Always Early: Going Premium

It’s not about the goal, it’s all about the process.

Earlier this year, WotC challenged shops to become Premium. I’m always up for a challenge so let’s rock and roll.

Premium is about high standards. It’s about high expectations. It’s about hard work. It’s about looking in the mirror of your operation and realizing what to do about it. That’s what the WPN Premium application is all about. A state of mind, a way of doing things.a There’s one big secret behind WPN Premium, though, and it’s that the label doesn’t matter because it’s all about the process.

Quick background for those reading who have no idea what I’m talking about, but quick so if you do know you don’t get bored: Wizards of the Coast manufactures magic the gathering, they operate a sanctioning body, and they run a retail store program. There Wizards Play network, or WPN, s the gold standard of the industry. Over the last decade, they created thousands of stores and challenged them all to work hard to accomplish their goals and give the best play experience possible. Now, they’ve overhauled their structure. Massive action gets massive results. They created a tier of store called Premium and they reserve the right to select those stores. For all intents and purposes, we’re talking about the top 5%-10% of shops in the world. Premium kicked off this past March and everyone had about 3 months to get in gear and the program came into effect in July. Last detail, and what I’m here to write about today, they published a blue print, a guideline, of what needed to happen minimum to be Premium.

Well, in part, there was a happy coincidence for us. Last year, we focused on our 25th anniversary and we had planned to remodel the shop in 2019. As we hit January, we started but the weather really slowed down our goals. Basically, we took our hybrid shop and we split it into 2 stores in our weird U-shaped location. Previously, you walked in the front door and found comics and graphic novels and then MTG and then on the other side board games and play space. Now, you walk in and you find an all game shop on one side and an all comic shop on the other. This was designed to meet what i see as the demands of the modern marketplace primarily being that a customer today wants full immersion in whatever it is they care about and could not care less what else you have. To accomplish this, we had to rearrange one piece at a time to stay open through the whole process. That was pretty smooth a s we could break down our front game room while using our Event Center and then simply keep shifting pieces as we went. We slat walled every inch of space from floor to ceiling that wasn’t already and we bought new fixtures including beautiful Game Topper tabletops. In the end, what we ended up with was a game store that features board games, Dungeons and Dragons, supplies and of course Magic the Gathering.

The symmetry of this was awesome. We were well under way when the WPN Premium announcement came out and were ready to do whatever it took. I am going to digress for just a moment because i want to tell you why we were dedicated.

Paradox opened in 1993 and in no time flat we were selling MTG. Our first play table was literally someone’s kitchen table donated to the shop to inspire us to start letting people come play cards. That’s totally common place today but back then it was kinda mind bending to think people would just come hang out at our retail shop. From there, we quickly got involved in tournaments, singles, and heavy dedication to Magic. What became very evident very quickly was that we had a very special community in the Fargo / Moorhead / Red River Valley and beyond. With a lot of hard work and a lot of support, it’s fair to say we quickly became a benchmark place to play Magic. More than that, time and time again, Fargo seemed to outperform other ares of it’s comparative size. I built friends, family, lifelong business partners, and unbelievable memories here. I was a destination for casual and competitive play. But all that was just me being in the right place at the right time because it was always the players of the area who made this work. I could design whatever i wanted and run whatever i wanted but if no one took advantage, it wouldn’t matter. Li am incredibly grateful and honored to be just a part of what’s gone on here. So plain and simple, i wanted WPN Premium to reward those players and fans for who they are and the hobby they loved. In 26 years, i and my people had brought them everything WotC had ever put out there and I’d be damned if we were going to let them down here.

Ok, back to the process. The day the word went out about the new WPN program changes, every shop owner around was digesting all the news and reading the articles. My manager and i found all the requirements for Premium and printed out our first to do list that day. Now, you would think that the next step would be to hit the ground running. That’s actually not what happened. Honestly, we were struck by the list and all the things we would need to do. There were several things on it we weren’t sure if we could do let alone how to do them. And at least one we weren’t decided yet that we wanted to do. So the list actually sat for a couple weeks while the remodel continued.

Eventually, i was contacted by WotC and started a conversation about how to move forward. It turned out that they had actually already scoped out our shop with a secret shopper earlier in the year in anticipation of us applying. Hey, that’s awesome. We’re on the radar. We got direct help from our rep who showed us how to turn in certain pieces of information and most shockingly gave us a deadline we didn’t know of. Now, to be clear, we could have missed that deadline but then we would have waited patiently for the next window to come open. That window was to get qualified for a secret shopper program, one of the most critical steps in the whole thing.

Once there was a deadline, we got truly inspired. Like epically inspired. The old don’t tell me what i can’t do bit, basically. So in about two weeks time, we repainted our event center, brought in new garbage cans, new table numbers, trained our staff based on the list, and ultimately filmed a walk through video from front to back. I am going to tell you a few secrets about that. The point is i want to make it clear that i knew what my goal was and would stop at nothing to raise the standards of the store to meet it. I could not control the outcome. I did not know if we could do it. But i wasn’t going to hold back.

The day we shot our video we were missing some critical pieces. We had garbage cans on order but they weren’t here. They require a particular type of can and we didn’t have them and couldn’t find them anywhere but through online ordering. So how do you deal with that? Well, you find a local restaurant supply company and you appropriate a garbage can that fits the bill. Oh, and you have staff move it from room to room during the walk through video so it looks like you have two of them.

There’s more. Many of the requirements emphasize the store’s cleanliness and specifically that the public never sees work being done or orders coming in and so on. Well, as we were painting and gutting stuff, we just couldn’t make that happen. So it was all in one corner of our EC and it had to be kept off camera. The only real issue here was that while we obviously wanted to start at the front of the building and go through the retail space and end up in the event center, we could not figure a way to enter the EC without showing that stuff. Again, no problem. We’ll start at the back door and make sure we never shot that corner.

There’s several other little bits and pieces. We had signage we’d taken down due to painting so we simply indicated where it was and showed it off. Our even space is separated from the shop but during big events we post signage to lead there for out of owners. We hid a few other minor things as well. At first, we sent a series of videos but ultimately they wanted one long one. Oh, and i had no idea what DroP Box was or how to upload videos to it.

There was also an application we completely missed filing out. When we finally got it, we essentially had one maybe one and a half hours to fill it out and get it in. It’s amazing what you can do when you have to. How big our your front windows? What’s the lay out of your store on a floor plan? Could you write responses to questions like: why do you want to be Premium? And could you do that all in 90 minutes?

Yeah, we did it. With time to spare. We’ve got brand new staff shirts, lanyards, and new signage. We’ve got posted sales policies, posted prize policies, clear conduct policies, and a dozen other things. Some of that existed, some of it didn’t, but talk about raising the standards. Our staff responded like true champions. Everyone was excited to learn everything that was expected of them and mastered lists that taught them to greet customers in a certain way, to be prepared at all times to match players to products, to teach new players how to play, and to be experts at our upcoming events. Are we perfect? Oh no no no. I laid awake at night during the secret shopper period having no idea if our break neck, fast paced, slam bang, efforts would get us there.

Here’s the thing. At the end of the day, i believe Paradox was 80% of where it needed to be. I told staff over and over that i believed in us already and that i was certain we already belonged in this designation. But what happened was WotC raised our standards. They got us to look at everything. They got us to consider how we presented information and what customers were seeing when they were here and how we presented the Magic brand and more and more. I realized quickly that no matter what your store was like today, there wasn’t an owner on the planet who could stand to go through this. I understood why WPN Premium existed. It existed to challenge every single magic retailer to do more than they were. I knew that getting Premium was never the goal but building the best shop i could was all that mattered.

I’ve gone through all the types of thinking that go like this: if i make this much money, the shop will be good, if i get this many players the shop will be good, if i ahve this many customers it’ll mean I’m loved, and so on. There’s not a retailer out there who hasn’t thought like that i guarantee it. But for the first time i was able to clarify my goals and match them with my business. I want to impact people’s lives, i want people to know it’s okay to be themselves, and i want them to be the best they can be. Aiming for Premium gave me a chance to show that in how i conducted my business.

It’s been about 4 months and the results are mixed. I can’t control that. But i have the best store I’ve ever had and a new commitment to Magic i have been looking for and I’m a better owner, leader, and man.