Competing with Amazon

by Brian Dalrymple

I understand shopping on price. Running a game shop means being budget-conscious nearly all of the time. I track what I spend on products, concessions, necessities, food, gas, and so on. I’ll drive an extra couple of miles to fuel up at the station that’s a few pennies less per gallon. I use Amazon for little things I need that might be more expensive elsewhere. I recently got a new phone, so my phone case, SD card and extra charging cable all came from Amazon. I may even buy a book from them every now and then.

What I don’t do – what I think most people don’t do, is shop on Amazon. I mean, really shop – stroll the aisles, see what catches my eye. Spend an hour or more looking around. Pick stuff up. Skim through, try it out. I don’t hang out at Amazon, or get into a good, Clerks-style conversation with the staff, or other shoppers there. I certainly don’t game there.

As stores with physical locations, we have strengths Amazon and other online sellers can’t compete with, and by playing to these strengths, you can position yourself to thrive, even as online “shopping” increases around us.

This is possible because we don’t sell anything people need to have. There’s nothing in my shop that people would have a hard time going about their daily lives without. Everything I carry is a luxury. People need food, every day. They need gas if they have to drive. They have to buy them, so they try to find them at the best price. It’s a regular purchase. Not so with games. People buy games because they want them. What’s more, most game purchases are impulse purchases. One could make an argument that all of them are.

Quick access to price comparisons via smart phone can postpone this impulse, or at least redirect it, if the shopper has the patience to trade immediate ownership for savings. The difference in price has to large enough to motivate that choice.

So, other than having the product on the shelf, what else can you do to encourage that purchase is made in your store?

You could match the discount, or try to come close, and probably make the sale, but shaving your margin thin likely isn’t going to help you. It might make your customer happy, but brick and mortar retailers usually can’t afford to do this as a matter of course and expect to stay open. Online discounters, and especially Amazon, operate under entirely different models that do not work for individual stores.

So, what else? Under what circumstances are people less concerned with whether they are saving a little, and freer with their spending?

Think about what you’re like when you’re on vacation. Having lived in Florida my whole life – home of Walt Disney World, Miami Beach, the top cruise terminals – I witness a lot of tourism, and I know people who provide service to tourists. When people are having a good time and getting great service – when they are in the midst of an experience – they aren’t as concerned about expense.

Your store is a special place to the people who visit it. If someone comes in once a week, or once a month, that visit is a highlight of their week. It’s a mini-vacation from the rest of their time, and your store is a mini-Disney World. If they’re coming to game at your store, even more so. It’s a trip to Middle Earth, or the far future, or the cyclopean towers of R’lyeh, where they can join with other travelers and have a great time ducking tentacled horrors and vampires. This is your strength, and Amazon can’t touch it.

For people who visit more regularly, your store is that “third place” Starbucks wants to be, but better. You can find good conversation, and enjoy yourself for hours.  It’s Cheers, except the Guinness is a game of Night’s Black Agents, or 13th Age. Heck, maybe you serve Guinness, too.

Any manifestation of your store – the theme park, the community pub, the daily convention – can be enhanced by running special events. Workshops, designer visits, painting clinics, Game Master roundtables, all day mega games – use your imagination. The more special the event, the more your customers value your store, the more it makes a difference to them, the more they’ll understand you’re not just a business that offers things they might want, you’re a place that matters. People will want to support places that are part of their community that matter to them.

Amazon can’t offer any of that.

What about the new customer who brings a product up to your register and asks if you can match Amazon’s, or some other online discounter’s price?  What you decide is up to you. I usually say I can’t, but I try to make sure they know about the things we do. I show them around the shop. I let them know about upcoming events. I try to get them to sample the experience of my store beyond the transaction of the game purchase. It doesn’t always work – but sometimes it does, and I wind up with a repeat customer.

There have been times I’ve watched someone enjoy a demo in store, and then go to the shelf to retrieve a copy of the game they just played, look at the price tag, take out their phone, and re-shelve it a moment later.  That can be heartbreaking, but I realize there can be a lot of reasons for the no-sale. Real monetary reasons.

The internet has trained a segment of our consumer base that paying MSRP for a game, whatever the circumstances, is foolish. Ironically, many in that same group routinely pay more than they have to for coffee, or beer. They also value social experiences and unique events to the extent they’ll pay to be a part of them, so maybe, for that segment, sell the experience. Many stores are seeing enthusiastic participation in RPG night events as interest in roleplaying increases, and are able charge a fee. Maybe even sell them the coffee or beer, if you can.

If you work to make your store a community focal point, offer a good selection, great service, a mini-universe of escapes from the day to day, and unique events people will want to be a part of – make your store a great store, and Amazon will be less of a problem. It also helps tremendously when our publishers offer tools like Bits & Mortar, which is a great reward for preorders (and something you can’t get from Amazon) or MAPP programs to lower that critical difference in price to get that impulse sale. Publishers want brick & mortar stores to be healthy. They know they’d be in much worse shape it were just Amazon out there, so share your ideas with them, and ask how they can support your efforts.

Brian Dalrymple owns The Adventure Game Store & Dragon’s Lair in South Florida, and is a partner in Alligator Alley Entertainment, publisher of The Esper Genesis Heroic Sci-Fi RPG, and Witch Hunter: The Invisible World. He has worked at every level in the games industry, and has been actively involved in the Game Manufacturers Association for more than 20 years. Find him on Twitter @AdvGameStore

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