I managed a gaming store. No, I won’t tell you its name. This was the late 90s, when collectible card games (CCGs) were like unto tiny cardboard gods and the internet hadn’t quite succeeded in changing retail forever. We sold board games, tabletop RPGs and card game ephemera from a small mall store in the UK. The building was 1970s concrete classic, the kind of place that hadn’t been designed either with customers or shopkeepers in mind, so the architect probably won a design award. Our customer base was university students and young professionals with money to burn.

This was the late 90s, when collectible card games (CCGs) were like unto tiny cardboard gods.

Within months the store was dead.

I’m going to tell you how it happened, mainly for your rubbernecking-at-a-car-wreck entertainment, but also as a warning. Some of you will go into retail; some may end up owning your own place. Best of luck to you. Try to avoid our mistakes.

First, never screw your regular customers. These are the repeaters, the ones who come to you again and again with money in their pockets. They keep you afloat, when everything else fails. If they leave, you might as well shut the doors.

So if your business model depends heavily on CCGs, and half your regular customers try to reserve the latest release, make sure you get in enough to satisfy demand. In this case it was 7th Sea, a card game that was wildly popular once upon a time but has since vanished down the rabbit hole. The latest Vesten set was due. Half a dozen of our regulars had expressed keen interest, and had asked for boxes. They wanted complete card sets, and that meant each of them needed at least two or three boxes of boosters. Cash value for us was huge. So of course we only received two boxes total from the supplier, with no expectation of more.
A pre-order is, of course, a little different, in that you get the cash up front. We hadn’t done that. We’d taken orders but no money, so we owed no-one. It was the disappointment that was the problem.

Now here’s a Judgement of Solomon: do we break up the boxes and sell individual boosters on a first-come, first-served, or do we keep the boxes intact and hand them to the first regular to walk through the door? Nobody was going to be happy, but which would upset the least amount of people? Breaking up the boxes ensured that most people would get something, though nobody would get a complete set. Handing them to a regular meant that only one person would have the cards, but it would keep faith with that person at least, and perhaps pacify (if not satisfy) the others.

We broke open the boxes. Talk about splitting the baby! Our regulars vanished en masse, marching almost as one to the fantasy book store where they thought they’d get better service. We didn’t just lose money on one CCG, we lost the future revenue those customers might have given us. It was the loss of faith that killed the relationship. The regulars could stand being disappointed; what they couldn’t stand was being slighted. Lesson learned: Keep faith with your regulars, or lose them.

The money he stole was the least of our problems. The damage was the big issue.

Second, burglars are only half the problem, but that doesn’t mean you can skimp on security.

We were broken into four or five times. The perp was known to the police (or so they said) but that didn’t seem to mean they’d catch him, and it got to the point where I knew the cop shop’s phone number better than my own. The burglar’s routine never varied. He used the flat roof to get to us (1970’s design, gotta love it) and broke a window to get in. Once in, he couldn’t be seen from the street and there were no cameras or alarms, so he had as long as he wanted.

The first time he smashed the place up until he found the cash box, broke the lock, and took everything. We had been hiding the cash box in a store cupboard, but he didn’t know that, so he did a lot of damage before he found it. Then he went out the glass door the hard way, probably in search of more loot. I took to hiding the paper money in Magic boxes and kept the coins in the till. That saved us something, since in later raids he never got the real loot but made do with whatever coins we had.

Here’s the thing, though: The money he stole was the least of our problems. The damage was the big issue. The broken windows, broken doors, smashed product, loss of a day’s revenue while the police took their sweet time turning up at the scene; that was the real killer. Insurers stop returning your calls after the second incident, so all expenses come out of the bottom line. Another small retailer told me a similar story. They had an alarm and cameras, but they still closed everything up and stripped the store bare when they went on overseas buying trips, even though they had staff to run the place while they were away. The problem was their staff lived in the suburbs, which meant it took them longer than an hour to respond in an emergency. In the London borough where the store was located, the fine for noise pollution was GBP 5,000.00, and if their alarm was on for an hour or more, they took the hit. Again, the burglar was the least of their worries. The collateral damage was the real killer.

We could have put bars on those windows, for one thing, or had a night safe arrangement with the local bank. All those options cost money though, so the owner wasn’t keen. End result, yet another burglary, because drugs don’t pay for themselves and we were an easy target. Bar those windows, put the cash in an actual honest-to-God safe, whether yours or the bank’s. Those tiny little thin metal cash boxes just don’t cut it.

Final bit of advice: Always pay your supplier, on time and in full.

If you work in retail your relationship with your supplier is critical. If you don’t pay your water, electricity or rent you might get a nasty letter, but there are usually laws governing what a utility or landlord can and cannot do to you, and withdrawal of service on a first offense probably isn’t an option. On the other hand, if a supplier feels aggrieved, their first response is going to be nasty. They might, say, short you on those Vesten booster boxes that you really, really needed, preferring instead to send them to retailers who pay their bills. After all, it’s a popular product in high demand, and why should they do you favors when clearly you don’t live up to your end of the bargain? Or they might not tell you when new stuff is out. Or send only half your restock order. The list goes on. You can switch to another supplier, but no matter how big the market, suppliers talk to each other. They’re like Santa; they know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. Naughty news travels fast.

Vendors are like Santa; they know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

This kills a store quicker than the plague. The small claims court actions that can result from arguments over debt are really just the trash mobs in a boss battle that will probably TPK you, because not having what you need when you need it means your customers will walk. They may like you personally, but that doesn’t matter. What matters to them is they get what they want. If the new edition is out this week, and you only have 3.0 on the shelf, you lose all those potential customers looking for the new stuff, and once they go somewhere else for their product, they won’t come back to you. The sale’s the thing, but you’ll never catch the conscience (or wallet) of the customer if they won’t even cross the threshold.

Our place didn’t last. There was talk of selling it on to another retailer, but the new guy decided that a shop that had been burgled as often as we had was a poor risk, and it wasn’t worth his time to take on our dusty inventory when there was no demand for out-of-date product. They opened elsewhere in town, so our white knight became our competition instead. Our final clearance sale came right on the heels of that announcement. Sic transit gloria mundi and thanks for all the fish.

Now don’t let that stop you. If you want to open a retail outlet of your own, go for it. It’s a hard business that eats capital, but it can be a lot of fun. I enjoyed almost every minute of it.

Except for those mornings when I had to sit in the middle of a shattered store, waiting for the police to show up.
But hopefully that won’t happen to you.

Adam Gauntlett wants to get back into retail some day, as he misses the migranes. When not writing fiction, and RPG material for Trail of Cthulhu, his blog can be found at http://karloff-shelf.blogspot.com

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