Thoughts on Iello’s New Policy on Preorders

Last week saw an interesting announcement from Iello, publishers of games like King of TokyoKing of New YorkWelcome to the Dungeon and Heroes of Normandie.  Here’s what they said in a blog post:

From now on, IELLO is promoting preorders for all new releases by shipping out preorders two weeks ahead of regular orders. We are not shipping any new releases to mass market or online retailers in order to give brick and mortar stores time to sell their product with no direct competition.

Let’s consider that one, shall we?

Iello are essentially stating that they are intending to give preferential treatment to one subset of their clients.  In the UK, Iello games are available via specialist hobby stores, online retailers and, in the past couple of years, some mainstream, mass market retailiers – specifically bookshop chain, Waterstones.  This is important as board gamers, much like video gamers, are pretty bad at resisting “the cult of the new”, and preorders are a big part of the business, with people looking to get a new game as early as possible.  There’s also a lot of amateur journalism in the hobby, with many blogs looking to get early reviews up and garner some traffic off the back of a shiny, new title.  BoardGameGeek, the definitive source for the avid gamer, also devotes a significant amount of space to new titles that are being talked about in their prominent “The Hotness” section.  All said, we like new games and we like to get them early.

By limiting early retail of games to specialist hobby stores, Iello are trying to shape consumer buying habits based on availability, but there are other factors that significantly impact on these habits.  One important one is that of price.  By their very nature, most online retailers are able to offer significantly lower prices than their brick and mortar counterparts.  As an example, most of my purchases are made at either an online retailer, Gameslore, or Stirling’s brick and mortar store, Common Ground Games.  There is no question about which of these offers me a lower price – it’s always Gameslore.

So, on price, online retailers are simply better.  What about other aspects?  Initially, it doesn’t look great for brick and mortar stores, as the online retailers also generally have a wider range of products and better stock levels.  What factors are brick and mortar stores actually able to compete on?  Well, there are two.

Friday Night Magic

Shops with a physical storefront have the opportunity of building a loyal customer base by providing great, face-to-face customer service, and by fostering community.  Stores like common ground manage the first of these by having nice, knowledgeable, approachable staff.  They manage the second by providing space to play games and holding events.  These can be regular events, such as ‘Friday Night Magic’, or infrequent ones, such as tournaments, leagues and intro days.  Anything that gets people into their store, having fun and buying product.  Common Ground do all of this extremely well and when I go into the store, am greeted by their excellent staff, and I can see happy hobbyists playing in the large gaming hall.  This is community.

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So, will this new policy by Iello help to drive more business to brick and mortar hobby stores that are struggling to compete with online retailers?  Not significantly.  There will be a small window where they may garner more sales, but these will likely be from their existing customer base.  They are ultimately limited by physical location, and although these stores are destination retailers, I don’t think that people who are already reluctant to travel to such a store are going to change their mind, especially when the window for exclusivity is quite small.

The nature of the product contributes to this as well.  If Activision declared that they were only going to sell the next Call of Duty game in independent game stores, there would be a stampede to these stores.  Call of Duty and similar murder-shoot-death-bang titles have a shelf-life based on the lifespan of the platform they are released on.  They also have a significant, competitive online component.  People want to dive in and get ahead of – or keep up with – their friends.  Time is a big factor.  This is not the case with tabletop games.  We don’t play to unlock a new colour of board or urban camouflage for our meeples – it’s just different.

ShadowsOverNormandie_3DBox

I really do think that price will remain a major factor.  To give an example, let’s look at Shadows Over Normandie.  It doesn’t have the Iello logo on the box, but it is listed as an Iello game and is one of the larger games that they offer.  The UK RRP, as listed by Amazon, is £59.99.  This is not cheap, but nor is it a ridiculous price for a bix box game in this day and age.  I would generally expect to pay RRP in most brick and mortar stores.  If I go online and visit my retailer of choice, Gameslore, I would pay £40.99.  That is a saving of £19 – almost a third of the full price.  Save £20 by just waiting two weeks?  Sure, why not?

I think this new policy is a nice gesture from Iello, but I have my doubts as to whether or not it will make much difference in driving business towards brick and mortar game stores.  I also wonder how Iello will deal with companies who have both a physical storefront and a significant online business, such as Cardiff’s Firestorm Games.  They help to foster a local community with their store and the events they run, but they also potentially take business away from the other local stores across the country that Iello is looking to support.  I’d be interested to see Iello’s position on this.

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