Innovative Retailer: Geek Retreat

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The Name: Geek Retreat

The Place: Dotted around the UK so far with over 20 stores but another 14 listed as coming soon and with big further expansion plans…

The Story: There aren’t really many sectors that seem to be doing too well on the high street at the moment. There are those places that have a community hub, clubby feel to them

Tick for Geek Retreat. There are cafés and restaurants.

Tick for Geek Retreat. And there are nail bars.

Calling all geeks… (copyright all photos Jordan Green)

Ah, that’s where we part company: Not so fast! You never know when Araumi of the Dead Tide might want her nails done too.

Who on earth is that? She is from the Commander Legends card set by Magic: The Gathering.

Literally have no idea what you are talking about: I was just kidding but actually now I think of it…anyway at a time when people have a) taken up hobbies in a big way and b) been stuck in their houses in a big way it doesn’t require Sigmund Freud to see that a café, shop and club for fantasy role-playing gamers of all kinds is a winner.

Agreed: And if a recent company statement is anything to go by Geek Retreat is one of those unusual beasts – the company that is super optimistic about future trading. It says it wants to open five stores a month in 2021!

Crikey! Geek Retreat works on a franchise model and seems very successful at it. Essentially while admiring the host of independent fantasy and gaming stores it realises that the hobbyist element usually overtakes the business side so began as a way of building a scaleable and profitable business.

I take it that this was one person’s brainchild: Indeed. One Stephen Walsh founded the first venue in 2014 in Glasgow (this is the one store the company does own outright) and he remains very inspirational for the business as a whole but for the purposes of this article Retail Insider has beetled down to the Holloway Road to talk to the franchisees of that store.

Geek Retreat on Holloway Road

Jonathan Lamb and Charlie Cracknell Wright have been friends since childhood when they dreamed of having somewhere like the Geek Retreat to play their games unhindered, unjudged, unlaughed at.

Unlaughed is definitely not a word: Whatever.

So I noticed that Geek Retreat gave 8% of its turnover on one day in May to the National Autistic Society: Not just any day. May the fourth.

Ummm: Sigh. That’s Star Wars day to you and an important date in the geek calendar. Charlie Cracknell Wright used to work as a learning support officer and he can confirm that there is a crossover here with lots of customers lying somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

What’s the connection? For some it is the collecting and ordering of the cards, for some it is simply having a place where you can be a bit different from everyone else and no one cares a jot. Some come for the social side if they find it difficult to make friends in other social settings. Some come to buy the figurine paint and sit to paint their role playing figurines. In fact you can buy the paint and paint your Airfix model if you want. Being an obsessive at Geek Retreat is the norm and is not judged. We are a lot of people’s Third Space say the two franchisees.

Ready to open the door to role-play events…

So what’s the mix of revenues then in these hybrid stores? The way that the store is laid out reflects the importance of the social hub side. The vast majority of the Holloway shop is given over to the gaming space where free-to-read comics are provided along with some free-to-play games. Tables can also be hired out and this is where Lamb and Cracknell Wright will hold the all-important events and tournaments where competitors pay-to-play.

So retail is? You cannot rely on the retail sales side alone says Cracknell Wright. That is why despite opening in the middle of lockdown the Holloway store is busily creating a daily events calendar. The idea of ‘monetising’ customers almost seems slightly alien but Lamb notes that most of the people are already avid game players or anime readers and need very little encouragement to buy another trading pack of cards or another board game or another set of comics. Do not underestimate the level of fandom or how much fans are prepared to spend. “Everyone has their own geek stuff,” he says.

Down to brass tacks – what can you eat? Oh yes the availability and quality of the food is a big part of it too. Themed sometimes (on May the Fourth customers could indulge in a Jaffa the Hut milkshake) but a largely standardised menu with hot dogs and milkshakes the big revenue drivers. People can eat wherever they want in-store. It’s a big improvement on the usual format of these kind of shops where in the middle of a four-hour role play game people get hungry, have to leave and don’t come back. “People spend all day in here,” explains Lamb, “once here they are here for the duration”. (See store assistant Louis Holding’s video of Holloway Geek Retreat’s customers here.)

So who is coming in and when? Right. The core customer is in the mid-20s-30s and weaned on D&D.

Errr: Dungeons & Dragons – the original role play game. But school children come in after lessons and older people who might have been ‘Risk’ fans back in the day are also curious about what the next generation of role play games looks like. Some people just like the atmosphere and come in to work on their laptop and eat and drink – that’s all fine too. And they are especially proud of the loos which Cracknell Wright claims far exceed customers’ expectations!!

But what happens when they all grow up and out of gaming? They have children! As Cracknell Wright points out: “I have a son of 10 months and I am literally counting the days until I can bring him here to the shop.”

And what’s the link between head office and the stores? Franchisees pay a monthly fee to the parent company based on a percentage of turnover. The all important pandemic e-commerce sites were set up centrally but it is down to individual stores to what they stock and they can charge different prices from each other. According to the Holloway managers there is a lot of camaraderie between different franchisees and support given with the head office having had an influx of staff which moved it on to a new level of professionalism.

I bet these guys never thought they would be doing e-commerce sales when they opened: Too right. Lamb notes that they were operating like an Amazon warehouse at the back of the shop with crazy demand from users shipping out to Europe and beyond. This shop is able to sell single gaming cards with consumers happy to pay eye-watering figures to get that coveted and needed card for their perfect deck.

What of the future? Getting back to events is the big thing at the moment. All gaming tournaments have been stopped as there is no card swapping allowed and that is integral to all the games.

What about opening in the evenings and serving alcohol? Not keen. Firstly, Pokemon – pretty much the biggest player – stipulate no alcohol associated with their products and tournaments as children are part of their audience. Secondly, dealing with people who might have had too much to drink with lots of valuable retail stock sitting around might be tricky too. Thirdly that would mean ushering out one set of people to usher in another which goes against pretty much everything that Geek Retreat is trying to represent.

OK. More shops then? Yes definitely. It is possible to buy a cluster of postcodes under the franchisee model whereby no other Geek Retreat shop can open within five miles of you and Lamb and Cracknell Wright would absolutely want to get a group of units running through London. Holloway is currently the only shop in London to have the prestigious Wizards Premium accolade – awarded by Wizards of the Coast – which means they get exclusive products, early releases and more stock of popular releases.

Seriously though, how popular is fantasy now. Whether it’s Marvel films, Harry Potter memorabilia or Digimon trading packs: Yay, we’ll make a Star Wars cosplay fan out of you yet…

Totally. Live long and prosper: Actually that’s Star Trek.


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