Opinion: A Modest Gamestopportunity
Author: John Bush
Businesses everywhere are hurting, especially the retail sector; that’s not news to anyone. People are living under stay-at-home orders while many of those who aren’t just seem to prefer staying home anyway. It’s also pretty obvious that this pandemic has done even more damage to retailers that were already in trouble - case in point: Gamestop. It’s no secret that Gamestop has been struggling in recent years, whether from a lack of direction from corporate leadership or from too much “leadership” from corporate leadership.
The Long Saga of Where I Spend My Money
Personally I’ve avoided giving Gamestop my business for years because of reasons big and small. I prefer buying new games to used when I can, and Gamestop’s focus on used games was a turnoff for me. For smaller releases Gamestop stores would tend to only order one or two copies; if I didn’t preorder, I’d often have to settle for the gutted single copy of whatever JRPG I was looking to pick up with that big, ugly Gamestop sticker in the corner of the case. When Amazon and Best Buy started offering sizable discounts on new games (that they kept sealed!), there just wasn’t any good incentive to shop at Gamestop, all other things being equal.
But all other things weren’t even equal; I knew quite a few people who worked at Gamestop over the years, and I was always shocked at how poorly they were treated. Employees were given no discretion in how to approach a customer, even frequent customers who had heard the (long, boring) spiel before. Their performance was judged entirely on arbitrary quotas that for some reason did not include sales or the store’s profitability. That’s a crummy way to treat people, sure, but that’s just typical corporate BS that employees can learn to deal with. Sometimes, things got personal.
One of my friends was a manager at a nearby store, working 50-60 hours every week without even receiving any overtime pay (to be fair, at the time New Jersey did not require overtime pay for anyone at the management level). They decided he wasn’t doing a good enough job or wasn’t a good fit or whatever, but didn’t want to let him go without cause so they didn’t have to give him any severance. His district manager came into the store several days in a row and sat in the back room, reviewing weeks of security footage and monitoring his every customer interaction, micromanaging his daily activities, and silently looming over the store looking for any reason to give as cause. After enduring it for a few days, my friend gave them what they wanted and quit, unable and unwilling to deal with the added stress for a job that only barely paid a living wage.
That was nearly a decade ago, so maybe the culture has changed. Though the barrage of questions I face every time I enter a Gamestop tells me maybe things haven’t changed that much. I’ve got no problems with an associate coming up and asking me if they can help me find anything; I do that at my job at a comic store every day - it’s just good retail practice. But the ten follow-ups pushing rewards programs, preorders, and every sale for the next few weeks is a little much. I just want to look at games! Give me a chance to see what’s around the store and I’ll come to you if I have any questions or need a recommendation. I entered the store to engage in a hobby that helps me relax; a high-pressure environment is the last thing I want. Buying online through Amazon or even in-person at Best Buy is just more satisfying, or at least less annoying, even now that they’ve discontinued their generous preorder prices (RIP Gamer’s Club Unlocked). I have to assume, given Gamestop’s struggles, that a lot of other customers feel that way too.
Gamestop Sucks. Hot Take, There, Buddy
Yeah, well… that was a longer introduction than I had thought I would be writing. Sorry about that, apparently I had some stuff I really wanted to get off my chest. What I really wanted to talk about today is what’s next for physical video game retail. The industry is big enough that places like Amazon, Best Buy, and Target probably aren’t going to let go of their share without a fight, and may even get into a bit of a battle over Gamestop’s market share, should it fall in the coming months or years. Digital sales have eaten up a huge chunk of the market, but as the success of companies like Limited Run Games and the robust collector’s markets on places like eBay and Facebook has shown, physical games and those who want them aren’t going away anytime soon.
The Direct Approach
I work at a comic store full-time. I know, I know, despite the mass audience that logs on to JP’s Switchmania I still need a day job. Tragic. For those that don’t know, comic stores are part of what is called the direct market of comics retail. Independent retailers buy comics and whatever other material they sell from a distributor on a non-returnable basis, as opposed to the mass retail market of places like Best Buy or Target who are able to return unsold product to the manufacturer. Generally, direct market stores buy at a lower price because there is no risk of loss by the manufacturers due to the product being non-returnable. Comic stores generally also carry older comics and collectibles to appeal to collectors and readers alike.
And That Applies to Video Game Retail Because…?
OK, I guess the direct market distribution stuff doesn’t necessarily apply directly to video game retail, I’m more interested in talking about independent retailers. Comics don’t have a Gamestop-like chain that specifically caters to the hobby; they have a network of thousands of independent stores run (mostly) by people who are passionate fans themselves. It’s possible that I’m a little biased, but I think that this would be a great model for the game retail industry of the future to follow. In fact I already know it would be awesome, as there are a few independent game stores near me (shout out to Digital Press). Independent retailers aren’t beholden to shareholders the way large corporate entities are; they can simply run the business in a way that is profitable enough to help them make a living while also making spreading love for the hobby the business’s main goal.
Won’t the Big Boys Just Crush Them?
Not necessarily. Taking comics as our guide yet again, lots of comics material is available through national chains. Barnes & Noble, Target, Amazon, and more all carry comics in some form, mostly in graphic novel collections or digital downloads, but it’s the same material comic shops carry. Despite this, comic stores endure (pandemic notwithstanding). Not only do comic stores compete with the national chains with the same material, they have two advantages in selling that material that a big chain has trouble matching. The first is the freedom to operate without being a slave to corporate shareholders, as I mentioned above.
The second is the ability to carry older material that isn’t worth a national chain’s time. Gamestop tried putting retro games in its stores a little while ago; from what I can see, that plan has been abandoned. The only reason I can see Gamestop giving up on any potential revenue stream is that it wasn’t profitable enough. And yet, at the comic store where I work and the local independent game stores I frequent, back issue comics and retro games are a huge part of the store’s business. Independent retail is a place where the history and culture of a hobby can live, thrive, and be shared with new generations of fans.
Ideals and Reality
I think it should be noted that I have no desire to see Gamestop go out of business. It employs tens of thousands of people, and I don’t want to see even a single one of them lose their job. And even despite my issues with the way they run their business, they are still a large, national chain of stores devoted almost entirely to one of my favorite things in the world. That’s nothing to sneer at, and they were smart enough to hire Reggie. However, if they do indeed disappear, there is an opportunity for electronic entertainment enthusiast entrepreneurs here to enrich the culture of gaming. Again, perhaps I’m biased, but I truly believe in the power of independent retail as a force for good within a hobbyist community.
There are plenty of supportive and welcoming hobbyist groups online – I interact with several on Twitter and Facebook almost every day (#switchcorps ftw). But there is something indescribably special about personally interacting with someone who shares your passion face-to-face. And at the end of the day, that is the greatest strength of the independent retailer; they’re in business because they want to spread the love. Whatever the future holds for Gamestop, I hope the pool of independent video game retailers grows, prospers, and fosters appreciation for the culture and history surrounding the medium.
*The opinions in this piece are solely the view of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of JP’s Switchmania or its affiliates.