Like the much touted homogeneous experience at Starbucks, where a mocha here is going to be pretty much the same as a mocha 1000 miles from home, the only thing that looks different from one retail game store or department to another is the face of the employee who cheerfully greets you as you enter. The delivery of the "Hi! Is there anything I can help you with?" is the same every single time, even down to the pitch. The recommendations are also similar, whether you're picking up The Sims or Halo 2. Even the shelves look the same, but the fun is supposed to be inside the package, not in the retail experience getting it - right? The store is really a means to an end.
There are alternatives for developers who do not wish to go through the traditional retail method for whatever reason, such as self publishing using digital distribution. Valve Software's Steam "content delivery system" is one of the more noted attempts to move content directly to the consumer - and revenues directly to the developer - as opposed to through publishers. The problem there is one of getting attention - conventional releases secure that attention by being there in the consumer's face, through widespread mass marketing. Gamers still assume that a game that doesn't have a retail presence must be an inferior product.
Also, there are a few stores - hobbyist game stores, cybercafes and comic book stores - that aren't affiliated with chains. These are the roads off the beaten path and take a more personal touch to get into. While not likely to be as profitable, they do help build a loyal fanbase or are ideal for more "niche" products.
There are other steps between the publisher and the retail shelf: the packaging, the wholesalers who sell those CDs to burn upon, the paper to print manuals and the shippers to get the product from here to there. These are logistics generally handled on the publisher's side before even reaching the retailers' radar. But these roles, both those of the retailers and publishers, will get a little more interesting with the rise of some of the newer alternatives for distribution and it will certainly be interesting to see how it plays out for us, as consumers.
Nova Barlow is the Research Manager for The Escapist and Playerbase Solutions. She is also a regular contributor to WarCry.