Local shop brings out the kid in everyone

Niche store keeps profits going with loyal customer base

Freshman Joe Andrews walks down Kirkwood Avenue until he sees something that stops him dead in his tracks. A myriad of colorful puzzles, games and figurines adorning the window of a local store pull him in like a magnet to a refrigerator.\n"This is not your average store," Andrews says as he plays with oversized chess pieces. "You just don't see stores that sell such fun products like these anymore."\nThis attraction is The Game Preserve, a quirky Fountain Square store that sells board games, strategy games and puzzles to Bloomington gamers. Mike Underwood, an employee of the store for four years, says the shop tends to bring out the kid in anyone.\n"It's the ultimate store to just browse through and look at things for hours," Underwood said.\nSome might wonder how a store that just sells games and puzzles can attract enough business to stay afloat, but board games are big money. According to ABC News, board-game sales in 2003 were $1.04 billion, up from $1.02 billion the previous year. In addition, board-game sales from January to August 2004, which are generally slow months, touched $70 million, up 7 percent from the same period last year. \nThe Game Preserve relies not just on its products, which can be ordered online or found at many other stores, but instead on knowing its customers.\nIndianapolis native Kit Underwood started the shop with that philosophy in mind -- knowing the customers and making them happy. She sold her sports car and started her first location in Indianapolis. Twenty-five years later, she has expanded her business into a four-location chain, including the shop in Bloomington.\nUnderwood said each store has seemed to embody that business model. He said the local shop not only caters to the casual shopper, but has a very loyal customer base built up with hobby gamers. For these enthusiasts, Underwood said, most of their free time is spent playing strategy games such as Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering and several others. And as their obsession grows, so follows their financial investment.\n"Without these customers, there'd be no way this place could stay afloat," Underwood said. "This place strives on regulars."\nUnderwood said the lifetime gamers are usually attracted to these games for numerous reasons. Some are artists who enjoy painting figurines and some are frustrated writers who use role-playing games as a way to create elaborate stories.\n"For both of these (types of) people, they have made up characters for these games and they only exist in their minds, but they have back stories, they have internal conflict, they even have favorite foods and colors," he said.\nOthers just enjoy the social aspect of gaming.\n"It's just an excuse to sit around and talk and just do something with your hands while you do it," he said.\nWhatever the reason, Underwood said the store pays particular attention to these loyal customers by setting up game tournaments to encourage them to come in and buy more items. For some tournaments, such as Magic: The Gathering, they even are forced to buy new cards before they can begin playing, which can add up to quite a bit for the store. \nIn fact, these strategy games make up a big chunk of the board game industry. The Game Manufacturers Association says that sales of non-electronic specialty games, which exclude best-selling standbys like Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble and Monopoly, have increased rapidly since 1995, from $700 million to $2.7 billion.\nUnderwood says the store also tries to appeal to its hardcore gamers by knowing their tastes and ordering items based on them. Because of the close-knit environment between employees and customers, some people have made this store their everyday hangout.\n"People have said that this store is like Cheers without the bar," Underwood said.\nAlthough 10 months out of the year these hardcore gamers are the store's focus, come November and December, the casual shoppers start to increase their traffic in the store. Underwood said a lot of people come into the store with Christmas lists in hand, but the store's policy is not to heckle them like a salesperson but to talk to them as an expert.\n"You really have to be able to give suggestions that they need," Underwood said. "You can't pressure them or they get scared, so we just try to ask what games their kids like and then we name games that are similar."\nIn order to give so many suggestions, each employee in the store has to spend many hours actually playing the games so they can answer questions. Sometimes, the regional manager will hand out assignments to each store to have their employees play a few new games by a certain time. This is an assignment that game enthusiast Underwood doesn't mind at all.\n"I started out as a wacky kid who hung out at the store, and so I love working here," he said. \nWhether it's a hardcore gamer coming in to buy expansion sets or the mother who wants a copy of Monopoly for a family game night, Underwood said the friendly atmosphere is what sets The Game Preserve apart from other suppliers such as Toys 'R' Us or Kaybee Toys.\n"It's just a really inviting place," he said. "Our manager hangs out with his dog in the store. People can try the games in the store. Some hobby shops have the stereotypical intimidating bearded jackass who isn't social with any customers, but we are definitely not like that. Anyone can stop by and have a great time."\n-- Contact Weekend editor in chief Adam Aasen at aaasen@indiana.edu.

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