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GameStop's next task: keeping in-person shopping relevant to digital products

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

It arrives at the end of every transaction and it often lands with a thud: "Anything you'd like to preorder?" The GameStop upsell, frequently mocked in gaming forums and comments, will soon sound a lot different as the giant retailer takes steps to keep its physical stores relevant to products that are increasingly sold online.

GameStop is imagining a different buying experience that begins once someone with the store's app installed on his or her mobile device walks through the door. Sales staff know the person — by name — is on the floor. They know what games they were looking for when they last visited They're aware of the platforms they buy and can focus suggestions toward it, whether that's upcoming titles in the same genre or downloadable content for a game already purchased.

So instead of hearing "Is there anything you'd like to preorder?" a yes-no question that practically begs for the latter answer, there's a more useful conversation. That's the goal of the "GameStop Technology Institute," a partnership with IBM and the retail studies department of Texas A&M's business school. GameStop announced that venture today.

"When I visit, I'm greeted and recognized [by the website], I get promotions and certain content pointed out to me, based on the prior business I've done there," explained Jeff Donaldson, the senior vice president in charge of the Institute. "We believe the store environment should behave in the same way."

'There are other ways to interact with the store environment and the expertise it offers.'

GameStop is well aware that a move to a fully, or even a majority digital future for video game purchases threatens its present bread-and-butter model: visit a store in the mall, trade in some old discs, buy a new one. Watching the company's stock perform against console gaming developments is an industry parlor game. The company's share price jumped last year, for example, when Xbox One shelved plans for sharing games online.

Still, GameStop isn't charting a course to abandon its physical presence — more than 4,700 locations in North America, which do plenty to keep the chain at the top of game consumers' minds. It's just trying to figure out how to keep physical locations a meaningful part of a gamer's buying experience once downloads outnumber discs. If that means popping into a store to see something later purchased from GameStop online, so be it.

"What we hear from customers over and over again is they appreciate the expertise and the interaction they have with GameStop employees in store," Donaldson said — despite that upsell everyone knows is coming. "What we intend to do is amplify that expertise. They're not only coming in and interacting with a game advisor, there are other ways to interact with the store environment and the expertise it offers."

Straight away, Donaldson is aware that an app on a phone in someone's pocket, doling out his or her purchase history and preferences, might creep someone out a lot more than a solicitation to reserve the next big shooter. Whatever data is shared by the new GameStop mobile app, it'll all be an opt-in choice, he promised. "Our belief is we've got to be ultrasensitive to that," he said.

But if someone's sharing their purchase history with GameStop online, the company hopes they'll have no qualms doing it with GameStop in person. "Digitization of the retail space" is how another spokesman put it.

The first efforts of the GameStop Technology Institute will roll out sometime this fall in two markets, Austin and College Station, Texas. (GameStop is headquartered in Grapevine, Texas.) They'll also work to approximate an in-person shopping experience online — for example, connecting visitors to the site to associates in their local store via a chat application.

"We don't think consumers are making the choice, 'I will do everything online or I will do everything at the store,'" Donaldson said. "The key for us is making sure that the customer has an equal experience at both, and in the usefulness of both environments."