My Loser Phase: Reflections on Video Game Retail from 1992-1997

Introduction

I've used the term "My Loser Phase" to refer to an interval of my life from 1992-1997, it's the most accurate description for that period I can conceive. During this time I graduated high school, flunked out of junior college, and proceeded to sit in neutral gear for a while. It's an era that I now look back on with a huge amount of self-deprecation. Almost nothing about these five years should be remotely interesting to anybody, including myself. If you haven't hit the "back" button yet just hold on because I'm getting to the good part..

From 1992-1997 I worked at an Electronics Boutique and Waldensoftware store (they were essentially the same company after 1994). In 1992 the 16-bit system war was reaching it epoch, with Nintendo and Sega furiously trying to land a knock-out punch on the other. From 1993-1995, several attempts to prematurely terminate the 16-bit generation failed. The 32X, Saturn, Jaguar, and 3DO all tried to take gaming in a new direction but came up short. Sony, releasing the PlayStation in 1995, would finally drive a dagger into the heart of the 16-bit console. It was also a time when the video game/software retail industry underwent a transformation. Stores like Electronics Boutique, Babbages, and Software ETC gradually morphed into one-stop gaming shops while competitors like Egghead went the way of the dodo. The video game industry was slowly changing from one that targeted a small niche of nerds to one with mass-market appeal. Along the way there were irritating customers, corporate experiments, mundane day-to-day operations, and even some life lessons. I have disorganized ramblings on all these topics buried in the back of my mind. These reflections would probably be interesting to anyone who enjoyed video games from that time span. To that extent, this would qualify as a "classic gaming" column (although "personal narrative" would also be accurate). Anyone who also worked in video game retail during this time would find some nostalgia in these chaotic memoirs.

I actually enjoyed the job to a certain degree. If you enjoy video games it's obviously fun to work around them all day. If it had the same pay and benefits as my current job it would be half-tempting to go back (although I doubt I'd be able to take my now traditional December vacation). I also look back on the games from this period quite fondly. Yeah, I appreciate vintage games from 1981-1991 and a couple post 1997 ones. Still, the systems and games from ~1992-1997 are the ones I most often go back to play.

I pondered writing a little piece about my time at Electronics Boutique/Waldensoftware for a while. I figured it would be an entertaining read for the aforementioned others into games of that era, those who worked video game retail, and those that went through a similar "loser phase" in their own life. It was bouncing around in my head but I never got around to actually doing it. As much fun as this would be to write, I have other projects that take a higher priority. That was the case until late 2005 when I witnessed something at a GameStop that became the motivating factor to finally write this...

GameStop was advertising Metroid Prime for $4.99 over the "Black Friday" weekend of 2005, of course they were out by the time I arrived. I decided to browse around for a little bit since I was already there. A morbidly obese customer entered the store and headed straight for the counter:

Customer: Do you have any of those new Xbox 360s?

Employee: Sorry, we sold out the first day we had them. We didn't even fill our entire reserve list. We had to stop taking new reservations until we know when we'll get more and how many we'll get.

Customer: When are you getting more?

Employee: We haven't been told when we'll receive more.

Customer: Can I sign-up on the reserve list?

Employee: I'm sorry, we have to stop taking reservations until we know when we'll get more and how many we'll get.

Customer: Why didn't you get more of them!?

Employee: I don't know how Microsoft determined how many they shipped to each store.

Customer: Why didn't they make more of them, you know it's a very popular system!?

Employee: I don't know.

Customer: All the kids want these things, why didn't they make more!?

Employee: I don't know.

I considered asking the customer "do you really think the guy making $7.50 an hour at GameStop controls the Xbox 360 supply chain?" I'm too non-confrontational and doubt he would have understood. When I got home that day I resolved to write this piece. I made a rough outline and chipped away at it for a while, little bit here and there while focusing on more important things. I stopped when I felt I covered all the major topics, there's certainly a lot more I could still add.

The whole point of this mess is to reflect back on a brief era in video game retail, mixing in my own experiences and tribulations. This is by no means intended to dig-up dirt on Electronics Boutique/Waldensoftware. First off, the company doesn't function as an independent entity anymore. It wouldn't make sense to do an "expose" on a business that exists in name only. I don't think there's anything in here that's a company secret or reflects negatively on anyone (except a few anonymous customers) anyway.


Contents

* Note: throughout the article I refer to Electronics Boutique as "Elbo". This was a term used by many employees. Also, I'm lazy and it's a lot easier to type Elbo instead of Electronic Bo<loses interest in typing>..

 

Dedication

Richard Watton: 1972-1999

This article is dedicated to Richard Watton. For the majority of this timeline he was a co-worker and a friend. He died in February 1999 after a battle with cancer. He was a genuinely good person and I miss him. Every so often I play a video game that makes me think "Rich would have loved this". I suppose that's a funny way to remember someone unless you consider that most of our time together was video game related. I will poke fun at the "career" retail employee, which Rich easily qualified as. Yet I've always felt he was different. He legitimately enjoyed the retail profession and everything that went along with it. I have no doubt he would have crawled his way up to the district manager position and beyond. It's a shame his life was cut short and my deepest condolences will always be extended to his family.


 

October 1992: The Christmas Job

Electronics Boutique name tag

I was the average 17 year old guy. I had a junker car that I needed to buy gas and parts for. I had a high-maintenance girlfriend to spend money on (we broke up about 30 seconds after graduation). I also needed an excuse to be out of the house, around this time my parents were getting divorced and remarried (not to each other). Since moving out wasn't a viable option, finding a way to be out of the house from 6:00 AM-11:00 PM had to do. Keeping all of this up required some minimal source of income.

Earlier in the year I worked as a telemarketer but it didn't last. Once I burned through that cash I decided to find a job at the local mall. I lived about 3 miles from Gurnee Mills, it was briefly the largest shopping mall in the country. Despite the size of the mall and it's proximity this was only the second time I ever set foot in it. I frequented the now bulldozed Lakehurst Mall. Once Gurnee Mills opened, shops in Lakehurst began to steadily close. Looking for a job at Lakehurst would have been an exercise in futility so I directed my search at Gurnee Mills.

I wandered the mall looking for "help wanted" signs, trying to avoid anything in either of the food courts. As my search neared the end of the mall I spotted a sign calling for seasonal help at the Electronics Boutique. I thought it was probably too good to be true, a video game store that needed help. For a 17 year-old who loves, but can't afford, video games it's the perfect job. By luck the manager was behind the counter and the store was empty when I went to apply. I talked and joked with him for a few minutes and was hired on the spot, guess I'm persuasive. I started working there the next day.

Sometimes life is circular. Even after moving away for a while, my first house ended up being only 1 mile away from the same mall, my current house about 5. I still go there often. My wife taught at the same high school I went to which sounds creepier than it actually is. Tell someone you married a teacher from your high school and see their reaction (of course she was not teaching there in 1992). Anyway, we decided it made sense to live nearby her work since mine was more likely to change (and it did in 2001). I'm sure when I was 17 I swore I'd leave town and never come back. I'd love to see the look on my pimply face when I heard that I'd still be in town 13 years later and be happy about it.

The manager of this location was not your average retail manager. He spent the previous 30 years working at the home office for a major Chicago-based retailer. I guess they had some kind of building named after them in the Loop. He was let go in a round of massive layoffs but wasn't ready to stop working. Elbo hired him on as a store manager right away given that he was 100x more mature and qualified than the usual applicant. I know how much retail managers make so I don't think he was doing it for the money. His personality was the type where he couldn't just quietly go into retirement. Born and raised in the Queens, he still carried the attitude with him even though he was now far removed. He is easily one of the most interesting people I've known and I mean that in a very positive way.

In 1992 Electronics Boutique was a buffet platter of software and video games. They stocked productivity software like Microsoft Office, WordPerfect, and their Novell equivalents. They also carried quite a few screen savers and general low-end publishing software. There was a small Macintosh section with a scattering of games and some applications.

They stocked a selection of computer hardware. Sound cards, modems, keyboards, mice, joysticks, and eventually drives. Accessories like floppy disks, mouse pads, batteries, disk boxes, and even printer paper were steady sellers.

Over the years Elbo would wisely transform into a gaming store, eventually re-branding as EBGames. Customers looking for productivity software increasingly turned to office stores or the internet for their needs. The Windows 95 Upgrade was the last application I can recall us regularly stocking. We kept that around because it was a requirement for most games made in 1996 and beyond.
Sonic the Hedgehog

On the gaming side we carried Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, and TurboGrafx-16. There was a small NES section but it was dwindling. We also carried a lot of handheld games, I was always surprised at how well they sold. We had a range of game accessories like controllers and storage cases.

Of the systems we sold, the Genesis was the dominant one. The hardware was a tad cheaper than the Super Nintendo. However the real selling point was the stronger library, especially the sports library. Sports games were increasingly popular, the Genesis had more and better quality titles. The EA Sports titles were just as huge in the 90s as they are today. The Genesis versions outsold the Super Nintendo ones by what seemed like a 10:1 margin. The poor TurboGrafx-16 only ever secured a single EA Sports title, Madden Football for the CD.

The Super Nintendo would eventually build-up a solid library backed by a superior RPG selection. It sold more consoles worldwide in its lifetime but (at the store I worked at) the Genesis always sold more games. I'm hard-pressed to say which system I prefer. I've definitely played the Genesis more of the two. However, the Super Nintendo has some outstanding titles like Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, and Super Mario RPG that can't be recreated on the Genesis.

The Game Boy was a popular system at our location. We were in the nearest shopping mall to a large Naval base. Before leaving on a 6-month deployment at sea, Sailors would stock-up on Game Boy cartridges. I've picked up a new game for much, much shorter trips than that. I'd been told that we were the top selling Game Boy location in the company, although I never saw concrete numbers to prove it.

On my first day I experienced some new-guy hazing. There was a guy who worked at Elbo and the house wares store across the hall (those few career retailers who don't live with their parents work at least two jobs). When he saw a fresh face behind the counter he decided to make a little prank call:

Caller: Yeah do you have Lotus 4-5-6?

Me: We have Lotus 1-2-3.

Caller: This is the sequel.

Me: Umm, no. We don't have that.

Little did I know, ~50% of the calls I would receive over the next five years wouldn't be much better. One of the earliest lessons I learned is that many customers lived under the delusion that retailers were secretly conspiring to prevent them from buying games. This was an era where internet was not widely available. There was Prodigy and CompuServe but they were a mere fraction the size of the current internet. As a result, a consumer's top sources for video game release information were either magazines or calling the local game store. Magazine writers rushed to meet publishing timelines resulting in wildly inaccurate stories. If we meager Elbo employees dared contradict this information we were subject to scorn:

Caller: Hey, do you have [insert game title] in stock?

Me: No, that won't be out for a few months.

Caller: LIAR! EGM SAYS IT'S COMING OUT TODAY!

Me: I think that's incorrect.

Caller: NO! YOU'RE WRONG! EGM SAYS IT'S COMING OUT TODAY!

Me: I think your beef is really with EGM and not me.

Caller: ---- YOU!

Luckily the couple of months spent doing telemarketing built up my resistance to hostile phone conversations.

The day to day activities were easy to pick-up. Obviously a lot of time was spent helping customers and working the register. Parents often had no idea what they were looking for. Their kids would ask for the newest Madden Football for the Genesis, by the time they made it to Elbo they forgot the title and system. We had to try and reconstruct what the original request was.

Besides helping customers, a good deal of time was spent unpacking boxes and putting price stickers on merchandise. We'd receive a few boxes a day from a centralized distribution center. Game hardware and major new releases would come straight from the vendor but the majority of our stock came from the warehouse. In each box was a sheet of price stickers. We had to match up the stickers to their corresponding item, not exactly rocket science. Nearly every day we received a list of price changes that was sent through the register system. When the registers booted-up in the morning they'd print-off a list of price changes and company news. Little strips of register paper weren't really the most effective way to communicate but it got the job done. Hunting down items to re-price ate up a chunk of time every day.

Shrink wrap gun

By far though, the activity that consumed most of our non-customer-service time was shrink wrapping. In the back of the store we had a shrink wrap machine and heat gun. The shrink wrap machine had a spool of shrink wrap and an arm to cut the wrap. To seal the wrap this arm had an incredibly hot coil that fused the wrap while cutting it. OK, I'm not really good at describing this process but maybe you get the picture. The heat gun was a heavy, oversized hairdryer. First-degree burns and fume-induced hallucinations were common.

Shrink wrapping was done for two reasons. The primary one was to create display cases. When a game arrived that didn't have a box on the shelf we made a new display case for it. This involved removing the contents and storing them in a crude filing system in the backroom. The empty box was shrink wrapped (or is it shrunk wrapped?) for display. When someone bought the last copy of a game we quickly reassembled everything. The other use for shrink wrap was to restock returned items. Elbo had a very liberal return policy that let customers return games within 10 days for any reason provided it was in new condition. This policy made us a free-rental store for some. We had a "no returns" list behind the counter of customers who abused this policy. In general it worked out well. It was a courtesy to the regular customers who occasionally picked-up a dud.

Over time the return policy would be slowly chipped away at. The addition of preowned games ultimately led to the death of the return policy. If you didn't like a game it could be traded-in for a fraction of the original price but full refunds would vanish. The old return policy made sense in a world with few rental stores and cartridge-based games, with wide access to rentals and demo discs it doesn't anymore.
Gloria Jean's

I enjoyed working at a busy shopping mall. I was, and still am to a point, a mallrat. There's just something fun about being in an active shopping center with a wide assortment of shops. I'd probably adjust well to living in a city like Tokyo (other than the whole not-being-able-to-speak-Japanese thing). Our store was located near a Gloria Jean's Coffee, since I was a young caffeine addict that was great. I'd frequently take a break to go flirt with the girls at the counter and score a free coffee (although not much else).


 

November 1992: Sega CD Launch

Sewer Shark

The first new hardware launch I experienced was the Sega CD. Sega ran a large number of magazine ads promoting the release. We received some marketing materials and information but not a ton, we weren't sure what to expect from this new system. Compared to the pomp and circumstance of modern console launches it was nothing.

The customer reaction to the system was mixed. The TurboGrafx-16 beat Sega to the punch on CD gaming but wasn't successful. The hardware was expensive and game selection average (or at least appealed to a niche market). Potential buyers obviously were concerned that Sega would fall into the same trap. They had a right to be. The pack-in titles weren't exactly blockbusters. Sol-Feace and Sherlock Holmes only re-affirmed the fears that the Sega CD was like the TurboGrafx-16 CD (which had no shortage of side-scrolling shooters or Sherlock Holmes games). The launch titles didn't help either. Sewer Shark was a below average shooter. They only showed screenshots of the full motion video (FMV) clips so customers had no clue what it was about. A pair of "Make My Video" games and other d-list titles kept the Sega CD lukewarm for a while.

One night a few of us stayed late and took the Sega CD on a test drive. We tried Sewer Shark but had no idea what we were supposed to do. It felt like little more than Sewer Sam for the Intellivision only with gratuitous FMV scenes. The "Make My Video" games had us laughing to no end. After about an hour of game play we packed everything up, feeling completely under whelmed by this new system.

A revamped system that attached to the side would replace the original buggy tray-based design. Along with the hardware redesign, they scrapped the lame pack-ins and replaced them with Sewer Shark. This redesign, alongside an improved library, raised sales of the system. Although it was the eventual controversy around Night Trap that seemed to help the most. There's a saying about any press being good press and that was the case with Night Trap. We actually had to pull the game from the shelves until a new, less offensive version arrived. I've played the original and have no idea who could be offended by it. The commercials for "Hostel" and "Saw" were 1000x worse than anything in Night Trap.

The now-defunct Working Designs brought over a number of successful RPGs from Japan for the Sega CD. These rank among the most popular games for the system. Snatcher would also be a surprise hit. The downside is that these games appealed to a narrow market in the United States and didn't generate many new system sales.

In the end, the Sega CD suffered from the same disease that killed the Atari 2600. A flood of utterly horrible FMV games poured onto the shelves. No one wanted these games but companies kept cranking them out. Many Genesis games were ported to the Sega CD without any noticeable improvement (NHL '94, Pitfall, Bill Walsh College Football, Earthworm Jim, Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam). Like the 2600, the complete void of quality turned shoppers away from the system in droves.

I include myself in that strange little niche that's into the TG-16 CD and Sega CD. I bought both of the Lunar games for Sega CD which now sell for a ridiculous amount on eBay, ditto for Snatcher. The TG-16 CD might be the system I've logged the most hours on. Whenever I'm at a video game show or rummage sale I'm always on the hunt for Sega & TG-16 CD games.

 

December 1992: The First Noel

Christmas

I fully expected the month of December to be incredibly busy, yet I underestimated. On weekends the mall was swamped to the point where shoppers could barely move. Pure madness. We were sent a second cash register for the month, however we only had one credit card machine which led to some occasional problems. We had three people crammed behind the counter most of the day, two ringing-up items and the third bagging or tending to last second questions. Even with this arrangement there was a continuous line from about 11:00 AM-5:00 PM. We had two employees on the floor helping customers find what they were looking for. As a seasonal worker that was me, maybe they figured I couldn't resist the temptation presented by the hundreds of dollars in cash the register held. That's when I really learned that most of our Christmas shoppers had no idea what they were looking for:

Customer: Yeah, my kid wants that new football game.

Me: Which one?

Customer: The new football game.

Me: Which system do they own, the Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo?

Customer: I don't know.

Me: What other games do they play?

Customer: They've got something with a blue guy that spins.

Me: Sonic the Hedgehog?

Customer: Yeah, that sounds right.

Me: OK, so they have a Sega Genesis. Did they want Joe Montana or John Madden Football?

Customer: I don't care, whichever one is cheaper.

Me: They're both $49.99.

Customer: What about that other football game over there?

Me: Mike Ditka's Action Football?

Customer: Yeah, it's $15 cheaper. I'll take that one.

Yeah, when my kid is older I'll probably sound just like that customer while looking for whatever the popular toy of the season is.

In an odd coincidence, one of the other seasonal workers from this year ended-up marrying my wife's college roommate.

Of course when you're selling items at a furious rate you have to restock at an equally furious rate. Roughly 10 boxes of fresh merchandise came into our tiny store every day in December. It was pretty much always left for the night shift (AKA "me") to unpack and stock. Some days the boxes would just be left open for customers to pick through.
Mario Paint

One surprising seller (to me at least) was Mario Paint. It looked like a program for kids but customers of all ages bought it. The bundled mouse was a selling point for many. There was talk that Nintendo was going to release a host of games that supported it. It made some people feel like they were playing a PC game without shelling out $1,000 for one I guess. What really sold it was the cross-demographic appeal though. I've wondered why the Nintendo DS is so successful. It's larger than a Game Boy Advance and not drastically more powerful. Technically speaking it's light years behind the PSP (being the most technically advanced handheld doesn't guarantee success, just ask Atari). I never could grasp why it's a huge seller until I looked back at Mario Paint. Nintendo's just always had a knack for developing titles that appeal to a broader range than traditional gamers. Parents with young kids would buy it for them. Girlfriends/wives of gamers would buy it for themselves. 14-35 year old males can only buy so many games, Nintendo has been wise to target everyone else.

Probably the worst part of working in December was trying to take a lunch break. We were pretty good about scheduling breaks for when we had adequate staff. However, the 30 minute limit was strongly enforced. Just making it to the food court and standing in line took about 20. One day we decided to forego breaks and just send someone (by which I mean "me" again) to get about 40 burgers from White Castle that we left in the backroom for everyone to snack on when they had a free minute. Without getting into graphic detail, that was a bad idea. We ending up skipping a lot of lunches and going out after work to places like Denny's or Baker's Square. We'd eat, drink too much coffee, complain about the day, and joke around with the other retail jockeys loitering there.

There's a myth that's constantly reinforced in the media about the day after Thanksgiving being the busiest retail day of the year. In reality, it's the last Saturday before Christmas. However, at Elbo the day after Christmas was typically our busiest of the year. Not "busiest" in the sense of having the highest sales (these figures are skewed by major system or game releases), but "busiest" in the sense that we had the most customers needing help that day. There were a number of reasons for this trend.

Parents frequently bought systems without games. They'd go to check out and we'd ask "This doesn't come with any games, did you want to pick one up while you're here?" The reply was almost universally "This $100 system doesn't have a game?! They can buy that with their own money." Sure enough, on the 26th kids came rushing into Elbo looking to blow their Christmas cash on games.

Some customers, or at least their kids, had TVs with old coaxial connections. If they got a system for Christmas that had A/V hookups they were stuck. They'd come in the next day to get the adapter they needed. They were usually mad at the idea of having to drop another $20 and took it out verbally on us (as though we actively conspired against them). They were even madder when we didn't have any in stock which was typically the case after ~11:00 on the 26th.

I bought the Nintendo GameCube the day it was released (the only time I've ever done that). It came with AV cables and s-video adapters were nowhere to be found, ditto for controller extension chords. I had it sitting in the box for 2-3 weeks waiting for these to show up in stores. Sure, I could just connect it to the regular AV ports and sit three feet from the TV but I preferred to wait.
By the end of the day on the 26th we were cleaned out of accessories and popular games. Controllers, even those shoddily made generic ones, went quickly. Kids who received Mike Ditka's Action Football exchanged it for John Madden. Nearly everyone who got a gift certificate redeemed it. When the gate closed at 9:00 the shelves inside were nearly bare.

 


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