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What Will Become of the FLGS?

Role-playing games have always had a curious space in distribution channels ranging from hobby stores to bookstores to toy stores. As geek culture and tabletop gaming increases in popularity, distribution channels are morphing in surprising ways to meet gamer demand.


[h=3]D&D as Toy?[/h]When Dungeons & Dragons was first sold, it was everywhere, including toy stores. Shannon Appelcline speaks to the game's popularity in Designers & Dragons -- The 80s:

...it’d been on an upward trend since TSR published those first thousand boxes of Dungeons & Dragons in January 1974. Whatever the reason, the result was really big. You could find roleplaying games in mainstream stores like Waldenbooks and Toys “R” Us.


One of the reasons D&D made it into toy stores was thanks to the release of the Basic D&D set. Appelcline clarifies in Designers & Dragons -- The 70s:

...J. Eric Holmes — a doctor and professor of neurology, and also the author of a Pellucidar pastiche called Mahars of Pellucidar (1976) — approached TSR with an offer to write an introductory version of D&D. The original game targeted the college-age crowd, while Holmes wanted to expand the game’s demographics to younger players — and possibly to get it into the mass market as well.


It worked. For a time, book stores and toy stores were major distributors for D&D, helped in no small part by the launch of Basic Dungeons & Dragons. The collapse of those chains cut off RPGs from wider audiences.
[h=3]Your FLGS to the Rescue[/h]Friendly Local Game Stores (FLGS) picked up the slack and were always a viable source for tabletop role-playing games. They were the original distributors of ancillary markets like tabletop wargames and miniature games, so it was a natural progression for FLGS to carry RPGs too. But then the D20 glut happened. SDLear provides a general outline of the bust cycle:

  • Phase 1: Store overbuys on fad product (usually D20)
  • Phase 2: Store owner finds that they have product they can't move.
  • Phase 3: Store owner cuts out "high risk" product only re-ording backstock occasionally (at our local store its D&D and nWOD almost exclusively).
  • Phase 4: Store owner does not realize that his stock is offered for 10% off at Barnes & Nobles.
  • Phase 5: Gamers turn to http://Amazon.com for selection, find that they can get a better price online.
  • Phase 6: Local gaming community crashes without vibrant local retailer.
  • Phase 7: FLGS goes out of business.
The glut hit game stores hard.

There was little review, be it professional or fan based, and purchasing agents for stores had a hard time sorting the good from the bad. This was neither sustainable nor terribly good for the core engine. By 2005, the market was collapsing from too many low quality supplements...The wide variety of low quality supplements resulted in many stores having surpluses of lousy supplements; for many, this was a major hit to their profits, and often, had the effect of damaging all but special orders for 3rd party supplements.


The final nail in the RPG surge took place in the build up to the Great Recession, effectively pushing game stores that were doing poorly out of business. Wizards of the Coast's experiment in distribution with its chain of Game Keeper stores ended in 2004 when all 85 stores closed. It hurt other distribution channels too: KB Toys closed in 2009; Waldenbooks stopped operating in 2011. But there were still alternative channels to purchase tabletop games.
[h=3]Bookstores Take Over[/h]Bookstores took a hit from the recession too. Barnes & Noble was one of the last bookstore chains still operating. How did it survive? By selling things other than books, including toys and board games. This tactic led to Barnes & Noble holding Casual Game Gatherings in March:

Barnes & Noble will host weekly Casual Game Gatherings, offering demos and space for play, in March, distributor Publisher Services Inc. announced. The events will be held on five Thursday evenings at 57 stores, about 9% of the chain’s 640 stores. Demos will be conducted by Barnes & Noble store employees.


The events were enough of a success that Barnes & Noble is considering expanding them. Tabletop role-playing games may well be on the horizon. What's behind B&N's sudden interest in gaming? Sales, of course:

Barnes & Noble continued its transition to geek central with continued growth in its Toys & Games and Gift businesses in the results from its third fiscal quarter, reported last week. Toys & Games was up 12.5% and Gifts was up 13.8%, CEO Ronald Boire said the conference call. Vinyl and adult coloring books were the only other categories in which Barnes & Noble reported growth.


Books-a-Million has also jumped into the geeky fray, dedicating entire sections to themes that encompass all forms of gaming. Geek & Sundry teamed up with Books-a-Million for International Tabletop Day:

They are holding events at many of their stores throughout the nation. They will have free play, plus giveaways, discounts, and the coveted ITTD premium and promo kit items available on-site. So go visit them to score these exclusive items! After International TableTop Day, BAM and Geek & Sundry will continue the partnership to display a whole bunch of recommended games all summer long! Many of which have been featured on TableTop.


Bookstore aren't the only chain distributing tabletop games however.
[h=3]What About FLVGS?[/h]There's another kind of store that is expanding to include all things geeky, the Friendly Local Video Game Store (FLVGS). These stores began distributing primarily video games but have since branched out to all sorts of geeky gadgets, including collectibles, wearables, and toys. This makes it appealing as a possible distribution channel for tabletop games:

There are many reasons people come to a FLGS, such as meeting new people, play games they can’t play at home, learn about new products through demos, friendly competition, etc. Many also go to their FLGS to see if they like a game, and then buy it on Amazon at a discounted price. They will now have a new alternative for Cryptozoic games: Game Stop.


Some consolidation has happened:

What do you do when your primary physical sales channel is drying up? You sell something that your audience loves, preferably online, and if that doesn’t work you buy someone that does. To that end, GameStop, the beleaguered game sales company, has bought ThinkGeek, a beleaguered geek toy company, for $140 million at $20 a share.


ThinkGeek's brand is particularly friendly to tabletop gamers and even began experimenting with brick-and-mortar stores of its own. GameStop's growth in the game distribution market has turned it into a viable channel for tabletop games, so much so that Cryptozoic Entertainment decided to sell its games through GameStop. Cryptozoic is known for a wide variety of licensed card and board games, including Adventure Time, Batman, DC Comics, and several television and movie franchise brands -- the most recent being the successfully Kickstarted Ghostbusters board game. ICv2 explained:

Cryptozoic has made a number of distribution changes in recent months, expanding its merch relationship with Diamond and its game relationship with PSI, ending its exclusive hobby distribution relationship with Diamond/Alliance for games, and ending direct consumer sales of trading cards on its website (see "Cryptozoic Expands Merch Relationship with Diamond"). Adding a 6,600-store chain brings an important new channel to Cryptozoic’s distribution options.

[h=3]FLGS Live![/h]There may still be hope for your friendly local game store. A BoardGameGeek poll of 130 voters indicated that 75% still thought there was a role for them in the marketplace. The top three most important attributes for game stores to be successful, beyond being merely the least expensive (and therefore losing out to online competition like Amazon), were knowledgeable staff (54%), playing tables (34%) and gaming sessions/tournaments (34%). Game stores fared well in 2015:

Over 80% of game retailers are experiencing increased sales in 2015, according to the results of a new survey conducted by ICv2 in the run-up to the holiday season. Asked about the 2015 trend for their business, over 30% said sales were up over 10%, and over 50% said sales were up from 1-10%. Only a little over 10% of game retailers reported flat sales, with single digit percentages down 1-10% and none down over 10%.


In some ways the collapse of the other distribution channels has made FLGS more important than ever. With tabletop board games surging in popularity, larger chains like Target have begun carrying board games too -- and this occasionally causes some fiction when a popular board game like Pandemic gets released in Target before it reaches hobby stores. Scott Thorne, PhD, owner of Castle Perilous Games & Books in Carbondale, Illinois and instructor in marketing at Southeast Missouri State University, expressed his concern about the early release in his Roll for Initiative column:

BTW, I would be remiss if I failed to mention last week's release of Pandemic 2nd Edition by either Z-Man Games or their mass market distributor to the Target chain a week before the official release date, (according to Alliance Distribution's Website), of February 6th. Given that the game has been out of stock since the holidays, finding it on Target's shelves a week before the hobby gets it is annoying to say the least. I would certainly like to see some repercussions, but given that Target will sell more Pandemic in a week than I will in a year, I sincerely doubt it. However, the game store channel is the primary outlet for the rest of Z-Man's catalog and causing them to sell a hot product at more of a disadvantage than usual is not good for the long term channel relationship.


With tabletop games surging in popularity, distribution woes will likely be an ongoing problem as publishers navigate between the hobby stores dedicated to gaming as a brand and mass market stores that offer access to a broader customer base.
[h=3]The Future[/h]As geek culture thrives, game stores will need to evolve with them, adjusting to multiple gaming formats that help them survive the boom and bust cycle. Geeks and their children have a lot of buying power, but in the highly competitive world of online stores, distributors are still figuring out the best way to reach them. The friendly local game store of tomorrow may well offer a mix of electronic and tabletop games.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


More seriously, though... a good article.

My gut feeling is that the answer is a bad one - the internet has basically killed the game store and taken its stuff. We're now in the stage where the PCs have beaten the Big Bad and are now doing a mop-up job, going room-by-room through the dungeon and exterminating the stragglers.

Which is a shame, but is little different from the fate that high street stores (and/or The Mall) are facing in general. Fundamentally, unless your store is such that people need to physically go there (for a hair cut, or similar) then it will eventually have to go online. When Amazon can place a shiny new copy of the PHB in my hand for less than my FLGS can get it on their shelves, and can do it without me having to wait for the weekend and face a 20-mile drive... yeah, that kills the FLGS.

And inventory is a problem as well. As I read more and more fantasy novels, the titles I need to find next become more and more specific and in a tighter and tighter niche. But the likelihood is that a bookstore, except perhaps one of the huge branches, is very unlikely to happen to have Part N of a strawling fantasy epic (except Game of Thrones) in stock on the day when I happen to want it. They just can't afford to stock everything. But Amazon, with its giant warehouses and postal network, can. Magnify that problem many times over, and you have the situation with RPGs.

There might be some scope for an FLGS that is actually a gamer-friendly coffee house - Starbucks with RPGs. But even there it's a diminishing model - as everything else in the high street (or Mall) withers and dies, the foot traffic taking people past the Gamer Cafe will also inevitably drop off, and then that dies too.
 

Zaran

Adventurer
In Houston, game stores were wiped out by collectible card games and they still haven't recovered. Nowadays there is basically only a handful of game stores and most of them sell RPG games as a tertiary product over comics and card games.
 

TerraDave

5ever
Picking up on Zaran's comment...I think there is more to the cycle then what is indicated in the article.

FLGS have always been there, but what has carried them has changed over the years. Early on D&D itself...then there is consolidation, then other RPGs and broader hobby gaming (of what would know be called "ameritheme" games), then there is consolidation, then ccgs, then there is massive consolidation. This plus growth in online channels looks like it will finally kill them off (as was said each previous time)...

Then eurogames lead to hobby games stores having their biggest revenue of all time. Its true, book stores and toystores are scarcer then they used to be. But the FLGS survives, though probably with a smaller RPG section.
 

Bloodsausage

First Post
In Houston, game stores were wiped out by collectible card games and they still haven't recovered. Nowadays there is basically only a handful of game stores and most of them sell RPG games as a tertiary product over comics and card games.

I have a friend with partial ownership in a game store, and he says card games hurt game stores, too, but mainly for financial reasons. Around here (Indy), competing stores have actually pushed M:tG to the point where they're all selling it at a loss. My friend's store refuses to stock it for that reason, and he has fewer people in the door.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
FLGS have always been there, but what has carried them has changed over the years.

I don't know about "always". There was a time when they didn't exist, because there was a tie when "gaming" wasn't a thing. I recall a time when (at least in the area near NYC where I grew up) the only place to buy gaming materials (books, modules, and dice) was at a "hobby shop", which was the place where you went if you were into making model airplanes, hobby rocketry, miniature railroads, and wargaming (note, not *fantasy* wargaming - Warhammer came later). Boardgames were not yet a major hobby in and of themselves. If you wanted a boardgame, you went to a toy store.

I think the FLGS as we know it today is a creation of the 80s and 90s. But, as has been said, the internet has since dealt a major blow to small retail in general.
 

darjr

I crit!
I'm in dinky Omaha Nebraska and we have 8 game stores. Most of them doing really well. Granted its board games and magic that sells the best but RPGs are nothing to sneeze at.
 

ZeshinX

Adventurer
I'd prefer an FLGS. I always enjoyed the "aura" of being surrounded by gaming material. Sadly, when I can get a significantly better price buying a product online AND with free shipping in a day or two....yeah, I'm gonna buy it online.
 

Grimstaff

Explorer
I still have fond memories of my first, late-70's FLGS - the local hardware store! They had a great selection of minis and all the original Judges Guild stuff. If I had a time machine that would be one of my first stops, if only to ask the owner how exactly that happened. I also got my first copy of the Basic box at a JC Penneys of all places.

There seems to be a bit of resurgence of dedicated tabletop gaming stores locally, with two new stores opening in the last year or so, and 2 or 3 older ones showing increased activity for D&D Expeditions nights.
 

smiteworks

Explorer
I have always thought that running an FLGS is mostly a labor of love. If you are skilled enough to run a profitable FLGS, you could be making much more money in another line of business. If I ever decided to do it, I would probably ensure that I had a strong Internet distribution channel in addition to selling stuff directly. If product is not moving fast enough in person, you would shift those items to online outlets, such as selling on Amazon, your own web store and even eBay. If the increased sales volume is sufficient enough, it may even help you acquire reduce acquisition costs for the product due to volume purchases.
 

Chimpy

First Post
I can't speak for other countries, but in the UK, FLGS can work, but they need momentum in terms of level of stock, and having the products people want to buy. Having an online presence really helps too. Smaller stores tend to fizzle after a year or two.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
There's definitely a growing number of boardgames cafes, though. They seem to be popping up everywhere.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Like newspaper, FLGS will need to adapt where online retailers can undercut them on price. Be it things you want to see before purchasing, be it more events and selling things around that.

Adventurer's League did an article on N & N Adventuring, which is focused on running games and charges for player table space for premium gaming location and organization of DMs and runs. Trying to compete with Amazon moving product is secondary. They offer the the Adventure Paths plus their own shared world which is heading into it's second season soon. (Disclosure: I play there and know the folks.)

http://dndadventurersleague.org/spotlight-nn-adventuring-company/
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I'm in dinky Omaha Nebraska and we have 8 game stores. Most of them doing really well.

Here in the Boston area, we are not so well served. It isn't like the geek community here is small, or anything, but I expect the retail space is *really expensive*, making viable stores rare.
 

Reynard

Legend
The history seems to leave out the hobby store phase. When I was a kid (early-mid 80s) the primary outlet for RPGs was on the shelf right next to the model railroad stuff in mall hobby stores. And I think comic book stores were also influential -- lots of FLGS are actually FLCS in my experience.
 

TerraDave

5ever
I don't know about "always". There was a time when they didn't exist, because there was a tie when "gaming" wasn't a thing. I recall a time when (at least in the area near NYC where I grew up) the only place to buy gaming materials (books, modules, and dice) was at a "hobby shop", which was the place where you went if you were into making model airplanes, hobby rocketry, miniature railroads, and wargaming (note, not *fantasy* wargaming - Warhammer came later). Boardgames were not yet a major hobby in and of themselves. If you wanted a boardgame, you went to a toy store.

I think the FLGS as we know it today is a creation of the 80s and 90s. But, as has been said, the internet has since dealt a major blow to small retail in general.

We have different definitions of always...

But yes, I am also old enough to remember when you would look for D&D books at the same places that sold needlepoint kits. Actually, college bookstores where often a good resource way back when.

But by 80-82, so "only" 35 years ago, towns ranging from say 8000-30000 people started to get gaming stores, and the big money maker for those was definitely D&D, though they did also sell avalon hill type wargames, minis, and the small but growing number of non-TSR RPGs.
 

lyle.spade

Adventurer
Tucson's market since the late 70s has as the norm a few game stores that cater to a certain audience of gamers or part of town. We had a place, Things for Thinkers, which was the hub of wargaming and RPGs from the late 70s through mid-90s, and then it closed. We've had some places that were more minis-focused or CCG-focused, and those places lasted for a few years - generally coinciding with those bubbles - and then closed. We've got a few general hobby game stores now and one or two that are toy & comic store hybrids.

What I think is important about the FLGS is the community aspect of it, and that's a big part of the market that both the stores and consumers cannot forget - or, they can do so at their own peril. Isle of Games, the east-side store in town, has developed a large community of regulars for all manner of games...minis, CCGs, RPGs, tabletops of all sorts...and has good, and sometimes large, numbers of people there most every day and night of the week. I believe that stores, if they're to survive and (preferably) thrive, need to cultivate a community and work to grow it, so that people are eager to spend time at the store and connect with other gamers, encouraging them to buy more games over time. The creepy grognard of a store owner who sits among clutter and perhaps filth and talks with his friends while you peruse his selection of books is a thing of the past - or, will be once customers move along to places that are clean, friendly, and helpful.

Along with this, customers ought to view the retail price that must be paid in the store as connected to the overall store experience, which includes help from a knowledgeable and friendly staff, opportunities to try out new games and play regularly, and a means by which to connect with other gamers.

My gaming budget is limited, but healthy...and I need to spend at my FLGS - at least a good share of that budget - because I am supporting a community of which I am a part. My home RPG table collapsed when life and job situations tore us apart. I've got a new group of gaming buddies via my FLGS, and without the store there would be no 'them,' and then no game for me. I see the price tag as being an enabler of that...and that's something to remember when deciding whether to buy online or in person from a small retailer.
 

TerraDave

5ever
There's definitely a growing number of boardgames cafes, though. They seem to be popping up everywhere.

Here in the Boston area, we are not so well served. It isn't like the geek community here is small, or anything, but I expect the retail space is *really expensive*, making viable stores rare.

In DC, we have some boardgame bars.

We also use to have gamestores in the city (with comics) and focused mostly RPG stores, really good ones, in the near suburbs, which then got driven farther out and eventually closed. The stalwart gamestores that have lasted where always pretty far out. Now there is one back in the city, albeit in a "gentrifying" area, and with much more space devoted to board games.
 

Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
My biggest complaint with the FLGS is mainly one of price. If I'm going to drop 30% to 40% more than buying on Amazon I expect to have a store that is clean, smells nice, and isn't a cheap hole in the wall in a bad part of town. I'm not the Ritz here, but too many people that run a gaming store are enthusiasts and not professional retailers. All too often they just don't get how to have an attractive store that is easy to find product in, let alone how to actually manage stock.

As it stands I don't make a lot of money, so online purchases at heavy discounts are my preferred method of buying, and I quite frankly don't worry if a local retailer closes because I'm not shopping their to start with. As it stands I don't buy that much anyways due to escalating costs of products, so online is my preferred method.

All that being said to survive I think most "gaming" store need to move from the comic book/games model into a diversified set of products that cater to the geek market: t-shirts, gifts, toys, etc. If there was a single store in town where I could buy all of my geeky t-shirts I'd go there rather than order form the USA and pay exchange rates and shipping to get something into Canada. It might honestly take having retailers for a consortium to negotiate better prices from manufacturers, but I don't really see local retailers having the wherewithal or expertise to manage such a thing.

On playing in store I have neither the time nor schedule to bother playing a store half way across town, on top of paying for my gas to get there and for parking once I arrive. That isn't what I care about at all, if that's the only way somebody can play well I hope that stores stay open for a long time, but if they don't I'm not going to mourn their loss.
 

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