Selling Online : A Primer

I recently have had a few friends and acquaintances look into selling online.  It’s a complicated business, partially due to the fact that the information needed to set-up an e-commerce store properly is relatively specialised knowledge and the various players out there are incentivised to keep potential customers in the dark.  I thought I’d write a beginner post to point people in the right direction; since I do know a little about this.

In my mind; there are basically 3 major ways to sell online

1) Electronic Markets

You can put eBay, etsy and the Amazon Marketplace in this category.  Heck, even BGG’s marketplace falls quite neatly in here.  Electronic Marketplaces generally generate revenue by charging stores a listing fee and/or a final sale fee.  Listings generally expire, forcing sellers to relist constantly (generally; for a price).

This is probably the most popular form for sellers; and it works great if you have only a few products to sell.  Electronic Markets provide a ready-made customer base; taking care of the visitor problem for sellers. However, it’s worth realising that these Electronic Markets are incentivised to make money for themselves; and quite often the best way to do so is to encourage competition between sellers.  Which means that your hard won fans are incentivised to go ‘looking’ at the competition.

2) Software-as-a-Service Shopping Carts

SaaS Carts are a middle-ground where sellers can get the full functionality of an online store; but may avoid many of the IT issues that owning a hosted shopping cart would require.  Many of these carts provide drop and drag professionally designed themes, fully integrated payment gateways and slick marketing and cross-selling features.  Cost is also often quite reasonable when you start-up – anyway from $15 up; with many  not even taking a % of your sales anymore.

On the other hand, this is really an intermediate solution.  It’s great if you have only a few products to sell; but you often end-up out-growing these services very fast due to Bandwidth or Storage restrictions if you’re successful.  Still, it’s a great stepping-stone and if your business is only partially going to be on the web; these systems offer great middle-ground.

3) Hosted Shopping Carts

That’s what we have at Starlit Citadel.  We run the software, are fully hosted on server space we’ve rented and deal with any design and code issues ourselves (or through our developers).  There’s a lot of options once you go down this route; from clamp-on shopping carts to WordPress (don’t, just don’t) to full shopping cart software like Magento & Zencart.

This is probably the most flexibly solution; customers you create are branded to your store like a SaaS cart but you have the option to introduce (or not introduce) new design / code changes as you see fit.  You aren’t held to a 3rd party’s development cycle (okay, only if you’re running an Open Cart system; but why wouldn’t you?) but you then have to deal with all the intricacies of the design and coding process.

Boxing Day Sale Publishers Breakdown

As many of you might have noticed, our current Boxing Day Sale is quite extensive – 268 items to be exact.  Outside of a few games where we guessed quantities wrong (Quarriors : Rise of the Demons, Dreadfleet); a lot of these games were just games that were brought in that never sold or that used to sell but stopped.  So we need to figure out how to reduce our total sale items next year.


In-Stock Ratio of Boxing Day Sales


As you can see, it’s quite a high ratio of in-stock items that we have on-sale here.  Now, here’s a look at the breakdown by publishers who are part of our Boxing Day Sales:

Boxing Day Sale Publishers
Boxing Day Sale Publishers

The next step in the analysis is working out the ratio of sale items per publisher to the number of actual items we brought in.  Z-Man and Rio Grande looks huge; and they are but they also put out (and we bring in) a large number of their games.  By %, I’m sure publishers like Dan Versen, Queen & GMT are probably a worst bet for us.  Certainly, it feels like 80% of all Queen Games we bring in go on sale.

The business of keeping the business running

It always amazes me the sheer amount of work required to keep a business running that customers never see.  Before I got into business for myself, I never really had a clear idea about the sheer amount of work the business of running the business would entail.  I’m not talking about marketing or design or shipping the orders out; but all the small niggling administrative details that keep the business running.

I had a full day today of back-office work, and after the day finished; I started wondering where all that time went.  I started breaking it down, and figured you all might find it amusing to read too:

8am : Deal with Distributor’s mistake
8.15am : Deal with box shipment delivery attempt #1
8.15 – 9.00am : E-mails
9am – 10.45am : Check stock levels and place distributor order for shipping today
10.45am : Deal with box shipment delivery attempt #2
10.45am – 11.30pm : Locate and fix bug on Starlit Citadel
11.30pm – Noon : Lunch & Read BoardGameGeek (Btw – whoa Kickstarter posts!)
Noon – 5.15pm : Accounting
5.15pm – 7pm : Break & Dinner
7.15pm – 8.30pm : Update site stock & Write this blog post

The Christmas Rush – Reflections on Procedures

All through the year, we have been building up processes, dealing with the increase in sales and figuring out how to reduce errors and create processes to make the business run more smoothly.  Christmas is now happening, and all these procedures and processes are put to the ultimate test. Some have failed, some need to be adapted to deal with the Christmas rush and some have worked marvelously.

The Successes:

  • The 2 person ship procedure where one person pulls, another packs.  The process is slightly slower; but definitely more accurate than our previous 1-person shipping procedures.
  • Pre-Orders & the New Board Games pages.  They’re great at reducing customer questions on upcoming products; though we do still get these questions.

The Adaptations:

  • Out-of-stock contacts. We generally contact customers immediately when a game is out-of-stock; but since XMas is here and our orders have passed through faster than normal; we have adapted the procedure to only contact customers who have a product that is only going to arrive after XMas.  This way, we reduce questions and save a bit of time – especially when delays are generally only a day long.

The Failures:

  • Our order procedures for stock.  This is an interesting failure, and the fact that it’s been so complete is quite outstanding.  We generally keep a low level of stock, and while we’ve increased our pick-ups to twice a week; we’re still seeing stock-outs at an outstanding pace (for us).  A lot of this is due to an increase in sales that we just weren’t expecting; but some of the blame has to lie with how we deal with re-ordering product.   I’ll have to review our stats and figure out if there’s something we can do to ensure that we don’t stock out as much after XMas is over; though the puzzle of ‘guessing’ what our sales on new board games are remains.  Frankly, I’m not sure there is a solution to that one.


Guest Review : Carcassonne Hunters & Gatherers

Carcassonne is probably the most popular introductory German-style game released in the last decade. Because of its popularity and its winning of the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award, expansions and stand-alone spin-offs were inevitable. But these have muddied the waters for people new to the series. Is a different standalone Carcassonne game the way to go, and if so, which one is best?

Carcassonne : Hunters & GatherersCarcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers is a standalone re-invention of Carcassonne, released just a year or two later from the same designer. It stays true to all of the core features of the base game, but streamlines some of the unintuitive parts and introduces some additional decisions to consider.

Like in the original game, each player receives a number of wooden pawns, here called “tribe members”, that will be placed on the modular tile board as it is built. A player on his turn will add a randomly-drawn tile to the board, then optionally place one of his wooden pawns on one of the landscapes on that tile. Generally, tribe members must remain on the board until their respective areas are completely surrounded, at which time they score points and are returned to the player’s personal supply to use again on a later turn.

Tiles will feature one or more landscapes, which have direct equivalents in the original game:

● Rivers are analogous to Carcassonne’s roads. Tribe members placed on a river will score one point per tile segment, plus one point for every fish in the lakes at the ends of the river.
● Forests are analogous to Carcassonne’s cities. Tribe members placed there score two points per tile segment. Most larger forests will also feature a gold nugget, and the player who completes such a forest (regardless of who scores the points for it) gets an extra play, drawing from a special set of bonus tiles.
● Meadows are analogous to Carcassonne’s farms. Tribe members placed there will remain for the duration of the game. At the end of the game, they will score two points for each herbivore printed on tiles in their meadow (though some will not score if there are tigers present as well).

There are other differences from the original. For one thing, incomplete landscapes score zero points at the end of the game instead of partial points. For another, while each player still receives seven pieces to place, two of them are not normal tribe members, but huts. These can only be placed on water, and once placed, remain for the duration of the game; at endgame scoring, each hut will score one point for every fish that it can reach by water.

The same strategies used in the original game will meet with the same success here. An important part of the game is maximizing your scoring opportunities, balancing your tribe members among different landscapes to increase the likelihood a tile drawn will be helpful, while still ensuring you keep a few in reserve to take advantage of any opportunities that may arise. Tribe members cannot directly be added to extended landscapes that already have pawns present there, so it is on its face a “friendly”, non-confrontational race for points. But, in the hands of strategy game hobbyists, this game can be played very competitively, with tile placement blocking opportunities and the manoeuvring of pawns into already-claimed spaces to share or even steal a big score.

Mechanically, all the changes introduced in Hunters and Gatherers can be considered improvements over the base game. Meadows are much easier to score, and the ability to add tigers to another player’s meadow adds a level of direct interaction missing from Carcassonne’s farms. There is more motivation to help complete large forests than for Carcassonne’s cities, given the reward of an extra turn and special tiles. Rivers tend to score faster and provide more points than Carcassonne’s roads, improving balance, and the huts are an additional strategic aspect to consider.

Despite all of its gameplay improvements, this game still retains the same feel as the original, which cannot be fully said for its brothers. Unlike Carcassonne: The Discovery, tribe members once placed cannot be claimed back until their features are complete. Unlike in The Castle or The City, tiles cannot be placed practically anywhere but must match the sides of adjacent sides; this creates a fun jigsaw-puzzle aspect and gives the board a unified, organic look. Of all the spin-offs I’ve played, Hunters and Gatherers is by far the closest in gameplay to the base game.

And yet, Hunters and Gatherers features as standard some of the extras that in the original game required the purchase of an expansion. For example, the ability to complete a forest (née city) and receive an extra turn can also be found in the Carcassonne: Traders and Builders expansion. And including 50- and 100-point score tiles in the base game, while not critical, is a nice touch.

These aspects, without a doubt, make Hunters and Gatherers the best alternative to the base game. It cleans up some of the rough edges, introduces new twists, and yet still retains a similar feel to the original — and all in a set that feels more complete. Hunters and Gatherers can replace the original whereas other spin-offs can only complement it. If you’re looking for a genuine Carcassonne experience in a single, complete, inexpensive package, this is the best bet for your money.

There are very few potential downsides to this edition, and they may not apply to many potential buyers, but they are worth noting. First, the game does not really offer expansion opportunities. While the game by its nature is very open-ended and easily expandable, there has only been one small five-tile expansion produced. Some people like the variety and additional complexity that expansions can offer — if you are one of these people, I recommend staying with the base game or, if you don’t have the base game already, purchasing the Carcassonne Big Box that contains multiple expansions. However, some people see the lack of expansions as a positive, as it implies the game is complete as-is and does not need expansions to address perceived shortcomings, and for these people Hunters and Gatherers is a fantastic choice.

The second potential downside is the artwork. When looking at individual tiles, it is hard not to be impressed with the amazing details drawn onto each one. But this gives them a “busy” look and, when taken as a whole during gameplay, the art style is not as clear or usable as in the original game. Forests have trees that point in many different directions; animals come in different shapes and sizes that you must differentiate during play; and the board develops into a sea of multi-shaded green that makes it a little more difficult than it should be to absorb the overall situation. For many people, this may not be a problem, but when making a side-by-side comparison, it’s hard to deny the original’s accessibility and clarity.

If you are looking for a complete, engaging Carcassonne experience in a single box, and don’t wish to be tempted by add-ons, Hunters and Gatherers is perhaps the best choice out there. If you are new to the Carcassonne series and perhaps to German-style games in general, I can also alternatively recommend Carcassonne: The Discovery as an excellent entry point to the series. If you have some familiarity with German games and are interested in getting one of the series, but perhaps have avoided it because of the many choices of add-ons and spin-offs, you owe it to yourself to consider Hunters and Gatherers. If the art style doesn’t bother you, it might well be the only Carcassonne you ever need.

Perception Change & XMas

I haven’t been posting much about the business lately, mostly because I’ve been swamped.  With a new employee (the 2nd) one going full-time; I’ve had to deal with the various bureaucratic issues that go with that.  In addition, we’ve taken on some new projects (videos, site amendments) that have gone well to badly.  A lot of these changes have happened in a short period of time just to get the site ready for XMas.

Christmas is certainly here – quite literally over Remembrance Day weekend sales went up by 1 and a half times.  That’s quite a common change; but it’s amazing how your brain changes to cope with a new ‘normal’.  Within a week, we were all looking at the 20 plus orders we have to get out everyday as the ‘normal’.

Of course, that’s a lie.   That’s just XMas and once it’s over around December 15 for us (due to shipping times); we drop back to our normal.  It’ll take us a few weeks to adjust again; as coming off the high always takes a while.

Still; it’s kind of nice and you start staring at the pile of money thinking of all the things you could do.   Then reality kicks in, and you tote up how much of that is owed to the government for HST & Taxes, how much of that is the salary for January & February when sales slow down below the norm.  Reality sets in and you start hunkering down for the next year.

It’s still kind of nice to dream for now though.