Game Chest finds winning strategy through building community

June 20, 2019

On this day, Amanda Wermers is a bit of a walking billboard for her business.

Capturing a rare few minutes of quiet, she’s sporting a shirt with the Game Chest logo, symbolizing the game store she and her husband, Ben, founded in late 2017.

The shirt reads: “A place where strangers become friends around a table.”

And that one line pretty much tells the story of the small business recognized for excellence during May’s tribute to small businesses at the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship.

“There’s a hole of desperation in people, currently, to interact,” Wermers said. “But there’s always the fear of rejection and not being welcome. You walk in (here) and it doesn’t matter what you believe or who you are outside these doors, you’re welcome here, and you’re invited to play games.”

This is not a business model for owners who are anything less than all in. There’s the ongoing pressure of bricks-and-mortar retail competing with e-commerce. There’s the niche nature of selling games. As one of Wermers’ distributors told her, many game stores don’t survive more than a year or two.

Game Chest, though, is beating the odds.

It has already expanded since moving into the Jones421 marketplace at 421 N. Phillips Ave. It’s doing well enough that Wermers quit her job as an interpreter sooner than planned. And it has built such a following that a recent fundraising push netted thousands for improvements to the store.

“It grew so fast, we kind of had to shift quickly to keep up with it,” Wermers said.

Fulfilling a dream

Wermers is a self-described “big dreamer,” and when she and Ben first met in 2010, she asked him: “What’s your dream? What would you do if you could do anything in the world?”

His answer: Own a game store.

“I had always wanted to do something with games too,” she said. “It’s been a passion of mine. I like that it brings people together, and he likes that it challenges you and makes your strategize and brings people together in a way that’s easy to communicate.”

But after they married, the reality of starting a business gave them pause.

“If you’re going to build a business and if you do the work and you’re reading the books and doing the business plan, there are plenty of times people and books will tell you that if you’re not ready to take a risk, don’t do it,” Wermers said. “It’s scary and financially burdensome, and you can’t guarantee success.”

They weren’t ready for it. So they stopped working on the plan.

“In 2016, we started believing in it again,” Wermers said.

A trip to a board game cafe in Omaha inspired them to start looking at a concept. They tried to franchise an existing one, which didn’t work out. They ran the numbers behind offering beer and food, and they were cost-prohibitive.

Then one day in the spring of 2017, Wermers went out downtown. She hadn’t spent much time downtown, and seeing the activity, “I saw why people said downtown is a good choice for our place.”

She was meeting with her friend Michelle Lavallee, who owns a marketing and strategy firm, and she detailed her business vision.

“When Amanda told me about the game store concept and the overall revitalization of board games, I was really intrigued,” Lavallee said.

“She had done her market research and above all convinced me of the strong community in the gaming business.”

They collaborated on a business plan. Fast. And Wermers was convinced to go for it.

“Ben and I rolled it out, and we signed a lease in July and got our loan in August – that was a terrifying couple of weeks – and then we were waiting for the building to be ready,” Wermers said.

When they announced their lease, it created instant conversation.

“We had a lot of people rallying around us and messaging me, so it was interesting to see this community start to form,” Wermers said.

To capitalize on the interest and while they waited for the Jones building to be done, Game Chest opened a holiday season pop-up shop in a vacant space downtown, and shoppers started coming.

“They wanted me to create a community page (on Facebook) to get to know other people who shopped at Game Chest. We didn’t even have a place for them to sit and play together, and they were already creating this.”

She created a Facebook group and said to herself “we’ll see if this even works.” There were 300 people in the group by the end of 2017, and it has almost tripled in size.

“It’s very intimate,” she said of the group. “We talk about what games we’re playing, and we’re able to be ourselves on there. We offer things that are special that everybody who walks in the door wouldn’t know exists, so it gives it value for them.”

They opened in Jones421 on Jan. 6, 2018, and about three months later moved to a larger space in the building.

“We met our initial one-year goals by our third month, and by the end of our first year, we had reached nine times our initial business plan’s one-year goals,” Wermer said. “We didn’t know what to expect, and we went as conservative as we could.”

The business exceeded projections right away and garnered a lot of attention, Lavallee said.

“Amanda’s energy and passion for her customers and games is a winning combination,” she said. “I’m so proud of her accomplishments.”

Creating a community

While many retailers in Jones421 close at 5 or 6 p.m., in some ways the day at Game Chest is just beginning.

“When 7 p.m. hits, our sales take a huge drop, but we have community here and that’s integral to our success, so we can’t close,” Wermers said. “Every single seat was full on a (recent) Tuesday night. Friday and Saturday are insane. Even Sunday we’re hosting Pokemon in one half and people come play games in the other half.”

Many of them are people who might have struggled previously to find their place or a group of like-minded friends, she said.

“We’re doing summer camps, and a lot of moms will come up and say they’ve never seen them (their kids) interact like they do here. We’re giving them a space with their peers, people who also struggle to interact,” Wermers said.

“There’s no expectation. There’s no rules for how you have to interact. They can be themselves without pretense, and they come out of their shells very quickly. It’s so necessary, and it fills my heart right up.”

While it’s a dedicated community, it’s far from a luxurious one. And while they stretched to expand to a larger space, the owners didn’t have funds for upgrades.

So they launched an initiative called “The Community Chest” to see if their loyal customers would back them.

There were four tiers of fundraising goals, allowing them to make the space feel bigger by buying new displays, purchase new tables and chairs, and buy rugs to help with sound dampening. They all were funded with time to go, so Game Chest set “stretch goals” and ended up with enough for televisions to support in-store tournaments plus an in-store book library.

In all, they raised more than $7,500 in six weeks.

“It was pretty remarkable,” Wermers said. “It’s so hard to even wrap my head around how quickly it went and how supportive our community was.”

That doesn’t mean there’s time to rest. While they’re adding their first part-time employee and receive help from a dedicated volunteer friend, the two work from 11 to 14 hours per day, six days a week. They began taking Monday off at the start of the year.

“When you’re an entrepreneur, you have to do everything,” Wermers said. “When we’re not physically running the shop, we’re doing office work.”

And there are always challenges out of an owner’s control. Wermers is closely watching the trade situation with China, where most board games are manufactured.

“That impacts us on a very real level,” she said.

“The majority of our regular community members buy all their games here. They don’t even look online. We’ve been fortunate to maintain MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) for all our products, but with new tariffs that poses a challenge. We may have to increase prices slightly or come up with creative ideas like paying for a table on a Friday or Saturday.”

She got the call that the business had won Zeal’s small-business recognition while working from a coffee shop and was moved to tears.

“Winning this was so impactful for me,” she said. “I had people approach me and say, ‘You are making a difference in Sioux Falls.’ And to be recognized in that way is such an amazing and beautiful thing.”

It’s also appropriate timing. Wermers’ license as an interpreter ends this month. She won’t be renewing as she’s now helping people communicate in a new and equally powerful way.

“I see on a daily basis the impact I’m having in people’s lives,” she said. “My goal five years from now is to be a reason people come to Sioux Falls. I want to bring visitors to Sioux Falls to check out this amazing game store, and I want to continue to be a place where people feel safe to be themselves.”

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Game Chest finds winning strategy through building community

“You walk in and it doesn’t matter what you believe or who you are outside these doors, you’re welcome here and you’re invited to play games.” In less than two years, they’ve created a powerful community around their business and beaten the odds in their industry. Enjoy the inside story of Game Chest.

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