Life as an independent retailer is no easy thing. The growing popularity of digital downloads, the immense trade-in power of UK chains, price cutting by major supermarkets and piracy are all threatening to erase the good ol' indie from the High Street.
Yet these bastions of the trade are not dying out: in fact many have transformed themselves into mini-success stories that are genuinely capable of taking on the likes of GAME and Gamestation.
But you won't find these fast-growing outlets besides your local Next or Tesco. For this group of entrepreneurial indies have moved into the world of limitless opportunities: the internet.
The biggest advantage an online store has over any High Street store is customer base,” explains Gameseek MD Stephen Staley. In the High Street, your customer base might be that of a town or a city. With an online store you can reach the entire world.”
Going online gives you the chance to be flexible and with lower overheads you can be more competitive on price,” continues Staley. Of course you are competing against the other online stores that share these same advantages. So then other things have to come into play to make you stand out.”
Online competition is as fierce as it is on the High Street. As well as the web counterparts of HMV, GAME and Gamestation, independents have to do battle with the online specialists: Play and Amazon. However, indies feel their customer service sets them apart from the bigger rivals:
I think that some online store have developed a very loyal online following, which is impressive as web shoppers are notoriously fickle and demanding,” says tgrav.com MD, Matt Holland.
They can share their positive and negative experiences quickly. If someone has a bad experience in GAME and tells their friend it is soon forgotten. Do the same on the internet and it sticks around. Therefore independent online stores must have customer satisfaction at the top of their agenda.”
Shopto.com CEO Igor Cipolletta adds: In the majority of cases an independent retailer is run by gamers themselves so they understand what their consumer base wants without having to worry about DVDs or CDs being sold. It's gamers focusing on selling games to gamers. What more can you ask for?”
The beauty of the internet is such that any company can look big,” adds Gameseek's Staley. Everyone views your site on a 2D screen, meaning that the best designed websites are the ones that look most trustworthy. So a relatively small company could look and feel bigger than some of the well known stores.
With this in mind I think the only way the big stores can compete with us independent stores is on price. It's pretty much the only way they can stand out.”
Online stores do have their disadvantages however, including the risky business of advertising, internet security and the problems of packages being lost in transit. Yet as the web evolves the indies are prepared to evolve with it.
A constant challenge is keeping the proposition fresh and appropriate,” says simplygames.com boss Neil Muspratt. Sites need to engage relative newcomers with ease, as well as keeping content entertaining and interesting. I think the future of successful online shopping will be heavily influenced by getting that balance right.”
Another challenge facing online retailers is the issue of minors purchasing adult software. Protecting minors from inappropriate content is difficult: and online indies are undecided over who should take responsibility.
I strongly believe that online retailers should take more responsibility when selling games to minors,” says Kevin Hacker, managing director at Game Share.
This is why Game Share has implemented a system whereby members cannot swap games which have a PEGI rating over the age which was stated during their registration.”
Matt Holland disagrees: Selling to minors is a minefield, it is ultimately the parents responsibility. If they are allowing a child to use their computer and credit card then I don't know how we can police it.”
I'm not sure about the responsibility of companies selling to minors,” comments Staley. I think something like this would be difficult to implement on the internet and something the government might look into over the next few years.”
Despite these issues, online purchasing is continuing to grow. And many ‘e-retailers' have their eye on the next big evolution in gaming: In the not too distant future everything will be downloadable including games, movies and TV,” says Hacker.
This presents a problem to High Street retailers: what are they going to sell? There will still be an enormous market for online retailers in the future because it's easier to introduce with electronic downloads when you're already an e-company.”
As the internet continues to expand, these companies are determined to expand with it. It seems the indie sector may have finally found a home in which to thrive in the 21st Century.
Even High Street indies are turning to the web for extra support, including Brighton-based Game Player, which sells excess stock and rare items on eBay, Amazon Marketplace and Play.com's Trade service.
Selling through online stores allows me to prop up my sales during quiet times,” says Game Player MD, Gary Noakes. This is very important to us as we sell a variety of products nowadays not just games and some items such as expensive mobile phones sell better online than in store. Plus it's a good outlet for rare/hard to find items.”
Many High Street indies now own an eBay store, however there is still problems with the websites taking a cut of the profits, and that's not to mention unfair tactics from rivals.
I have noticed that we are barely selling gaming products these days,” adds Noakes.
Especially now suppliers, who we just can't compete with on price, are using the sites under alias names. Also, many home-based indies are selling cheaper US games claiming they are UK versions, often unbeknown to the average gamer.”
Kevin Hacker - Gameshare.co.uk
Game Share has been a success because it has crucial differences to similar services. The biggest being we receive and test all of the games being swapped, which gives our members complete peace of mind.”
Gary Noakes - Game Player
Noakes is the MD of Brighton-based High Street indie, Game Player. Noakes also sells on ebay, Play and Amazon, and a website is on its way. A second Game Player store is also coming soon.
Igor Cipolletta - Shopto.com
One thing we pride ourselves on is accepting orders until 5:30pm for same day despatch and 99 per cent of all orders are received the next day. We also have great customer interaction via phone, email, and our forum.”
Matt Holland - Tgrav.com
The reasons for our success are: commitment to customer service; listing new releases early; free 1st class delivery with 93 per cent of orders received the next day; and a small but good range of accessories.”
Neil Muspratt - Simplygames.com
SimplyGames has an excellent heritage. Launched in 1998 it was one of the first specialist online games stores to exist, which helps significantly with the way search engines respond to the site”
Stephen Staley - Gameseek.co.uk
Online marketing has played a large role in our success; currently we have over 3,000 companies promoting our extensive range of 12,000 gaming products. These companies equate to over 35 per cent of our s