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Dice City Games Endures the Pandemic, Comes Out Ahead After Pivoting Business Model

In March 2020, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dice City Games (https://www.facebook.com/dicecity), a local gaming store in Wheaton, Maryland, was forced to shut down and almost entirely revamp its business model.

The store had opened its doors in 2017 and had become a favorite place for geeks and gamers within the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area to buy collectible card games, board games, retro video games and hardware, as well as hold events such as tournaments. Now it was subject to some of the strictest lockdown requirements in the United States.

Dice City would have to adapt or close, owner and operator Jim Cooney realized as he began to purchase protective masks and gloves for his staff out of caution. “And at the time, everyone thought I was like overreacting,” said Cooney. “I remember someone saying, ‘I’m never going to wear these,’ who eventually was very cautious about the virus.”

What Cooney, his management team and the staff thought might be a three-week or three-month shutdown grew even more prolonged. The shop didn’t qualify as an essential business and remained locked down longer than most businesses within Maryland’s Montgomery County.

“It was very difficult because non-essential businesses were not allowed curbside pickup,” Cooney said. “And as society was sort of reconfiguring itself, I think that everyone expected curbside pickup to be allowed. And we were actually only allowed to do mail and local delivery.“

The situation became even more difficult as curbside pickup became the norm throughout 2020. Cooney recalled how multiple people would show up at Dice City’s doors or call and ask if their purchases could be brought out to them. “We’d have to say ‘Sorry, you know, we’re respecting the rules and we’re gonna have to deliver it to you.’ So, that made it very, very difficult for business,” he said.

The changes took their toll on the store’s staffing: where before COVID the store boasted a mix of seven employees, (between managers, hourly associates and seasonal workers), this number would be reduced to Cooney and two other employees—his core management team. The new operation had Store Manager Jesse Crowley working from home while Cooney and Inventory Manager Chris Slowinski staffed the storefront, socially distancing from each other all the while.

“Basically, we would handle the business together and then Jesse would list cards for sale online and manage that side of fulfillment, while Chris would do most of the deliveries, and I would do some of them,” said Cooney. “That was sort of a switch to a mail order system, where we were all going to the post office at different points.”

A hard time

Cooney witnessed several small businesses in the Wheaton and Silver Spring areas of Maryland closing their doors for good, while others scrambled for government assistance and PPP funding. The money seemed to go to the very first people who heard about it and raced their applications in ahead of others, he said.

“We operated without PPP. And without federal, state or local assistance of any kind,” Cooney recalled. “And I remember an incident, where Montgomery County announced on Twitter that they were doing an assistance program for small businesses. Then they did a mailing the following week. I know that a lot of local businesses complained to me that by the time they had the postcard in their hands and were applying, the money was already gone.”

Changing strategies

Even if federal assistance wasn’t a viable option, there was still a market to be served. Cooney noted a surge in hobby gaming, with new buyers who looked at collectibles such as Pokemon and Magic the Gathering as investments and began developing more of an interest in these games. Cooney also noticed that his customers’ buying habits were changing, and that during the lockdown, customers were buying bigger board games to play with the people in their quarantine “pods.” This led to larger board game sales as well as sales of sealed booster boxes, which are large packs of Magic the Gathering and Pokemon Cards.

“I took a cue from my years in managing restaurants. And I created a seasonal menu. And the seasonal menu started that period with spring, and then summer and then fall,” said Cooney. “Each menu had a different lineup of products, which were reliably coming out from the publishers. So, it’d be anchored around the new Magic the Gathering set, the new Dungeons and Dragons book, and to some extent, the new Pokemon set or the board games in the season.”

Cooney also took advantage of the fact that where his store previously sat 48 people for game tournaments, this was reduced to 26, allowing Cooney and his staff to use the extra space to pack up orders which would be mailed out or delivered to their customers. “With the seats we freed up, we put in new showcases and we expanded our retro video games and our Pokemon department. We focused on those two things in part because when the world’s a scary place, people lean into nostalgia,” he said.

Even though Dice City Games didn’t run any fundraising campaigns, they did reach out to their audience.

“We just told our community ‘we’re still here, we’re still here to serve, we’ll mail to you, we will hand-deliver to your door, we will do bundles for you, and we’ll engage you in different ways’,” said Cooney, who added that he clearly appreciates the community’s support and role in patronizing the store when it was difficult. He emphasized that the store works to keep roughly 10 bottles of hand sanitizer available to customers despite being only 1,300 square feet.

“Obviously COVID is a real risk, and everyone has to be careful, but we are in a new era. And I hope that we maintain our safety and maintain these numbers and start to get back to work and get back to normalcy in 2022,” Cooney said. “We did our best and we pivoted a lot, you know?”

“Dice City Games pre-pandemic built a very loyal following of players and collectors,” said Ryan Keach, 37, of Wheaton, Maryland. “Magic the Gathering pre-releases and other events would often fill the venue to capacity pre-March 2020. Those players have a vested interest in keeping their local game store, their place to play live. That’s why a lot of players would rather buy product from a place like Dice City over paying slightly less on Amazon. Dice City Games built a community strong enough to support it through those rough patches. Some of their sales moved to sites like TCGPlayer, but patrons could still buy product from them just by giving them a call. At the time I lived right around the corner, so they dropped things off for me a few times.”

For dedicated gamers, the shop’s survival is extremely welcome news. “It’s a cute store with games and Magic the Gathering tournaments,” said Cooney’s longtime friend, Tantara Person, 38, a lighting technician from College Park, Maryland. “It’s cute seeing dads with their sons teaching them the game,” she said, referring to how the store has become a cultural meeting point for gamers to meet, play, and pass the games on to the next generation.

If you can get your business through a pandemic, you can get it through anything. For Cooney and his employees, who recreated their business and survived, things can only get better for a store that’s become a must-visit place in the region for just about any gamer.

Chris Barylick, special to BetterSMB

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