Thursday, March 11, 2010

The tale of two black shirts

Last weekend word was all over the net on the latest round of shake ups at Games Workshop stores. While talk of these changes is normally framed around their impact on us, the gamer. This time I thought hard about the implications of these changes on the employees of Games Workshop. So today I bring you the "Tale of two black shirts" some anecdotes from my conversations this week with a couple friends of mine who work for the company.

First the facts:

Games Workshop Stores are now open 35 hrs a week to the public with employees on a flat 40 hour employee schedule (rumors of all employees being considered part –time as some kind of Wal-Mart style benefit denial scheme are unfounded, and Battle Bunker hours and staff remain unchanged.)

All retail locations are now only staffed by one person. period. The obvious customer services deficiencies aside, some of these 1500 SF locations with a half dozen tables seem to be impossible to manage by one person, but that’s the way it is. All employees have to reapply for these one man “Hobby Store Operator” positions, regardless of tenure so everyone is nervous as they are cutting a ton of staff.

So what does this mean if you’re a GW employee who loves his/her job and is facing 10% unemployment with 1/5 of the total layoffs in our current economic slump coming from your industry (retail)?

If you read this blog with any regularity you know I am friends with a bunch of guys that currently work for GW. These guys are over my house to recreationally game often and I speak to them via phone or internet on a weekly basis Two of them specifically currently run retail outlets in our metro and as guys I consider my friends- this time its about them and not the customer. That’s what the following anecdotes are about I’m not going to use their real names or specific personal details as they are irrelevant. (and if you know me , you already know them) but their stories go something like this.

Meet my friend Tom. Tom started out at GW awhile back, 05 or 06’, early twenties, longtime gamer, was moved around a few retail stores before getting the a spot at hot new metro (my nearest) location with yes, three! full time employees. This shop started churning big numbers and was only second to the Bunker in sales for the first year and half it was open. That being the case the stores manager was quickly promoted to the field, and the number 2 man was put in charge. Number 2 had an opportunity to get a spot in a shop with much better commute and took it, leaving Tom in charge of the hot GW store of the moment. I was here running our club during all this, I see how hard a worker Tom is , and that he’s the full package, from customer relations, sales, to uber hobby modeling and painting chops. In fact Tom is exactly the kind of guy, I myself look for in my own business when I take new guys into the field. I know that GW would have to be idiots not to see the potential in Tom, I figure If he wants a career at GW, he’s golden. I know Tom’s old manager, now regional manager knows this too.

Along come the first round of big retail shake ups in late 2008, staff gets cut, hours get seriously cut back, no more Club activity, A hardline focus on new hobbyists (kids)“get them hooked, and get them going out to bunker” was the company line. Future events all had to do with intro activity for kids. Veterans get the "what have you done for me lately" treatment. Getting a extra curricular game at the shop basically boiled down to if you were free weekdays and could be in the shop by 4pm or so. Needless to say sales at the shop took a dive. The club was gone. Lots of guys lost motivation to buy there- either by lack of convenience or spite. Tom keeps plugging away as manager doing a good job, introducing the new direct order system and what not. He keeps a straight face with corporate, but knows that company policy is making his job harder, not easier and its an uphill climb. Then we have a recession coming along with inventory problems with keeping certain key products stocked. Eventually Tom gets relocated to Battle Bunker as a staff guy during some mid level reorganization there and GW brings that former Bunker manager over to our shop to replace Tom. Eventually, Tom is out at Bunker, doing his thing when he gets a break- He's offered the #1 spot in his own new store opening in the Chicago metro, Tom's now a black shirt and some autonomy to run his own store the way he likes and gets to bring some of his own people from the company to work for him. Things for Tom are looking good.

Meet my friend Tim, Tim is much different case than Tom but equally as important. Tim’s a bit older and worked in construction full time and was a valued member of our club at the local shop. In late 2007 the construction bomb had already dropped here and everybody was looking for work. Unemployed with nothing but odd jobs ahead of him, Tim decided he go with what he loved, his hobby and apply to Games Workshop. Tim is a tough as nails , hard working guy He brings that tenacity to the hobby and what he may lack in pure artistic paint skill he made up for in his modeling, terrain building and passion for the game. Tim’s first job was as noob staff guy at the Battle Bunker. Tim didn’t have a car and would commute taking two trains and a bus, each way, every shift routinely spending 4+ hours round trip making the 20 mile commute. Tim owned his house in the city and his wife has a city job so relocating wasn’t an option. Tim was absolutely hardcore, pulling this commute in the dead of Chicago winter and he never complained. GW noticed and appreciated this and Tim quickly was moved up the ladder After the fallout from 1st big shake up in late 2008, Tim found himself relocated to his local store as the number 2 behind the new Veteran Manager (let’s call him Bob) who had replaced our friend Tom above. As the year went on, the malaise at our local store continued. Bob did a fine job but again company policy wasn’t doing him any favors. Our local store still did well enough that lots of other GW metro stores were really in the toilet in comparison. Tim is well ingratiated with the locals being he was first a gamer there and The kids absolutely love him. (he’s probably the best one on one tutor with the kids I have seen). Manager Bob eventually gets moved to another location to try to help fix the problems at that store. and “poof” Tim now gets his own Black Shirt and is now in charge of the very store he used to game at. (how cool is that?)

Tim’s now in charge but as 2009 comes to a close the Holidays are over, sales are bad, due to the economy…Tim’s got some flexibility to do veteran events but with my club locked into Tuesdays at my place (when the shop is closed) off week events just don’t seem to take off as they should. Things seem to be rolling along OK, with Tim firmly cemented in what community now exists around our local store when this current news hits. Tim's just worked his ass off for the last two years gotten a taste of success and now finds himself filling out an application for his own Job, same for Tom.

Barring any problems I am unaware of, I am sure you all see the idiocy of these guys having to reapply for their own jobs given their back stories. It's a bitter pill to swallow and one that has surely dimmed the luster that Tom and Tim both have for the company and even the hobby. Both want to of course keep their Jobs. Tom knows he can take whatever they throw at him at make it work. The one man shop thing. no problem!, yeah it will suck.but I’ll figure it out.” But he also knows to well that no matter how good you are, at Games Workshop you are always expendable.

Tim on the other hand is in a tougher spot, a longer narrow store with more kid daytime traffic its nigh impossible to do what Tim does best and still do the other things required there. If Tim gets rehired, the one man shop thing will limit him to being baby sitter ( instead of a mentor) over the large group of kids that frequent the place. Not to mention dealing with nuisances like loss prevention. Tim’s in tough spot and hopefully GW will make an exception that this shop needs to be a two man store. (somehow I doubt it)

Just looking at these two stories, you really have to question GW’s behavior. What they want from their customers and what their customers want from them are just not in line these days (at least here in the US) The retail employees ( guys like us who just dared stick their foot in the door) are caught in the middle. I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of presence GW has at Adepticon this year with the introduction of other companies events and if they can advert the bad press they continue to give themselves by always doing something utterly stupid around Adepticon. When everyone in country who's in the hobby is in the same room and can talk about it. At least this shake up was brewing a month early this time…I have no doubt this will be a hot topic of conversation over the weekend. And to Tom and Tim, I salute you bros, best of luck!.


The Lord of Excess said...

First I'd like to say I am a big GW fan ... have been for years. Love the games and products ... without question ... fanboy through and through. I really found some interest in this post so I'll ramble a bit ... the post strikes a chord with me personally as I've been impacted by the recession pretty heavily too as I was in a construction related government job (Urban Planning) in Las Vegas (one of the hardest hit areas in the country).

I just think of the pattern GW has had over the past decade in general. I don't know any GW employees currently (I myself have relocated and the few GW employees I used to know I've long since lost touch with) but I feel for those folks and what it seems like they are about to face.

It seems like over the past 10 or so years GW has gone through a series of very rough (poorly executed) moves. They have done a horrible job with customer support in terms of support for tournaments, etc. they have hammered their retail partners and then tried to bring them back. They nuked their outrider program years back and really ticked off some of their most ardent supporters in the process. They have had such a terrible herky-jerky Gamesday, RTT tourney support system. Now if your in Chicago or somewhere back east I'm sure its much better. You have massive clubs that are directly plugged into GW so perhaps those bumps haven't been as noticeable ... but out west its been rough. The support is really spotty at best. I've seen so many amazing people cycle in and out of GW because of the very inconsistent approach they take here (at least in the West) US. Quality of White Dwarf is in the tank, prices of the product are going up and up (I know its not just GW ... its an industry trend and I understand the recession is hurting them too) and the average Joe gamer out there has less and less to spend. Now couple all that with what your reporting ... man ... you start taking those awesome GW store employees like your talking about and jerking them around and maybe even laying them off. What the heck does that mean for the hobby. I myself have been forced to relocate, I lost an amazing gaming group and I'm in a new area where the GW fan base is decent but not anywhere near the level of my old gaming club. So I've been branching out into other games (RPGs, board games, etc.) and a part of that branch out is actually financial ... staying at the high end of GW is expensive. I have had my income level reduced by around 60k per year and the old 1500.00 buck forgeworld orders and 200 bucks a month GW spending are things of the past ... perhaps never to return. I've even sold off a few armies and I'm considering selling more. I wonder how many gamers out there are in my spot? Thanks for the post ... good to hear some insider info on how GW US is doing. Best wishes to your friends .. hope it all works out for them.

eriochrome said...

Thanks for the different take on the events. A couple of months ago I was in the GW store I stopped in the most. I did not really buy anything since I prefer to support my closer FLGS that I play events at. I just looked around while my wife is shopping at a nearby store.

The guy told me it was closing and I did not really show any compassion to the poor guy losing his job since I was thinking about how it was going to affect me not very much. Of course this was one of the stores with the annoying employees trying to up sell you on everything.

BigLee said...

A very interesting 'insider' article that has me thinking about my local GW here in the UK. It used to have four (read em, four!) staff and now its down to one guy. I don't know the bloke well (not a GW player as such) but he's been around long enough for us to recognise each other and nod hello.

I've noticed the hard sell "what game do you play?" opener as you step across the threshold has been dropped, probably because he's too busy. It doesn't help that the store is often busy with kids (even during school times!) and its an open fronted store in a Mall (ie no doorway). This must make it a shoplifters dream and a mangers nightmare.

I've not been a big spender in GW for many years. I used to play Epic and Warhammer but money & work got in the way. One of the major factors that put me off buying into the games was the fact that I grew up and became too old for their target customers, kids. I felt less and less comfortable in their stores and stopped playing any games in store and eventually at home. Now I only buy the occasional model for painting or to support the RPG’s I play.

While I understand GW targeting kids I think this recession has highlighted one indisputable fact of business – A successful business needs a wide customer base so it can weather the occasional storm. By sidelining older gamers I think GW has shot itself in the foot and puts hardworking guys like Tom & Tim in danger of being thrown on the scrapheap.

Mike Howell said...

I suppose it isn't an unprecedented move, since I've seen several businesses fire everyone in a group and then hire selected ones back. My county's IT dept. did exactly that, and asked for help from the university's IT staff in interviewing candidates for the positions (most of whom were the old employees.) So why do they do it? Sometimes it's out of contractual issues, if the union contract makes it nearly impossible to fire people piecemeal (which probably isn't the case here) or they need a "reset" where everyone's seniority dates become irrelevant.

Hopefully GW already has seen the worth of /T[oi]m/ and the weights will already be on the scale during their interview period.

oni said...

It makes me happy to see someone looking at it from the side of the store employee's. It was my first thought when I heard of the happenings. The age old saying is "times are tough" and it certainly holds true. I've had a taste of it myself and my eyes have never been more open to the hardships one can face during economic crisis. I wish them the best.

Felix said...

Does this apply to shopping mall storefronts, too?

John@Plastic Legions said...

No Felix, Stores in mall are obligated by lease to keep mall hours so this will result in needing more than one employee as malls are usually on 12 hour clocks and GW don't pay no overtime. As you've probably guessed GW is getting out of all its mall leases it can as fast as it can and has been trying that for a couple years now.(sometimes its the only option for a specific market)
everything I wrote about only applies to individual street store locations. Although I am sure the reapplication process applies to all mall employees as well.

Conspyre said...

There is something seriously wrong with the way GW North America is handling the decision-making. I think Spettigue (GWNA head of retail, unless his title changed AGAIN) may be trying to take a too-direct role in managing the nationwide chain. That might work in England, but England is a hell of a lot smaller than the US. Just like the layoffs last March, this is more gospel handed down from on high, without consideration for the realities of the local regions. Last year's layoffs didn't take into account which stores were doing well with their current staff vs. stores that likely should have been closed, and neither are these. The over-aggressive store expansion and subsequent contraction continues to be a serious roadblock to GWNA having any shot at properly serving either their employees or their customers, and ultimately it's the employees that are the ones trying their best to keep the US Retail arm from completely folding.


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