Soapbox: 'Vintage' Used Game Prices Do Nothing to Encourage Customer Loyalty

Tom Whitehead has socks older than Xenoblade Chronicles, will sell for $10

The Wii is very much last-gen now, even if we're still in a peculiar Twilight Zone where poor Wii U momentum has seen it consistently outsold by its predecessor. The transition to the new system will be well and truly brought home in the coming months and Holiday season, however, with Nintendo going big on new software and pushing the HD system aggressively.

What the Wii isn't, not quite yet, is retro. Certainly the policy we've always had here at Nintendo Life is to match up with Nintendo's backward compatibility policy; so Wii is still current (and has its own section) due to its presence on the Wii U hardware and occasional new release, and likewise with the DSi / DS family of systems on the 3DS. Even looking beyond the important aspects such as gameplay and fun, I still think some Wii games look gorgeous to current-gen eyes; there are examples such as the two Super Mario Galaxy titles, Donkey Kong Country Returns and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and I don't mean in the sense that many 8-bit and 16-bit games look good, but rather that these are releases I'd happily play on a high-end PC and not think "gosh, these visuals are a bit naff". We also have the fact that the Wii U makes plenty of use of Wii Remote and Nunchuk control options, so the Wii is still — in some form — prominent in plenty of living rooms.

And yet, in the parallel universe that is retail marketing, Xenoblade Chronicles is sold "used" for $90 — released in North America in 2012 — and Metroid Prime Trilogy is another member of the "vintage" range at $84.99. Now, to be fair to GameStop, the retailer can just about justify the use of the word "vintage" to describe the title, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as follows, for one of the adjective entries:

Denoting something from the past of high quality, especially something representing the best of its kind.

Personally though, I see the "vintage" tag and think it's a little ludicrous as we're talking about games that are barely a few years old (my lunch today is in the past, should I say it was "vintage" because it was tasty?), with Metroid Prime Trilogy stretching back to 2009. I know we live in a modern world of the web and short memories, but these are titles still very much part of the gaming scene; they've not been desired for well over a decade in the manner of something like EarthBound, anyway. What these two games do represent, however, is what I feel is blatant cynicism and profiteering, charges I apply mostly to GameStop in this case, but with a smidge or criticism set aside for Nintendo itself. Both releases were eagerly desired but produced in limited numbers, and in effect manipulated the market; if enough copies had been produced to meet consumer demand, we wouldn't have used copies selling for more than a brand new Wii U retail title.

For its part, GameStop hasn't tried to justify this policy, but simply stated that its "pricing for these games is competitive and is based on current market value driven by supply and demand", while the retailer has "sourced several more vintage titles". The fun conspiracy theory is that GameStop has "reprinted" these games, while the more likely scenario is that it acquired a lot of stock from existing customers, with some reporting that they received juicy offers for their copies (much less than the $90, of course). Perhaps it was a mix of both, or the retailer has other sources in addition to customers; we're unlikely to ever get official confirmation.

While retail logic and the laws of capitalism can justify this policy, it's one that's frustrated me a great deal; it represents yet another example of businesses in the games industry thinking in the short term and treating consumers as fools. Some may disagree, but I think there are some inevitable consequences of this move from GameStop (which isn't a new tactic from it, I know, but I'm focusing on this example).

  • Some collectors or eager Wii U gamers will snap up the chance to get these copies, as they are close to private sale prices on the likes of eBay.
  • If they sell well, GameStop will feel justified, say "that's business" and do it all over again.
  • Some consumers will be disappointed by it, see it as the latest example of retailers pushing unfair deals, and shop elsewhere and online.

That third bullet point considers a potential future, which I genuinely believe a lot of companies don't consider in any real sense. Yes, retailers make projections and try to prepare for new trends, and they of course try to "stay ahead", but what I don't think they do, for if they did surely actions would be so different, is consider the importance of fostering customer loyalty for years to come.

Retail groups have had a tough time in recent years; the games industry is evolving, more people download games, buy for less online and some play a lot more on iOS and Android platforms. A combination of factors have seen revenues consistently drop from quarter to quarter, and retailers have struggled or, in cases such as GAME in the UK and other territories, gone bust and started again.

I have sympathy for retailers in many respects, particularly as in many cases they have excellent, dedicated staff, but in my experience GAME are a good example. Since new ownership I've noticed improved trade-in deals, better promotions and prompt delivery with online orders. I'd actually stopped using the retailer after a bad experience with Super Mario Galaxy 2 but returned when it started again, and there've been occasions where I've shunned a price £2 better on Amazon to buy from GAME, simply because I think we need dedicated — albeit flawed — game retailers. High street prices are still a little high, for my taste, but I know from conversations I've had that revenues and profit margins are tough, and finding a balance of fair prices and paying salaries is an ongoing challenge.

So I think gamers should need game specialist stores, even if the mighty Amazon is a force that's tough to ignore; there's still a pleasure in going to a store, exchanging some friendly words with staff and picking up a keyring as a pre-order bonus, I feel. But retailers need us too, and perhaps they forget that. GameStop is within its rights to charge $90 for Xenoblade Chronicles, but it's a cynical move. Just because you can charge $90, doesn't mean you should, and treating consumers like naive simpletons may work for one must-have purchase, but it overlooks the fact that we're not actually idiots. Some may splash out on these "vintage" games because they have to have it, but will they feel good about it or valued as a customer? Or will they have an unfavourable opinion of the store and go online next time? In many cases I'd bet it'll be the latter.

I've worked in retail, and I've seen good and bad decisions made. There are awesome people in the sector that do their best to make money and treat customers well, but there are others that only worry about the profits. I've seen decisions from managers and executives clearly motivated by bottom lines and shareholder returns that are ultimately greedy in their nature. Those decisions may lead to slightly stronger quarterly results, but the medium to long term implications could lead to an overall negative.

Games retailers, in their troubles, have blamed everything when reporting on poor financial performances. Profit margins on games are too low due to greedy publishers, the online market is keeping people off the high street, there aren't enough big games, the consoles aren't attractive enough, and so on. Some and perhaps all have elements of truth, it's undeniable, but when the market's smaller and times are tough I fail to see how charging $90 for a used game helps. It doesn't strike me as a move to convince shoppers to choose GameStop over other retailers or eBay, for example. Citing market value and demand is spin to a ludicrous degree with Xenoblade Chronicles, too, as GameStop was the only major retailer with distribution rights. It created that demand and then cited it as a cause for the price, which is profiteering gone too far, especially as publishers earn nothing from these used sales, as I understand it.

Market values and continuing practices from the glory days are a mistake for retailers, and the vintage used games from GameStop are a sad indication of why some retail groups are struggling to retain loyal customers. If we, the gamers, are treated poorly, we have many other options to buy our games. Some retailers are, in my view, going some way to compete and win loyalty, but they need to get their heads out of current market value and earn our custom for years to come. Otherwise one day they'll complain that their customer base has deteriorated too far because of market conditions, but they'll ultimately be to blame.

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