Uncovered Convention


Every year, the gaming media descends on widely covered conventions like GDC, E3 and the Tokyo Game Show, where great floods of humanity swell and surge while the biggest names in the industry try to convince us that have the skeleton key to gaming bliss. But these are not the only conventions eager public relations masterminds and confident executives attend, and the unseen and largely uncovered conventions have more power to direct the casual consumer than E3 ever has. Last week, Las Vegas hosted just such an event, as every manager of every Gamespot in the nation was treated to his own private convention attended by developers with more than just promises to offer.

I have been twice a manager for a major videogame retailer, once with Gamestop and once with EB in the year prior to its merger. I have attended three of these manager conferences, and I assure you, it works to the advantage of both the retailers and the publishers who attend to consolidate this force of counter-jockeys in one strictly controlled environment.

Along with an endless series of seminars on the latest promotions and processes dreamed up by the retailer in its run-up to the holiday season, the three-day convention is capped by a blend between E3 and a forced-attendance marketing presentation. The thousands of nationwide managers are treated to the latest upcoming games and products backed not simply by the typical enthusiasm and hype of gaming PR companies but sales incentives for getting reservations, exceeding sales projections and maintaining high attach rates, which can turn into thousands of dollars in bonuses for sales leaders. As it turns out, managers of retail outlets aren’t just suggesting you reserve the latest game and cover your immediate purchase with insurance for your own peace of mind.

According to the Dallas Morning News, which covers the Dallas-based Gamestop Corporation closely, the two key words at this year’s convention were “casual gamer,” and with them plans to revamp store layouts and continue riding the success of games like Guitar Hero and consoles like the Nintendo Wii. According to Gamestop VP Dick Fontaine, who along with current CEO and Chairman of the Board Dick Fontaine helped rebuild the company from bankruptcy in the mid-’90s, the casual gamer has “evolved,” and this season the focus will be on serving that growing segment of the gaming population.

It’s a smart move for Gamestop, which is pressing the advantage built from absorbing its main competitor, Electronics Boutique, whose former CEO Steve Morgan now serves as the company’s President. Gamestop has managed over the last decade to match the growth of the gaming industry and focus its business model on a profitable strategy of used items and product protection plans.


Despite frustrating publishers, who see little or no return on the heavily emphasized used games segment of the retail business, they still have to find ways to get new versions of their games into stores. Making it worth store manager’s while to get that Juiced 2 or Tony Hawk reservation becomes as necessary an expense as magazine advertising.

In the years I attended the convention, it was actually necessary to have a UPS shipping location on the convention floor to send back the boxes of swag, prizes, games and gifts companies liberally doled out to the managers. The publishers handed out hundreds of dollars worth of complete games and products, along with the promise of much larger prize packages for stores who stood out for meeting sales and game reserve goals.

The trickle down effect is potent. By creating store-level incentives, which managers have the choice of sharing with staff or not, publishers can actually market through the point-of-sale, as in-store management creates an environment where the focus in on moving particular products at the unstated expense of customer service. The bottom line usually comes down to making sure big-ticket products get pushed on customers.

Now, this isn’t exactly a revelation of strategic business practice, and that the in-store management of specialty retail chains isn’t exactly looking out for the gaming community shouldn’t surprise anyone. But our collective cynicism at the decline of gaming retail service over the past decade is part of the reason their business model is leaving us even further out in the cold. Even real-world recruiting practices of Gamestop often frown on hiring so called “gamers,” for fear that our own prejudices will interfere with what is a straightforward sales position.

Unfortunately, we as gamers continue to have little recourse. The retail chains, beginning with the elimination of return policies, have simply realized that they make far more money ignoring us than they do meeting us halfway. In addition, by opening up to significant partners willing to shell out big bucks for incentives, key shelf space, featured endcaps and signage, the companies can supplement revenue by selling more than just games and hint guides, but by selling the very phrases the employees use in answering the phones. And, in breaking down the barrier between in-store staff and direct contact with publishers at what often feels very much like an all-expense paid vacation, a sense of camaraderie not with customers but suppliers is established. Loyalty, if not to the almighty dollar, then to the guys from PR with whom you shared a beer and a game of Rock Band.

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