A couple of weeks back I was due to meet up with someone and being faintly paranoid and borderline autistic (very rare among wargamers I’m sure) I found myself with an extra hour of time to kill. With no fixed plans and not enough spare cash I wandered into Games Workshop. This is a relatively rare occurrence for me. Not because I hate and despise Games Workshop and all it stands for, as a cursory examination of past blog posts should indicate, but more because after twenty years of this stuff I have accumulated more Games Workshop models than I am likely to paint a life time (mostly because I keep buying more models). On the rare occasions that I do feel the need to buy more GW models, I tend to do it at shows or over the Internet where I get a discount.
But one of these rare occurrences was likely to be coming up soon; the release of the new plastic River Trolls had caught my attention. I know they’re not to everyone’s taste, but they certainly fit mine and manage to be a bit cheaper than their metal equivalents. Having only seen them in pictures I was hoping they might have a few assembled and out of the box (they did and they turned out to be a touch smaller than I had expected, but that’s not the point of the story so I have covered it in this aside for the benefit of the other borderline autistic wargamers desperate to know of which I have already stated there are few).
Of course a customer walking into Games Workshop produces a reaction similar to a half finished ice cream thrown into a bin full of wasps on a hot day. Three paces into the shop, standing in front of the ‘New’ shelf I became aware of a flash of red in my peripheral vision and a slight buzzing sound.
“Here for the new Trolls?” Came the question.
Opinions are divided on the GW customer service and the attentiveness/pushiness of their staff. Some people loath it with a fiery passion usually reserved only for badly placed ad breaks or Piers Morgan. Others seem to quite like it, possibly because of the momentary experience of the warmth of human contact in a world of lonliness devoid of interaction with anyone outside of the Internet. I’m divided on the subject depending on my mood. Today I was feeling tolerant, but a touch playful, so I decided to be honest.
“Not really. To be honest, if I want them I’ll get them off the Internet and get a discount.”
“Fair enough”. I wasn’t ‘fair enough’ and we both knew it. But this guy was canny enough to realise I wasn’t going to be persuaded. I continued to browse aimlessly for a minute, considering whether the Warhammer 40,000 plastic craters would be usable in Malifaux. Then the buzzing started again.
“Here for the new Trolls?” A second red shirt had appeared. This one had a beard and was, therefore, higher ranking and more persistant than his predecessor. I repeated my earlier exchange, but this one was not to be fobbed off so easily.
“So what are you painting at the moment?”
One advantage of no longer being a pustule faced, urchin with a voice like air being let slowly out of a balloon, is that I am spared the usual ‘do you play our games then?’ questioning. The combination of age and height is enough to convince most GW drones that I am an experienced gamer. That said, I do occasionally forget to shave so they may also think I’m a homeless person and the inevitable stench or urine is merely being masked by the vile reek of teenage body odour that hangs over every Games Workshop like fallout at a nuclear bomb site.
Having approached me and ascertained that I did not stink of piss, the staff member had engaged plan B, ‘engage customer in banter about gaming and that.’
As I mentioned earlier, I was in a playful mood. So I decided to be brutally honest.
“Malifaux mostly. Then a whole bunch of English Civil War plastics for Warhammer English Civil War.”
So I’m too much of a wimp to be entirely brutal and provided him with an escape card by mentioning warhammer. The ECW stuff is true, I have them and plan to paint them, but probably won’t get to them for a while. But I didn’t want to torture the poor guy. As it was his mental fuse was momentarily blown by the mention of a game that his company did not produce. Fortunately, this one was a veteran and after a moment he started on his new plan of attack.
“Have you seen our painting guides?” He indicated them two shelves away from where I was standing. “They’ve got lots of good tips, even if you have a lot of experience.”
I acknowledged them, but informed him that I had accumulated quite a lot of painting guides over the years. He nodded, before suggesting that, if I was local, I should bring my models down for a painting workshop. By this point my brutality was ebbing, and I mumbled my usual excuse about being equal distance from three of four Games Workshops. He persisted, insisting that there was always something to learn.
This struck me as rather an odd plan of attack. He wasn’t strictly trying to sell me anything, but seemed to want me to commit to further time in the store. I would have expected him to try and get rid of the miserable old git who was trying to wreck his carefully constructed work with talk of other games. Maybe he was planning a conversion. Like a catholic priest offering pre-packaged homophobia to wavering Anglicans. Just get him to come back; we’ll have him in the end.
I was dismissive of his plans. Once again I was honest, telling him that my painting was good enough for gaming purposes, but I would never be Golden Daemon standard. Surprisingly, he tried to talk me round, insisting that we can always learn and improve. I was caught off guard. Had he mistaken my honest appraisal of my skills for some kind of wargaming emotional crisis? Was he worried that I might head home and, despairing of my lack of ability, fire a spray can of varnish into my mouth or swallow a tube of superglue? Or was he simply keeping up the sales pitch and trying to convince me that a painting tutorial was worth my while? Probably the second if I’m honest.
The conversation continued, but we had reached an impasse. He was unwilling to give up and I would not be persuaded. But then my playfulness re-emerged. Pulling out my Iphone, I offered to show him pictures of my models on my photo-bucket app (any excuse to get out the Iphone). At this he backed off, insisting he had to see my models themselves and he ‘didn’t like pictures’ before turning his attention to a pre-pubescent drooling over the latest lethally sharp piece of plastic on the painting table.
Victory, of a sort, I had successfully out-geeked him with my combination of tedious wargaming stories and unreliable technology. I exited the shop, my time having been successfully been wasted.
But the encounter did make me realise what I dislike about the Games Workshop sales approach, and why so many others hate it as well. On leaving the shop, the over-friendly red shirt called out a cheery farewell, which I reciprocated, before muttering ‘prick’ under my breath.
Why had I done that? It had been almost a reflex. The poor sod hadn’t been doing anything other than his job. So why had I felt such reflexive disdain? But then I realised that the problem was that he had been doing his job. His apparent interest in my painting projects and, apparent, concern about my painting skills had been an act to try and get me to come back to the shop and be sold stuff. Any stuff. As long as I paid money for it he would have happily handed me a carpet tile and insisted that it was what I needed to improve my gaming/painting/modelling/whatever.
The GW staff pretend to be fellow hobbyists interested in a chat. They feign interest, concern of anything else. They’ll happily be your best friend, but it’s all an act to make a sale. None of his concern or interest was real. It’s this fakery that bothers me, far more than the buzzing, the shouting and the over-enthusiasm.
Of course this form of sales is common in most other businesses. Try walking into Dixons or PC World or a clothes shop (assuming it isn’t one that that charges so much that rude disdain is part of the brand appeal) or even a bank, without being accosted by a ‘can I help you.’ Again, some people like the friendliness. Others cringe. It doesn’t help that in Britain we’re collective wary of unprompted social interaction with strangers and like to preserve a transparent dome of privacy that extends at least half a metre around our bodies. Ever watch a group of British people on a train? It’s like watching people in the Matrix. Not the virtual world why everyone is a ninja and Keanu Reeves can fly, the endless rows of pods full of goo. We all stubbornly refuse to acknowledge anyone else around us, engaging in a mass delusion that we’re the only ones there. This lack of comfort with strangers explains why the touch-feely sales approach can be so off putting.
And it isn’t what we normally get in games shops. Most of the games shops I’ve been are staffed by the same collection of socially ill-equipped geeks that shop there. Most of them are more interested in talking wargame news than they are in selling stuff. It might not be good for business, but it’s more comfortable for me as a customer. On one occasion, I made an ill-advised comment that a particular game struck me as a rip-off of Warhammer 40,000, only to be confronted by an angry rebuttal from a member of staff standing nearby. A bad sales tactic certainly, I was too uncomfortable to buy anything after that, but there was reassuring that he cared about something more than flogging me models, a reminder that he was a real person.
While I know that Games Workshop staff are real people with lives, loves, passions, problems, hopes, dreams and fears outside of their work, I can’t quite shake the residual fear that they may all come out of an injection mould in a factory somewhere.