Written by Hayley Gold Friday, 23 April 2010 00:00
I-Con, the largest sci-fi convention in the Northeast, dedicates a large part of its programming to videogame fans, so it makes sense that its largest sponsor this year was a videogame merchant; however, GameStop was nowhere to be found. Instead, Play N Trade made its presence known, with representatives from various Long Island stores working hard to win over the crowd.
GameStop, the juggernaut of gaming retail, dominates the scene and has bought out major competitors like EB Games. But unlike its publicly owned counterpart, Play N Trade is a private franchise that prides itself on localization.
The first Nassau branch opened in Plainview last month and will be followed by a Franklin Square location in June. Already well-ensconced in Suffolk, the new stores are part of an effort started in 2008 to open Long Island locations, preying on the recession-fueled selection of empty storefronts. The video game industry is unusually resilient to the economy’s downturn, as more people are sitting idle at home and desire escapism in hard times. Meanwhile, consoles are available at more accessible prices as technology improves.
From the perspective of the gamers at I-Con, many of whom were just being introduced to the Play N Trade name, the policies and services provided by the franchise exceeded those of GameStop. They liked the idea of tournaments, enjoyed the in-store disc and console repair and found the clerks affable, but mostly, they rejoiced at Play N Trade’s focus on retro games.
“GameStop only deals with the latest generation,” said Edward Giaclo, a sales assistant at the Plainview Play N Trade. “We have an Atari 1500 hooked up; we have a Vectrex hooked up. Those are systems older than me.”
Also, fans found that they reap greater rewards with Play N Trade’s buy-back system, getting more money for the same games. In addition, Play N Trade is willing to buy-back older systems and games that GameStop is unwilling to give any credit for. However, despite generalizations about poor buy-back rates, GameStop claims this is not always the case.
“All GameStop stores use an algorithm to compute what we give for trade-ins that is used nationally, and studies we’ve conducted show our pricing to be fair and competitive,” said Chris Olivera, the divisional vice president of corporate communications at GameStop. “With some titles, we’ll give back more than Play N Trade.” As for their policy of not buying older equipment and games, he stated that they “wouldn’t buy product that is of no value.” But that kind of rhetoric is what fuels the enthusiastic entrepreneurs at Play N Trade, who say these items do have value and GameStop is missing out on that. Plainview branch owner Michael Weissberg proudly declares: “If you have an Atari sitting up in the attic we want it, likewise if you’re looking for one, we have it.”
Perhaps Play N Trade’s greatest strength is flexibility. The stores are able to tailor to their customers’ needs and imbed themselves into the community to a greater extent. The Plainview Play N Trade has relationships with the neighboring pizzeria and Subway for birthday party catering, and Weissberg said the store would be willing to offer new services based on customer demand. While Olivera said GameStop isn’t planning on changing any policies or looking into the possibility of system rental, Weissberg says he’ll try his best to look to offer any services, merchandise, or specialized tournaments that the customers request. He’ll also special orders rare and foreign items.
“Just yesterday I ordered a laser-engraved Final Fantasy XIII console from Tokyo,” said Weissberg. “We can order just about anything.”
Many individual stores, including the Plainview location, have their own Facebook pages. “We’re very heavy on the social media. We’re going to have a picture of some overstock merchandise and if you’re the first person to tag yourself, you get it,” said Weissberg enthusiastically. “There’s Play N Trades on Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Google AdWords, you name it.”
However, Play N Trade was only able to get seven stores on the Island so far, while in 2008, it had planned on opening 50 over the next 2-3 years. And though gamers at I-Con generally were happier with the service at Play N Trade, many said they would still go to GameStop because it’s closer to their homes, and found that there were perks to buying there. Because they’re such a behemoth in the industry, GameStop has special deals with gaming companies, allowing them to get games faster and offer better promotions when reserving new games.
“Unfortunately, a lot of that is done with the companies that produce the games themselves, and right now GameStop is still the big dog, so they get all the extra frills and side items,” said Giaclo, who admitted Play N Trade only gets small trinkets now, but foresees that things will change as the company grows. “All those types of promotions and additional things, you’ll be able to get them from us no problem.”
Other advantages for GameStop include a longer return period for unopened product (30 days, compared to Play n Trade’s 14 days) and the claim that all games sold as new (aside from the copy removed from its case for display) are sold factory sealed, while at Play N Trade they are opened for in-store sampling and then resealed. Though some like the fact that this allows for test runs, it means new games aren’t really “mint.”
“It’s sort of like when you go to a car shop and you test drive a car. Even though those cars have been used by people, they’re still new and not used until they leave the store and belong to you,” said Giaclo, who admits that on occasion employees do use the opened games, but stresses that “usually we leave them out for customers to play. GameStop doesn’t let you play anything.”
It may be an uphill battle for Play N Trade, but with the prospect of digital downloads eclipsing in-store buys, and the competition from Wal-Mart and Best Buy which need only stock top-sellers, brick-and-mortar stores are pressed to offer more service and less product, which is exactly what Play N Trade is banking on with its tournaments, birthday parties, special orders on imports, friendly staff, and general flexibility. And with their retro angle, Play N Trade can tap into a niche that stands to be overlooked in the digital wave.
Perhaps I-Con helped to get Play N Trade’s name out to more prospective customers, especially since, as Sayville store co-owner Sal Guadagna makes clear, the store’s retro vibe is a perfect fit: “We know Super Mario will always be worth something. He’s an American icon.”