Death of the high street: is there a future for gaming retail?

Game closing

The pressures high-street games retailers are under these days are clear for all to see. They’re continually undercut, not only by supermarkets (who are able to offer the biggest titles at a loss just to get people in store) and online giants such as Amazon, but by download services including PSN, Origin and Steam, which bypass retail altogether and enable publishers to deal directly with gamers.

And, of course, there’s the wider concern that we like to call ‘our ongoing spiral into economic oblivion’. Disposable income is plunging – hence the collapse of major chains like Habitat, La Senza and Peacocks. Most retail analysts agree – there are too many shops on our high streets, and things will never go back to how they were five years ago.

Where does this bleak picture leave games? Well, it doesn’t have to be all doom, gloom and empty shops with boarded-up windows – there is a place for physical games retail, but shops and chains need to learn to take advantage of being on the high street. For John Ryan, stores editor of Retail Week, this means engaging in a little ‘retail theatre’, making shops an exciting and attractive place to find out about games.

“Do you remember the Blockbuster stores in the ’90s?” he asks. “There were shelves filled with old titles, a few bags of popcorn, a big TV blaring out movie trailers – there’s something of that ambience about videogame stores. You go in and there are cardboard cut-outs of characters looking grizzled – it’s a very old-fashioned way of doing things. There are no kiosks, no touchscreens… these are integral elements of most digitally enabled retail businesses. I was in Paris last week, wandering down the Champs-Élysées, and all of the stores had touchscreens, interactive content, overhead flatscreen displays – you find none of that in Game.”

Andy Payne, the chairman of games industry body UKIE, reckons the social side of gaming will also play a vital role. “If you go back to the beginning of videogames, we used to play them in arcades, and these became social hang-outs. Game stores need to offer people somewhere to go. Apple’s retail model is very expensive, but it represents the top end of this thinking. The reason why Facebook is so successful is that people want to share and show off what they’re doing – games stores need to buy into this.”

So in the future game shops need to be more than soulless racks of second-hand games. They need to be places to go and stay. Over in the world of books, up and coming indies and small chains such as Foyles are all about the joy of reading – they have comfy seats and signing sessions, and they’re nice places to relax.

“Customer engagement using in-store events and services is the only hope for games retail,” says Patrick O’Brien, a retail analyst at Verdict Research. “Perhaps gamers would be interested in talks by game designers, or workshop advice on how to get jobs in the games industry, competitions, and so on. [Games stores] also need to be places that appear as proud and knowledgeable of the heritage of gaming as bookshops and music stores are of theirs, which would make stores more quirky and interesting.”

This is a really important point. Online retailers are fine if you know what you want, but they’re still rubbish as a browsing experience – shops have an advantage here. They can employ knowledgeable staff to recommend titles, and can display products in an attractive way to help you find interesting stuff. If games are to have a place on the high street in five years’ time, games stores have to go with this. It’s not merely about selling games any more: it’s about selling the experience of gaming.