GAME STREET DATES EXPECTED TO STAY ERRATIC

CHICAGO -- Retailers should expect little improvement from video game manufacturers on their erratic street date practices, said a panel of video distributors at the first Videogame and New Technology Conference put on by the Video Software Dealers Association here April 10 and 11.Game street dates that change often, and are frequently broken by other classes of trade, are one of the biggest difficulties

CHICAGO -- Retailers should expect little improvement from video game manufacturers on their erratic street date practices, said a panel of video distributors at the first Videogame and New Technology Conference put on by the Video Software Dealers Association here April 10 and 11.

Game street dates that change often, and are frequently broken by other classes of trade, are one of the biggest difficulties video retailers have with the video game industry. Executives from six video distribution companies addressed the issue during a conference session titled, "Stuck in the Middle Again."

"I don't think this is an issue that is going to go away," said John Roberts, assistant vice president of electronics at Ingram Entertainment, La Vergne, Tenn. "The best way to deal with it is to be in constant contact with your distributor and to demand the most accurate and timely information that you can get from them," he said.

Part of the problem is the expectations of retailers used to the relatively consistent street dates adhered to by the movie studios, said Roberts. But the video game business is very different.

Games require a long time to develop, to get approved by Sega and Nintendo, to manufacture, ship and clear Customs, he said. "A lot of things can go wrong" while all this is going on, he noted.

"Our job as distributors is to do the best job we can on telling you when those dates are going to hit. But there are so many steps in the process that no one can actually nail those dates down," said Roberts.

"So the street dates are going to change, and they are going to continue changing," he said.

Video games come to retailers first, unlike movies that are shown initially in theaters, noted Mike Conyers, director of game sales at Video Products Distributors, Sacramento, Calif. While there are very few major studios, distributors deal with more than 100 different game vendors, he said.

"Information flows differently from every single company." Some provide accurate and timely dates on a regular basis, others are in contact twice a year, "and things just happen to show up when they show up," said Conyers.

Nearly all of those companies are producing games under licensing agreements for the two major game system makers. "It is a problem and it is going to continue being a problem mostly because there are two companies -- Sega and Nintendo -- that have to OK every part of the game along with owner's manuals and packaging. If any little thing goes wrong along the way, then you have a delay in the process," said Conyers.

Some improvement will come as more of the major movie studios become involved in the video game business, said Mike Ball, director of games and new products at Best Video, Dallas. For instance, Columbia recently released some games and instituted an exclusive rental window, he said.

"They had that product and shipped it with POP," he said.

"They made that product available for everybody so customers would know that retailers would have it on that date," said Ball.

Making game cartridges takes a long time, and when the industry shifts to five-inch compact disc-based products, which are much easier to make, the timing of game releases will become more consistent, he said. "You will find that more companies will go to a [firm] street date when they can mass-produce it that quickly. "As long as we stay with the chip configuration and it takes 90 days for companies to make that product, it will be very difficult to stick to street dates, especially if the product has to clear Customs," he said.

"But I think you will see more [firm] street dates as time goes on," he said.

Except for the biggest titles, street dates are not that important, said Alan Wheeler, special projects manager at Sight & Sound, St. Louis. For the other games, "it could be a street week or a street month," he said.

"The most important thing is that we all get it at the same time," he said.

Having a street date on games is necessary, responded Dave Lowery, director of special markets at Baker & Taylor, Morton Grove, Ill. "It counts when it comes to planning your marketing," he said.

"Inconsistency is a part of this industry" because there is no trade association like the video distributors have that can help manage the flow of product, and Sega and Nintendo can't help on that either, he said.

Another big video game issue addressed by the distributors was the lack of point-of-purchase materials.

Because mass merchants like Wal-Mart, Kmart and Toys R Us don't use it, the video game companies never made it, noted Bob Tollini, vice president of marketing at Major Video Concepts, Indianapolis.

Rental is now only 10% of the games business, he added. "It is a lot of extra expense to make us happy with posters, but some of the suppliers are starting to do it," he said.

"The video rental channel is now coming into its own and becoming important to the games companies," said Ingram's Roberts. "They are beginning to recognize that video retailers are a wonderful channel, not only for rental, but for future sell-through opportunities. Game manufacturers take our business much more seriously than they did six months ago," he said.

Roberts noted a lot of the point-of-purchase material created by the studios goes to waste. The key to getting games' point-of-purchase material "is to keep asking for what you really need," he said.

The growing influence of the movie studios on the game business is good news when it comes to getting more game point of purchase, Roberts added. "The studios are going to continue to get much more involved in the video game business and that can only help all of us," he said.