Bahr: 3rd Place Theory Can Improve Your Store, Right Now
By Michael Bahr, managing partner of Desert Sky Games and Comics
Understanding Third Place Theory is a core competency for game stores. It's a path to effective and sustainable monetization of your space, and it doesn't require operating a massive warehouse, discounting down to the bone, or cutting corners that degrade the customer experience.
If you follow this site, my blog, or Gary Ray's, you know the idea. Your "first place" is your home, your "second place" is where you work. Virtually everyone spends most of their time in one of those spaces.
Your third place is where you go to socialize.
Cafés, salons, churches—if the first place is where home life happens, and the second place is where work life happens, the third place is where community life happens.
The theory's author, Ray Oldenburg, lists these as the fundamental features third place:
- Admission is free or inexpensive
- There's food and drink
- It's nearby
- Regulars visit habitually
- Both new and old friends can be found
- Arrivals are made comfortable
Others have expanded Oldenburg's list, but let's start with those items:
Cheap or free admission. A third place isn't like a concert, where you pay a substantial fee and consume entertainment passively. It's for active engagement, and more people means more interaction.
Close proximity. Time spent traveling is time spent away from your three places. Many of us commute for work. Can you imagine commuting again before you can decompress and enjoy yourself?
Regulars appear organically, if a third place is working and visitors return of their own accord. And if it's neutral and inclusive, they can enjoy both familiar and first-time encounters with others.
Your next question should be, "How do I make money from this?"
Like I've said before, no matter what you do to differentiate your store, you cannot survive without revenue.
Third Place Theory drives revenue by helping to build that positive attachment that makes your store someone's third place. When you have that, you have a clientele who loves your store for its own sake. And when you have that, you have a path to monetization.
Some third place tactics work best before your store first opens, and others you can do right now. In both cases, Third Place Theory is foundational.
Things you can do right now:
1. Post a code of conduct. Even if it isn't especially creative, just thinking it through will inform your employee training, your brand impression, and the social texture of your play space.
2. Curate the cool. Visitors won't buy everything they like, but they should at least see things they like. Don't buy inventory or décor "just to have it," but take your skill shots.
3. Focus on acquisition. Attrition makes fools of us all. Win new regulars with a frictionless sale process, store pathways that lead from one delight to another, and interactions that don't assume customers are knowledgeable—just that they're curious.
Things you can do when you open or expand:
1. Find a community that does not have a third place. Look for a pocket of your audience that is not already served by another store. That other store is already the third place for its players.
2. Decide whether to create designated spaces for different player groups. They want privacy, but they also want to feel included. This is literally part of your build-out planning and is likely to be expensive, so consider working with an architect.
3. If you're considering coffee or food, it's now or never. It can help monetize arrivals without "hard selling" to them, but it will fundamentally change your business plan.
Your business is only worth its capacity to sustain itself. A business that presents a strong value proposition to a new visitor is in the best possible position to do so.
If your store can become that customer's third place, you have set the stage for your community to enjoy spending money with you.
Michael Bahr is the managing partner of Desert Sky Games and Comics, with two store locations near Phoenix. He served four years as a Level 3 Judge, holds a law degree from Arizona State, and spent seven years in government health care administration.
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