Once again we find ourselves writing a blog post about a question posed by my dear friend Dawn. To make sure we have a complete understanding of her questions, I share them here.
Publisher Partnership: What does that mean to you? We hear this phrase a lot and I would like to start talking about what that means to all of you. Not distribution. This is about Publishers directly.
Dawn posted that question a while ago and I didn't respond at all, because the question required more time than I could give to then. As a matter of fact it required several weeks worth of time to finally make it into a blog that I was okay sharing with the world.
Today, I'm finally ready to share that answer with you. What does the phrase 'publisher partnership' mean to me? To be blunt, it typically means nothing. I believe that many times when I see that phrase from a publisher it is nothing more than lip service, it is a means by which some publishers pretend that brick & mortar retail matters to them. It is the means by which they make you and I feel like our support is important to them. Now, don't get me wrong. I do believe that some publishers value our B&M stores as the gateway to new gamers, as the trainers who teach new people our hobby, and as places that move their products with thoughtfulness and care given to presentation, quality, and truth. But those publishers are the exception, in my mind. What is it that has made those publishers the exception? That's worth talking about here.
My publishing partners communicate with me not just regularly, but constantly, through various mediums. If there is a changed street date I don't just get an e-mail from a distributor, that publisher communicates it through their activity in Facebook groups and through any other channel they need in order to get me the message. They do the same thing when something is going to be short-solicited. We live in an industry where most of the time I get a few months notice, but sometimes I get a week, or less. My publishing partners take the time to tell me about those short-solicits. My publishing partners know the importance of certain products to my business, and take the time to tell me "I'm out of this product in my warehouse, so you might want to place an order from distribution that gets you three months worth, because that's how long it'll take to get back." A publisher who is my partner in this business makes sure that I have the information I need for us both to succeed, and makes sure I have that information before it is too late. My publishing partners are also willing to discuss our disagreements. I promise to always be rational and clear in communicating my thought process, and they promise to do the same. We may not come to a mutually beneficial understanding, but at the very least I can talk to my publishing partners about a potential issue, we can discuss both sides of the issue, and we can walk away from the conversation with a better understanding of how we both feel, and why they've made the decision that they've made. This understanding is how we build better partnerships, and how we make things better for both of us in the future.
Talking to me is where it starts, but after you talk the talk I need you to walk the walk. Retail support can take a lot of forms, although the one that you will hear most often from retailers are those three special little letters... MAP Minimum Advertised Price policies are fine and dandy. They can sometimes help me when choosing which companies to put on my demo tables, but those companies also have to have a proven record of actually enforcing those policies. A variety of publishers run a variety of software to check the prices of their product through various companies. I do the same. I like checking to see who has let a MAP 'violation' sit untended for multiple days. It shouldn't amuse me as much as it does, but in a way it does amuse me because it reminds me not to trust that company. A MAP is one way in which publishers can prove retail support, but it's not the only way, and it might not be the most important way. There are other ways in which publishers can prove that I matter, and a demo program that allows me to sell their products with more knowledge is something that I consider of great importance if a publisher and I are to be partners. I have some things that matter in a demo program. If a demo isn't available at release, chances are good I won't be going deep on your game (outside of exceptions that sell themselves, but that's six titles of 2,500 in a calendar year). If I have to buy your demo at full wholesale, chances are good I won't be putting your game on a demo table, and therefore I won't be going deep on it. If a product I believe in comes with a free or SUPER-cheap demo, chances are good that I will then join you in a partnership on that game, and maybe long-term across other games. Those are a couple of ways in which publishers can prove they support retailers, and walk the proverbial walk towards a partnership.
Put any terminology you want it, but when it boils right down to it we are the customers of publishing. Yes, the end consumer, our customer, is also their customer, but various publishers make stuff, and we buy that stuff. We are their customers. So, if you want to prove partnership, you have to provide the level of customer service that says you care about me as a customer. When I place direct orders are the terms reasonable? Do I receive my product in a timely fashion? If there are problems do they make a reasonable effort to communicate that they care about them and are making an effort to correct them?
I'm willing to trade some of these things for others. I know that sometimes I get things a day quicker through distribution, but ordering direct might come with promos that help me move additional amounts of that product, or a better rate on a demo copy, or other ancillary benefits that make the direct order worth placing. I'm willing to make that trade most of the time.
The other way in which publishers can prove customer service to me is taking care of customer problems in a timely fashion. If a game has missing pieces or is defective I will do everything I can to make things right for the customer, but how long does it take the publisher to make it right for me? That matters, that is a matter of customer service.
Part Two of Retail - Publisher partnership talk. What do you think is your duty in the retail partnership?
So the follow-up from Dawn. What do retailers owe publishers as our part of that partnership?
I will learn enough about your products to at least give my customers a rudimentary idea of what they are about. I will go way past that when it comes to product I choose for my demo table, ensuring that I and my staff can teach the game to any interested customers. I will study and research so that I can best give my customers information about release dates and games before they are even released so that I can better build excitement for your product before it even arrives in my store. If I can't find information that is important to my customers, I will most likely assume you have decided that communication is not important, and that we are not partners, as discussed before.
I Will Follow the Rules
I promise that we will follow the rules you set, be they MAP policies or rules on promotional items. I will not take promotional product you send to me for free and sell it online in an effort to keep my lights turned on, both because you deserve better than that and because I can keep my lights on without breaking the rules.
I will not follow them blindly and forever though. If I repeatedly see that the rules don't matter to other people, and that you have a history of not punishing those who struggle with the rules, then I will assume the rules are not rules, but merely guidelines. Instead of breaking the rules myself though, I will simply assume that we are not partners and I will either stop promoting your product, or I will just stop carrying it completely.
I will treat you and your product with respect. I will not disrespect your product or your company publicly whether it be in a Facebook group with my colleagues or in the four walls of my store with my customers. I will not use terms like "that game sucks" when I can instead say "if you enjoy (this thing) you may find that game enjoyable."
Understand that at the same time my first loyalty is to my customers. If they ask me what I think of your game and I legitimately didn't enjoy it, I will tell them that. I will tell them what specifically I didn't enjoy about the game, and give them enough information to make an informed decision. I will recommend to them an alternative that I truly enjoyed, and it may not be from your company. I will strive to treat the officers and employees of every company with respect when I interact with them. I will communicate my concerns with you in a respectful manner and calmly try to make sure you understand how your actions affect my store, and at the same time, the stores of my colleagues.
We see the term partnership tossed around a lot, but there are no more than half a dozen or so publishers that I think of as actual partners in my business. Those publishers give me three things; communication, retail support, and customer service. In exchange I give them my time. I devote time to their products by acquiring product knowledge, showcasing their product on my demo tables, following their rules, and treating the individuals, their companies, and their products, with respect. I guess it's actually pretty simple, isn't it?