Reinventing the FLGS

Building a New Foundation
Building a New Foundation

In my Growing the Hobby RPG Blog Carnival wrap-up, I shared my thoughts about growing the hobby. While I talked about it from the industry and hobbyist perspective, I realized I left out a crucial component: the retailer.

The Mighty Have Fallen

Before the internet and online discount retailers like Amazon dominated the book trade, the brick & mortar hobby shops (and a few mail order companies like Wargames West) were the bridge between publishers and players. The Friendly Local Gaming Store had a secure place in the hobby ecosystem. Where else could you buy plastic polyhedrons?

Simply put, retailers can no longer count on retail to be successful. Why would I use [increasingly expensive] fuel to drive to a hobby shop to pay full price plus tax for the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook ($50) when I can have Amazon ship it for free after receiving a hefty 37% discount ($31.49)? Or spend $10 to get the PDF instantaneously (or download it illegally for free)?

I don’t. I would recommend that everyone else saves their money too (without dipping into piracy).

That’s not saying I don’t shop at my FLGS. I just don’t go there to buy books or boardgames. I go there for things they don’t stock at Amazon: obscure gaming accessories, cheap or rare second-hand products, and other gamers. Though I do admit I frequent the FLGS less often these days because I’m not finding what I want. These days I just go to Half Price Books more often than not.

Laying New Bricks

How can Friendly Local Gaming Stores maintain relevancy?  One half of the equation is hobby shops providing services that gamers cannot find elsewhere and then supplement those services with products most likely to garner impulse buys from gamers utilizing these services.

The other half of the equation is fostering a community of local gamers that uses the FLGS as its base of operations. My friend and colleague, Jonathan Jacobs, spoke about building tribes recently at Nevermet Press, which I think is particularly relevant.

Make the shop an event. Every night. I’m not saying to hold events (though that’s part of it), I’m saying the store should be an event. Everyone should want to hang out there, because that’s where stuff happens.

Provide gaming space. There could be several tiers of space. The general area could be standard banquet tables that are free to use on a first-come/first-served basis. Then perhaps some larger tables separated by dividers to minimize noise that require a small fee per hour. Follow that up with a couple dedicated rooms for more seclusion (and higher fees).

Provide loaner games & accessories. Allow patrons to check out 3D terrain, miniatures, dice, battle mats and markers, or other paraphernalia. Again, have several tiers of fees by renting pre-painted plastic minis and paper terrain on the cheap (or free) while offering premium professionally painted miniatures and cast terrain. Hell, allow patrons to rent entire Warhammer armies for a session!

Run demos and teach games. Have a standing offer to demo any product (yes, that means you’ll need to know what you’re selling!). Put on the glitz and use the accessories you offer! Get support from the publishers, as they often have [volunteer] demo teams available. Let me see that expensive boardgame in action. If you get walk-ins involved in a game, they’re more likely to make a purchase.

Embrace technology. Have some workstations available where users have access to DDI. Let patrons print character sheets cheaply. Lock down external ports/security and provide access to a large library of PDFs (after addressing any legal concerns); have some tablet devices to read them on wirelessly. Make console, LAN, and MMO gaming available.

Have you seen the Microsoft Surface with Settlers of Catan or the Dungeons & Dragons interface? I bet that would be a huge draw.

Turn over lots of impulse buys. Cater to gamer hunger & thirst by selling water, soda, snacks, & candy. Barring any issues with the Health Department, sell large things like microwaveable meals or pizza. Have plenty whatever you’re demoing that day in stock. Create high demand from normal products with added value such as autographed copies.

Support second-hand markets. Buy and sell used books, novels, games, or movies. Create a collectible card/miniature game trade in service. Perhaps provide some consignment sales.

Reward customer loyalty. Create a loyalty program. Offer discounts to members and let them accrue points to redeem for free stuff. Implement a GM or Demo Team program that earns them free rentals or snacks. Have quarterly gamer awards. Let your patrons know you appreciate their business.

Bring star power. While it’s a little harder to pull off frequently, if you can manage to bring in designers, artists, or other personalities related to gaming (not just tabletop gaming here), it can be draw crowds (and sell books if there are autographs going on). This will obviously take some social networking on the owner’s part, but it’s not impossible.

Incorporate other hobby events. If there are local conventions, run a shuttle service from the store to the event. Have pre-con or post-con parties. Hand out flyers or otherwise advertise at the event. Organize your own convention!

Participate in the local community. Get an area at the county fair. Hand out small trinkets at the parade. Make your presence known in the local community by getting involved in cultural activities and festivals. Run some German-style boardgames with beer during Oktoberfest. Sponsor some community service.

Network, network, network. Meet your patrons. Get to know them. Meet publishers, designers, and artists. Employ all the social networks. Partner with personalities and run contests (Gator Games is really good at this). Join the appropriate associates and talk with fellow proprietors. Share knowledge!

But What Do I Know?

These ideas just sprung to mind as I was writing the Growing the Hobby carnival wrap-up. I know what I’ve presented are not new concepts, but I think many hobby shops are letting good opportunities slip by. I don’t own a store, nor have even worked at one, but looking at it from a patron perspective there is so much more my FLGS could be doing to get my business.

What do you guys think?

Growing the Hobby Series

Listening to: Biohazard – Means to an End – To the Grave

9 thoughts on “Reinventing the FLGS

  1. You’ve made some very good points here. I wrote a similar article over at MCGW a few weeks ago. Two very important things, at least in my opinion, that you neglected were professionalism and customer service. A game store is a business, and should be run as such. All of the great ideas you mentioned will be for naught if the person running the store runs it like a hobby or a lark instead of a business. As for customer service, I stopped going to game stores because many are poorly lit and poorly staffed. A clean, well lit, accessible space with friendly, knowledgeable, and well trained staff will make the difference between keeping and losing customers.

  2. I have to say, you have a quite of list of things that FLGS could do. I do wonder with the rather thin margins, if FLGS could actually do some of these things effectively. To be blunt, a FLGS is a pretty niche thing to run. I sometimes wonder how any FLGS actually stays in business wit the margins they have to deal with. It seems like to make it, the amount of effort required in the gaming market, is much higher than most other businesses. Seems like a FLGS owner/operator would have do it as a labor of love or be a little crazy (or both).

  3. @Jason: Indeed, I left out professionalism and customer service… I think they should go without saying, but it seems to be even more important to remember in this business.

    @Bonemaster: I think the thin margin is what they need to move away from. This is all armchair quarterbacking, but I think they need to move to service-based business rather than rely on book trade. It would be interesting for a successful hobby shop owner to comment on what I’ve presented.

    @Sycarion: I think the days when something like the Espresso becomes affordable are approaching quickly. While we’re in the clouds, imagine how cool it would be to be able to print miniatures on demand, at a store, with a 3D printer…

  4. @madbrew Actually, the technology for minis is almost here. I’ve seen a few prototypes around the interwebs, and they look pretty good. Considering a good DIY 3d printer is less than the price of a desktop, it won’t be too long.

    For books, though, even Kinko’s doesn’t have something like the Espresso. (not yet)

  5. Gooood thinking. Don’t buy games or books at your local shop. You can save $8 bucks a book if you get them on Amazon! Then you can go and hang out in the local shop and not spend any money, or buy $5 worth of dice. Sure, the shop will close eventually (just like record stores and video rental places), but at least you got to save a couple of bucks!

    Or here’s an idea, get involved. Run games at the local shop. Encourage them to have Encounters night, Heroclix night, etc. The shops are part of your community, and that part is going to go away if people don’t help keep it afloat.

    Don’t forget the customer service aspect–I went into my local shop last night expecting to spend a few bucks on a Pathfinder module, after talking to the owner, I walked out with a $90 Descent box under my arm. Yes, I could have gone home and looked it up on amazon, and saved $15 on it, but guess what, that guy went out of his way to explain the game to me, even popped open a box and showed me how it works, etc. If someone gave you that kind of service, how DARE you go home and buy it on amazon just to save $15!

    Those extra few bucks add up, but guess what, they keep the lights on, they keep the back-room games going, and they keep happy clerks recommending games to you and me.

    I am lucky, I live in the Baltimore area, and there are SO many shops in the area that have back rooms with games always happening, plenty of used selection, food and drinks, weird game systems, etc. And I make sure and spend my money at them, because if we don’t (many of you may be too young to remember the mid-80s), the game shops are going to go the way of the record store and start closing shop.

    Anyways, that was a rant, but I think the article is way off base. It’s incumbent on YOU guys, the consumers, to help keep the community alive. And if you don’t, and you have no FLGS left, well, you only have yourself to blame.

  6. @71Gamer: It’s not my (or any other gamers’) responsibility as a consumer to keep a retail location alive. That’s nonsense. It’s the retailers’ responsibility to adapt to the needs of the consumer. Retailers have to earn my money; I don’t give it up out some ill-conceived notion of how I need to keep a bad business model afloat.

    Besides, the last purchase I made at Amazon, on a single book, saved me more than $8. Let’s revisit the math (using my Pathfinder Core Rule Book as an example):

    Amazon FLGS
    Price: $31.49 $49.99
    Shipping: $0.00 $0.00
    Tax: $0.00 $3.50 (7% Indiana Sales Tax)
    Total: $31.49 $53.49

    So that’s $22 I just freakin’ saved by shopping Amazon! That’s not counting the .2 gallons of fuel it would take me to drive to my nearest store. On a single book (which admittedly might be an outlier if one took the time to map such data). Even if I’m just saving tax, money is money, and the more I have in my pocket after making a hobby purchase the more I have to spend on another hobby purchase, or upgrade a dinner reservation for a night out with the wife, or maybe it’s just an extra scoop of ice cream for my daughter.

    I think you also took my intent wrong. I’m saying that if the only thing a hobby shop does is peddle merchandise, then there is no reason to buy there; you should be saving money with an online retailer like Amazon. An FLGS needs to recapture the attention of the community and cash in on building loyalty. My list of ideas are just some things that came to mind to help do that.

    The FLGS doesn’t make the community, the community will survive without it, because something else will rise to take it’s place (even if it just ends up being a free service to find other gamers and schedule games). It’s ignorant to think that any FLGS is integral to “the community.”

    You do have a very valid point. Customer service is definitely something that needs to be paid attention to. But it’s important to every business. I thought it was so basic that I didn’t feel it was necessary to mention in the article. Another key point is location. It’s also important to provide a clean, well lit interior. Let’s not forget about effective marketing either.

  7. Customer service is something that online retailer can also provide. Amazon often have sample pages from the books, such as a table of contents, that you may view. And yes, “You may return most new, unopened items sold and fulfilled by Amazon.com within 30 days of delivery for a full refund.”

    I’m holding future comments on this article do the tone of some recent visitors. I do not appreciate such douchebaggery, and I don’t feel like wasting other, more respectful, readers’ time. If you like passive-aggressive bullshit, please find your bookmark to the nearest forum.

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