Well, my friends, the time has come for me to admit a terrible secret. It's a dark and shocking thing that I've kept locked up in a closet with the bones of Jimmy Hoffa and the Lindbergh baby. It is a secret source of shame for me, and I suspect shame also for those who hold my confidence and sully their own good name by keeping that secret for me. Heck, it may make some of you ashamed to have ever been mildly amused by my absurdities. It is a bond which I'm now both willing to present and explain while I unshackle myself from its tainted stain. It is, and has been, my secret profession. Apparently, I'm stalling. So, yeah, well here goes.
For the past ten months...
I've been a store manager for EB Games.
I have a lot to say about EB, and the increasing disquiet I've harbored toward retail even while I perpetrated its various offenses. But, what I don't want to do is eject mindless bile onto the name of EB in some kind of therapeutic emotional vomit just for the sake of coloring myself superior. I want to be objective about my experience. I want people to understand why EB treats its customers as it does and the uncomfortable position those too often surly counter-jockeys are placed in when transacting your purchases. I want to talk about the palpable conflict between customer and employee, the changing face of the retail gaming outlet, and the realities of the point-of-purchase, and I want to do that all with an even keel. While I'm certainly exhausted and demoralized from my stint behind that yellow counter at the mall, I realize it's not really EB's fault. More than anything the problem lies with me and some pesky principles that I just couldn't reconcile.
That's right; I'm giving EB the "˜It's not you, it's me' treatment.
Anyway, like I said, there's a lot of hopefully smart things I want to say about retail sales, the gaming industry, and EB itself. Some of it will be good, and some of it will not. But, I recently realized that before I could sit down and write that article that I've been aching to pen for six or seven months now, a smartly worded, well-conceived, dare-I-say somewhat researched piece, I had to get a few tangents and smart-assed comments off my chest. Also, I felt like I had to come clean and earn back some credibility before being laughed straight off the planet.
The first thing you should understand is why I picked this job, and the answer is an extraordinarily simple one: it was offered to me. EB was a means to an end. It's an end that I've since reached, and so the whole endeavor should be considered a successful venture from at least a few perspectives. Elysia wanted to come home to be with our son and start her business, but we couldn't afford to lose the income entirely, the healthcare, and the steady paycheck for the purposes of buying a house, much less groceries, fossil fuels, and those small packages of Jello pudding I do so enjoy. I had spent an unsuccessful summer looking for employment with few prospects and no returns. Elysia was supportive, but increasingly discouraged at the slow progress, and it began to occur to me that a Bachelor's degree in English Literature does not translate well into gainful employment. I have no right to say that such an epiphany was a shock, but knowing a sledgehammer to the knees is going to hurt ahead of time doesn't make the experience itself any less painful.
I'm trying to recall precisely how I felt when I walked into EB with my over-qualified resume, and I remember it being a bit like a proud march to the wall where the firing squad will cheerfully riddle your flesh with high-velocity pieces of metal. I remember a feeling of defeat with an absolute certainty regarding the trivial matter of actually being offered a job. I left my resume with the manager of the district base store. I was told later that the district manager glanced at my resume and rushed out to arrange an interview, but I had walked out just moments before.
There was a message on the machine when I got home. Two weeks later I had a store. On September 1st of 2004 I posted my thoughts about ending my stint as a stay-at-home dad. The second sentence of that piece, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Today is a hard day for meÃ¢â‚¬? was woefully understated. And then, I began the long process of hiding my employer from as many people as possible.
For the first few months as I busied myself with projects and constant distraction I could pretend pretty nicely that things were great. I told myself that I was putting together a store and a staff that I would want to shop at, clean, smartly-run, friendly, knowledgeable, and efficient. I tried not to drown too much under the weight of corporate fire-drills, and ranking management. I had taken over a dud of a store, so any progress was both notable and appreciated. I really did quite well, and by November had put together a nicely successful Halo 2 launch (waxed the Gamestop upstairs, thank you very much) and was gearing up for Christmas.
Then a series of events moved me (upgrade?) to the district base store; a higher volume location in a much more upscale mall. This new store presented a series of new projects all begging to be tackled just as winter birthed the Christmas season. Hours began to pile on top of hours that were already perched precariously on its own hefty stack of hours. Dollars rolled as we shoved anything and everything out the door, and yet the location floundered in well-founded mediocrity. This new Gameplay Guarantee that had corporate buzzing was building steam behind the scenes, and it was becoming clear that my boss wanted it to be what our district was known for. I heard myself saying things about reserves, and preowned games, and warranties, and guarantees that stirred a self-loathing that had been gathering strength in quiet for some time. It was like some fundamental part of my psyche had fallen into a terrible coma on the first day of my job, and now that part of me was fluttering its eyelids and twitching its fingers trying to wake up so it could punch this new me right in the face.
But I was good at my job when I let loose, shoved a ball gag in my conscience's yap-trap and just did it. Mine was a PC store and I regularly found myself in the top hundred of the two-thousand plus stores on reserves for major PC titles. With Guild Wars for example, I moved nearly 100 units on the first day against a month goal of eighteen. And I pushed for a Gameplay Guarantee on every one of those suckers; think about that for a moment; a guarantee on a disc for a MMO. Some (rightly) scoffed at the idea of protecting a disc they would likely use exactly once, but not nearly as many as you might think. After all, Gameplay Guarantees were our district's specialty.
By last month my store was attaching a Gameplay Guarantee on 21% of all items sold. Bear in mind that those guarantees are only attached to actual games sold, so that 21% is relatively low when you factor in the accessories, hintbooks, magazines, and systems. On actual software sold, that attach rate is likely closer to 35%. We were managing to talk people into attaching a one to three dollar upcharge on one out of every three games sold in my store. And, baby, we made them like it.
Now, for the horrible truth. Out of the hundreds (if not thousands) of Gameplay Guarantees I've sold, I've processed exactly four replacements. And, I assure you, it's not because I avoided honoring the program. If every single one of those people who bought that guarantee had returned with issues, then I would have honored every single one. But, the truth remains that only four people came to me having bought a Gameplay Guarantee and requesting an exchange beyond our standard fourteen day return policy. It's all about the profit in retail, and this program was a gold mine. I'll talk more about the specifics of the GPG, and how it factors into a store's bottom line, and how that factor's into a manager's yearly bonus, and about the almighty spiff in the article to come. For now, just know that it's to an employees advantage to get you to buy a Gameplay Guarantee.
But as I sold each one, and pushed reservations, and hawked free magazines, and pressured people into buying preplayed items, and gave crappy value for traded games, I felt worse and worse about myself. And the reason I felt like that is that I'm on record as being solidly against that kind of retail behavior. When push came to shove I was entirely willing to shove aside my bluster about reservations and pushy salespeople. It was a fact that increasingly gnawed at me as sixty-hour/seven-day work weeks through Christmas slogged ever forward. The store was skyrocketing from a rank in the low seventies to the high twenties and I was driving home through dark cold nights feeling appropriately cold and dark.
Certis was certain I was prepared to leave the site. I would go weeks without posting here in the forums (some of you may have noticed my absence through much of winter) much less the front page. My time was absorbed by the store which, despite constant effort seemed in a constant chaos, and my enthusiasm for gaming had ebbed to a dramatic low tide. I kept telling myself, and my family, and Certis that once Christmas was over my spirits would return. They did not.
And so, I lasted these past six months in a passionate kind of hidden self-loathing, increasingly burned out with this job and hating every time I pressured some kid to slap another three bucks on his already overpriced game because we all know he's going to scratch it and don't come crying back to me if it's after our strict two week return window.
And on top of all that, there's you damn people! You! With your inability to keep a receipt, and your constant problems, and your incompetence at installing software, and not knowing what kind of video card you have, and buying Gamecube games when you don't even freakin' have one, and being far too big for that poor fifteen dollar dance pad, and your prattling on about the disappointing boss battle in Generic Anime RPG Five, and your constant misinformed "facts" about how the Xbox 360 will cost seven hundred dollars and float on magnetic suspensors, and your kids that you turn loose on my interactive machines for an hour while you shop at JC Penny, and your Ã¢â‚¬Å“can I throw this half full McDonalds cup away in your trashcanÃ¢â‚¬? which you'll probably just leave on a shelf to spill all over Paper Mario anyway! Let me tell you, you people are no picnic. And, oh yes, when you pissed me off, when you were rude or condescending, you're damn straight that I threw every annoying sales pitch at you, gave you the lower value for your crappy scraped up trades, and followed the return policy to the letter just to stick it back to you. Oh, you better believe I did. Remember that time you asked in a huff to speak to the store manager, and I sneered back at you and said you're looking at him. Yeah, I loved it every bit as much as you think I did. Maybe more.
But, that's all symptomatic, isn't it? I realized as the days drifted by that it wasn't that there were more and more jerks coming into the store. It's that I saw more and more perfectly benign people as undesirable. I could have blamed the constant pressure from my bosses, the atmosphere of the corporate dictums, my employees, or just the clientele of the store, but it wasn't true. The truth was I wasn't proud of my job, or what it asked me to do, and it was making me angry at whatever I could get mad at. I knew, even before I had formed it into a solid idea in my head that I had to get out.
Last week, finally, when it really began to sink in that I was leaving, and the pressure began to relax, I started to look at the customers like I hadn't since those first weeks. And I've spent the intervening hours selling them what they needed instead of what I wanted them to buy. I've all but stopped shoving guarantees and presells and used (because that's what it ought to be called) games down people's throats, and it's been easier. Not good, or pleasant, but at least less shameful. It would be nice to say that treating the customer with that kind of service has increased our numbers, but it has not. My personal numbers have never been lower, and everybody pretty much pretends not to notice that I've all but checked out.
Which brings me to this, my last week with EB, and finally my admission to all of you. I told myself I was hiding my employment because I didn't want there to be some perceived conflict of interest. That was, and I ask your forgiveness in advance for the language but it's necessary in this case, bullsh*t. It was all about pride, and my lack thereof. I hope my coming article that I'll now be better prepared to write about the practices of EB will prove insightful, but more than that I also have a strange hope that it absolves me some. Like I said, I have a lot I want to say about the topic, and now that I've gotten some of this personal stuff off my chest I think I'm ready to tell you some rather interesting things.