What Your Store Can Do (That Online Can't)

April 5, 2016 | 2 min to read

Three spheres compete for a gamer's attention: they can play at home, they can play online, or they can play in a store. Everyone in the Magic ecosystem wins when a gamer chooses that last one.

So what can we do to encourage that choice? What can stores offer that the other two can't?

There's one commodity that's high in demand, short in supply, and represents a major opportunity.

The Value of a Third Place

According to "Third Place Theory," every society needs communal venues that are neither domestic (home—the "first place") nor productive (work—the "second place"). The theory holds that those communal venues (the "third place") are indispensable, but woefully scarce.

Hair salons, coffee shops, gyms—meeting that demand has become a potent business model, and a lot of game stores find it a natural fit.

But the value proposition isn't just the space. It's the social interaction that the space promises.

Delivering on that promise takes patience, communications skills, and empathy. It turns traditional retail on its head.

But in the increasingly online world, cultivating social interaction is a powerful tool, and it deserves consideration from anyone invested in the success of in-store play.

What Makes a Third Place

The landscape of a third place is simple: it's accessible, the décor is unpretentious, there's food and drink.

But the psychic landscape is where the real competitive advantage is, because while it's tough to get right in a game store, it's categorically impossible online or at home.

Here's what you're aiming for:

There must be neutral ground . . . in which we all feel at home and comfortable. —Ray Oldenburg, architect of Third Place Theory

In a third place, occupants feel a sense of investment, but not a sense of ownership. There's no favoritism, no in-group/out-group politics, no entitlement, no power structure for newcomers to navigate.

What tools do you have to create neutral ground in your store? You might start with your customer service strategy, focusing on tactics and language to help mediate relationships between players.

[A third place] is, by its nature, an inclusive place. —Oldenburg

It's a "leveler." Social status is meaningless. For a game store this means not just differences of age, gender, or background, but differences of skill, knowledge, and investment.

How can you make your space a "leveler?" The first step might be to design your event strategy to erase competitive urgency, with reward structures that focus less on winning and more on fun.

[In a third place], conversation is a lively game . . . —Oldenburg

Conversation is everything. There's a subtle etiquette, and "inclusion" is its name: in a third place, occupants pay attention when others speak, avoid instruction, stick to topics of common interest, talk about others but not themselves.

How can you nurture that kind of conversation in your store?

One approach may be to tailor your hiring strategy with that goal in mind. The Nordstrom strategy is to "hire the smile, train the skill." Perhaps yours could be "hire the conversationalist."

One Tactic that Can't Fail

Creating a third place is all about "soft skills," and the skills required will vary from community to community.

But whatever those skills may be for your community, one tactic that can't fail is to embody them yourself.

By Matt Neubert

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