I’ve grown up with modern gaming, you might say. I was a youngster when D&D was new. I played SPI Games with my dad when we could get them shipped to us at whatever APO address we were living at. I bought the original Squad Leader in a Hallmark store. I was not alone– there were tons of us kids looking for the latest and greatest back when I was growing up, and it was usually not to be found, until an actual Friendly Little Gaming Store (FLGS), the first in the area, hit town when I was in high school. By “hit town” I mean, started up about 20 miles away, an easy drive for anyone who had a license. It was an astonishing experience, to see and feel and touch the latest and greatest thing.. the latest module or expansion or whatever. Maybe you read about it in the Dragon, or the White Dwarf, or something. There was no internet in those days. Information passed around as best it could, from mouth to mouth and person to person. Having all that stuff in one place.. one store.. was amazing. I spent hours and hours there. Gradually, I went away to college to discover another FLGS, also nearby, which became almost like a clubhouse of sorts. For at least a decade, during the formative years of the gaming industry we know and love today, the way we found out about the Cool New Thing was to visit a FLGS store. If the owner was on the ball, he was talking to the distributor representatives each and every week, and had a good idea of what was coming down the pike and he would do the job of building up the audience for the Cool New Thing so that we were there, eager to buy it when the UPS man showed up with the first shipment.
Remember, we are still in those halcyon pre-Internet days. Gamers had no notions of a larger world outside their hobby shops, or even outside of their town. Sure, we knew there were other people who liked D&D and wargames and miniatures… but they might have been on the other side of the moon. The local FLGS was the bomb, the center of the gaming universe, the place where the larger games that couldn’t fit in people’s basements happened. At one FLGS that was near and dear to my heart, the Little Soldier in Alexandria, the owner, Dennis Largess, kept a game of Empires in Arms set up and laid out for a small group of players for what seemed like a year or more. And it was totally cool and almost expected that he would do so. That was what a FLGS was like in that era– not as productized, much more friendly and the customers had a personal attachment to the place that you only see a glimmer of these days. The more modern phrase “man-cave” applies, for the younger set.
And then, two things happened. The Internet happened, and the number of hobby distributors dropped off the face of the earth, from 20 or so, to 3, to 2, and now maybe one. What had been an easy and responsive ad-hoc system to allow rapid movement of product into stores has become increasingly more difficult to work with– distributors, which used to do business on competitive terms, became more restrictive and harder to get either credit or stock from. Thus stores went from a “buying one of everything and seeing if it works out” approach to a much more cautious buying strategy. Stores didn’t have the luxury of keeping failed product lines on the shelves forever and ever… shelf space is an expensive commodity.
Concurrently, the conventions (at least the miniature conventions– I can’t really speak for board game trade shows) were a conduit for those small shop owners to talk to manufacturers and see what the latest and greatest figure lines were coming down the pike. At the recent Historicon 2011 convention, there were only five companies present who actually cast new figure lines in the 2010-11 timeframe. Everyone else was selling someone else’s product. If there were small shop owners here and there in the crowd, they certainly kept a low profile. I can’t imagine the situation in boardgaming and RPG conventions is much different. I didn’t attend Origins 2011, but I heard on the recent Dice Tower Origins wrap up podcast that the show appeared “sparse” and that major boardgame publishers were not there in force. If an acknowledged boardgaming enthusiast like Tom Vasel is noticing a downward trend for one of the anchors of the gaming world (Origins), then likely this downward trend is noticeable. What role would a show like Origins play for a FLGS owner today? I don’t think many of them could afford to attend for starters. There’s the GAMA Trade Show, of course, but is a tiny FLGS owner actually going to go to Vegas to attend it? I rather doubt that. A Distributor would, for certain. A gaming store chain (and yes, there a few of those left) might. Again, I don’t know, I’ve never been to that show– but how relevant is it in the age of the Internet?
Aye, the Internet is the 300 lb. gorilla in this discussion, isn’t it? Internet, and in a broader sense, technological change, is a fast track that few store owners have the capital to keep up with. Our local gaming store was once heralded nationally as being revolutionary– boasting tons of table space, a clean, uncluttered look, friendly staffers who knew what they were talking about, and a constantly rotating stock of new items as well as “classics” that the owner had picked up here and there from collections. Sound familiar? That’s the kind of fustian that we were spouting about the emergence of the large mega-bookstores Borders, Brentanos and Barnes and Noble in the early 90s. And as we sadly bid farewell to Borders this week (more on this later), Brentanos being long gone, and as Barnes and Noble also lost 38 million last month, it seems like the outlook is bleak for companies catering to a leisure product that aren’t nimble enough to respond to change. The example of the bookstore industry is almost identical to the game retail industry, only larger by a few orders of magnitude. Bookshops that weren’t farsighted enough to adjust to new technologies (internet distribution of electronic books, reading machines, digital music, Amazon, etc.) were left high and dry, holding lots and lots of real estate, expensive inventories of CDs, DVDs, bulky items and books, coffee bars and a greatly diminished revenue stream to keep it all afloat. Game stores had similar problems with large inventories, only they didn’t have the same relationship with publishers and manufacturers that book corporations did. They couldn’t return for credit (for the most part) to a distributor who would give them something off for the next big buy. So anything that didn’t’ sell in a gaming shop either ended up in the discount bin at a huge loss so that SOME income could be generated for an order for next month, or the store would just sit on old inventory, year in and year out. Both of these approaches lead to inevitably diminishing cash receipts. In the meantime, potential customers are presented with the triple threat of Ebay, and hobby liquidator/vendors like Troll and Toad or Miniatures Market, and especially hobby online stores that provide pictures, links to blogs and YouTubes and other social media to show you how great a product is– and of course they’ll ship it to you in three days, no sweat, paid for electronically by credit card or handy paypal. In the face of all that, brick and mortar FLGSs have had a very difficult time competing. Some of them have adopted some pretty innovative programs, like Myriad Games‘ try before you buy program (for a fee) and creating “memberships” which are essentially free extra income (not unlike major bookstore retailers do). Certainly that will help, but the FLGS store owner, now more than ever, has to rotate his stock constantly, keep abreast of the trending items, and cater to his clientele. After all, what a FLGS has to sell is instant gratification and a sense of community. If the store can’t deliver on that promise, then people will shop online, which is in most cases, just as quick if not a whole lot quicker than getting a store to order it for you. What will keep the customers ordering from the store? Loyalty? Ha! Remember that showcase game store that opened up near me in the 90s? Back in the day, Special orders, a “gamer’s atmosphere” and personal service were what they had to sell. You know, the same edge Borders had over Mall bookstores like B.Dalton and Waldens, right? Nowadays, it’s as if we have to beg them to special order anything, and they wait until they have a critical threshold of units before they place an order with a distributor– so it takes weeks, if ever. When I recently wanted to order some more ironclad stuff in 1:600, I didn’t bother going to the store. I knew they wouldn’t carry it, of course, but special ordering was also right out. I placed my order with Bay Area Yards at a very reasonable price, and it showed up in three days. There’s no way my local store could compete with that level of service. To be fair to them in turn, I may be one guy out of 200 that might be interested in buying and collecting 1:600 ironclad miniatures, so I wasn’t expecting them to carry it. One other relevant item– I would not have jumped into the ironclads thing if I hadn’t found a bunch of “Hammerin Iron” resin boats by Peter Pig, at the Brookhurst hobby booth, at HISTORICON 2011.. you know, a booth, manned by human beings, showing product.
The fact is, I love FLGS and have spent hundreds of dollars in them over the years, not to mention countless hours. Nowadays, the primary feature of a FLGS is that there are people like me in them. Any given night my FLGS is full of people playing games, as it features several gaming tables. They have taken to charging for the privilege of using their tables… and I have no objection if that’s keeping them in business. Maybe they could focus on selling primarily the experience of playing games instead of the retail business of selling them.. not that I imagine it’s raking in huge dollars for two dollar table fees per person.
In conclusion, I’m not trying to be a doomsayer; I love FLGSs and grew up with them, but the old model has suffered from the economic contraction of the past four years as well as the complete and total dominance of Internet vendors. We may have reached a place where they are no longer AS relevant to the hobby as they once were. There are fewer and fewer gaming and hobby shops that specialize in tabletop gaming in the United States. The ones that are left are struggling, and the outlook is somewhat bleak if they don’t change with the times. I suspect gaming in the future will focus on a lot of grass-roots efforts, such as clubs, meetup.com, gaming in FLGS, buying stuff primarily online but maybe sometimes in a store, and gaming everywhere– coffee houses, pizza shops, libraries and yes, FLGSs. Not as centralized as gaming was when I was a kid, but it will still be here. I hope.