Tom Vasel
United States
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Interviews by an Optimist #4- Adam Hill

Adam runs the online board game store Besides being an excellent place to buy games, Gamefest, located in Issaquah, Washington, is home of the GameWire. GameWire is the hottest spot on the internet to find out news from the board game world. For the past year and a half, Adam has been the owner/operator of Gamefest and lives in Seattle with Nicolle, his wife of 7 years, and his 19-month-old son, Lucas.

Tom: Adam, you run, one of the more active online retailers on the internet, including the ever popular GameWire, featuring Rick Thornquist. Can you give us some background on why you decided to get into the online gaming business?

Adam: I've always loved games--board games, card games, video games, sports--anything you could conceivably label as a game, I considered myself a fan of. You know that game where you put a hat in the middle of the floor and try to toss as many cards into it as you can? I can do that for hours. Seriously.
Anyway, about a year and a half ago, I was rather frustrated by my job, and my wife really encouraged me to think about what my dream job would look like. We had just had a son (he was a little over two months old at the time), and I guess she figured that I'd be a much better husband/father if I were doing something I enjoyed. Working with games every day sounded like a pretty good gig, and I liked the flexibility and potential of online retail. And it just so happened that I had some friends who were interested in partnering with me to get Gamefest off the ground. So, I quit my job and launched the site about 3 months later.

Tom: I've always been confused just exactly how an internet site works. I'm sure they're all different, but can you give us a little info on yours? For example, are you also a storefront, or are you solely internet? How much stock do you keep on hand, etc.?

Adam: Gamefest probably works a bit differently than most online retailers. For one, I handle almost everything on my own. Rick Thornquist writes all of the Gamewire content (with some help from Patrick Korner who provides translations and occasional reviews), and I have a developer who graciously helps out when I have technical issues that I don't know how to handle. But other than that, it's just me.
At this point, we don't officially have a storefront, though a lot of customers in the area place order online and come down to the warehouse to pick up their games in order to avoid paying for shipping. Often, once a customer comes in to pick up one order, they just end up swinging by to make their subsequent purchases in person.
As for inventory, I try to keep a lot of the more popular games on hand, while keeping just a few of the slower moving titles here. We purchase some titles directly through the manufacturers, and others through our distributors. It typically only takes a couple of days to get additional inventory, so there's no need to have an abundance on hand; unless I get word that a game is going out of print.

Tom: There must be thousands of titles in print at any given time. How do you determine which ones to keep in your store? And how do you attempt to stay competitive in a market where online retailers pop up every week?

Adam: Those are both very tough issues to answer. The answer is that often, it's guesswork. When we stock a title that doesn't sell, I'll typically cut the price until it finally DOES sell and won't stock it after that. It doesn't always work, as we currently have a few titles that we're offering for prices that would actually result in a loss for us, and they're still not selling.
Staying competitive is a bit more difficult, and I can't go into TOO much detail on that one. I think any online site has to find its niche. What I've tried to do with Gamefest is to create a community of sorts for people to use (in addition to my SECOND favorite website, Boardgamegeek) to get and share information and opinions on games. With the GameWire, Weblogs and Forums, my goal was to create a site that people who love games as much as you and I do feel like they just HAVE to visit every day. I'll tell you,
one of the first things I do when I wake up in the morning is head over to the Geek and see what people are talking about. Of course my first stop is to Gamefest to check and see what Rick has added to the GameWire, and what that day's blogger wrote. By creating a site with up to date news and opinions posted by some very well-respected names in the industry, our list of loyal, repeat customers has grown rapidly.
We've also run some additional marketing campaigns in an effort to capture the non-gamer and get them to think about board games as an exciting, viable form of entertainment. That is where the most growth potential lies. Exposing more non-gamers to great gateway games like Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Settlers is what I need to do in order to continue to grow both my business and this hobby that I love.

Tom: Every once in a while, I’ll see a thread on the internet about how people must stop buying from online retailers, and instead support their local brick-and-mortar store, regardless of the price difference. What do you feel when you read things like this?

Adam: That's an excellent question, and one that's not easy to answer. As a consumer, I'm often torn between choosing the cheapest option and supporting small business owners. It's so hard for me to see my favorite "mom and pop" shops closing down as huge superstores (Walmart, Costco, Blockbuster, etc.) swoop in and steal all of their sales. At the same time, like most consumers, I'm on a pretty tight budget and need to think about the fact that the $5 I'm saving by buying a book at instead of
the local book store could help pay for diapers for our baby. For me, if it's just a matter of a few bucks, I'm all in favor of supporting the small business; but if the extra money is going to hurt, it's a tougher decision. My preference is to save money AND support the small business owner if possible. I'd love to get the book AND the diapers, because who wants to be around a baby wearing recycled diapers?

I think it's important that we all to make our own decisions about where to shop, and that our decisions are informed and based on fact. I think that there's a misconception among the gaming community that online retailers are all well funded and want to run the local game shops out of business. That couldn't be further from the truth. There are definitely some "big fish" in the industry, but I think that most online retailers would consider ourselves more of the "mom and pop" variety. As far as I'm concerned, it's tough to get any smaller than 1 full time employee (that's including me), and a couple of part timers (who don't actually work out of my office). And like the folks at the corner game store, I'm just trying to put food on the table for my family by doing something that I love.

I believe that competition is a good thing for consumers. It causes businesses to work their tails off to provide the best products at the best prices. And it allows those consumers to choose what is most important to them in a shopping experience. Online retailers typically offer discounts over brick and mortar stores because we HAVE to, in part because other online retailers are doing it, but mainly because we need to offer something that brick and mortar stores don't offer. If I could sell games at full retail, I would be doing it. But in order to compete with other companies-- both the brick and mortar and online variety--we have to reduce our prices. As an online retailer, I have no way of providing our customers with the "in-store" experience that a brick and mortar store can. I can't draw customers into the store with gaming tables to test games out on, or the opportunity to open up a game, look at the pieces, and smell that great "new game smell" before they decide whether or not they want to buy it. I also can't offer the convenience of taking a game home to play the day that they order it, and there is also the little matter of shipping fees that online retailers have to add to the cost of the game that brick and mortar stores aren't burdened with. What we CAN offer our customers is the convenience of purchasing a game from the comfort of their own home or office and reducing the cost of the game to the point where after shipping costs are factored in, they're not actually paying MORE for it than they would at the local game store. We're also offering people who don't have a local game store the chance to buy these games we love.

In the end, I believe that online retailers and brick and mortar stores can co-exist. Consumers who crave a more hands-on shopping experience and have a game store in their area that they'd like to support should continue to shop at their local store. Consumers who prefer the convenience of online shopping or are more sensitive to price should know that they can shop online and still support the small business owner.

Tom: In Korea, the board game store is almost non-existent. Online retailers are pretty much all you can find. If you want a place to play the game, you go to the board game cafes. So I think it can be shown that internet sites can dominate the market, especially if there is another outlet for players to meet and play games. Do you think that, due to the economy, etc., that eventually most brick and mortar board game stores will go out of business in America; with the majority of purchasing being done on the web?

Adam: While that would certainly mean more business for, I would hate to see it happen. And to be honest, I don't see things moving in that direction. I'm not sure what the cultural factors in Korea are that have lead to the absence of board game stores, but I believe that there are too many people who want the "in-store" shopping experience in the U.S. to ever allow that to happen. I think that in ANY retail industry--whether it's books, CDs, electronics, or board games--the existence of online retail
sites will only lead to competition for consumers, and a better (and cheaper) experience for those consumers. It means that both brick and mortar AND online stores have to be creative in their advertising approach and may need to be flexible on pricing.

We're seeing an influx of online companies in just about every industry imaginable. The existence of hasn't driven Barnes & Noble out of business, and as far as I know, Barnes & Noble and Amazon are both currently thriving companies in spite of the competition for customers. Barnes & Noble has adapted itself and promoted the value of the "in-store" shopping experience. They have comfortable couches, relaxing music and a coffee shop right in the store, so I can sit down and read the first chapter of a book while drinking a cup of coffee and eating a scone, before I decide if I want to buy it or not. Amazon can't compete with that "shopping experience", so they offer lower prices in order to attract the cost conscious buyer, while Barnes & Noble is likely to get its sales from the consumer who either needs a book NOW, or prefers the buying experience that they offer, and is willing to pay a bit more for it. I expect that if it hasn't already happened in the board game industry in the U.S., it will. Right now, there may be more online and brick and mortar stores than the sale of board games can support. What's likely to happen is that the best of each variety will rise to the top, and that those that aren't doing business as well as they can possibly do business, won't last.

Tom: What about online game stores themselves? A couple years ago, there were the "Big Three" stores online where you could buy board games. Now, I can find over thirty of them, all with competitive prices. While this is good for me, the consumer, I tend to wonder if the market can support all of these online stores. What are your thoughts?

Adam: I doubt that it can. My guess is that a year or two from now, several of the online stores you can currently find online will no longer be around. A few will likely distinguish themselves from the rest and stick around for the long haul, while others will disappear and be replaced by new contenders.

While working with games every day is a dream for many, I don't think people realize how difficult running a business--online or otherwise--can be. It can take years before getting to the point where the business is actually producing profits--and that's if it's well run. The reality of being a small business owner is that you typically end up working a lot more hours for a rather small return--at least in the first few years. My hope is that Gamefest will be one of the few left standing in the end and that I'll be able to make a decent living doing something that I enjoy.

Tom: Let's talk about the games you sell. Without going into numbers, which games are your biggest "bread winners"? Which games have sold well - surprising you, and which games have sold poorly - again as a surprise?

Adam: The biggest sellers are probably no surprise to anyone. All of the Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne games have been huge, as has Ticket to Ride and the Scene It? DVD games. Most of the games that sell well come from companies that put a lot of money into marketing their products--which is why Tahuantinsuyu has been such a pleasant surprise. It's a great little game from a small publisher, and it has outsold several titles from larger, well known companies. I probably shouldn't name the flops, so as not to hurt the feelings of any of the manufacturers or game developers that might happen to read this piece. As for flops--I don't think it's such a good idea for me to get into that one, as I've got to maintain an amicable relationship with the manufacturers we work with, and pointing out their less-than-successful ventures might cause some strain there. There have been more than a few games, which had a lot of initial buzz (causing me to purchase several copies early on); but have done nothing but collect dust and take up space in the Gamefest warehouse.

Tom: As a seller of games, I'm sure you get some feedback from consumers. What causes most of them to buy games? Is it from internet sites, reviews, advertisements, browsing on your site, or what?

Adam: I'd say that for the seasoned gamer, reviews are probably the most important factor in purchasing a game--either that, or they've already had the chance to play a friends' copy and have decided that they need one for themselves. Seasoned gamers typically come to the site knowing exactly what they're looking for.

New gamers are usually either looking to buy a game that they played for the first time with a friend (almost always Settlers, Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride), or they already own one or more of those and are looking to expand their collection. Reviews can play an important part for new gamers as well, but they're also more likely than seasoned gamers to browse through the site and look for something that sounds interesting, or ask me for recommendations.

Tom: Adam, thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. Any final comments for our readers?

Adam: No problem, Tom. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about our shared passion for games. Thanks also for all the great reviews, blogs, and everything else that you do to promote our hobby! It's been a pleasure to run Gamefest for the last year and a half, and I look forward to being able to continue to provide a place for people to get the latest game news and information and pick up copies of their favorite games as well!

- January 2005
Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games."
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