Video games

Let’s go back to independent games retail

Earlier this week Game Group went into administration. With around 600 Game and Gamestation stores here it is the largest specialist games retailer in the UK.

Despite this dark week for games retail I implored gamers on Twitter to support other independent game shops on the high street. Many supported this notion, but lots more pointed out they had no indies near them – that’s tragic – but I can’t help but feel we as consumers are partly to blame for this.

Our independent gaming history

We have a vibrant video game history in this country. It’s not as well documented as other countries, but despite that, important franchises and development houses were born here, often fresh from the bedroom development scene of the early 1980s.

We had that same patchwork of independent games retailers too, who were usually fans of gaming with business acumen who realised that there was a gap in the market the came with the proliferation of games and games systems. We were largely safe from the video games crash of 1983 precisely because the majority of our developers, publishers, and home computers were based here and nearly totally uncoupled from the American market.

So these independent gamers realised that high street shops like Woolworths, Boots* and WH Smith etc were not always best placed to sell games. Sure they could put them on shelves with prices, but their staff weren’t best equipped to answer questions about what was the best console port from arcade, or what games were best suited to a player based on what else they enjoyed.

Then in 1995 (when the first big US games retailer hit our shores in the form of Electronics Boutique) this idea of independent games shop sort of fell by the wayside. By the time all EBs became Game we’d all collectively coasted along with this new model of games specialists.

Coasting off a monopoly

Game (and with their uncontested acquisition of Gamestation in 2007) became the de-facto shop Britain thinks of when it comes to game shops. More importantly this retail chain has become the retail experience by which we were all judged by non-gamers in turn. If less gaming-savvy relatives or friends wanted to buy us a game for Christmas they’d go to Game, it seemed easier than researching the title involved themselves, going online, or popping into a independent shop.

Why? Because as my Twitter audience pointed out there simply aren’t many independent retailers on the high street anymore, and if there are, they’ve been totally dwarfed by the Game/Gamestation behemoth.

However we’ve partly perpetuated this by feeding back into the loop of Game equalling the only Game shop. In turn Game and Gamestations senior management relied too heavily on our laziness. They collectively focused less (at a senior management level at least, I have no issue with the bods on the retail floor) on the experience of games shopping, and fell more inline with the experience of the very high street shops that those savvy gaming businessmen swore all those years ago to deviate from.

Game and Gamestation became another ordinary shop in all but name, still defending their “game specialist” status, but bar a few notable examples of specialism (midnight launches, pre-orders) not really providing much that you couldn’t experience in any other store, and at a premium at that. The idea of game retail specialist became a complete fallacy because Game Group had totally watered the idea down. In the process of their dominance many independent shops couldn’t compete, gamers that didn’t like the new model or weren’t catered for by Game Group went online.

One area where most high street retailers fail in regards to games is the fact that many don’t even to continue to properly support our gaming history by providing easy access to retro titles, or even the “niche” titles that befit a games specialist. These titles now can’t be found anywhere else but online, fuelling the need for people with an ardent interest in games to go elsewhere.

Where the indies come in

This week has shown that one giant games retailer doesn’t always work in the best interest of it’s audience. I’d like to see more indie stores, tweaked and tailored to the unique needs of the local area, filled with gamers or at least people that properly respect gaming at every appreciable level. It might make for a better and more sustainable business model.

They should stock what gamers want (and that means all gamers) not just the audience that Game caters for now (with all the major franchises in tow, but minimal numbers of much else). Pre-owned retro stock shouldn’t just be a nice to have. Additionally game shops are on the high street have become far too focused on the last six to twelve months of gaming. Good indies cater as far back as their customer base wants, as well as offering pre-orders for all and any new games, not just major titles.

My most important requirement form a specialist games retailer is a helpful and respectful shopping experience with friendly staff that make people want to commit to shopping locally rather than going online or via a supermarket. We gamers often have more disposable income than other consumers and yet we’re still chasing the cheapest price when many other local retailers (particularly those stocking locally sourced food and crafts) are having a bit of a renaissance here. We’re starting (with other things we need at least) to go back to the idea of customer loyalty, and that’s genuine loyalty not shown with cards, but with footfall and returning business.

So why not with games? Independent shops won’t exist where they’re not supported, and while the Game Group situation may may survive in some form, we as consumer have a chance for a new and better model for games retail. Let’s not waste it.

* Yes, once upon a time, Boots did in fact sell video games. Boots is a very famous pharmacy chain in the UK.

4 replies on “Let’s go back to independent games retail”

All this talk of independent retailers makes me really miss Gamer-Time, the place where I built up most of my SNES collection while making friends with the awesome staff. Sadly, they closed down a couple years ago. It always felt infinitely better to go in there than major chains and I often found myself lingering around just to chat. I miss ’em 🙁

I’m lucky enough to have a tiny indie store round the corner which is where I buy most of my games despite being an ex-Game employee. Sure it’s more expensive, but as you rightly point out nothing beats good specialist advice. Some people think I’m crazy for not buying at relatively dirt-cheap prices online and I have to explain how nice it feels to physically browse a game store whilst being asked how you got on with your last purchase by another person rather than an automated script.

Ha, I remember sorting through our collection of Commodore 64 cassettes and noticing that there was still the occassional Boots price sticker on one or two of them. 😀 The best thing about the independents is that there’s a better sense of intimacy with staff and you can casually share banter without having their latest promotions shoved in your face – the constant upselling by bigger chains is more offputting than anything else.

Supermarkets and ShopTo and Amazon and Steam (and recently, maybe even Kickstarter) will rule the waves over the coming years, these companies have been squeezing the usual brick and mortar shops as it is. There is a reason why Game’s numbers have been looking like this recently:

Profit before tax 2011 – £23.1m
Profit before tax 2010 – £84.2m
Profit before tax 2009 – £119.6m
Profit before tax 2008 – £68.4m
March 2012 – 277 shops closed, shares suspended on London exchange

The personal service at a good indie though, that’s something the online guys will never have.

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