Starting A Gaming Store - The Online Component

Now that my physical shop is all squared away, it is time to talk about the fun and joy that is the online component.

A lot has changed in the last ten years in the hobby world. Back when I was in college if you wanted a RPG book, miniature, or a pack of Magic you headed down to your local gaming store. There wasn't a huge amount of places on the web you could pick this stuff up from - it most certainly wasn't any cheaper by the time you added in shipping. You would usually only turn to the web for something that was very specific and not carried locally, or something that was really hard to find.

This was period in time was a very interesting one (this was right around 1999/2000.) The internet was coming into it's own in the hobby world, Magic the Gathering was definitely starting to wane from it's heyday (I consider Ice Age to be the peak popularity period of MTG - I could be wrong though) as more competitors came into the market, and the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons had just came out. Amazon was becoming a powerhouse (I remember buying my first Drizzt book off of Amazon.) Ebay was also an interesting place at this time too - you could actually MAKE money by selling your painted units on there - even if they weren't just draw-joppingly beautiful. Anymore you are hard pressed to break even if you are selling table-top painted quality miniatures.

Local gaming stores were abundant and the selection was great. Many stores carried used books and there was a whole host of roleplaying games on the shelves - everything from 2nd ed TSR D&D all the way over to some of the more offbeat stuff like Brave New World or even the TMNT RPG.

Unfortunately times and the economy have changed drastically. Traditionally hobby stores have been unaffected by the economy because it is a niche market with a very strong and loyal customer base (at least this is what I have read.) Looking around here in Northwest Arkansas this has only proven to be marginally true. Most of the gaming shops are still around, but they have pretty much all moved locations and a few have even shifted their emphasis.

One reason that this has happened is that nowadays the web has had a HUGE impact on the local gaming scene all over the US. With the rise of online warehouse type deep-discounters the local hobby shops have come up against some steep competition that just wasn't there ten years ago. With the continual price rise of several systems (most notably Games Workshop) this option has become more and more appealing to gamers - especially younger players who have less disposable income. Another issue is stock - if a local game shop has to special order the piece you want, why would you bother when you can get it in the same amount of time from an online retailer - at 20% off to boot? This is the uphill battle that most every game shop in the us is facing. It can be especially tough for new shops - how do you draw in a customer base when your prices are higher?

Now that the history lesson/rant is over let me tell you about what I am going to be doing for an online presence. For starters I am pretty lucky that I have been helping run this site over the last few years. This has given my quite a bit of experience in setting up different things online and has also shown me how to grow a site and reach people.

Another thing that is really neat is the whole host of things that Google offers up. Once you buy your domain (about $10 a year) you can use Google to get all of your email. This takes a big headache off of your shoulders. At my 'real' job I am in charge of the companies email servers and it is my least favorite part of the job - maintaining an email system just sucks. So with that down you now need some web space. You could use Google for this, but their options are a bit limited - for my hosting I am going with GoDaddy (about $5 a month.) This ends up being cheap and gives me quite a bit of options.

Now that I have some hosting and my email figured out I just need some content. For this site we just use the blogger templates - this takes all the hassle out of coding and lets you just worry about creating and publishing the content - you don't need to learn any HTML, CSS, Java, or PHP. That is all taken care of for you. Since I am going to be hosting my own site I am going to have to mess with all of that and I don't really want to have to do that. So I set about looking for a good and simple WYSIWYG HTML editor.

The BEST choice for this is Adobe's Dreamweaver - it is also about $300. So that isn't going to work. After messing around with a few different options I finally settled on SeaMonkey. This is an open source web browser that is based off of Mozilla but it also includes a real spiffy WYSIWYG HTML editor that has the added bonus of also being a FTP client. I just open it up, drag and drop stuff where I want it, and then hit the publish button and it automatically uploads everything to my website. This is perfect for what I am wanting to do - nothing fancy, cheap, fast, and easy.

So now that all that is out of the way what is going to be at the website? Ones first thought is to put up all of your product, accept online payments, sell it at a discount, and make it big. That is a nice idea, but one that is really hard to pull off. First off you need a really slick website to do all of that, and I am not interested. The next stumbling block is that you would be competing against and other huge online retailers - that is like trying to compete against Wal-Mart - you can try, but it will be hard and you probably won't make it. So I have to come up with something else. Something that will set me apart from other retailers, something that will be easy, and something that will pay the rent.

What is the magical plan you ask? Well I'm not quite sure yet. And that is okay. Since I am not trying to replace my full time job with this I am going to be able to try some crazier ideas that might now work. If it blows up in my face it isn't that big of a deal, I will just revise the plan and try again. The most important thing at this point is to keep a sense of scale and make sure I support and keep my customers happy. I have seen several internet hobby retailers blow up on the scene, make a huge splash, get tons of orders, and then just fail when it gets too big for them to handle. I DON'T want to be that guy.

Here in the next week or so I will be launching the game shops website and I will be sure to put a post up when I do so you can check it out. If you have any ideas be sure to post them in the comments. I am very open to ideas and would like to know what people want.