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The survival of the UK's independent games retailers

Small store operations have shrugged off competition from supermarkets and massive chains. We find out how

One of the first articles I wrote as a journalist in this industry was about independent game shops in the UK.

It was about nine years ago, and small stores were facing fierce competition from massive specialist chains like Blockbuster, HMV, Zavvi, GAME and GameStation. Practically every generalist retailer, from Tesco to Woolworths, was aggressively pushing into the market, while cheap pricing at Amazon and Play.com was encouraging thousands of consumers to switch from the High Street to the internet.

The prognosis from those I had spoken to was that things were only going to head in one direction, and that independent games stores were on borrowed time.

Almost a decade later, and GfK estimates that there are around 300 indie shops still in the UK - and that is only counting those that sell new games. Factor in pre-owned and retro stores, and you're looking at around 500 outlets scattered across Britain. And that's a figure that has remained largely the same over the past five years.

Meanwhile, many of those big retailers I listed above have either reduced in size, cut games from their shelves or disappeared entirely.

"Independent retailers are largely made up of individuals who are passionate about the industry, with financial gain only being half the story," explains Robert Lindsay, managing director of Games Centre, an indie chain based in Scotland that now boasts 8 stores and a website.

 

"There will always be an independent scene and will continue to be once the national chains make their exits."

Robert Lindsay, Games Centre

"Quite often their cost base is low and they are small enough to react quickly to market changes, which offers them a distinct advantage over their bigger national counterparts such as GAME. The bigger chains quite often flounder when the market takes a dip or changes direction. There will always be an independent scene and will continue to be once the national chains make their exits."

It's this adaptability that seems to be the crucial point that has enabled so many independent game stores to survive. Chris Harwood is the commercial director at Grainger Games, which at over 70 stores can hardly be called a typical indie anymore. Yet it's a chain that began life 20 years ago as a stall in Newcastle's Grainger market, and it's one that has constantly evolved over the course of its history.

 

"It is a lot easier for us smaller retailers to change direction and offer new services and products. A lot of the smaller independents now are classed as retailers rather than games retailers due to the diversity of the in store offer," Harwood tells us.

"It seems the larger retailers are starting to follow some of the new products and services offered by the independents. Going back a few years this situation was the other way around; independents always looked up to major High Street retailers and copied any offer that was done well and ran with it.

"It seems like some of the larger retailers today are very set in their ways and not willing to change. In a market that is considerably down year-on-year this isn't a great idea."

Games Centre's 8 stores run regular events for the local community

Almost all of the indies we spoke to, from Extreme Gamez in Ashby to Gamesnation in Paignton, have changed what they sell in recent months, and that's just part and parcel of surviving in a hostile retail environment. Some have moved into comics, board games, trading cards and toys, while other lucrative areas have been retro games, pre-owned and technology sales (not to mention repairs).

"To counter the loss in sales from digital products we have widened our stock file and now sell a range of products that you can't get from bigger retailers - the main one being retro games and products," says Sammy Drysdale of Gamesnation. "Old school gaming has had a huge resurgence in recent years and is now arguably more popular than ever. We cater to this in a big way and has been one of our most profitable ventures."

Lindsay adds: "We have kept physical gaming as our core while steadily evolving our product range to include as comprehensive a digital offering as we have access to. In addition to this, our tech business has grown year-on-year to become a significant proportion of the overall numbers.

"The final piece of the current jigsaw is our merchandise and trading card product range. We have captured a significant share of the areas we operate in, with event organisation and community engagement playing a significant part in the success of this area of the business."

"Old school gaming has had a resurgence in recent years and is now more popular than ever. We cater to this in a big way."

Sammy Drysdale, Gamesnation

The community element has always been an indie strong-point. Independent shops tend to have a far closer relationship with the town they are in compared with the larger chains, which don't typically adapt to the local demands of their customers.

"Indies offer a lot more of a personal service and many people like that," says Julian Slater, owner of Bits N Pieces in Macclesfield. "I know many of my customers on a first name basis, and I have been doing this for so long that some have kids of their own who now shop in the store."

Of course the indie retail market is always fluctuating. In my local area alone, three indie stores have closed over the past seven years, whereas two new ones have opened. One of those stores, quite interestingly, specialises in Japanese games - both in terms of import titles, plus whatever localised products that Bandai Namco, Tecmo Koei and Rising Star like to push out. As a result, it has a group of dedicated customers that go there almost daily to hang out, if not always to spend money.

In the past, indie stores have often been derided for being dark, dingy, a bit like a jumble sale and even, for want of a better word, smelly. Some stores are like that, but more than most do not fit into that cliche. And the idea that they're not taken seriously by the industry is also a bit of a myth. Sony, for instance, view the entire indie sector as a chain of stores in their own right - and second only in importance to GAME. Sony was aggressive in trying to win over indie stores in the build-up to PS4, just as they were with indie developers.

However, when it comes to what's next, there's a mixture of negativity and resilience from all the indies we spoke to. Digital is eating away at their businesses, that much they're certain of, and they hope publishers don't abandon the physical market altogether.

"Distribution solely by digital channels is not the answer, you just have to look at how strong retail sales in the music industry continue to be and with their market-wide initiatives such as Record Store Day driving customers back to shops," says Nick Elliott of Barkman Computers.

"In turn we believe the sizeable portion of gamers don't want digital - they prefer physical, tangible goods. Digital products are really not suited to gifting occasions.  It would be great for the industry as a whole if publishers could make collector and premium editions available to all specialist retail rather than limiting themselves and putting it into just one store group."

Slater from Bits N Pieces adds: "The next few years could be interesting as digital is taking off now in a big way, but customers still want a place to go to buy games, so they can hold them physically or trade them in when finished. Also, companies like Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft need a base to show off their hardware, a place where there is a good knowledge of the product and a passion about selling it."

Digital is certainly a threat, the physical software market in the UK is 16 percent down in 2016 (year-to-date) and there are fewer games being released in boxes. Yet whereas the big chains are drawing up plans and rolling out trials to see what they can do to offset the digital headwinds, indie stores are moving much faster.

Lindsay concludes: "Every year, the proportion of new release sales which are sold digitally increases, clearly at the expense of physical. This trend will no doubt continue. In five years' time, I envisage a typical Games Centre store which has a healthy mixture of physical and digital products complemented by an increased in-store presence of technology, game-related merchandise and the latest trading card offerings.

"Independent retailers don't die, they simply evolve."

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Christopher Dring avatar

Christopher Dring

Head of Games B2B

Chris is a 15-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who

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