What Publishers Should Know About Retail

What should publishers know about retail? In a lot of ways, it’s a simple question to answer. “Publishers should know how to run a game store,” says Marcus King, of Titan Games & Music. A statement like that runs the risk of sounding trite, but at the same time, everything in a retail store is interconnected, so understanding just one aspect of a retail operation isn’t likely to be enough.

Publishers should understand how we market and sell books. They should understand how we buy books. They should read “Tilting at Windmills.” They should try to do a monthly Diamond order to see what it is like. And really, they should work in a store to see how customers respond and what it is like to sell someone on the idea of a book, how tricky and important that is, and how important it is to have the staff wanting to sell your book in particular.
(John Simons, Midnight Comics)

That being said, opening a retail location or working in a store for a while isn’t necessarily a plausible option. When the question, “What should publishers know?” was posed to retailers, they came back with all kinds of answers. The responses centered around product support, inventory control and retailer relations.

How a product is supported after its launch is as important as the planning that goes into it pre-launch. Demos, giveaways, competitions, marketing, accurate and consistent information; it all helps sell your product to the customer, and the store.

What have you done to let the retailer know about your product? Do you encourage the end customer to interact with the retailer? Do you pay for any marketing to the retail tier? What do you do to encourage the retailer to stock all of your products and avoid the dreaded “periodical model?” What sort of organized play or volunteer program do you use? The goal is to get the retailer to buy the product, and more importantly, consider that product “evergreen” enough to keep it in stock.
(Gary L. Ray, Black Diamond Games)

Be careful to avoid the pitfalls inherent in the expansion model, as well. A customer that likes your core game is more likely to buy expansions, but if they’re forced to buy an expansion to have a complete game, they may just pass your game up entirely. “Make a great game that is complete,” says Hans Isaacson, of Uncle’s Games. “Expansions should only add new options to a sound game. They should not be there to complete it.”

I think that the thing that stands out the most to me that publishers need to realize about retailing is that there are hundreds of really great games available to be sold at retail. The best game for a retailer is one that sells itself. This is not to say that retailers are lazy–most are not. This is to say that even the retailer who is running events in the community, rotating demo games in the store, using shelf-talkers, pushing a try-out system, and more, are still going to be able to sell more of a game that sells itself. And when you are running a small business, those are the kinds of products you want and need. From concept to execution to marketing, publishers must look for and to every way that the game can sell with no effort from the retailer.
(Anthony Gallela, Bucephalus Games)

When done well, helping a retailer with product support will help you nab precious shelf space. There’s only so much room to go around, and you want your products getting the best space they can. That may sound obvious, but it’s easy to lose sight of space concerns in the Internet Age.

They should know how their product is likely to be displayed. This includes things like facing. How will it look on a magazine rack? Can you see the title? How about on a bookshelf with the spine out? They should know how their product holds up on the shelf. How long before the cover begins to warp and bend? Is there room for a price tag? Did you print your MSRP on the book?
(Gary L. Ray, Black Diamond Games)

Beware of deviating from established norms when it comes to packaging, as well. Oddly shaped packaging may cause your product to pop for customers, but if a retailer can’t find a place to stock it on their shelves, they’re less likely to order your game. “’Innovation’ may work in design,” says James Crocker, “but it’s a huge pain in packaging. Whenever you deviate from established packaging, you’ve made your game harder to sell.” The last thing you want is to give a retailer a reason not to stock your product.

Just because you make what you think is a really cool product, there is no guarantee that anyone else will think so, nor is there any guarantee that I will stock your product on my shelves without a reason to do so. Either a publisher needs a track record (Steve Jackson Games), good advertising campaign (Fantasy Flight Games or Games Workshop), good word of mouth (Spirit of the Century), or a good discount (Mayday Games, Valiant Games) to get me to take a look at your product.
(Scott Thorne, Castle Perilous Games)

“No matter how good your stuff is, we’ve got a hundred publishers whose stuff (for different reasons, maybe) is just as good that we need to keep track of at any given time,” says James Crocker. “Please don’t ever take this personally.” Just as you, the publisher, are dealing with dozens, maybe hundreds, of retail stores on a regular basis, retailers are dealing with just as many publishers. You may not be able to deal with each store on a personal basis, but keep in mind that the decisions you make affect more than just your own bottom line.

Do you see the retailer as an impediment or a partner? Selling direct to the consumer is fine, but do you play favorites? Do you sell your product early online? Do you sell it early at conventions? Do you discount online or hold sales leaving out the retailer? Is Amazon deep discounting your product? Do you openly encourage customers to buy directly from you instead of the retailer? Do you have a subscription service that does not include the retailer? Is the retailer given a margin that’s less than 50%?
(Gary L. Ray, Black Diamond Games)

One thing I think publishers would do well to at least experience is the woeful situation of mass-market glut selling. When a retailer can’t seem to acquire, due to “limited supply”, more than one or two copies of a product but a place like Waldenbooks has 20+ copies, is it any wonder we become frustrated? We advertise the product, support the product (gaming space, Organized Play, etc.) and then, since we all-too-quickly run out of product, the big-box company makes the sale. Worse, since they do such a volume, they can afford to discount.
(Timothy J. O. Gatehouse, Gatehouse Games)

As a publisher, retailers can be your best source of information about customer buying habits and trends. Direct comments from customers and even opinion surveys are biased based on who’s participating and who’s not. Retailers have a big-picture overview of the market they’re in, something difficult to come by, otherwise.

Customers only buy what they’ll play. It used to be customers would buy interesting books from systems they don’t play to read for fun or to find new ideas. Recession purchasing found customers abandoning this practice. Books are bought for direct play. Books that will not be used will not be bought. This was a big eye opener.
(Gary L. Ray, Black Diamond Games)

In addition, the biggest request, mentioned across the board, was for more product differentiation. “You may not be able to judge a game by its cover, but I can tell you which ones will initially sell by it,” says Hans Isaacson. “Know what else is out there. Before you make another pirate game or a game that ‘plays like Settlers,’ stop. If you can’t find a great reason why your game is going to be unique, it will probably fail.“ There are a lot of games out there, and yours has to stand out.

As Angel May, of A&E Ventures puts it, “Do something different, or forget it.”


Written by Jonathan Holmberg

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