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Board Games in the Big Box

Amanda Farough January 26, 2018

Once, the tabletop selection in big box retail stores was solely reserved for the board games that we grew up with. Monopoly, Candyland, and Scrabble were likely the only things we’d see plaguing store shelves, sometimes taunting us with their variations on a theme. (I see you, Lord of the Rings Risk.) The trite, juvenile landscape has often felt light-years behind where the industry actually is.

Then, things started to change.

Barnes and Noble introduced their board game selection back in 1999, mostly Mensa award-winners. According to an interview with MTV in 2012, Barnes and Noble saw double digit growth for a handful of years as they began to grow the section. It wasn’t until 2009, when they started carrying games like Catan, that they really started diving into the more niche, though still intellectual, board games. It was a corporate scramble to figure out what consumers wanted, especially after losing a lot of ground to Amazon’s cutthroat pricing.

Barnes and Noble’s approach was different than the other big box retailers. Instead of bringing in the same board games that Walmart stocks, stores like Barnes and Nobles and Chapters (the Canadian equivalent) focused on games like Pandemic, Dominion, and 7 Wonders. And while that may not have saved the floundering bookstore chain, Barnes and Noble paved the way for Target to capitalize on the indie board game renaissance.

Barnes and Noble is shrinking their square footage, removing their tabletop and toys section. This had become a staple for gamers without a FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store) to turn to. Fortunately, Target is ramping up their purchase power for board games, so all is not lost for small town tabletop connoisseurs. Purchasing power is all well and good, but if the selection is limited to kid-centric titles, there wouldn’t be much to grasp onto. But Target has managed to move into the space in an unprecedented way.

Exclusive releases have traditionally fallen squarely into the video game realm, with different retailers offering unique pre-order bonuses and DLC, depending on where you purchased from. Target took the questionable game retail strategy and wove it into something much more palatable: board game exclusives. Target’s board game exclusives aren’t limited to twists on the original games, either. (Although Risk Battlefield Rogue definitely did happen.)

Those outside of the tabletop enthusiast space tend towards the mainstream childhood favorites — the kind of games that are probably collecting dust in closets across the country. But they may not have heard of games like Exploding Kittens or Codenames. Target has lined their shelves, both physical and digital, with a wide array of selections that spread across a number of different game genres, with party games and STEM games reigning supreme.

Target’s bottom line took a steep hit over the last couple of years, with sales falling by 99% percent from 2015 to 2016 because of the everpresent retail apocalypse. But their hardline sales — the sales that are on the non-carpeted areas of the store, including toys and games — have remained steady. Part of what will keep Target ahead of competitors like Walmart, Toys ‘R Us, and Barnes and Noble will be in their dedication to bringing niche games to the public.

Target may not ever carry the expensive tabletop games like Gloomhaven, but their foray into niche and indie tabletop has the capacity to expand the palate of the average consumer. If anything, this venture has the potential to get households to stop buying Monopoly and Candyland in favor of Ticket to Ride or Quirkle.

And then there’s Gamestop. In the midst of the same slump as the rest of the retail world, Gamestop took the time to invest in board games last year. Their website alone has 620 board game related listings. Gamestop’s shelves are, for the most part, packed to the gills with gamer collectibles galore, with a small portion of it dedicated to tabletop. CNN Money reported in May 2017 that the corporation is closing between 2% and 3% of its stores, so it’s not surprising that their approach to tabletop feels more like corporate throwing spaghetti at a wall. You’d be more likely to find a gamer-themed twist on a classic, like Mass Effect Monopoly.

Target’s careful balance of curated titles and mainstream classics works for them because of the nature of Target’s consumer base, as well as the store’s enormous footprint. Customers need to know that if they go to Target for their grandpa’s birthday, they can find Scrabble right next to a copy of Betrayal at House on the Hill. And if not for Barnes and Noble paving the way from the late nineties until recently, there would have been no model for how to curate meaningful titles. By contrast, Gamestop’s shotgun approach doesn’t that have methodical strategy baked in, nor do they have the shelf space. It smacks of a desperate need to hold onto a market share that has dwindled to almost nothing over the years.

Where big box retail shines is in its capacity to reach the curious consumer. The curious consumer may not know much about board games, but they’re eager to learn. They’re happy to dip into a themed classic as a beginning, or even to pick up Cards Against Humanity because they’ve played it at a friend’s house over a glass of wine (or two). Big box retail curating and stocking approachable indie tabletop games is a gateway to the good stuff. Even though Target is crushing their contribution to bringing interesting board games to the masses, it can’t replace the customer-facing work that FLG stores excel at.

Big box retail is at a critical juncture with tabletop. They could embrace the community mindset required to raise the collective consciousness around board games. Or, if they see tabletop only as a hot trend to capitalize on, it won’t be long until they realize that the spaghetti has no wall to stick to.



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