Monday, June 20, 2011

The Road to WPN (Part 9)

[This is part 9 in a series, and assumes that you've already read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7 and Part 8]

Well, to say my first WPN event was a total disaster would be an overstatement, and rather overly dramatic. But, on the other hand, it sure as heck wasn't what I was expecting....

My family and I had a picnic to attend in the morning/early afternoon of June 18, and would need to head straight from there to Novel Places if we were going to make it when I wanted to. So, I loaded up the car with everything that I wanted to have with me for the event, and it was a lot of stuff:
  • 2 5000-count card boxes filled with my "scratch & dent" cards;
  • A large handled cardboard box with the printer I would use along with lots of other necessities (WPN promos, table number signs, my Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 promo vouchers to pick up my copies of the special foil Titans, my Square credit card reader, etc);
  • Another large handled cardboard box filled with card sleeves of various descriptions: Ultra Pro, KMC, Dragon Shield, as well as bundles of 45 used (or at least opened) sleeves to be sold cheap; also the MBS and NPH Event Decks to sell;
  • The 9 boxes of booster packs to be used as the sealed deck pools, prizes, and stock for selling;
  • My netbook computer & its accoutrement in carrying case;
  • My Thraximundar shirt from @GriffnValentine (I think my wife would have disowned me had I worn it to the picnic)
We arrived at the store around 2:40 or so (registration was to start at 4) and proceeded to take over Patrick's store getting set up. He helped us clear some counter space so I could set up the sleeves, decks, and scratch and dent cards. I set up the printer & netbook, and got myself logged in to his WiFi so I could report the results of the event via WER right there, rather than wait to get home.

We had 4 people preregistered for the event, 1 of whom said he was bringing his roommate as well (at some point during the setup I realized I had missed a call from him on my cell phone - this becomes important later). One of the pre-registrations was someone without a DCI number, which was exciting because we need to get 6 new players signed up with the DCI as part of our moving up to Core Level. I knew also that one of the pre-registered players was bringing his daughter, another DCI newbie. With all of that, and with my older son & I as emergency backups, I figured it was safe to let my brother off the hook, as he had been ill for the previous week and a half at least. I can use him as a DCI newbie at some future event instead :-)

So, somewhere between 3:30 and 4, Craig and his daughter arrived. Our Special Guest Adam Styborski arrived very shortly thereafter, and Patrick started wheeling his merchandise displays out of the center of the store so tables could be set up.At this point we realized that the "8-person" tables Patrick had would really only comfortably handle 6 players (#7 & #8 would be at the ends of the rectangular table, which would not work for dueling). I figured that with those 12, and another 4 at the counter if need be, we should still be covered.

And, then, we waited. I had tried calling back the person whose call I had missed, but only got his voice mail. Come 4:00 he had still not arrived. Come 4:30 he had still not arrived.

And neither had anyone else.

At this point in time my grand total attendance was 3 people.

In order to have a DCI sanctioned, you must have at least 8 players. I could play, my older son could play, and even my younger son who can't quite read yet could play (he would count as another DCI newbie) and we STILL would be short of that 8.

And that is, indeed, what we did. I signed up myself, older son and younger son, cancelled the sanctioned event and created a new casual event. And the six of us played Scars block sealed.

When I went to print table assignments (just to practice using that aspect of the WER software) I discovered that I had not, in fact, beaten the problem with my netbook-printer connection, and so I was unable to print all evening. Instead, I just had folks sit wherever they liked and handed each player 2 booster packs each of Scars of Mirrodin, Mirrodin Besieged and New Phyrexia.

I ended up with a very nice sealed pool. Moltensteel Dragon alongside Consecrated Sphinx is pretty nasty - and I didn't even include the Molten-Tail Masticore in my deck! We took around 40 minutes building our decks, then I collected money from all parties interested in pizza to be ordered about 20 minutes into Round 1 (Patrick joined in on the pizza, and graciously agreed to order it for us while we were playing).

Since I couldn't print, I just used WER

Round 2 saw me face Adam, Craig faced my younger son, and my older son faced Craig's daughter. This match was much closer for me (and longer) than round 1, and the pizza arrived shortly after we begun. So while my older son rather quickly beat Craig's daughter, and Craig rather quickly beat my younger son (and they could begin enjoying dinner), it took me a lot longer to finally defeat Adam and allow us to get to our now lukewarm dinner. [I should note that I learned a rather valuable lesson about being a bit more sportsmanlike in my match, and owe Adam a public apology for casting Consecrated Sphinx during my second main phase when I already had next turn lethal damage represented in the form of Moltensteel Dragon]

After wolfing down some slices, we got the pairings for Round 3. Adam faced off against Craig's daughter, I was paired against Craig, and my two sons faced each other ("The Brothers War" I immediately dubbed it). The end of the round found myself, Adam, and my younger son victorious, and the event was over.

Final standings: I had 9 match points, Adam had 6, and everyone else had 3. And I'm sure that not a single person out there believes that I didn't somehow rig my own event.

Anyway, for prizes I gave everyone a participatory promo card (the WPN foil Vault Skirge), then Adam as our winner (since I could hardly count myself as that) received a copy of the foil Maul Splicer AND the Archenemy promo Drench the Soil in Their Blood. Everyone else received their choice of one or the other of those promos. I also let everyone pick an additional booster pack from SOM, MBS or NPH as a thank-you for coming and sticking it out through the end.

So, as I say, a bit disappointing in the turn-out department, but I think it was an enjoyable evening, and it still let us check off a few boxes towards moving up to Core Level in the WPN. As a reminder, here are the goals we have to meet within a 12-month time frame:

  • Report a minimum of 4 events [If my understanding is correct, this should still count as 1 of our 4]
  • Have a minimum of 30 unique people playing in your reported events [We're at 6/30 now]
  • Run and report a single event with 12 players or more [Yeah, still need this one]
  • Maintain a delinquency rate of less than 20% [As far as I know I got this reported on time, so we're good]
  • Introduce 6 new players to WPN events [We're at 2/6 now]
My biggest headache WPN-wise right now is figuring out the netbook-printer problem, and being able to print. If we had actually had a 12+ crowd, announcing pairings at each round would have been a royal pain in the tuchus. I have until July 2 (the first event at Beyond Comics) to try and get this working. I think the problem lies in the fact that the netbook is running Windows 7 Starter, and not the full version of Windows 7. I may have to get the full version installed.

We did learn that we should be able to fit a third table into the space we were using, and therefore be able to seat 18 people in the main section of the store should it some day become necessary. Patrick says he'll pick up another table sometime in the future.

Unfortunately neither Patrick nor I thought to get any photos taken, so we missed an opportunity to get a photo in the Gazette, our local newspaper. It would have been nice to get the publicity.

In other news, I have sent in I believe 3 separate emails with various questions in to Brian, my WPN rep, and have yet to receive an answer. Perhaps he's on vacation? Or maybe I've ticked him off with too many questions? I don't know - but I hope I get some soon. My biggest one involved the casual event. When you "close" a sanctioned event, you are supposed to get a "Submit" button to click in WER to submit the results. No such button seems to appear for a casual event when it gets closed, so I am worried as to whether I have in fact done everything I am supposed to do with getting this event properly recognized. I will be much more upset if it turns out I am wrong and this did NOT count as 1 of our 4 events!

Oh, and on a final note: I still have all 12 of the MBS and NPH Event Decks (3x of each deck), and 2x each unopened booster boxes of SOM, MBS and NPH. If anyone reading this is interested in any of these let me know!


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Road to WPN (Part 8)

[This is part 8 in a series, and assumes that you've already read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7]

June 9, 2011: Today Patrick informed me that his account with his distributor will not be set up in time to order the product that we need for the June 18 event. Therefore I have had to activate my emergency back-up plan and order from another source I have. We'll almost certainly be paying more than we would through a distributor, but should still be able to turn a profit on the venture, and we will at least have the stuff we need! I'm ordering 3x each boxes of Scars of Mirrodin, Mirrodin Besieged and New Phyrexia, as well as 1 box each of the MBS and NPH Event Decks. That will be plenty of product to cover what we need for the sealed deck itself, as well as give Patrick some stuff to have available for sale should anyone want to purchase some extra boosters, or an Event Deck.

Unfortunately this means that we will NOT be having Commander decks for sale, which I would really have loved to have, since it's the release weekend for those. Patrick should, eventually, have those - just not on June 18. :-(

Also, he will not have sleeves ready and in stock, so I will be providing sleeves for sale at the event itself. God thing I just recently started stocking them in my own store!

June 10, 2011: Today was my scheduled meeting with John at Beyond Comics to discuss what our arrangement would be, and schedule our first event.

As I had suspected, we settled on pretty much the same relationship I'll be having with Patrick at Novel Places. I'll be able to sell my "scratch & dent" singles at events there, and I'll be able to have customers purchase from my online store and choose the free shipping option to pick up at the even. And if, for some reason, Patrick is unable to get the product that I need when a new set comes out, they'll be my secondary back-up resource for that. I will help them organize the events, scheduling them, helping with advertising, and running the WER at the event itself. I advised John on what product we'll need, and what items I recommend they start stocking (right now, for example, they do not carry card sleeves). And we scheduled our first event. So, on July 2 you can join us for our Scars of Mirrodin block sealed deck event. You can also check out the store's Facebook page on the event.

The other big news of the day is that Patrick informed me that getting the booster products into his POS (point of sale) system would be too complicated manually to bother with at this juncture, so he is letting ME be the one to sell the product at our first event. This will be a one-time only thing, as he should be all set up with an account with the distributor in time for our M12 Launch Party in July. This means I will be the one collecting the $25 entry fee, making any additional sales like extra boosters & Event Decks (and the sleeves as mentioned previously). Holy cow! My Square credit card reader in my smart phone is going to be getting a real workout that day. Yikes!

June 14, 2011: - Today the product for the June 18 event was scheduled to come in (my three favorite words "Out For Delivery" showed up on the UPS tracking page this morning!). Yesterday the UPS delivery (some more sleeves I had ordered) came around 10:30, so I had hoped that this would be the case today as well. Unfortunately, come 11:00 or so it had not yet arrived, and we had errands to run. Also, Patrick tweeted to me that he had received another WPN package, which I was pretty sure would be the Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 (D12) promo cards and decks that he will have available to hand out to people who buy the video game. So I wanted to go up to the store and break those open with him, and go through what they were so he was set for the potential onslaught. The game is released tomorrow (June 15) so it was good timing.

While we were running our errands, I wanted to be sure to get the UPS shipment if it came while we were out, so I left a note on our door with my signature, hoping that would be acceptable in lieu of me signing the little electronic pad they have. However, much to my amazement, when we stepped out of the library (one of the stops in our errands) we saw a UPS truck. The driver hopped out of the back, and happened to look over our way. I recognized him as our usual driver so I gave him a wave. I was considering letting him know about the note on our door when he suddenly said "wait a minute. I have a package for you!" He hopped back in the truck, grabbed the package & scanned it, handed me his pad for a signature, and just like that I took delivery of our SOM block product in the parking lot of our local library.

Sometimes life just works out, you know? And this is also an important lesson: it pays to be on friendly terms with your UPS (and USPS, and FedEx) delivery people. If I didn't always make sure to wave a thank-you to this guy when he dropped something off for me, I'm not sure if he would have recognized me today.

So, with product in hand, we went up to meet with Patrick. Sure enough, the package contained the D12 materials. Here's what he got:

The first photo shows the special foil Titan promos (Frost Titan, Grave Titan and Inferno Titan). These are alternate art versions of mythic rare cards from Magic 2011 (M11) (and presumably Magic 2012 [M12], although as of this writing only the Inferno Titan has really been confirmed). He received 20 copies each of these three promos.

The second photo shows the D12 sample decks, 4 copies each of the 5 different colored decks. Other stores have cracked open these decks and spoiled many cards from the M12 set, as that is at least one of the sets used to construct the decks. He got three boxes that look like this, so he has 60 decks total (12 of each of the 5 colors).

So what happens is that when a person purchases the video game (which will be available on PC via Steam, on PS3 via the PlayStation Network, or on Xbox 360 via Xbox Live), they will get a special coupon they can print out to receive one of these promo cards and a deck. The promo they get depends on which platform they buy the game through (PC/Steam gets you Frost Titan, Xbox gets you the Grave Titan, and PS3 gets you the Inferno Titan). Which deck a person gets is entirely up to the store owner. They can let you pick, or assign it randomly - it will vary from location to location. Customers find a location by putting their zip code into a web site that lists the participating WPN locations. Important to note here: a WPN location has to opt in to this program, so your LGS where you play FNM may NOT have these, if they didn't sign up.

Also worthy of note: when the WPN site signed up is important as well. If they signed up after May 25 (which is the case for my secondary site, Beyond Comics), they will not receive the sample decks, just the promo foil cards. So you may or may not get the deck when you go get your promo. Just fair warning.

  • Get sets of 2x each SOM/MBS/NPH booster packs made for easy distribution at the event;
  • Devise some sort of pricing stickers for stuff I'll have for sale that day:
    • SOM/MBS/NPH boosters
    • MBS/NPH Event Decks
    • various new card sleeves
    • used card sleeves (sets of 45 for $2)
    • "scratch & dent" cards
  • Get plenty of sleep (this may be the hardest of this list!)
I will likely not have anything else to report until after the event itself on Saturday, so I will sign off on this part for now. I hope to see many of you in Clarksburg in a few days!


Wednesday, June 08, 2011

A Struggle with Shipping

This is one of those posts designed purely to explain to you, the reader, some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes along with running an online MTG store. This may be boring for many of you, but it goes a long way towards explaining some of the oddities that happen involving what I list where.

To start with, let me say this: I try, very hard, to not make money on shipping. I think that this is a terrible policy, and I sometimes jump through hoops to make sure that a customer is only paying what it costs me to ship to them. This means the cost of the postage, plus a small materials charge to cover toploaders, cases, bubble mailers, labels, etc. For US orders that materials fee is $1, and it's only $1.25 for non-US (more for them because I actually need to travel to the post office for these, whereas US ones I can print a label from PayPal and hand the package to my mail carrier).

Most online stores have one of three shipping systems:
  1. Shipping is based on total order cost. I just could not do this in good conscience. It costs me the exact same amount of money to ship a single $1 card as it does to ship a single $50 card. Why on Earth would I charge more money to ship the $50 one? It makes no sense whatsoever.
  2. Shipping is based on weight of package. This is the one that I used to use for my eBay listings (before I switched to a "free shipping" model, but that's a story for another post). The problem with this method is simple to understand once it's explained (but probably isn't obvious without it being pointed out): A single MTG card, in a toploader, in a bubble mailer, weighs one ounce (keep in mind the post office rounds up to the nearest ounce for determining shipping cost). So do 2 MTG cards, in a toploader, in a bubble mailer. In other words, it costs me the exact same amount of money to ship 1 card as it does 2. But if I tell my system that a single card weighs 1 ounce (to get the shipping correct for a single card) then it will think that 2 cards weigh 2 ounces, and charge shipping based on that. By that system, 16 cards would weigh 1 pound - absurd! So, weight does not really work in this situation.
  3. Shipping is based on the number of items in the order. This, really, is what I need. I can set up a tiered shipping system, where 1 or 2 cards is charged one rate, then 3-10 cards (which would be 2 ounces) is charged another, and so on. I just figure out how many cards it takes to get to 3 ounces, and I have my next tier. And this is the system that I currently use at my store (and why my shipping scheme is based on the # of cards in your order).
So, you may be asking yourself, what is the problem?

The problem comes when I try to sell anything other than single cards in my store. Take my "Revised Edition Toolkit" product, for example. This product contains 100 cards, and should really already be in the 100-114 card tier on shipping. However, as far as the system is concerned, it is "1 item" for purposes of shipping, and would be located in the 1-2 card tier. I run into the same problem with any sets of cards (my grab bags, complete common sets if I were to offer them here instead of eBay, etc) and any other non-single product (sealed MTG product like booster packs, packs of sleeves, etc).

For items such as these I can add into the listing a shipping surcharge, so that an additional amount on top of the calculated shipping is added in. But let's look at the potential problem here, using my Revised Edition Toolkit as an example. It's 100 cards, but 1 item. So the system would charge a US customer $2.75 for it, but shipping should really be $3.77. So, easy, right - just add a $1.02 surcharge to the item - no problem. But, what if someone in Europe buys a Toolkit? Then the system would charge $2.97 (the 1-2 tier rate for Europe) plus $1.02 (the surcharge to adjust the US shipping) or $3.99. But the Europe rate for 100-114 cards is $10.85! I just lost almost $7 in shipping, on a $10 item. And I can only assign one amount as a shipping surcharge, I can't assign one for each region.

This is the reason I have left my complete common sets, complete uncommon sets, complete basic land sets, booster packs, sealed decks, etc, etc on my eBay store. It's far less of a hassle over there - and when eBay combines orders and overcharges the customer on shipping, I can just send a partial refund and everything works out grand.

What I REALLY, REALLY wish is that ProStores would introduce a new category in the inventory spreadsheet (it seems to me like this would be ridiculously easy to do, but what do I know). This category would be "Counts as How Many Items?" The vast majority of my listings would be 1 for this category. But my Toolkit could be set to 100 - and then when shipping is determined that item would count as 100 items for determining shipping. Elegant, beautiful, simple...and it'll probably never happen :-(

But if it does, I'll likely be abandoning eBay for most of my MTG items and happily moving them all over to my main store instead.

    Friday, June 03, 2011

    The Road to WPN (Part 7)

    [This is part 7 in a series, and assumes that you've already read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6]

    Since Part 6 brought us up to date, I figured that from now on I would write things as they happen, and once a post gets long enough, publish it. So, without further ado...

    May 30, 2011: Today I put together a flyer for use in the store at the cash register, and any other places that I may need to advertise via such a format. If you'd like to see it, please feel free -just be warned that it takes a while to load (maybe start loading the page, then come back here to keep reading ).

    Anyway, while the flyer itself may not be all THAT spectacular, what is very cool is what the WPN makes available to organizers like myself. At their website, they have all sorts of retailer support kits in the form of graphics and pre-made advertisement banners/flyers for prereleases, launch parties, and game days for each new set when it comes out. I used images from the Scars of Mirrodin, Mirrodin Besieged, and New Phyrexia kits in making the flyer. I really am rather amazed at the stuff that's available for use by people like me who are putting together events.

    May 31, 2011:  My new friend Craig, whom I met at the New Phyrexia prerelease, happens to be a graphic artist and tweaked the flyer for me, for which I am very grateful - so the flyer that will actually get printed up looks much, much cooler now. But don't take my word for it, see for yourself!

    June 2, 2011: My credit card reader from Square arrived today. I will now have the capability of accepting credit cards using my Android smart phone at events, should anyone wish to pay me for cards that way. Pretty darn cool.

    June 3, 2011: Today The Road took a completely unexpected turn.

    I stop in to my local comic shop (Beyond Comics in Gaithersburg, MD) for my monthly comic pick-up, when John (the manager) says to me "Don! Follow me, sir." and moves out from behind the front desk to head to the back room of the store.

    Now, I don't know about you, but I've seen and read enough cheesy fiction to be just a little bit nervous about that turn of events!

    Anyway, I follow and he opens the door to the back storeroom and gestures to show me a vast open floor space where before there had been haphazard piles of storage boxes (now either gone or more nicely organized on the shelving units around the walls). "I think we can fit two nice sized 8-person tables in here with no problem. We can hold Magic events back here. So, what do we need first to get started?"

    I hesitate a moment, then answer: "a time machine."

    As you may recall from Part 1 of this series, Beyond Comics was the store that initially approached me many years ago with the idea that I could help them get MTG events running at their store. They are also the store that was then unable to run events with me in the smaller location they had to move to later.

    But, it seems, they are interested enough to go through the trouble of clearing space in their back room. What to do?

    I told John that I had already signed up with another store to run events there. However, I continued, as far as I know there is nothing in the WPN rules that prevents a person from being organizer for more than one store. Meaning that, if Patrick at Novel Places was okay with it, I could organize events at both sites. I would need to call Brian at WPN and make sure that this is okay on the WPN side, and then (assuming it was), meet with Patrick and see if HE would be okay with it.

    After all, I've made a commitment to Patrick, and also put a lot of time and effort into getting things set up with him. I'm hardly going to drop him just because another store is interested.

    "Worst-case scenario," I left John with, "I would be happy to help guide a different person as organizer for you."

    So, as soon as I got home, I put a call in to Brian at WPN, leaving a message on his voicemail asking him to give me a call as soon as he could. I think this issue warrants a phone conversation rather than an email back-and-forth.

    A bit over an hour later I received a phone call back from one of Brian's coworkers (Brian himself being out of the office today), and gave him the backstory, then - So, can one person be organizer for more than one store? "Well, if you'd just led with that question I could have quickly told you yes, that's fine," said he. So, embarrassed at having wasted his time with the full backstory, I quickly asked my next question, just to make sure my understanding was right: each store would have to reach Core Level on their own, right - it's not the organizer that works on reaching the next Level, it's the store. "That is correct," he confirmed. So, in other words, I would have to organize 4 events AT EACH STORE, and get 6 new WPN players AT EACH STORE, etc, etc. Oy!

    So, one last question, out of curiosity - is this something that happens normally - one person organizing for multiple locations? "Oh, yes - it happens quite frequently. In fact, what you can do is you just be the person that schedules the events, but someone at the store enters the results into the WER. You wouldn't necessarily have to actually be present at the event." Ah! He had inadvertently answered another question that had been bothering me. What if I helped both stores get to Core Level, and both wanted to run FNM? Obviously I couldn't be in two places at once on a Friday night!

    Well, that confirmed, it was now time to face the more important issue: would Patrick mind if I was organizing for another store which could, of course, be looked at as his competition (at least in this arena)?

    I decided that a face-to-face meeting may be better on this issue than phone or email, so I quickly drove up to Novel Places and found Patrick alone in the store, and available to chat (he did have a customer come in towards the end that sort of cut our conversation somewhat short, but that's good for him, so I certainly won't quibble!).

    I outlined the situation to him, and assured him that I was committed to the relationship that we had established. If he didn't want me to be working with Beyond Comics, I would completely understand and respect that, and that was all she wrote. However, I pointed out:
    • When I first met Patrick and explained my long-term goals, he seemed a little hesitant about the idea of weekly FNMs. Today he confirmed that often book signings and other events he may want to do would need to be scheduled on a Friday, and therefore there would be conflict. Beyond Comics, on the other hand, would LOVE to have the weekly influx of people, and don't generally have any events scheduled on a Friday night. So this would be a nice division of focus between the two sites;
    • I think Beyond Comics would be moving ahead with the idea of holding WPN events, whether I was the organizer or not. At least if I were organizing for both sites, I could try to make sure that they didn't overlap and interfere with each other, by scheduling (as an example) a Launch Party for one store on a Saturday, and the other store on the Sunday.
    Patrick agreed that these were good points, and also (as a small business owner himself) he appreciates that helping to keep Beyond Comics going would be a good thing, and he'd like to encourage that as well.  So, essentially, I had his blessing to proceed and, at the very least, work with Beyond Comics to get them set up in the WPN and running events.

    When I got home, I called John at Beyond Comics and gave him the good news. We briefly discussed how things might work, and scheduled a face-to-face meeting for next Friday to get together and hash out the details (I imagine we'll probably settle on things very much like what I have set up with Patrick). While I had him on the phone I filled out the WPN form online to get them registered as a WPN event site, so that we got that ball rolling.

    And that, gentle reader, is how I suddenly found myself the WPN organizer for not just one, but two separate event locations.

    Oh, dear lord, what have I gotten myself in to?