Out of Stock Issues - A Publishers Perspective

Out of Stock

Three words nobody in our industry likes to hear; Out of Stock (OOS). For a customer, it means disappointment. For a FLGS it means possibly losing a sale at that moment and maybe more in the future if that customer decides to go elsewhere. From a Publishers perspective “out of stock” isn’t always bad.

Here’s the deal. As a publisher I want my distributors and retailers to have the games they need to satisfy our customers. I say “our customers” because ultimately that’s whom we (the royal we, the industry we) serve, the end user. Without them, none of us would be here. But I digress.

So, being out of stock isn’t always bad on the publisher level. Printing games is a risky business and as the old saying goes; nobody ever went out of business by selling out.  I don’t think it’s as simple as that but you get the idea.  By the time we have any real data to base sell-in, the games are often just weeks from arriving in our warehouse. The numbers we decided to produce were probably locked in anywhere from 12 – 16 weeks before that. It just depends on the components.

By the time the game hits the warehouse we know if we guessed right or not. Did we sell about half of the print run on release? That’s a decent result. Now we just need to make sure we see re-orders. But what if the games sold out or even worse, over sold. That’s not what we want. Often when I see demand for a game really heating up I get the next print run started before the first print run even arrives at distribution. This is me; the publisher, doubling down and I just doubled my risk. But ideally I, as the publisher, will be OOS and distributors will be OOS a few weeks later, and FLGS a few weeks after that. Just around that time the next printing will be arriving. What that means is that I need to be good at forecasting demand and responding to it at the right times; all with very little hard data. I’m very fond of saying that forecasting is a little art and a little science. The internet, distributor open houses, and conventions are my tea leaves.

In an ideal world, my forecasting skills allow me as a publisher to occasionally go OOS without having to take too much risk above and beyond what we already do. I at least get strong signs, if not hard numbers, that a new printing is the right call. But most importantly me being OOS doesn’t mean the FLGS is OOS. It’s all about timing. My job as a publisher is to get this right way more often than I get it wrong.

But here’s the real problem, what little hard data I get is sell-in, not sell-through. Now I really need to dig deep into the art of forecasting to get a good read on what is selling in stores.  Sell-through is really what I want to know and there is no mechanism in our industry to track it. It’s all anecdotal information at the hobby level.

Where things go way off the rails is when sell-through is significantly higher than usual. This is when the dreaded OOS occurs across all tiers for a significant amount of time. That new printing isn’t just a couple of weeks away; it may be a couple of months away or more. Everyone loses out and nobody is happy.

I’ve experienced this phenomenon too many times to remember them all over the last 20 years. One time a CCG expansion I printed sold out instantly. There wasn’t anything any more special about it than the previous set but there you go. Everyone panicked and asked for more.  The GAMA Trade Show was weeks after the set released and stores and distributors were very aggressive in wanting a reprint. We gave in and had piles of the second printing left, even after I printed 50% of what distributors were asking for.

Another time, a boxed game I published had a little less than four thousand units on pre-order. I printed 20,000 and sold out in 7 days. Some people say these are good problems to have. It took over 2 months to get more back in stock and our customers were not happy with us. It didn't feel like a “good” problem at the time. We got lots of “why didn’t you print more” questions. 12 weeks before street date five times pre-orders seemed pretty aggressive, if not down right risky.

Most recently Clank! took us by surprise. We printed a very good amount and it evaporated. I had the second printing in progress 6 weeks before the first printing arrived and that disappeared. The next two printings have also sold out on arrival and more are on the way. My tealeaves must need replacing.

Without actual sell through data the best I get is sell-in data. I can extrapolate from that velocity at the FLGS level and at least get a decent picture of where we stand. The other challenge is that sell-in data is often 30 days old by the time we get it.

So, what’s the solution? I don’t think there is one clear-cut solution that will make this all better. Our industry is made up of several thousand independent retailers and that is certainly one of our strengths but it’s also our greatest weakness when it comes to data collection. Unless we can figure out a way to collect sell-through data and have stores pre-order in a time frame that makes sense for them, while also being early enough to effect production, I don’t see this changing significantly.  One possible solution could be industry wide POS software and a 3rd party that collects and distributes the data. The video industry had something similar to this in the 90’s.

But until the day that we have the infrastructure that gives us the data we need, all of us will have to keep the lines of communication open and do the best we can with the data we have.  It’s just the world we live in, a world of art and science.

- Scott Gaeta

This Blog was originally published as a guest blog at travisseverance.com/blog as part of a 3 part series. Be sure to visit to read parts 2 and 3.