Author: Maik Doe
(Maik Doe is the pseudonym of a digital marketing insider who has worked in the industry for approximately 10 years with both small and large businesses. He has several of his own web projects earning actual money and, as an avid gamer and organiser, he has worked closely with many Retail Hobby Shops as well as playing games competitively all across Europe. Inspired by Benjamin’s article “What are Stores doing to combat the lockdown?”, he has offered to share his experience on using new channels to improve sales, engage communities, develop an online customer base, and a few ideas on how to transport those new customers back to your store.)
The digital world can be seen as a threat to traditional retail, however it can also present new and exciting opportunities. With highstreets being temporarily closed across the world and small businesses looking for new ways to adapt and generate revenue, now is the perfect time to experiment in this brave new world.
With times changing fast, many of you may have already taken those tentative steps into the digital world. Maybe you’ve already launched your website, but don’t know how to direct customers to it. Others still may be put off by the daunting task of setting up online. In the following, I give a few pointers that aren’t usually mentioned when talking about the wonderful online world, what you can really expect when putting work into one channel or the other, and what costly mistakes you’ll want to avoid.
Where to start?
This isn’t a "do this and become rich fast" thing. It takes time, hard work and dedication to develop your store’s online presence. But you opened a gaming store – so hard work for small financial gain shouldn’t really frighten you off! I’ve put together some advice which may help gain a bit of extra income, especially in these hard times. The biggest online retailers have been using these approaches for years and put a lot of time and a lot more money into it. I warn you now, starting something half-heartedly won't work. You’ll need time, you’ll need to try things out, and sometimes you’ll need to invest a few pounds before you can even start. Just as a store takes time to become established, any online presence needs time to be noticed, visited, and used. You won’t increase sales from the first day (well you could, but it’s unlikely), however over time these channels can become invaluable to you. They may even earn enough to keep running them after the lockdown.
First off you'll need a plan. Get a pen and paper (or use a digital equivalent) and note down what you do well. Which approaches can you imagine your name or brand being involved with? Collect notes and feedback from others: Why have your customers stayed with you for all these years? Is it your expertise on a certain product range? High level of customer support? Friendliness? A second home for people? Because you offer good tournament conditions? Because people trust you and know you are an expert? Because you have the cool stuff no one else has?
In the end, you as the business owner knows best what you are good at and where your weaknesses lie. Trying something where you don't feel comfortable is usually a sure-fire way to fail.
A word of advice here: Try not to compete on price. If you chase the lowest price on the internet you’ll lose before you even start. You are selling products sold by thousands of other businesses and there will always be someone out there who can sell cheaper. You are better off focusing on what people value in you, rather than being the cheapest on the market.
When you’ve finished your list keep it somewhere you can easily see it. You’ll need this later when comparing platforms and approaches to help you find the best ones which suits your goals and identity. Not every platform matches what you stand for. And just because friends and customers urge you to go a certain way doesn’t mean it will work for you.
Why do I mention that? - Because friends and customers usually have a pretty poor sense for marketing. They usually don’t own a business, they don’t know, and often don’t care, what resources you need to invest. They don’t need to make money on your decisions, although they will have opinions on which decisions you should make.
One of the most important potholes to avoid when setting up online is thinking that every marketing channel will help sell goods. Not every online channel works the same and in general, you can differentiate online channels into the following groups:
Generate Awareness: Facebook, Instagram, Blogging, YouTube, ….
Generate Sales: Own Shop, eBay, tcgmarket, Amazon, ...
In reality things aren’t this black and white, there are people who manage to combine both. But that’s the exception from the rule and hoping to generate sales by setting up an Instagram account is not what you should expect.
Creating Awareness is a great long-term tool and once things return to normal a successful awareness campaign will help you reach more customers and direct more people into your store. There are stores with hundreds of players travelling for their larger events thanks to a strong Social Media awareness campaign. If you can afford spending time (and Social Media needs tons of that!) I encourage you to start a channel and try it out. Worst case, you delete it once things return to normal, best case you can organise a huge party to celebrate your re-opening!
As many stores are currently in a situation where they need to generate interest and income quickly, remember that your start does not need to look the best, it does not need to be in line with the latest trends, it just needs to work for you and your community. To paraphrase Voltaire, “Do not let perfect be the enemy of good.”
Of course, if you need income right away I recommend you have a look at the following platforms first.
Create an online group with your customers (WhatsApp/ Discord/…)
This is a great first step to help you stay connected with your customers and best of all it’s free! Your customers know you and are more likely to buy from your store than a stranger would be. By keeping in contact with them throughout this period you can talk to them about games and products they may be interested in and keep your business at the front of their minds and get them back in store once this is over.
Personally, I recommend using WhatsApp. Most of your customers will have it already installed and it’s easy to use. This is especially important if you have older or less tech savvy customers. Many of the older generation don’t use Discord or similar more complex apps.
Since you will be sharing this phone number publicly, I would recommend using a business phone number or a cheap sim card. Many customers forget normal business hours once you offer social communication channels and will try to message you at 2am in the morning. For that reason, you’ll want to have the option of turning the phone off after your work day is done.
When using direct contact methods like this. You can think about offering:
An order service (local rules on leaving the house should always be followed – reach out to your local authority on what is and isn’t allowed): Allow people to contact you if they want to order a product. People feel this more convenient than writing a formal email and this type of personal touch is a great way of separating you out from the crowded online retail space.
Open a group with loyal customers: Or even several groups, if you have different communities in your store with different interests. For example, one for tabletop gamers and a separate one for card gamers. It is very important to not randomly add people to these groups. Not only will this will dilute interest, it is important people choose to share their contact data with you and always have the right to leave easily at any time. Make a post about the groups on your Social Media channels and share through word of mouth and always get permission before adding a person to a group.
I recommend offering both ways. You can even print out QR-Codes with each group link and place these around your store. This way all your customers can scan the code and join in the discussion. Don’t expect huge masses to join, but it will be a start.
Do a Newsletter
Many gamers are bored at home and would love to hear about new releases, fun new things to do with their collections and any other useful info you may have to share.
Email Newsletters may seem old fashioned, but they still work. The key is it to not sound like a sales pitch, but keep it informative and fun. First list what is new or nice to know, add something personal to it, make the reader hear your voice in the text, and then tell people how to order it from you. This is more effective than the other way around.
With this approach it’s important to value your customers privacy. Always put their email addresses in BCC so that other customers can’t see them. Also, only send emails to customers who want this email newsletter and make it easy for people to opt out. If you want to go one step beyond, there are marketing email companies out there where you can design fancy newsletters and target customers easily. Just remember to be aware of your customers’ private data and read the small print before making your choice of which service to use.
Secondary Market (eBay, tcgmarket, …)
Auction sites and similar are very effective sales platforms. Keep in mind though that if you are new to using them your sales won’t be great. All these platforms work with seller ratings, and acquiring them takes time. This is why it’s important to build your local community, who can also help use and review your digital output.
There are 2 other ways you can use to help boost your user ratings:
Offering a large variety of different products: Many customers prefer to buy all items from the same vendor in order to save shipping costs. The downside is the time needed to list all items.
Offering rare items: If you have been in business for a long time, or you have travelled to exclusive events, you’ll likely have some gems in the store that your locally community aren’t interested in. Rarer items usually sell very well online because they reach more potential buyers. If you are new to a platform you can attract buyers by listing items that are hard to find anywhere else. For this approach, it’s worth checking your basement. There may be some old items gathering dust that may pique interest. For promotional items remember to check with your distributor or organised play partner for rules on reselling.
Bear in mind that buyers might be hesitant if you don’t have proof and it’s common practise to include a card with your seller name alongside any photos you include.
Be aware, there are costs involved in using online platforms. For one, you have to pay a fee whenever you sell an item - roughly 10% of the value. Second, you’ll have customers return items for various reasons. Third, there are many buyers with malicious intent who claim not to receive the shipment if you send without tracking, or who claim an item arrives damaged. Always ship with a tracking number and take a picture of the item as shipped in order to protect yourself.
Other market places
There are large scale online platforms offering a chance for small retailers to sell directly through their web space. Vendor accounts can be created to help list your items. As with secondary platforms you’ll have to pay a fee per sale and there will be customers with questionable behaviour. Seeing as some of these platforms are the largest retailers in Europe they can be an easy way to reach out to new customers, especially for sealed products. Depending on the product, you might earn a better margin here than on other, more specialised platforms.
Setting up your own online shop
Finally, there is the option of opening up your own online store. Be warned, as with a physical retail space you can’t just post these online and let them work for themselves. There is a lot of marketing involved if you want visitors to find and use your online shop.
There are many fixed costs to consider when setting out to create your digital store. You’ll need to buy the domain name, you’ll need a host service which often come with a yearly renewal, and you’ll need someone who installs regular updates.
Don’t let this scare you away, just be aware setting up an online shop is neither cheap nor easy. Also, be prepared that it may not make a solid return in the short-term. However, it’s a very valuable asset if you plan to run one long-term. Unlike with the other platforms you keep 100% of the sale price, and with everyone staying at home this is a great way to reach out to your existing community. And after you have generated an online community, it is a good idea to invest in your own online shop.
A big warning here: You might have customers in your shop with programming as their hobby or know by chance how to set up an online store. As tempting as it is to let them help you for free, it will likely create trouble in the long-term. Such a person only knows what they want to know and may not be aware of legal or security requirements. Also, when you need to change something urgently they may be unavailable. If you want to run an online shop I recommend finding a professional.
There are various ways to sell items in our modern times. What’s most important is finding the one which fits your business. Oftentimes, it’s about trying new things out. Worst case, you learned something new which might be helpful for the future. Best case, you have a more solid business setup.
So, try it out, stay safe, and I look forward to visiting your stores once this is all over!