No gift-wrapping, updated FAQ and pre-orders

A few changes on the site. As you may know, we are shifting to a 3rd party logistics provider who will allow us to ship orders everyday and allow pick-ups within the next business day. We are shipping our last batch of orders tomorrow at which point, our next shipments out will occur on Wednesday, July 2nd and be much more frequent from then on. Barring unforseen issues.

This has brought a few changes:

  • No more gift-wrapping as an option. Until we work out the best way to do this, we will no longer gift-wrap any board games
  • We also updated the FAQ with some of the most recent changes (gift-wrapping, etc.) and will update it again in a few days once everything is settled at the Logistics company
  • Pre-orders are no longer being taken as discussed. We will keep the vast majority of pre-orders with us to ship but for the moment, we will no longer be accepting pre-orders of products.

That’s it for now. Wish us luck on Sunday. We will be moving our inventory that day!

Pre-orders stopped

Hi all,

We are putting a stop to all pre-orders for the moment. That means that you will not be able to pre-order board games any longer that are out-of-stock on the site. You can contact us to indicate that you would like to purchase the game, but will no longer be able to make orders for these.

Within the next few weeks, we expect to have a system to allow you to indicate your interest on the site directly. Look out for this new feature that should be coming very soon.

Logistics and shipping changes

Big changes in logistics. As many of you know, we have had occasional hiccups in getting orders out as both Alison and I work full-time jobs. We have not been happy about this situation and have been working behind the scenes for a solution. Quite a few options were looked into, including hiring an employee directly (big issues about accountability and responsibility), going full-retail (insufficient cashflow as yet) and finally, a 3rd party logistics company doing our shipping.

We decided to go with a 3rd party after we weighed and received quotes for all the other options. Thus, as of July 1, 2008 we will be working with a 3rd party logistics company based in Delta, BC who will do our shipping for us. This has some profound impacts on our business (most good!) which include:

  • shipping daily via Canada Post
  • fixed, 5 day a week local pick-up location
  • more regular, up-to-date information on the site with regard to order status
  • fixed ‘cut-off’ times for order changes
  • no gift-wrapping (this might be reintroduced in Nov/Dec if we are able to do so)

In the short-term, this means:

  • we will not be restocking until at least July 1, 2008 (to make the shift easier)
  • pre-orders will be stopped. A new system for customers to express interest in games will be created.
  • business as usual for all other orders

Accounting and business

One of the inviolable facts of business is that you need to do accounting. It is also the bane of my existence. Now, for those of you who are accountants, I hasten to add that it’s not that I don’t see the value in it, I just hate doing it myself.

It’s not just the pure bookkeeping aspects that drive me insane. Though making sure all our receipts are in order, making our inventory count adds up to our actual sales and inventory purchases (see my post on inventory) and well, all the other myriad details makes me almost wish I wasn’t allergic to alcohol. Or some days forget I am.

No, it’s figuring out Quickbooks. I know, one day, it’ll start working rickety-tick and I’ll bless it. I already did once while doing the scan for games that went up in price recently. Still, for the moment, it’s in the ‘kick it around till it works’ stage.

Still, in the time I’ve been working on it, a few suggestions come to mind (some, I might note, learnt the hard-way):

that inventory valuation tool is so useful for a retail business

never let your books slide because catching up is worst than doing it in the first phase

hire a professional – at least long enough to set up your accounts in the first-place

be systematic about it, it’ll save you time in the long-run

‘profit’ is great – but cashflow is even more important

The Vancouver Charity Screening of Serenity

Hi all,

For you Vancouver based browncoats, we’re a sponsor for the Vancouver Charity Screening of Serenity which we really, really suggest you visit.

As some of you know, every year the Browncoats put together a Charity Screening for Equality Now Joss Whedon’s favourite charity. Last year, Vancouver raised $2,600 and we’re hoping to do better this year. So come out if you are there, and if not, please do consider going to your local screening.

Logistics and inventory

Inventory is fun – after all, spending hours every few weeks counting board games again and again is what we were hoping to do. Hopefully, now that we have a better handle on things, we should be able to keep our inventory counts to once a month (maybe even less!) but it’ll still be a chore.

Inventory

Amusingly enough, it’s not even the counting that makes inventory such an interesting business. When we first launched, we had 270 products (board games and role-playing games). We quickly realized that we were selling our board games much faster than role-playing rulebooks and decided to put our major efforts into expanding our inventory there. These days, we have about 450 board games that we try to keep in stock. That’s a 67% increase in our product line.

And we are nowhere near the product line other stores like Funagain have. At some point, we shall have to have a discussion on the best option for our line of games. While the long-tail (i.e. holding stock for every game possible) is a viable plan, it also requires sufficient capital and traffic to make it viable.

Capital

It is also a substantial chunk of our capital – in fact, that is where nearly all our starting capital is tied-up in. At roughly $20 per game, 450 board games means we keep nearly $9,000 tied-up in inventory at any one-time (if all board games are in-stock and we only keep 1 game in-stock!). Rather obviously, that is not the case – while there are a few games we keep only 1 game in-stock for (normally our first test on those games), we normally keep at least 2 games for others and in some cases up to 20 games.

Stock

That makes figuring out how much stock of each board game a running headache. Settlers of Catan might sell 20 copies this month, but next month might only 8. However, Carcassonne sold 4 and 12 copies. So, do we then keep 20 copies of each and hope for the best or maybe only 12 each or 20 of Settlers and 8 of Carcassonne. And because not everyone buys pre-orders, how many orders did we lose while we were out-of-stock?

Logistics

Compounding the problem is our inventory runs. We only have two distributors, both outside of British Columbia and thus we are, at the moment, pulling only 2 restocks per month (and mostly preferring to keep our major restock when we are in Washington to take advantage of the Loonie). Sadly, access to reliable automotive transportation to do pick-ups in Washington continues to be a problem.

As you can guess, all of this is a new and interesting little experiment for us. Unfortunately, as customers you get to feel the brunt of our learning curve! Hopefully, you have seen a marked improvement since we started, and hope you will stay with us as we continue to improve and expand.

Life, the universe and everything

This is a more generic, head’s-up post. As some of you might have noticed, we are not updating the site as much and getting in products as fast as we would like. A few great games have been out-of-stock for a while, and much of this is due to personal reasons.

Both Alison and I started new jobs early this year, and both get hit with the flu. Alison had it worst which is always worst ’cause she is the linchpin who actually ships the orders out. I just deal with the website and write posts like these.

Also, Alison has been dealing with a family emergency of her own this year which has taken up a lot of her time and energy. All this means is that orders and restocking have been delayed (well, restocking. We’ve tried to get orders out as fast as always where we can).

Matters are finally settling down for us all, so expect general updates and restocking to get back to normal within the next couple of weeks. We do apologise to everyone about this and with any luck, it should be the last of any hiccups for a while.

Launching a board games store in Canada – Part 3

When we last left off this article, we had decided to launch the online side of the board game business first.

We came across a few major issues that had to be tackled at that time:

Banking. Who has the best deals? How supportive are they?

Board Game Distributors. More correctly, locating one that would sell to an online only company for the moment

Site Design & back-end software. Who would do it? What type of software would we use on the backend? Did we want something fully customizable or get an off-the-shelf solution? What about future growth? What were the costs?

Payment Gateways. Also known as – how do we get money from our customers?

We could easily write a full blog post on each of these issues and we will. For now, here’s the overview.

Banking

In the beginning, we needed the basic bank accounts up as soon as possible. As such, and since Alison has banked with them for a while, we went with Coast Capital Savings. They are a great credit union and we’re still working with them. In particular, they provide full online access at no additional charge along with a no monthly fee account. We only pay for payments out (not deposits!). That’ll be important later.

Board Game Distributors

With board game distributors, as any distributors out there, you will need to make sure you have all your administrative information on-hand and ready to go. That means tax numbers, business licenses and payment methods. If you’re a new business like us, you’ll also likely not be allowed to run an account with them.

Furthermore, board game distributors in Canada are not competitive in their pricing compared to US distributors. This was so even before the Loonie hit par, and now it’s even worst. I’m not sure why, but that is probably the reason why other board game stores in Canada are priced so high – it’s the base cost. We’ve been lucky because we were able to find a great US distributor in DC which we can then purchase directly from to reduce our costs. It is a high price in terms of time, but we find it’s still worth it to bring our costs for board games down. We hope you do too!

Site Design

We got lucky. Through personal contacts, we knew of Collins Harper who gave us a great quote and even better service. They have a lot of combined experience in e-commerce, which is always good. For Starlit Citadel, we use the base OS Commerce design with quite a few changes. Our developers are big proponents of it, and the flexibility to continue adding modules (either drawn from the public realm or hard coded by Shane) means that the site can continually updated and improved.

Perhaps the most important thing when you’re working with an external supplier, especially your IT guy, is to make sure they can communicate with you. You’ll find a lot of great developers who cannot either understand your points, or who cannot communicate theirs.

Payment Gateways

Oh do we “love” Moneris. They are the largest payment processor in Canada, and as such, the one almost everyone uses. The biggest problem with them is that set-up costs are high, on-going costs are high and they only work with HSBC or BMO. Moneris also ‘clears’ your account on a daily basis, depositing the sum that you made every day.

You’ll find that with most business accounts, especially HSBC, there’s a set number of activities that come with your package – and anything over that, you will be charged. This includes deposits.

Do we see the problem here? Add the fact that HSBC charges you for online access (a ridiculous fee that was in the $60 a month range for the basic package) and it just wasn’t worth it. So in the beginning, we opted to use PayPal only.

Those were all the major issues in the beginning, but more would crop up. Some of it, things we never considered. We’ll also go into more detail about each of these points, highlighting specific problems and things you need to look out for when starting your own business in Canada – in board games or not!

Launching a board games store in Canada – Part 2

In our previous post, we talked about initial discussion over Japanese food to open a full service, retail store. We stopped there, before I blathered on too long.

So what happened next?

The next step was to take all our calculations off the back of the napkin and put it on paper. That’s right, we started writing an actual business plan. Part of the process was so that we could look at the facts and figures ourselves, part of it to do the proper market research that was necessary.

A note about the general board game industry – we couldn’t really find much in the way of concrete numbers. But what we found was that the numbers are bad out there. Really bad. Games Workshop was/is losing money on their North American stores. There’s been huge closures of gaming stores all across North America. Yet, strangely enough, the entire industry seems to be growing in terms of sales.

Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, we wanted to see if we could become eligible for a few grants.

Any grants at all?

Not really, at least, none that we were comfortable with. The fact is, if you’re looking to start a non-tech company and if you’re not a sole proprietorship owned/run by a female, there really aren’t any grants in Canada. Loans yes, but not grants.

Obviously, we might have missed / are missing out on some and if you know of any, feel free to give us a shout.

The fiinancials

After all that, we really started putting together the numbers for a 3 year period to see when a mixed gaming store became profitable. Here’s a quick idea about the numbers we were looking at – rental of a location, especially in the areas that we were looking at was easily in the $2-3 per square foot range. Since we wanted a location of reasonable size so that we could have a place for people to test and play, that’s a minimum cost of $2-3,000 a month just in rental. And then there’s purchasing of the various cabinets and painting and the rest of the interior design bits. All in, we figured it’d cost between $5,000 to $15,000 to set-up the retail store itself and that would be without professional help.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that just incorporating the company in BC cost us nearly $2,000? Yeah, those lawyers are really swimming in cash for the amount of actual work they do. I swear, they must just cut and paste the same thing.

Then there’s the other major cost – wages. With a retail store, you need to have someone there all the time, which means you need to pay or at least, be able to not get paid for a while. At a minimum wage cost of $2,000 a month, that’s another on-going expense. We haven’t even gotten into stock just yet – that’s easily another $10,000 to just get a reasonable quantity in.

The bottom line?

Fact was, we just couldn’t be certain that we could put the retail gaming store together, get enough financing and revenue in fast enough for it to last more than a year. And since most people say you need at least 2 years funding…

That’s why an online board game store for now. The current plan is to make this store profitable, provide sufficient revenue to pay ourselves a minimum wage and then we’ll revisit the idea of an actual physical store.

The dream is still there, it’s just got to take a back seat for now.

So that’s the end then?

Not really. Now we get to talk about the actual nitty-gritty of putting together a web business, specifically an online board game store in Canada.

Launching a board games store in Canada – Part 1

We thought it might amuse some of you to find out how a pair of geeks ended up owning and running an online board game store in Canada.

So let’s start at the beginning. What happened?

Fencing. We are both members of Academie Duello, a historical fencing school and went for some sushi after class (you have to love living in Vancouver). We got talking about, well, geek stuff and ended up under board games. I can’t recall who commented that there weren’t many good board game stores in Vancouver itself – most were in hard to reach locations for those of us who don’t have cars. We started debating why no one had launched a store in any of those locations, going back and forth and well, we decided to find out.

So what did you learn?

That we couldn’t think of a reason why no on had it done yet. Obviously, it was expensive – in fact, the fact stands that retail businesses are probably quite marginal at the best of times, and the board game store – especially in Canada, is not considered the ‘best’.

Still, at that point, we started the plans for putting the store together. Quite a bit of discussion went into the company name and the store name. We finally decided to just incorporate the company under one name and decide what to name the board game store at another time.

But you don’t have a board game store in Vancouver right?

Not at the moment. But why we don’t is in part 2.