My first store location opened in 2004 in an old warehouse as part of another business I was operating at the time. In 2006 I moved the store about 150 yards away to a new location that we custom built. Since that day we have opened 3 more locations and then proceeded to shut down 2 of them. To this date we have not yet been able to duplicate what we have created in Terre Haute, IN. I thought today I would try break down exactly why this location works.
Location – I know that this seems obvious, but I have seen 1st hand in 5 locations the difference this really makes. In our first location we were set back off the road in an old warehouse building. Not appealing and also not visible. When we moved to the new location we are 50 feet from busiest road in the city (40,000 cars per day). We were in a stand alone building that we built a brand new brick face on the building.
How do I know location is that important? We have tried other locations. Obviously this new location was 10 times better than our old one. Our sales jumped 35% the first month we moved into the new building. When we created our Clinton store it was actually a very good location in a new building beside the county BMV (Bureau of Motor Vehicles). So every year we would see every single person in that county renewing their licence plates.
Also I know location is important because we struggled in our 3rd location in Bloomington, IN. We were in a relatively busy shopping center, but WAAAAAYYY off the road and not visible at all for people driving. Also they had no street sign available for the tenants. There was a busy Subway next door and quite a bit of foot traffic but I know from experience that the location was not ideal.
Community – We focused on the people from day 1 at our facility. My wife and I want to invest in the players lives and not just their wallets. From the very beginning I was giving players rides home, taking them to tournaments in other cities and inviting them to activities outside of the store. When we moved to the new location in 2006 and did most of the construction work on our own and these players were all there to help. Seven years later we still have a solid group from the beginning that come and play at our store.
This community aspect is what builds your regular customer base. Players just come by the store to meet up with others to go to the movies or the mall. Our store is literally the main meeting place for hundreds of gamers throughout our city. I think this applies to all sorts of entertainment based businesses like bowling alleys, skating rinks, bars, pool halls, etc. There are tons of choices when it comes to a place to hang out but you only go where you friends are going.
Layout – Once again we have found this out from experience. So many video game LAN centers take a strip mall location and just line up tables in rows in one giant room. This does not work long-term and let me explain why.
To get the community aspect you have to appeal to different peer groups that DO NOT mix well together. These centers that have one big room might get a base of 25+ year old gamers that enjoy it darker, quieter and play PC games. If a group of middle school kids come to the store and start playing Xbox both groups will conflict with the normal group of older players. Neither will have fun and the atmosphere will be strained.
We have 9 private rooms in our Terre Haute store. In the back of the store we have a section of 3 rooms that are for ages 17+ only. We have divided the 4000 square feet of store space into a family friendly zone, a professional zone and a mature zone. This has allowed us to build a community of players from each type. Youth groups from churches feel comfortable bringing their kids for events and we have birthday parties in the front of the store. In the Pro Zone we run big $1000+ payout tournaments for serious competitors and players can play higher rated games. In the back it is more quiet and the older crowd has two rooms of PCs and a room of Xbox stations that all have doors on the rooms.
The key to the layout is something we missed out on our other designs. We tried some new things to cut down on A/C problems by doing fewer rooms and open ceilings. When we did this basically we could not create these zones like we have in the Terre Haute store. One group of players can dominate the center and make it uncomfortable for the other groups. A big group of middle school kids are annoying for the older customers. A group of college guys swearing while playing Halo or Counter Strike makes the parents and family groups uncomfortable.
Atmosphere and “Feel” – I think the community and layout add to this tremendously but there are other things to take into consideration when we formed our atmosphere. One thing that many game centers struggle with is the flooring for their store. We have used carpet from the beginning at our store and in our other locations did not repeat this because of cost and cleaning. However that hurts tremendously in forming the COMFORTABLE atmosphere that makes people want to stay for longer periods of time. It also helps a TON with sound dampening for the store. Our old Bloomington, IN store had concrete floors, wooden walls and a metal ceiling. It was terrible for atmosphere as one Guitar Hero player could annoy everyone in the entire building.
Another design factor is the lighting and music. Combining our layout with lighting and music changes works perfectly in our Terre Haute store. The front of the store is well lit and has music playing. The middle of the store (Pro Zone) has Bose speaker systems for game sound ambiance and medium lighting. The back of the store (17+ zone) has no music, headsets and is dimly lit.
Once again with atmosphere you can only serve one type of customer if you only have a large open space. If you cannot divide up these smaller community groups then one group will ruin the experience for the other one.
Management – This has to be the most important of all. You can overcome problems in the other areas I have listed somewhat with excellent management. I am not only referring to the way the store is “managed” but more how the store is “led”. There are many good managers out there that can direct employees, pay the bills and control expenses. But there are very few that can connect with the customers to make them feel welcome and pass that direction on to the other employees.
I feel like the manager/owner is also responsible for the community, layout and atmosphere. You might be restricted on the location but as the one responsible for the store all of the other categories can be changed as you feel is necessary.
Constantly Evaluate – This is basically what I am doing when writing this article. I am going back through our history and thinking about what makes us successful and what we can do to be even more successful. History is so important when looking back at what has worked and not worked in our store so that we can make better decisions moving forward.
One thing I would suggest is to look through your current customer base. Do they all seem to be of one certain genre? That isn’t a bad thing, but don’t stress yourself out trying to figure out why you are not booking any birthday parties for middle school kids if your entire center is PCs, dark and full of bearded World of Warcraft players. You just need to focus on making a better experience for the genre you are serving instead of trying to bring in customers who will never be comfortable in your center.
My opinion is to divide up your store so that you are able to serve more than one community in the same building. Instead of making an all-kid friendly location or an all-adult location you can serve multiple groups just like we do at eBash Terre Haute. If your store is only seeing 5-10 customers total on a slow weekday then it is time for you to get to work and build up that customer base!