The Spiel (Essen): A Retailers Perspective

There has been a lot said about the Spiel in Essen, and frankly you will likely find more interesting reading about the general fair there as a consumer on other blogs / posts. However, when I was going to Essen I could not find any posts by retailers, so I figure it’s time for me to do one.

Preparation

Before we went to Essen, we had to figure out where we were staying, the flights and of course the tickets.  It’s worth noting that there are no ‘trade’ tickets to the fair, you just buy them like the general public.  There is only one ‘type’ of ticket as well, so purchasing them online early makes sense.  There is a business lounge, but frankly speaking, unless you intend to meet with publishers and distributors for drinks a lot, it didn’t seem worth it to me.

Transportation to / from the event is easy via public transportation, so anywhere near the main subway lines is a good place to stay.  There are a few hotels downtown that are filled with gamers which are decently priced so it’s certainly something to consider.  Of course, the nearer you are, the easier it is to get to the location (as well as storing your products) which is rather important. More on that later.

Flights are expensive.  My flight alone cost CAD$1,200+ and accommodation will put you out at $100 a night roughly.  You will need to have at least 4 nights there (Wednesday to Saturday) and maybe 5 depending on your schedule / ability to ship items out.  Including food & drink, you can expect basic cost to attend to be in the CAD$2,000 range.  As such, you need to purchase (and sell!) at least CAD$2,000 worth of product (before shipping markup) to make the entire trip worthwhile; at 100% markup.

To do that, you need to start making shortlists of games. BGG helpfully has a list of games every year expected to show at the event (and most games are covered); so that’s where I’d start.  The majority of games are listed will be there 2 weeks out, however you want to start contacting publishers of truly hot / small-run games at least a month (if not 6 weeks) ahead of the fair to pre-order products.

Not all publishers will sell products to you at a retailer discount.  Since this is a consumer fair with high expenses for everyone involved, and often with publishers with small print-runs, they need to make a decent profit.  As such, many (from our experience about 50%) of publishers will ask you to come by on Sunday to pick up whatever is left.  Of course, there’s a double-edged sword here with small publisher games – if an item with a small print-run doesn’t do well enough to sell out perhaps it’s not good enough to carry…

For us, we put together a list of games we ordered as well as games we were generally interested in.  It is extremely important to note what booth the publisher is staying at – otherwise, you’ll be wandering around a lot wondering where the games are.  You’ll do it anyway, but some help is better than nothing.

At the Fair

Firstly, let me say that I am extremely lucky to have had Claus from Boardgamer.dk around to show me the ropes / hang-out.  It saved me a ton of time and we were able to compare notes bout games we wanted to pick up, show each other gameswe found interesting and just generally chat business.  At the fair, it seems particularly useful to move around in groups of 2 (or max 3).  Any larger and you get jammed by the crowds but when you are looking to playtest a game, having at least 1 other player is extremely useful.

Arriving at the fair on the first day is a bit of a shock. There are 4 halls broken down roughly as:

  • Hall 1 – dominated by big publishers and big distributors
  • Hall 2 – a mixture of smaller publishers and non-game exhibitors
  • Hall 3 – mostly small to medium publishers
  • Hall 4 – tiny publishers, often first time publishers at the event it seems

Halls 1 and 3 are huge, with Hall 2 just big and Hall 4 smaller (this year, they had room to expand).  Each hall had at least 7 to 10 columns and up to 50 rows of booths.  Of course, some publishers had multiple booths while others shared 1 booth but this gives you an idea of the sheer scale of the event.

My first day was spent mostly in a daze, figuring out the layout of the halls and where publishers were and picking up games that I had pre-ordered.  That took me up to about 2pm with most of my pre-ordered games picked up and stored away.  After that, I started seriously looking at other games and/or looking for specific games that were on my hot-list.

Here’s something as a retailer that I found – I was automatically dismissing many major publishers from review. Z-Man Games booth, Days of Wonder, Asmodee, etc were just ignored.  I knew we would get most of their games in mass distribution soon, so I wasn’t interested in them.  I was interested in the smaller publishers.  However, with so many smaller publishers; many with games I’ve never seen before I had to make value judgements fast.  As Claus said, we probably gave each game we saw 30 seconds of consideration (sometimes much less) before we moved on if it didn’t interest us.  If it seemed vaguely amusing, we asked about it.  The publisher then had another couple of minutes to sell the game to us, and if they didn’t, we were gone.   If the theme wasn’t interesting, if the design wasn’t interesting, if the game was just another ‘worker placement’ or ‘resource management’ game, if nothing about it stood out, I was gone.  Even with all that, I never really managed to make it all the way in to Hall 1 (I started in Hall 3) for the first day.

So, you can guess what I did on Day 2.  I spent most of it wandering through Hall 1 and 2, figuring out where the publishers were and talking to more publishers.  I even managed to get a few games in.  Day 3 was spent mostly playing games since moving around and making deals was just not possible with the crowds.  Instead, most of the final purchasing was done on Day 4 (Sunday) afternoon as we talked to publishers who finally knew how many copies they had left and what they wanted to do with them.  This was the time for us to buy some other product which we had been eying, though some of the hottest items had already sold out a few days ago.

On paying for product – everything was in cash.  Now, considering you need to pull at least CAD$2000 to buy products, you can guess how ‘comfortable’ it is to walk around with much (and more!) money in your pockets all the time.  However, since no publishers we talked to actually took cards it was a necessity.

In addition, you should also note that you have to pick up all your products and store them somewhere.  Whether you have a car and/or hotel room, expect to do a lot of walking around with big boxes.  Parking can be difficult, so a collapsible trolley would be good.  Of course, there is a UPS in the hall and you can always drop the items off there for shipping but then you are looking at much higher cost as you can’t get a bulk rate.   As a guide for how much product there is – we didn’t even buy that much and we still had 12 boxes to ship back.

Now, you could potentially bring games back in your luggage, but you run the risk of additional damage (as we found out!) and worst, it really is very expensive to do so.

Final Notes

Here’s something to note afterwards.  If a product is damaged in-transit, if it is mildly dinged, often you can’t get a replacement and/or discount on this.  Unfortunately, between toting products between halls and bringing it back, there’s definitely going to be some games that receive minor dings and dents.  Right now, we’ve decided not to differentiate items that are mildly damaged.   We’ve seen a bit of a push-back against that, but due to the nature of the products, it’s not as if we could get a refund and/or replacement for many of these items.

The other thing that we are doing right now is locating and speaking with publishers who had sold out of their products.  In many cases, it’s a lot of trouble – many of these publishers are not answering e-mails or are really slow at doing so. In other cases, the cost of individually importing these items is prohibitive, so we have to figure out a better way to do it.

Has it been worth it? So far, the answer is no.  Of course, our actual stock hasn’t arrived so I expect we’ll see some more sales then – but right now, we haven’t even covered the cost of product and shipping.  Of course, it’s also only 2 weeks in; so we will have to see. It certainly will never be a big profit centre for us (if at all) but of course, there’s always the ‘fun’ of seeing the Spiel.  Perhaps we’ll do it again in a few years…