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Shopping at GameStop is miserable

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GameStop’s biggest problem may be its own stores

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The outside awning of a GameStop retail store Photo: Russ Frushtick/Polygon

Why would anyone want to walk into a GameStop in 2020?

The venerable video game retailer is currently cratering, with overall sales for the holiday quarter down 25% year over year. The company had announced it would be closing as many as 200 stores last year after a series of disastrous quarters, and that was before its dismal holiday performance was announced. The news has been bad for a while, and it’s only getting worse.

GameStop’s executives believe that things will turn around when Sony and Microsoft release new consoles, but I’m not particularly optimistic about the company’s chances. My biggest problem with GameStop doesn’t have anything to do with pricing or the schedule of hardware or software. It’s that shopping inside a GameStop itself is a miserable experience.

What went wrong?

GameStop offers a series of services that few other retailers can match, much less beat. You can trade in your games for other games or get cash right then, without waiting to be paid out by online services like Amazon or eBay.

You can pay for your subscription services with cash by buying prepaid cards if you don’t have a credit or debit card or don’t want to use it online. GameStop’s stores are physical places you can visit to do your business instantly and directly, and that’s a considerable strength, even as so much of the video game industry moves online.

The problem is that walking into a GameStop feels like stepping into a flea market managed by employees who have already given up. The games are often heavily stickered, and many are missing the official cover on the case. Random assortments of toys and overpriced collectibles spill out over displays, with little rhyme or reason about where things are.

You can spend a lot of money for replica items from your favorite game, anime, or movie universes, as long as you don’t mind it being a little beaten up by the time it gets to you. That’s also assuming the person behind the counter is willing to get the item you’re looking at down from the top shelves that ring the store, and anything up there is likely to be covered in dust. So many aspects of the shopping experience feel cheap, and so much of the stock feels neglected.

It makes me sad every time I have to go in one to pick up something I need that day, and it’s so uncomfortable, with the stock often being in such bad shape, that I’ll try to go to a Target or Walmart if possible. Heck, I get sad even typing that sentence; I worked at Electronics Boutique, and later EB Games, and finally GameStop when the companies merged, and I don’t remember it being that bad back then. Which isn’t to say it was ever good, just that everyone involved in running the stores, based on my anecdotal experiences shopping in them, seems to have given up.

The rest of my complaints are nothing new, but continue to rankle. The most likely answer to the question about whether they have a game in stock is another question: Did you pre-order? Sometimes they have a copy for walk-ins even if you didn’t pre-order, other times they don’t, and I’ll be told that if I want to guarantee a copy of the game I should have given them money to hold it. In which case I walk across the street to any other store to buy the game, without a pre-order.

It tends to go like this:

Ben: Do you have a copy of the new Assassin’s Creed game?

GameStop: Did you pre-order?

Ben: No, but ...

GameStop: If you want to make sure we have a copy of the game, you need to be sure to put $5 down to pre-order, which guarantees you ...

Ben: OK, but do you have a copy of the game?

GameStop: Do you have anything you’d like to trade in toward the cost of the game?

Ben: I still don’t know if you have it!

GameStop: Would you be interested in a pre-owned copy?

The pre-order question served as an answer about what’s in stock highlights why GameStop is in such trouble: Every interaction in the store is meant to serve GameStop’s interests, not the customer’s. I want to know if they have a game I want to buy, and I’d like a yes or no answer to see if my time is being wasted.

I want to be very clear that I’ve met a lot of great, enthusiastic, and helpful GameStop employees, and I know that they’re not in charge of company policy. They often want to help, and they know the script is abysmal for folks on both sides of the counter, but they don’t have the power to make things better.

Ditching the script and answering a question with information is often quite literally against store policy, and could lead to disciplinary action or the loss of the job. I’m not asking for anyone to risk their livelihood to provide basic customer service, even though that should be the priority of those store policies to begin with. GameStop has a history of forcing employees to choose between helping the customers and going along with corporate policy.

GameStop, as a company, makes it very hard to get answers to basic questions, but it’s very easy to learn about all of GameStop’s high-margin services I’m not interested in, and have nothing to do with my visit.

Where does this leave us? Miserable workers, miserable customers

The result of all that wasted time is I try to avoid GameStop whenever possible. I don’t expect the clerks there to know that I worked for the company for years a few decades ago, and I certainly don’t expect them to know that I write about video games for a living by sight.

What I do or don’t know as a customer is immaterial, because in my experience all GameStop customers are treated roughly the same. Our questions aren’t answered, our games are opened, beaten up, and covered in stickers, and we should have pre-ordered, and we’re going to have to step over a sad pile of Funko Pops before we have the opportunity to have our questions ignored.

I don’t think GameStop has much of a chance, even with the new consoles coming in 2020. Amazon is too convenient, Walmart never bothers me about pre-orders, and buying games directly through the consoles themselves is always an option.

GameStop is likely a relic from another era, and there’s nothing to be done about that unfortunate reality. But GameStop isn’t just suffering from the general loss that plagues so much physical retail, it’s actively pushing its best customers away with shoddy practices and a lack of care.

If the company wants to at least try to survive, it should try listening to what we’re asking, answering with accurate information, and start celebrating the act of selling a physical game. That interaction should be fun!

I love video games, and I’ve dedicated my entire life to this hobby professionally, and in at least some part personally. I want GameStop to turn around, because right now the largest speciality retailer dedicated to my favorite hobby, to the games I’ve made it my professional to write about, seems to care very little about the actual product it’s selling.

I still love playing games. I just don’t like the experience of buying them in a beaten-down condition from GameStop. I’m not alone, either.