23 Apr 2010

The Dying High Street Retailer

Back when I was a kid, my dad used to take me shopping for videogames. I can only half-remember the store – a brightly lit and almost empty room with shelving lining the walls and and a small island with a till in the centre. We’d go and spend maybe £3 on a cassette tape game, take it home and try it out. Sometimes the game was good, sometimes it was bad, but the journey itself was enough for me back then.

Fast forward to today and the world has changed. Independent videogame stores have now been replaced with common retail chains in almost every town. But now, even this role of a high street videogames retailer is being called into question.

Earlier in the week the retailer Game Group announced that profits had dropped by a third since last year. At the same time the CEO and COO of the firm have both decided to leave the business. It’s like they can both sense the writing on the wall and have decided to leave before things get really bad.

Thinking about it, the market that they’re in these days is hugely different from how it was even five years ago. I’ve cut down dramatically on the amount of games I buy every year. I have XBox games that I’ve not even opened because I’ve been spending so much time playing Warcraft.

The places I can buy games from has exploded as well. Supermarkets, music and DVD stores are all stocking the latest titles. The internet poses it’s own problems, with cheap prices and home delivery slicing away at the market. Services like Steam make the high street pretty much redundant – Valve have managed to build up an online gaming service with an extensive catalogue and a solid community in a way that’s almost self-sustaining.

What gets me is the complete blunder that the high street seems to be making at the moment. They’re selling a commodity product, but instead of rattling off a list of why people should buy from them instead of their local supermarket or online store, they seem to be in retreat. There doesn’t seem to be any strategy beyond relying on new games and consoles in order to have something customers want to buy. This is flawed – if you set yourself up so that I only want to buy from you when a new console is released you’re setting yourself up for a fall.

It’s not that I’m opposed to buying from the high street – I just want a compelling reason to do so. If I can get better service from an online retailer I’ll use them. If I can get a better returns policy from a supermarket, I’ll buy my games with my groceries.

By contrast , earlier this month I was in Cardiff. One of the things I always try to do when visiting the city is visit Cardiff Games – a small shop that sold a range of tabletop RPG and board games. When I went there last, the shop had closed down completely – I’m not sure why, but I can’t help but feel that it’s part of a change in geek culture. Where once we’d meet up at game stores, chat and share what we thought about the latest games it’s now all done online through messageboards, forums and blogposts. we can make our purchasing decisions based on a Google search, with a skip over to someone like Amazon or Spirit Games to place an order.

I wonder that since so much geek life is now carried out online, are the physical representations of them in forms like high street stores set to fade away? Not because we don’t want to use the store, but because we actively embrace an online existence?

Will there always be a place for geekdom in the real world?

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