Indie Insight at Heffers Games: “Shoppers tells us there is a joy and satisfaction in shopping in person”

Over the course of the last six years, Cambridge bookshop, Heffers has transformed its prime Trinity Street location into a haven of the local board gaming community, with an offering and insight so revered, that even the year’s instability around the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t stopped it winning retail awards.

A department run by gifts and games manager, Charlotte Staffer, a gaming enthusiast herself whose energy and passion has helped shape the look of the store as it is found today, Heffers Games has certainly found itself riding a wave of current demand for tabletop entertainment, while championing the developmental and mental health benefits of board gaming.

Here, ToyNews catches up with Staffer as the store re-opens its doors to talk about the impact of the pandemic on the board gaming space, its retailers, its players, and just how much 2020 is going to impact the future of the hobby from here on out.

Hello Charlotte, thank you for chatting with us. To kick us off, could you talk us through your role at Heffers as Gifts and Games Manager? 

Given the board gaming ‘renaissance’ of the last five years or so, and the resurgence/surge in sales we’ve seen across the board this year – it must be an exciting role to play?

My role at Heffers is department manager of the gifts and games sections of the shop. It’s fair to say there has been a meteoric rise in board games over the last few years and as a result it’s an incredibly fun role to have. We started selling games at Heffers in 2014, primarily because I was an avid gamer myself, and the success we have had since I put down to the mutual enthusiasm of both myself and my staff and the games community of Cambridge. 

I adore getting to interact with customers and introducing them to a new game is always satisfying. In non-covid times one of the highlights of my job is the fortnightly games nights we hold, where our games community really shines. We’d routinely get around seventy gamers turning up to play games and share recommendations and the buzz in the shop was always palpable. These were always great ways to meet new people, try new games and I can’t wait until the world is in a place where we can resume them. 

How has the pandemic and lockdown shaped the current trends in the board gaming space? How has this influenced Heffers’ approach to the board gaming market?

It’s definitely a very different landscape right now but one that I feel board games can play a vital part in. I am a firm believer that board games can help with mental health and stimulation and they can absolutely unite people, even if you find yourself not in the same physical space as fellow gamers. 

The rapid rise of remote gaming during lockdown has personally been fundamental at keeping me socially engaged and sitting down to play a board game with my partner has staved off lethargy and provided a wonderful alternative to being in front of a screen. 

Given the need for social distance play there is a trend now towards games that can be played in smaller groups or remotely. Gamers are getting incredibly creative in playing games and we have seen examples of people using video cameras to broadcast the board state where not all players need to own the game as well as roll and write games like “Welcome To…” and “Ganz Schön Clever” that can be played simultaneously over zoom.  

Over the last few months we have noticed a significant uptrend in the sale of cooperative and two player based board games. Being able to work as a team with your “bubble” brings a real sense of mutual achievement and one great example of this has been with Matt Leacock’s brilliant Pandemic. 

Playing this game has allowed gamers to feel a real sense of catharsis as they work together as a team to fight against a deadly pandemic threatening the world. 

We’ve started releasing videos on our social media channels to help provide recommendations and advice to gamers during the pandemic and our first few have focussed on remote gaming and two player games.

With the biggest growing markets being couples and families, in the shop we have placed heavier emphasis on the reliable modern classic and taken less risks on some of the newer releases. 

We redesigned the layout of the department and gave prime shelf space to our personal favourites as well as our own ‘Heffers Selection’; our cultivated top games of each genre. Our target was to present less but in a more meaningful way and this change has already received positive sales feedback. 

What lasting impact of this year on the mindsets of consumers do you think will continue into 2021 and beyond? Will the board gaming market maintain its popularity as and if the world returns to ‘normal’?

It is wonderful to see how many people have discovered board games for the first time whilst seeking entertainment during the lockdowns. This is a hobby that can be shared with friends and family as social restrictions ease and I suspect board gaming will see more of a zenith as people desire more time away from their screens and search for forms of entertainment that can be explored from home.

Congratulations, by the way, on the recent Best Local Shop award from Alley Cat Games – what does this win mean for you guys?

The games community of Cambridge has always played an essential part of what makes Heffers Games special. The award from Alley Cat Games was voted for by local communities and so it’s incredibly validating to have that level of mutual appreciation from our community. That they took the time to vote for us reinforces our desire to continue making Heffers Games the best it can be for them.

On the topic of local shopping – how have you guys fared through 2020? Have you seen a conscious effort from the consumer to shop local? 

The gaming market has generally struck me as less susceptible to online shopping as the toy market. Visiting a store is part of the ‘buying a board game’ process due to the hobbyist nature… is that a fair assessment?

There is an increasing number of online retailers catering to gamers, which has definitely made an already tough year harder. It is difficult to compete when online sites can offer significantly lower prices than we can as a brick and mortar store. 

However, this is where building our community is pivotal. We have found that said community has stuck with us and when able have chosen to support us via click and collect and direct delivery over shopping online. 

My customers tell me that there is joy and satisfaction in shopping in person, being able to actually see and understand products on the shelf before purchasing. What we offer as a physical shop is a curation of the vast selection of board games on the market, paired with advice and recommendations from friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff. 

We opened to the public on Wednesday, December 2nd and have been pleasantly surprised at the number of both new and regular customers who had been waiting for our doors to open again. 

We now find ourselves needing to make our entire Christmas sales in a very condensed time period but I am optimistic that we can meet the public’s desire for games as they continue to support local businesses.

What new titles are you guys excited about for this year and into 2021? What trends in gaming will we be seeing in 2021?

I am personally excited by the opportunity to play Pandemic Legacy Zero 0 in 2021. This is a campaign based board game and we are optimistic for a future which allows for a social gaming commitment with friends. 

My staff and I are also excited about games that can be played with the Christmas household bubble, allowing people to celebrate being together for this moment. Party games like Telestrations and Codenames are perfect for this as they allow large group frivolity without heavy rules or multiple components. 

Roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons are a trend I fully expect to see continue into 2021 due to the ease of online play. These storytelling adventures bring people together and offer a chance of creative escapism from the real world. 

In terms of this year’s new releases, my team has high expectations for “Lost Ruins of Arnak”, “Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion”, “The Crew” and the new Wingspan expansion “Oceania”. 

What’s the next step for Heffers in the board gaming space?

This is really difficult as we just cannot predict how the world is going to look in 2021. We have plans to grow our social media to keep our community engaged and to run more demo events and tournaments within the shop. 

2020 started with a problem of over saturation in the market with too many games being produced and as a consequence too many good games falling between the cracks. This saturation is felt at the retailer level, the publisher level and everywhere in between. 

With companies like AEG and Portal publicly voicing a new philosophy of less games with more development, we suspect at Heffers Games that this will very much be the ethos of games in 2021.

What we can say for certain is that we will continue to be there for our community and we look forward to safely playing games together as soon as we are able.

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of ToyNews and its sister title, Licensing.biz. He has worked his way from Staff Writer to Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@biz-media.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

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