Welp, I’m back, after a.. 4 year.. absence. Turns out running a shop takes way too much time for me to get around to doing anything convenient like updating a personal blog. The shop is gone now, however, so I guess I can spend some of my new free time updating again. You can expect random musings, badly written diatribes against the game industry as a whole, and maybe some reviews or something. I want to get better as a writer, and they say the way to do that is to write a million words and throw them all away. I don’t know about a million, but i can probably devote a couple hundred a day to this site. Might actually help me process some things. Today, I think we’ll do a store postmortem. Up until a few months ago, I was the owner of 21st Century Comics & Games in East Lansing, MI. I shut it down after 6 years of ownership. I was the third owner, but actually owned it the longest out of any of the owners so I like to think it was mine by the end.
21C shut down for a number of reasons, some of them my fault, some of them just the nature of the industry as a whole.
Reason 1: Parking. 21C did not have convenient free parking. We were located right next to MSU’s campus which gave us great walking traffic from campus, but made it suck if you actually drove out to see us. This was not a huge deal if a customer was just stopping by to grab something, but I think it hurt our event traffic over time. I looked into moving the store, but we had such a nice deal on rent where we were, I could not find another location with parking that was worth moving to. Everything was going to be the same money for less space, which was not a trade I wanted to make.
Reason 2: Magic. We did not support the magic community, sell singles, or host Friday night magic. There were a number of reasons for this. I did not play magic, and did not know that part of the industry as well as I should have. I also did not want to deal with the hassle of buying and selling singles, and trying to keep up enough with the industry on that to make a profit. Magic players as a whole also have a reputation for being difficult customers to deal with, largely due to a problematic minority, and I just did not want to put up with the hassle. We also were more set up to handle war-gaming on Friday night,and I did not want to fight for the space. There were also a number of stores in my area already doing magic. My closest competitor was less then a block away, and had been focusing heavily on magic for a number of years. That leads into reason 3.
Reason 3: Competition. I ran the best store I could, and felt I did a pretty good job, but the market in East Lansing/ the greater Lansing area is pretty crowded. The closest store to mine was literally a stones throw away, and we had a number of other shops in the area. Some pre-dated mine, and some opened shortly after I bought the store. It lead to a very diluted market. I think the area has enough gamers to keep 1 or 2 shops running very profitably. Unfortunately, within 15 minutes drive, I think we had 6 or 7, depending on what you count as competition.
Reason 4: Comics. I like comics, I enjoy reading some of them, and I think it’s a great medium. However, I don’t love comics. It is difficult to grown your comics business if you don’t eat sleep and breath comics. I had a very wonderful manager helping me with comics over the years, which is the only reason my shop did as well as it did with comics, but I did not do what was needed to support the business. I was never up on the current mega super crossover, and over time, my ability to recommend current titles dwindled. I just lost most of the interest I had started with, in the day to day grind to keep the doors open and the lights on. I was never the kind of owner who could grab a new comic off the shelf, and know which of my customers might enjoy it. I am told there were other shops in the area that did that, and did it well, so I gradually lost comics business to them.
Reason 5: Loss of dominance. When I bought 21C, it had some competitive advantages, that eroded over time. We had the best RPG selection, the best Board game selection, and the largest Warmachine and Hordes section locally for sure, and possibly in the state. People drove in from out of town regularly to pick up warmachine / hordes models, or to browse the new and used RPG section. Over time, we lost some of that, as our competitors got better. Board games became a bigger and bigger thing, so more stories carried more games, and our selection stopped being as impressive. Other game stores got larger warmachine and hordes communities, and started stocking better.
Reason 6: Privateer Press. Privateer press’s line also hurt us a bit on the stocking front. Being the shop with everything was great, until the line got prohibitively huge. They got so behind on orders I could not keep the shelves re-stocked. By the time everything I wanted was in, I had so many holes to fill, I could not afford to get it all, so we were constantly out of stock on something. Our community also dwindled. I think in part because other stores were carrying the line, and getting their own groups people did not want to travel as far to be part of ours. The first league I ran at 21C has 32 people signed up. The last league only 6.
Reason 7: Lose of markets. In my time at 21C, I got to watch the RPG market die another death. In just a couple years it fell from one of our largest sales categories, to one of the smallest. The big companies stopped publishing, one by one, and now only a few are sputtering along. Heroclix died, and while it came back, our community never really did despite the efforts of a couple great volunteers. We tried to fill the gap with other collectible minis, and for a while, we did OK, but eventually that whole category was dead, another hole in my offerings. I experimented with a number of different possible replacements from model rockets, to swords, but nothing ever really took.
Reason 8: Dilution of focus. That experimentation I mentioned also cost me. When I bought 21C, we sold warmachine, and its sister game hordes. We also supported a battle tech community. That was it as far as wargames went. We did not sell Games workshop products, Malifaux and dystopian wars did not exist yet. We were dabbling in AT 43 and Confrontation, and that may have been a mistake. Every time I brought in a new game, the goal was to get in new customers. What happened instead, was a percentage of my current customers tried the new game, and stopped or slowed their buying of whatever they had been getting before. Over time, we tried this with a bunch of games, and it never really grew our customer base, it just diluted the focus of our existing customers. It’s hard to say for sure what the shop might have done, had I kept with just warmachine and hordes, but I would have had a lot more money to devote to just those 2 lines, if i was not trying to keep all the others stocked.
Reason 9: The internet. Sad but true, the internet retailers, and the granddaddy of them all, Amazon, were hard compete with. They have us beat on price, period, and so we basically had to bank on loyal customers who play in the shop, and people who want it now, not in a couple days, or a week of shipping. There were enough of those in 2007, less so in 2013, and it is only going to get worse. When amazon is prepping to do 30 minute drone delivery by 2015, it’s going to be very hard for a traditional brick and mortar to compete. A strong event focus seems to be a key to combat that problem, or picking a product categories where you have enough buying power to drive your wholesale costs down as far as possible.
Reason 10: Owner burnout. I spent the entire time I owned 21C working 2 jobs. I had a tech job, and I had the store. This worked, in that it kept me solvent while the store was keeping itself solvent, but I feel it hurt 21C’s potential over all. I never had as much brain space left at the end of the day as I needed to plan and work to grow the store. I did not personally run weeknight events, which I would have liked to have been able to do, and I almost never played in the store. By the end of the day, I always felt too burned out to jump into something. We did as well as we did on the strength of my great employees, and the events they were willing / able to run.
I’m sure more things will come to me as time goes by, this is less an exhaustive list, and more just the surface thoughts. I loved the store, and had a great time running it, and would not trade the experience for the world. I may even try again someday, but how that might come about is a post for another day.
-Outerdork, dorking out.