The Current State of Retailers and Kickstarter (2019)

18 July 2019 | 25 Comments

Before I delve into this tenuous topic, I should clarify a few things: One, as much as I try to stay on top of the evolution of crowdfunding, I haven’t actually run a Kickstarter campaign since 2015 (my company completely moved away from Kickstarter after that). Two, I’m a publisher, not a retailer, but the information I’ll share today comes from retailers.

Last week, new creator Joe Sibert (here’s his game on Kickstarter) contacted me with the results of a massive survey of US retailers that he and his team conducted. I thought I’d share some interesting results from that survey, paired with some information from my past surveys and the official stance of the Game Retailers Who Back Kickstarters Facebook group.

Joe and his team called every US board game retailer they could find on Google, resulting in 1042 stores that sell games like Catan and Scythe. Out of those stores, 223 indicated that they support tabletop Kickstarter projects (21%). Of the remaining 79%, the reasons they weren’t interested in backing KS campaigns included:

  • Most said they would rather just wait until the game entered distribution.
  • They believed that if a person wanted a game, that person would just buy it on Kickstarter, not through the store.
  • Some had backed KS projects in the past and the games just sat on the shelf.
  • A few said that cash flow and cost were a concern.

My thoughts: I can understand these perspectives. Though I think it will be increasingly rare that a significant number of units will ever enter distribution. There are just so many games on Kickstarter now. So if a retailer really thinks a game has potential, Kickstarter may be the only chance to get a guaranteed quantity.

In the Game Retailers Who Back Kickstarters Facebook group, Dave Salisbury maintains a running list of the elements of a Kickstarter campaign that retailers find appealing. It’s a long list–and worth a read–so I’ll just pick a few key recommendations here:

  • 50% discount on MSRP (with the KS price being close to the actual MSRP)
  • 1 free demo copy
  • free shipping
  • minimal up front payment
  • delivered at the same time as other backers, ability to sell before the game reaches regular distribution

My thoughts: I think it’s perfectly fair for retailers to express what they want. Whether or not this is reasonable or feasible is another matter. Contrast the last bullet point with the others–retailers are basically saying, “Treat us the same as other backers, except when it comes to price, free stuff, shipping, and cash flow.” I think it’s a really tough balance for creators to navigate (a) a desire to treat individual and retailer backers equally and (b) a desire to have a good relationship with retailers.

I’ll also add my summary from a survey I conducted 2 years ago of retailers worldwide. 160 responded, and my overall conclusions were:

  • Distributors like MAP and promos, and they actually seem ambivalent to whether or not publishers use Kickstarter
  • FLGS like MAP, priority access, publishers who don’t use Kickstarter, MSRP on publisher websites, and promos
  • Online retailers like discounts on Kickstarter, publishers who don’t use Kickstarter, MSRP on publisher websites, and promos

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Here are my final thoughts:

If you’re planning a Kickstarter campaign for a tabletop game, either make it super appealing to retailers (i.e., follow all of their preferences) or don’t even try (i.e., acknowledge that no matter what you do, 79% of retailers aren’t going to back your project anyway). I don’t think it’s worth the stress of navigating the middle ground.

What do you think? If you’re not a retailer, how have you seen retailers respond to Kickstarter campaigns? If you are a retailer, what’s an example of a campaign you’re happy you backed and why?

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25 Comments on “The Current State of Retailers and Kickstarter (2019)

  1. I can see how hard it could be for a retailer though. There is a lot of opportunity cost invested for a product that takes time to recover your profit. At the end of the day that is the bottom line. It might be an amazing game but they want to sell it. With some games taking years on delays to fulfil especially to retailers that’s a lot of investment to be waiting on stock that you are just waiting for. Thanks for a great read

    1. Yup, that’s the reason.

      It’s a list of things that retailers find desirable from a campaign, assembled in one place. Sometimes we all back stuff when not every tickbox is there, but in general – and certainly for 79% of retailers – there are plenty of other games and companies a retailer can spend their money on to get stock.

      Here’s the thing about retail. It’s a phrase that if you have never run a retail business before you won’t have heard.

      That phrase is Turn Rate.

      Turn Rate is how often a copy of a game on your shelf gets sold and replaced. It’s the frequency of sales. A big store will use its Epos to measure its turn, and a mass market store will use that data to cull lines and publishers.

      Turn Rate is about another phrase we retailers use. ROI. Return on Investment. Basically how fast we can turn money we invest in a product into more product, to maximise our profitability.

      It took me a long time to build up enough equity to back Kickstarters as heavily as I did. If I tie up 20k in Kickstarters for two years, its not generating profit in order for me to reinvest in more games to generate more sales to generate more profits to invest in more games.

      Stock from distro? Its right there, on a pallet. I can buy it, sell it, turn it ten or fifteen times in the time it takes for your KS to deliver – if it delivers.

      Those 79% of stores would rather do just that. Those 21% of stores? We want to invest in future partners going forwards, in future games that we can turn into profits so YOU, the designer and the publisher can also turn those games into profits.

      To recoup YOUR Return on Investment.

      And we ask for terms because, well, that money is tied up and money is a resource for both of us.

      People often make a false equivalency here, because they see what a retailer does is just buying multiple copies cheap. But a retailer is investing in future sales. A consumer is buying for themselves.

      We are investing, not consuming. Its capitalism 101.

        1. I bet if we as Kickstarter consumers thought, “How am I going to turn this game around and sell it once I get it delivered?” We would also not buy half of the games we are buying. Most of us find one or two things appealing about a game and buy it because we hope it will be fun. To be honest, I am surprised that even 21% of retailers would take a risk on a Kickstarter campaign. Having said that, come October when we relaunch our campaign I will be most grateful for those 21%, because I realize the risk they take. I will have to track Dave Salisbury’s list done. Thanks, Jamey!

    2. My first Kickstarter generated a large amount of attention from retailers and I spent countless hours emailing back and fourth. I tried to please everyone, had a bunch of options and found myself working hard to make it work. After the campaign I reflected on this a lot, and while it was great to work with so many retailers, I feel I could have used a lot of that time much better for other tasks during the Kickstarter.

      It turns out, just like designing, not every game is for every person.

      This time around I kept it simple, I worked out what retail option I wanted to offer, what I thought was fair, and I went with it. For reference it only ticks 3 out of the 5 bullet points copied from the retailers ‘want’ list. I created a single option with a fixed price and quantity per location, there are no extra deals, it’s very black and white.

      80% of retailers who have contacted me have said yes without question, and we are happy working together. The other 20% are perhaps better suited to other games this time around. The amount of time I’ve spent managing retailer orders this campaign is less than 1/3 of the time I spent in my first campaign, and I’m very happy with the results.

      I’ve had a huge number of retailers support me and I’m glad to be working with so many new stores.

      My advice would be read what people want, put together a single option that fits your goals and their desires as much as possible, and go with it. It will either work or it wont, and often this will simply come down to price point, and how successful people think your game will be.

  2. Given how many FLGS seem to scrape along on the verge of survival I can see how it would be hard for them to back a KS game.
    I’ve been fairly lucky with Kickstarter, but I’ve definitely had a few lemons – games that took YEARS longer than planned, and were rubbish when they did (felt like a worse version of a game that had been cool when I backed and got really left behind in the 3-4 years it took them to get it to us). For me it was just a cautionary tale, but I’ve I’d sunk ££100s into it, and found myself with a load of unsellable stock, I would have been much more worried.

  3. I don’t envy the challenge retailers now face in deciding what to stock. There are so many ways to be wrong now. Good retailers have mailing lists and social media groups through which they take requests from customers about what to stock. If I were a retailer, I’d probably make a stringent rule for myself: I must get a certain number of unsolicited requests for a Kickstarter game before I consider backing. I’d also be careful of the fact that the Kickstarter audience is a little different from Bricks & Mortar audiences. There are some games that do great on Kickstarter but not so well elsewhere, and vice-versa. As a retailer, I’d try to build a model of that and then run candidate games through the model before backing.

    But I wouldn’t want to be a retailer in the first place because I don’t how to leverage labor well or scale in that situation (in my daydreamed alternative life, though, I start a store called “Coffee Chocolate Wine and Board Games”, so I can sell and enjoy all my favorite things in one place).

    Related: in speaking with retailers recently, I’m hearing they’re less and less liking publishers who publish a large number of games, because it makes their hard jobs even harder. I think the quality-over-quantity approach has been becoming more valuable recently because of that.

    1. I’m guessing, because I’m not a retailer (maybe Dave can shed more light?) but I wouldn’t have thought that the people who are aware of the KS and want the game during the campaign are the retailers market.

      Surely a retailer buys KS games to sell to the people who missed the campaign? people who see all the unboxings and other hype on Facebook, BGG etc, and think “aww, I wish I’d backed that, but I don’t want to pay eBay prices.”

      1. I know at least a couple retailers who ask their fans know to let them know when they’re interested in a KS game, so it has definitely been done.

        I was imagining the goal to be more about forecasting demand rather than acting as a go-between between KS and the store’s customers. Though it bears mentioning that one way stores survive is by creating a loyal community who prefer to support their stores over buying on Kickstarter.

      2. Whenever DP and I see a new game we like on Kickstarter the very next thing we do is find out if our FLGS will be purchasing any copies during the campaign. If so we let them know we are interested and buy it from them 99.9% of the time (and for reference we buy probably 15-20 games a year that we find out about on Kickstarter). The only time we wouldn’t is if there is a version of the game that comes with bonuses that we really don’t want to live without that are only for backers (if our FLGS is only offering the non premium version).

        Now that being said we are in Canada, and most Kickstarter game campaigns are not. Despite this our FLGS generally has comparable pricing and even when they cannot do so, they have outstanding service and we absolutely love being there and the people who work there. We support them as much as we can.

  4. To qualify my comment: I am a board game player who took one business class in grad school. As mentioned above I think it would be difficult for retailers to back games on Kickstarter that won’t be delivered for months to years. Having all that money tied up would be problematic. If the game sells really quickly upon arrival it would help because it wouldn’t take up much shelf space. The trick is being able to predict which games would do that. Even still I imagine that may not be enough to overcome the long time to delivery.

  5. As a retailer, I do back Kickstarters but one of the main reasons I decide to back it versus waiting for regular distribution is the KS exclusive promos. As long as it is feasible in terms of cost on the Kickstarter I would back it there to provide a point of differentiation from the other retailers when the game releases. Customers are more likely to consider spending a little more on a game to get those extras than just buy the retail version. But of course it is risky having all that money tied up so I tend to stick with the more better known games/publishers or something really unique.

  6. My first Kickstarter generated a large amount of attention from retailers and I spent countless hours emailing back and fourth. I tried to please everyone, had a bunch of options and found myself working hard to make it work. After the campaign I reflected on this a lot, and while it was great to work with so many retailers, I feel I could have used a lot of that time much better for other tasks during the Kickstarter.

    It turns out, just like designing, not every game is for every person.

    This time around I kept it simple, I worked out what retail option I wanted to offer, what I thought was fair, and I went with it. For reference it only ticks 3 out of the 5 bullet points copied from the retailers ‘want’ list. I created a single option with a fixed price and quantity per location, there are no extra deals, it’s very black and white.

    80% of retailers who have contacted me have said yes without question, and we are happy working together. The other 20% are perhaps better suited to other games this time around. The amount of time I’ve spent managing retailer orders this campaign is less than 1/3 of the time I spent in my first campaign, and I’m very happy with the results.

    I’ve had a huge number of retailers support me and I’m glad to be working with so many new stores.

    My advice would be read what people want, put together a single option that fits your goals and their desires as much as possible, and go with it. It will either work or it wont, and often this will simply come down to price point, and how successful people think your game will be.

  7. I have only one question.

    Can I see the list of contacted stores who participated in the survey?

    I’m forced to ask, because I maintain regular contact with dozens of retailers, many of them the proud owners of awards in this industry, who should be pretty easy to find on Google.

    Not one was contacted.

  8. Kickstarter will continue to be the exclusive platform for buying boutique table top games. In fact, more and more designers are opting to only sell their games via KS. I am not a huge fan of this trend, but it makes sense. KS was originally meant just to,you know, kickstart a product from a new company/innovator with the expectation that the individual/company would then use the proceeds from their initial KS project to fund their next venture. But as we have seen, KS has become the store front as well. Many designers and even established publishers use KS more as a pre-order manager/store front than as a crowdfunding platform as it was originally designed to be. And this trend will more than likely continue while becoming more common. Retailers, obviously, will be left out of this. Instead, they will need to focus on selling games from more traditional publishers that have established distribution channels. Whether or not this bifurcation of how table top games are sold to us, the consumer, will end well remains to be seen. I have my doubts (and I don’t back KS projects that are only sold via KS with no intent to be sold via retail). This is a big part of what fuels the talk around the current TTG bubble we have and the possibility of an eventual crash.

  9. As a fellow Admin for the Facebook Group “Game Retailers Who Back Kickstarters,” I thought I should start by saying that Dave’s list is much more of a wishlist than anything, and that not all retailers necessarily agree with it. As a (probably) obvious example, The Game Steward specializes in Kickstarter games, but as an online store, we don’t need demo copies of games. But I’ve seen a variety of viewpoints among brick and mortar store owners, and they are definitely not all in agreement on what they want to see in a retailer pledge option on Kickstarter.

    I also want to say that the data presented is interesting, but it will (would?) be more interesting to see the same survey in one year, and five years. Will more retailers start backing Kickstarter games? That’s the trend that I see from an anecdotal standpoint. Carrying Kickstarter games is a way to differentiate a store from its competitors. To do it well, it’s not enough to back one or two campaigns, though. It’s necessary to back enough so that one’s store develops a reputation as “the” store that carries Kickstarter games.

    We presented a seminar (along with Dave Salisbury) at the GAMA Trade Show to retailers on how to back Kickstarter games profitably. It was standing room only, and several publishers attended as well. What struck us was the widely varying experience levels among the retailers. Some had never backed a Kickstarter before, and wanted very basic information like “what is a pledge manager?”. Others had backed hundreds of Kickstarters, and just wanted tips and/or compare notes on which Kickstarter are worth paying attention to. We plan to present the seminar again next year, and I suspect the attendance will be even higher.

    I won’t dispute what others have said about the risk that comes with backing Kickstarters, or the challenge of profitability when a game may not ship for a year or more. But I will say that it can be done successfully. We’ve been doing it at The Game Steward for 6 years now, backing over 1000 Kickstarter campaigns, but being very selective about which games to back, and how many copies to order. We’ve made a few mistakes here and there, but the successes have resulted in a very profitable business.

    As for Publishers, there is a value to cultivating relationships with retailers. Retailers can be influential (especially when there are a lot of them) with distributors when making requests that a game be carried at distribution. Or, as is happening with more frequency, retailers may order additional copies directly from the publisher, even if the game does not go into distribution. So it may be worth putting the effort in to developing a good retailer pledge option.

    I understand where Frank is coming from, and I’d say he’s not wrong. It’s mostly about giving it adequate consideration before the campaign goes live. Publishers should develop a clear retailer option, and that may mean consulting with some retailers before the campaign launches. Store owners can either accept it or not, but if it presents value, then a lot of retailers will accept it willingly.

    But even more interesting (to me) would be to see more publishers develop a long term plan to engage retailers – demo schedule, promotional materials, etc. Getting the buy in of successful retailers can do so much to promote the long term success of a game, and maximize the chances of getting into distribution. And if you’ve hooked a retailer with the initial retailer pledge, then chances are they will WANT the game to succeed for the foreseeable future, and will want to continue carrying the game in their store well after the Kickstarter has finished fulfilling.

  10. I recently learned a FLGS is offering to order Kickstarters on behalf of customers. The customer avoids paying shipping cost. The retailer could require payment so they are not out any cash for the time it takes to fulfill and they get information on what might be future popular games and could order extra copies.

  11. I agree with Dave that game stores that back Kickstarters have to be a bit more operationally mature. They have to have the cash to lay out of possibly years (still waiting on Dark Souls expansions). They need a customer base to market these games to. They need a process to accept pre-orders quickly and easily. I have backed 230 KS projects so far, with 75% of them being games, and I am still working to make my processes better all the time.

    And quite frankly, it is more difficult to procure games using Kickstarters. Many of these new game designers have never made a game before and have no business or financial training, and no experience with supply chain logistics. Even for those designers that have made games before supply chain issues still abound. I don’t even want to talk about surfing through the ridiculous amount of KS update emails every day.

    The game store & Kickstarter universes are not mutually exclusive, not should they be. Kickstarter buyers are mostly what I would call alpha gamers. They are a small percentage (10% or less?) of the buying market. If a game designer wants to run an actual business, he needs retail as much as we need him. Selling 1500 copies of a game on KS might be considered “successful” for a designer, but if you want to run a business you better be shooting to move 10,000 copies at a minimum – 25,000 if you want the general public to discover your game.

  12. Dave at Fanboy3 and Mike at the Game Steward have been incredibly helpful getting our game to break into retail.

    One other thing I would share is that I went into Fanboy3 the other day and spent an hour asking lots of questions about shelf presence, pricing, Retail customer preferences etc.

    To be clear I wanted to know what works for the Retailer so that we could accommodate it in the reprint and expansion campaign on day 1. What was really interesting was the stats on follow on SKUs for retail customers (lore books, play mats etc.).

    A very rewarding visit, would thoroughly recommend doing this for anyone on the fence.

  13. As a retailer, I’m very concerned about the long term impact of Kickstarter on the entire industry. Every time I have to explain to a customer that the awesome game they played last night at a game night was acquired by their friend through Kickstarter, I’ve lost a customer. During the past two years, this has happened more than I’d prefer. Now we’ve altered our inventory purchasing to adapt to this, but, sadly, it is becoming harder and harder to stock the products we care most about.

    I believe that all of us – publishers, distributors, and retailers – need to compromise in the short term for the long term health of our industry. I know it’s hard for Kickstarter creators to offer retailers everything a regular backer gets, at a lower price, but not taking that short term loss has, in my opinion, larger long term effects. The same goes for retailers; We may need to sacrifice on margin to receive premium products early to maintain long term health.

    For my shop, having the product on the shelf when the customer wants it is our key concern. Product will be most in demand when backers receive their copies and begin playing it with others. If I don’t have the product at that point, I don’t need it at all, with some exceptions. Most games don’t sell past the first 2-4 weeks, so by the time it hits distribution, I don’t care about it, again, with some exceptions. So, I’m OK making only 30% on a product if I have it when it’s in demand. I also believe that just having the game on the shelf upon first release is vital to brand integrity, so a lower margin is often acceptable. For many Kickstarter products, some profit is better than none. Of course, if I have to pay the full amount at the same time as regular backers, things get messier.

    I think if we don’t find a way to maintain brick and mortar reputation, everyone suffers. Fewer places to play, means fewer places for people to share their awesome kickstarters with others, which means fewer backers long term. So we all need to find some compromise. My favorite projects lately have been that for Root (Leder Games) and Escape Plan (Fred). I did not get full 50% margin on these games, but I did get the product at the same time as regular backers without paying the full amount years in advance. Both the publishers and retailers “lost” on these deals, short term.

    This extends beyond Kickstarter too. Maybe not the place here, but the current Wingspan situation is frustrating as now customers who buy direct through the website will receive their games a few weeks earlier than those who have been on my waiting list for nearly 3 months. A good chunk of those folks on my waiting list will not be customers in the future if I can’t get them their game when others already have it. I would gladly take a bit of a hit on margin to maintain long-term relationships and brand integrity. Not being offered that opportunity, whether through Kickstarter or otherwise, is painful.

  14. One thought which may be interesting: as a keen board gamer in Australia, shipping cost is a big issue.

    Some Aus online retailers (there are few FLGS chains in Australia) are now starting to back Kickstarters as retailers, and I am looking at preordering from them as an alternative to backing the desired KS myself – mainly because of the freight cost advantage.

    So perhaps there is more opportunity for retailer support in the (admittedly much smaller, but enthusiastic and let’s face it, we’re not talking millions of units sold for any board game, rarely even 100’s of thousands I suspect) overseas markets where shipping or other cost factors play a bigger part.

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