Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Brick & Mortar Versus Internet Game Sales

I spent this past Saturday on an expedition driving around the nearby greater metro area on a number of errands, primarily to have lunch with a friend and visit a one-day toy soldier show and sale, but also to check out a few area hobby and game stores to see if they had anything to satisfy my appetite for my various gaming addictions. While I achieved my main objectives, the hobby store aspect of my trip was terribly disappointing; I asked myself why I spent a day driving around to different stores when I could probably have spent less time purchasing what I wanted right off the internet.

Don’t get me wrong…I love brick and mortar hobby and game stores. I have fond memories of the trove of roleplaying game goodies found at the hobby store not five minutes from the house where I grew up (and sadly long gone). Everywhere I’ve lived I managed to find good gaming stores, sometimes an hour or so away, but always well worth the trip because I found something I was looking for or a hidden treasure that caught my eye. Even today I consider my “friendly local gaming store” (yes, it’s still about a 45-minute drive away) worth the trip.

But my meanderings Saturday displayed some disappointing evidence of both typical game store behavior and the depleted inventory and ├╝ber-specialization brought on by the economic recession. I encountered both wonderfully friendly staff and extremely negative managers. The stores exhibited a more limited selection of gaming products than on previous visits (about a year ago), though at least one had specialized more on a particular miniatures game which I enjoy but wasn’t looking to purchase this time around. For the most part my pilgrimage seeking game-purchase satisfaction was unfulfilling; I don’t like saying this, but I could have saved my time and money buying what I wanted off the internet.

Environment or Convenience?

The debate really boils down to going to game stores for the environment or fulfilling your shopping list online.

Good game stores offer an atmosphere conducive to customers browsing product, talking about games, and playing them. The ones that impress me the most provide plenty of room to move about to browse the merchandise as well as gaming areas where one could watch or try out new games. They encourage an active calendar for regular weekly gatherings for groups playing all kinds of games, occasional “craft” events for miniatures wargaming (like painting days or terrain-making workshops), and host special events like open board gaming days, demos, and tournaments. Websites and social networking sites provide both means for retail stores to communicate information and news to customers and forums for gamers to gather and interact through the store’s online presence.

Many stores are limited by their leased retail space that comes at a costly premium. Offering room for customers to move about the store freely or sit for hours playing games isn’t always perceived as an equal priority to providing shelf space to display merchandise for sale, but gaming stores aren’t typical retail establishments; they’re gathering places where members of a hobby community can meet and interact.

The stores I visited Saturday had gaming areas with people hanging out, talking about their particular games, setting up for matches, or actually playing scenarios; but my primary mission was game purchase, so the lack of merchandise I was particularly interested in didn’t keep me in the store very long, and their size wasn’t too conducive to hanging around (in fact in one I had to maneuver around the playing area to check out shelves farther back in the store).

With the advent of online sales, brick and mortar stores have much more fierce competition from the purely retail perspective. One can find almost any gaming product online, in most cases at a decent discount or free shipping. Even if one pays a little for shipping, it’s nothing like the time and gas spent looking for a particular product (possibly unsuccessfully) at a physical store. To survive in the face of online sales, good game stores offer customers the positive gaming environment, excellent deals, and hassle-free special ordering. I’m thankful my friendly local gaming store gives me a flat 10% off most purchases for being a frequent customer, and 10% off any special orders I place.

The Shopping List

Just out of curiosity, you might ask what I was seeking on my day-long trek. Nothing terribly vital, just a few things on my radar that have piqued my interest lately and which I wouldn’t mind checking out:

Armies in Plastic Toy Soldiers: These 1:32 scale (54mm) soldiers come in solid-colored plastic, but are nicely sculpted, reasonably priced, and cover various historical periods that interest me. A box of infantry comes with 20 soldiers, two each of 10 poses, for about $15 (cavalry comes with five horses and riders and artillery with one gun and a crew). The toy soldier show and sale I visited had a few vendors who carried a handful of boxes, primarily (and understandably) soldiers from the Civil War, but also from the Zulu Wars, Egypt and the Sudan, and a few boxes from other conflicts. I picked up a box of “Ansars” Dervish Warriors to slake my thirst for goodies from the Mahdist uprising. One can order these from Armies in Plastic online, but I like to get out and see the product first-hand.

Fire and Fury: I’ve heard this is one of the seminal rules for fighting American Civil War battles, but I’ve not seen a copy to browse or observed the rules in play. Lately I’m intrigued by a local Civil War battle I’m researching and would like to bring it to the wargaming table at some point. I’ve found some very basic (and fairly intuitive) rules online, but wouldn’t mind seeing if Fire and Fury is a little more advanced or simply too advanced for my purposes. I could order it online; instead I’ll see if anyone’s running it at an upcoming miniature wargaming convention or if any vendors there carry it. I can always fall back on the simple online rules I found.

Wings of War: Dawn of World War II Miniatures: This fun little game remains a nice entry point bridging the gap between board games and miniature wargames; I’m also running it at the local library’s upcoming teen gaming event. I wanted to beef up my RAF forces with the Spitfire and Hurricane to even out the few miniatures I already have. I’m not sure what I’ll do now…I could just make do with what I have and pare down the German forces I offer to players, or see if the friendly local gaming store could special order them (the minis aren’t something they usually carry).