Reflections on a GameStop Divorce

How one transaction changed the way I shop.

By Joshua A. Johnston. Posted 11/24/2014 09:00 3 Comments     ShareThis

My last transaction with GameStop was in the summer of 2008. On that fateful day I was party to a retail experience that permanently changed how I bought and sold my games.

When I was growing up in the 1980s, in-mall game stores were virtual meccas of gaming. I am old enough to remember browsing Electronics Boutique in the 1980s and staring in wonder at all the glossy PC game boxes. The workers were generally knowledgeable and the climate was easygoing and friendly. In the era before Internet shopping existed and big box stores really cared about gaming, this was it.

By the turn of the century, though, the business model for in-mall gaming stores had changed. Once the hub of gaming, GameStop and EB Games had taken on the upselling practices of the fast-food industry. As a result, the store climate became increasingly predatory, especially toward the uninformed moms and wanna-be gaming experts who came through the doors. A customer could rarely get through a checkout without being asked, sometimes repeatedly, about preorders, trade-ins, or the now-retired $15 EDGE rewards card.

Any ex-employee will tell you that this is not the employees’ fault. I agree. It was, and is, a matter of top-down corporate policy, to upsell and meet quotas. Some companies sell based on maximizing the profit from every single customer interaction and others seek to create customer loyalty and positive experiences. It is the difference between most car dealerships and Tesla, the difference between commissioned jewelry salespeople and salaried ones. GameStop decided at a certain point that a store culture of pressure sales was the surest way to profits, and the stockholders have not complained.

As a consumer I never really liked it. I am not a confrontational person by nature and the experience sometimes made me uneasy, especially after a long, hard day at work. It just wasn’t a fun place to buy games from. I put up with it, though, because GameStop’s game selection remained peerless, especially if you liked niche games. When Tales of Symphonia debuted for GameCube in July of 2004, for example, I looked fruitlessly on release day for the game in several big box stores. None of them had it, but GameStop did.

By the late 2000s, though, the competition was expanding. Other brick-and-mortar retailers like Walmart and Best Buy were expanding their gaming inventories and online alternatives like Amazon and Newegg were also making a case for customer business. GameStop’s trade-in and used game element also had competitors, most notably in eBay. Notwithstanding the occasional exception, GameStop was no longer the sole source for niche games.

And I could not help but start to notice that my other options — Walmart, Amazon, eBay, you name it — never pressured me to buy a reward card or put down money on a preorder.

It was probably fitting, then, that my association with GameStop ended, not because of the pull of those other places, but because of the push of the store itself. In July of 2008 I went shopping for the Wii game Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon. It had been a dry summer for RPGs and I was actually pretty excited about spending some time doing some dungeon hunting. I walked into my local GameStop and picked up the game.

What followed was a customer-worker exchange unlike anything I have experienced, either before or since. There were two workers behind the counter, a twentysomething girl and a guy of similar age. As I went to check out, the girl made the typical upsell: preorder, rewards card, the usual. I politely said no, same as always. Nothing new here.

Then the script changed. As she processed my transaction she started to make fun of me for not getting the rewards card. She derided me for not wanting to “save money” and her fellow sales guy readily agreed. Again I politely said no. By this time I was a little rattled; I’d never quite seen anything like this. I weighed cancelling the order but decided to press on, since I’d been looking forward to this game. After the transaction was done I loitered a bit around the games on other consoles… and she still kept talking about the  rewards card. I headed out the door… and as I walked out she still kept trying to sell me on the card.

When I got home I did something I’ve done exactly once in my life: I penned a letter to my local GameStop corporate office. I explained my experience, expressed my disappointment and how it had colored a day that should have been happy, a day I had received a brand new game. I mentioned in the letter that I was a writer for Nintendojo and games were a passion of mine, and I hoped no one else would have to go through that.

I never received a response. Perhaps naïvely, that surprised me a little. I expected at least a token “customer service is our highest priority” or “we’d like to keep your business” or some other vapid response. I got nothing. I can only assume that what I experienced was exactly what GameStop’s leadership wanted me to experience. After all, I’m just one customer.

That did it for me. I did browse that GameStop a couple more times out of pure curiosity (I never saw either of the workers ever again) and I still drop by from time to time just to look at the shelves, but I’ve never made a purchase from them since. I concluded that I would rather wait a few days for the game to arrive from eBay or Amazon then deal with quota-pressured sales associates. I have not regretted the decision; although I’ve had a few irritating eBay experiences, nothing has ever come close to the grief I received on that single, fateful day, and I don’t miss the sales pitch. Quite unintentionally, GameStop gave me newfound appreciation for that mildly-apathetic dude who works the back counter at Kmart.

Of course, GameStop still lives, although its world is changing. During this month’s earnings call the company’s president complained about the “devaluation” of game media by console makers and their games. GameStop is unhappy because the digital distribution networks of Microsoft and Sony have undercut the prices of GameStop’s physical sales. The company president was particularly critical of free games given out as part of a bundle or for free outright, such as through Sony’s paid PlayStation Plus membership. Nintendo, by contrast, continues to push physical sales over digital distribution; GameStop likes this but Nintendo is also just one piece of the gaming pie, and it is a piece which is not having a great year.

I am ambivalent about GameStop’s situation. I am a fan of competition and I think having strong brick-and-mortar stores are good for consumers, but I do not have much sympathy for the company’s plight. I suspect I am not alone.

3 Responses to “Reflections on a GameStop Divorce”

  • 1379 points
    xeacons says...

    I could write a book about my bad experiences at Gamestop. I too have turned to online, either shopping sites or digital downloads to satisfy an obscure gaming need.
    I just hope low sales and maybe some new leadership can turn around a store that once held good memories.

  • 267 points
    decoupage says...

    I used to work for Sam’s Club (as a cashier, the 3rd fastest in the store btw), and the pressure to up-sell members to a plus account was insane. Most of the members (customers) were annoyed, having a no answer for me ahead of the question. The last straw was when we were given scripts that included extremely optimistic savings potential for our members (I believe it was, you will save 5,000 dollars a year). I gave my two weeks notice (happily) and was still getting brow beaten for not getting my two plus membership goal a day.

    With that rant completed, my loyalty to Gamestop ended when I paid $60 for a “brand new” copy of a game, only to receive an open copy. I did my own little one year boycott, and afterwards reduced my shopping experience with them to times where they had the best deal.

  • 402 points
    geoffrey says...

    I avoid Gamestop (well, EB Games most of the time here in Canada) like the plague whenever possible. I’ve never really been pushed after the card or preorders, but the one that drive me insane is their extended warranty BS.

    I take exceptional care of my games; I still have multiple NES games in their boxes in as good a condition as one could expect with pristine instruction manuals, for example. I understand the reasoning for getting it on used disc games, and have on rare occasion done that. But never, ever on new games. My personal “party change” moment came when I was picking up Yoshi’s Island DS. I was second in line, and the person ahead of me was your stock uninformed mom who caved into every sales pitch the cashier was feeding her. I was alright mildly irritated when it came my turn to pay, and he immediately launches into the identical clearly scripted speech about how I “really should get the extended warranty because it’s the smart thing to do yadda yadda.” I cut him off midsentance, told him “it’s a cartridge; I couldn’t break it with a hammer if I tried,” paid for it, and GTFOed. The only three times since then that I’ve boughten anything from any of their stores was 1) Xenoblade, 2) The Last Story, and 3) the time I was in there with a friend and happened to stumble upon a used copy of the Club NIntendo Game and Watch DS cart for $5.

    There’s just no reason to buy anything from them anymore, and especially not new. Why would I endure all of their nonsense just to risk getting stuck with a shelf copy that isn’t actually new anymore, when I could go to Best Buy, buy it for the same price, not get harassed, know it’ll be a new copy, and use their arguably superior rewards card on top of it?

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