recognize as mistakes, and may insist that they are not ignorant.
  2. Conscious incompetence
    The person knows that they lack knowledge, and may seek to learn. A person at this stage begins to recognize mistakes, and may learn from them and improve.
  3. Conscious competence
    A person knows how to do the thing, and has made mistakes which they now know how to avoid. They are still learning, but can self-teach. It may be difficult at this stage to abstract the skill enough to teach others, or not, depending on the person.
  4. Unconscious competence
    Skills are now second nature to the person, so much so that they no longer require conscious thought to make the “correct” choice.

Game stores would do well from having owners and management that recognize these stages in themselves and their employees, and learn the risks of each. We can view the operations of a game store in a similar light.

Stage 1 Game Store: Unconscious Incompetence. Unfortunately, many startups in our industry exist at Stage 1 for a few months or years and then die. The store started by an eager gamer without capital or business experience, to say nothing of the connections and specialized knowledge necessary to shore up the shaky supply chain that is gaming retail, is a perfect example of this. This company may hire staff, and may even have a clear outline of what it wants staff to do, but since it doesn’t know what problem it’s trying to solve with staffing their training will lack, they will probably provide inconsistent service at best, and may even be detrimental to the growth of the business. Product selection will typically be heavy in one category (e.g. Magic or Games Workshop) with 20-40 games offered in other categories (board games, minis, RPGs) because the owner or manager lacks the expertise or knowledge to know how to curate each category. Prizes may be based on bad math (“120% store credit payout!” or “$30 store credit with purchase of $50+ game” or “50% off discount on all pre-paid pre-orders” etc*), such that they create “abuse loops” where the store is absolutely going to lose money in a compound fashion. Overconfidence can set in here as new owners or managers assume they will “change the landscape” with their revolutionary (but unsustainable) practices. Without some training or fast learning, without outside funding, nearly all of these stores will fail on their own accord. Unless they quickly proceed to stage 2, that is.

Stage 2 Game Store: Conscious Incompetence. This is where I hope most new store owners begin. Knowing that they don’t know what they’re doing and trying to learn. This learning stage in any business will cost huge amounts of money in screw ups. In our industry that means over ordering, under ordering, over prizing, under staffing, breaking street date, and basically any number of innocent but incompetent errors that cost the business money. The danger here is not that the staff aren’t learning – they are – but that their mistakes overwhelm the business’s income and bankrupt the company before it gets off the ground. The sooner you move through this stage as a store owner, the sooner you can accurately assess whether your company can be profitable, or if you’ve made a grave error in judgement and need to adjust. Remember, if you’re not aware that you’re ignorant, you can’t correct for it. This is not a criticism; I have frequently been ignorant.  Mentorship from a more experienced store owner or manager can help enormously to mitigate the disasters that can swallow a business at this stage. Assuming that the store survives its own mistakes and learns its market, it will proceed to.

Stage 3 Game Store: Conscious Competence. These stores know what they’re doing and know their customers. They are watching their sales metrics, marketing plans and event attendance, and managing both. When something is off, sales or attendance dip, they see the problem quickly and take steps to course correct. Staff here will seem more like an extension of the company’s ethos, rather than a mixed bag, because they are hired and trained with specific goals in mind and fired if they do not achieve them. Ownership may or may not be present on a daily basis, depending on whether the owner enjoys interacting with customers, or prefers the “backstage” elements of store ownership. Events will be consistent, clearly communicated, and sales or value adds will be used to generate customer loyalty, larger sales, or future profits rather than haphazardly thrown around to find the cash to pay rent. Policy’s will not only be consistent, but clearly written down for customers. An employee manual will exist, and a clear path for internal review and reward will be present for staff. All of this will be centered on a clear set of goals for the company. This store will fail only if they misjudge their market or a market shift occurs that they cannot adjust to. They will not be unaware of market shifts though, and most will attempt to course correct. These businesses are more stable, and typically attract the lion’s share of customers in their market. They do this because they are aware of what customers want, provide it on schedule, and make up for errors if they occur.

Stage 4 Game Store: Unconscious Competence. This store’s day to day is a well-oiled machine. Staff rarely require direction from the owner or their direct manager, because their training and place is ingrained. Ordering, stocking, and managing events will occur almost automatically. The only significant danger to this game store is abrupt market shifts, as they will tend to be less aware of areas they are not competent in because they have not needed to learn them, and the machinations of their business are likely not set up to handle sudden educational needs or knowledge gaps. Ideally, the owner is serving to keep a wide-angle view on the business and be consciously on the lookout for big market changes.

Any store can open or start operations at any stage of this, depending on the knowledge and resources of the owner or manager. Unfortunately, most live and die in Stage 1 or 2, never aware they need to change or aware but unable to muster the resources to upgrade their staffing and events. At stages 1 and 2, the store will rarely if ever turn a profit. At stage 3 and 4 profits will be in similar growth patterns, but at stage 4 the store may begin to diversify its offerings into subsidiary “geeky hobby materials” like comics, disc golf, radio control, models and so on which will also be profitable as the ownership build the staff quickly to stage 4 with them. At stage 3 the store’s staff and capital resources are being plunged into things that they know will have a return.

Who cares though? 

What use is all this? Well, if you’re a gamer and evaluating stores, you should avoid anything that smells of Stage 1. Those stores are likely to die, and your dollars will not help them. Stage 2 is great to find if you like “helping the underdog,” but if a store stays there for too long, it’s natural that customers lose patience. Stage 3 and 4, on the other hand, are likely to provide a lot of benefits to you as a customer, give back to the community, and grow into excellent one-stop shops for your hobby needs. If you’re a store owner and you think you “know it all” it’s a good reality check to read around some of the excellent blogs that exist in this industry and see if you really know what you think you do.

*All actual advertisements for regular sales or event pricing I have seen this year from actual stores. I will not cite them, but google around and you’ll find them fast enough. Every one of these, run long enough, will bankrupt the category it is being used to promote of its own accord, if not sink the entire business.