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The Pain of Gaming Pre-Orders

Despite being a simple task common in retail for many years, some major retailers still can't seem to deliver on the basic promise of pre-ordering a game

Pre-ordering games, or any item really, is not a new phenomenon - for as long as popular products have been made, stores have offered to reserve items for customers prior to the release date, typically with the customer paying for the item up front or placing a deposit to secure their copy. With highly anticipated electronics and media, pre-orders became more and more abundant as hot items regularly sold out at launch. Producers like pre-orders to gauge interest in a product and estimate sales, while retailers in addition to gauging interest and sales love customers who pre-pay for products before their release date, as even if a customer cancels, they can make interest off of the deposit.

Since the days of games flying off store shelves and manufacturers being unable to keep up with demand, pre-ordering games has been prevalent in gaming and is seen as a win for all involved - the customer is guaranteed their copy of the game on its release date without worry or hassle, the retailer can better estimate consumer interest and supply demands and can make profit off of any deposits, and the producers get a good idea of expected sales.

In more recent years, the gaming industry and retailers as a whole have gotten much better at keeping stores supplied with new games and gone are the days of games being sold out everywhere on its release date (except perhaps for small stores) - while consoles can run in short supply on a new release, typically only limited edition versions of games ever have supply issues at release (hence the limited part). Instead, developers often throw in extra incentives for players to pre-order their titles, typically bonus digital content available to anyone who pre-orders their game, or occasionally special steelbook cases or other little physical items for dedicated fans. Retailers have gotten into this type of incentive, often offering exclusive digital packs, special art boxes or steelbooks to try and lure fans of a series to their specific chain.

With online shopping becoming a part of daily life, pre-ordering games has never been easier - you can pick the game of your choosing at a local retailer or online merchant like Amazon, have the game shipped to your house (or to a local store to pick up), and most retailers no longer even make you place a deposit, instead only charging you for the game when it's shipped. Most retailers also offer price guarantees, so if there's a sale on the pre-ordered game before its release date for any reason, you'll automatically be given the reduced price, a nice bonus to make sure early adopters don't lose out on savings.

In the last few years, publishers have offered pre-order deals on highly anticipated titles at major retailers, typically around E3 in June or in the holiday season. The savings can be extensive - in Canada a new game costs $79.99, with certain pre-order deals dropping that down to between $49.99 and $55.99, making it a no-brainer for those with any interest in those titles that can afford it.

So what's the issue?

Well it seems that some retailers have forgotten what the most important aspect of a pre-order is - getting a copy on the day the game comes out. Now this should be extremely simple, especially considering games always arrive in stores weeks before their release dates and are held until their on-sale date allows them to go on shelves (hence why there's always an update available to install by the release date for new games). For pre-orders placed at a physical location for pickup in the store, it's simply a matter of ordering more copies of that game in their initial shipment, or if the pre-orders were placed after the store has received their copies, either dipping in to that stock to fulfill the pre-orders, or ordering more copies if required and they'll arrive in time (that's why there's usually a cut-off for physical pre-orders in stores a few days before a game is released). For pre-orders shipped to customers' addresses, more care needs to be taken - depending on location the shipping time will obviously vary, so either developing a system to have the items shipped an appropriate amount of days early to arrive at their destination on release date without requiring more expensive shipping options, or to ship all the games about a week prior with minimum ship dates added to the parcels - this is an option most shipping services now allow, and will make sure that a package will only be delivered on or after a certain date, so that a retailer isn't breaking a release date embargo.

Sounds pretty simple right? Just tell that to the geniuses who run the pre-order program at the likes of Walmart.

Now keep in mind this is all talking about Canadian retailers, I'm not sure if the same issues exist or are as prevalent in the US or other countries, or if I'm in the minority for experiencing these issues.

Starting with delivery to your door, the pinnacle of online shopping - shopping made so easy and convenient it's no wonder brick and mortar stores have struggled in recent decades. Well, this one is a mixed bag. Amazon is one of the best services for this, but unfortunately haven't offered special pre-order deals this past year. For a normal pre-order, the free shipping option can take several days after release date to receive your item, or for $3.99 (free for Prime members) you can ensure your item arrives on the release date. Amazon typically ships their pre-orders the day before release date, so for free shipping orders depending on where your nearest Amazon warehouse is it could take a few days to arrive - if you're lucky enough to be close to one, like I am as I'm only about an hour away from one on the west coast, even for a free-shipping pre-order you're going to receive your item on release date, which is perfect.

Best Buy is probably the best when it comes to pre-ordering in Canada, as all pre-ordered games hit the minimum free shipping threshold and they ship the item early enough beforehand to make sure you get your game on release date, so long as Canada Post doesn't fuck up your shipment (they really suck, but they're cheap so most retailers use them). Since they offer pre-order deals occassionally, if you see them snap them up quick as they are the best service available in Canada for pre-ordering to your door.

Moving on to EB Games, which you'd think would be good at this considering they're a company dedicated exclusively to gaming and gaming culture, but they seem to be behind the times when it comes to online shopping. Shipping every item from their warehouse in Ontario, if you happen to be located around that warehouse you may get your game on release date, but for the rest of Canada, you're going to have to wait (about a week for those in BC) or pay around $10 for express shipping to hopefully get your game on release date. Considering I've never seen them do pre-order deals online (only trade-in offers that have to be done in a store), avoid pre-ordering anything online from them.

Walmart Canada has also gotten into the pre-ordering games online business recently, and have seemingly opted to go the same route as EB Games - shipping the game out the night before and for some reason from Ontario despite having warehouses elsewhere, with your game possibly taking upwards of a week after launch date to arrive. Considering they had some of the same amazing pre-order deals this year for E3 as Best Buy and some of the games I wanted were sold out almost immediately from Best Buy, I opted to use Walmart to place a couple of pre-orders, including Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Instead of waiting for a home-delivery, I opted to choose their in-store pickup option, as I figured surely I'd be able to receive my game the day it came out - the reserve in-store info still gives a 3-7 business day after window, but I figured since it's the same window as available items, they just hadn't updated the in-store estimates to reflect pre-orders.

I figured wrong. As it should be extremely simple for a company to fulfill in-store pickup pre-orders (especially when they're placed months before a given release date), I was amazed when come October 24th, Walmart Canada sent me an email saying they had shipped my copy of Call of Duty from Ontario. On release date, no sign of my game, and come to find out, online pick-up is a completely separated system from the actual store - online orders are shipped individually from the main warehouse (Ontario) the night before, rather than in bulk per store or dipping into the store's retail copy allotment. As a programmer with quite a bit of knowledge of these kinds of systems, while it isn't surprising for a team to keep the systems independent as design-wise it's easier, it astounds me that a massive company like Walmart that has spent billions on its infrastructure and inventory systems would have such an inept and inefficient system set up for something as simple as a game pre-order.

Walmart is actively wasting their own money, individually packaging and shipping each pre-order that's placed for in-store pickup in the same way they would deliver at-home orders. It's bewildering no one in charge of setting this up has thought to bring up the much easier options that would also vastly improve customer experience - simply dip into the store's stock to fulfill in-store pickup pre-orders, and if a store has a large number of them, order in more copies of the game - save on shipping costs, make things more efficient, and make sure your customers get their item when they are supposed to.

Instead, I'm still awaiting my copy of Modern Warfare, as even though the system said the estimated delivery was the 25th, the copy shipped from Ontario was now updated to a November 1st estimated arrival, a full week after launch date. After discussions on the phone with multiple personnel (none of which seemed to be very knowledgable) nothing was accomplished other than them giving me a $15 voucher to use on the website for my inconvenience. They refused my request of simply getting one of the hundreds of copies of the item from the actual store, and then when my shipment came in they would just replace the copy I took. Since I really wanted the game, I decided to use my own proposal to get around their system - I purchased a copy of the game from the electronics section at full price, which has a two-week return policy if unopened. I went home and have been playing the game since, and when my pre-ordered copy finally arrives, I'll simply take the unopened copy along with my full-price receipt to customer service for a refund, giving me my $90 back. The fact that so much hassle needs to be involved simply to get your game from them on release date is ridiculous and a testament to how bloated and inefficient even massively profitable companies can get.

Moving on to other in-store pickup options, Best Buy, EB Games, and The Source all do it the right way and I've never had a problem with their in-store pre-orders, and you can choose to pre-pay or pay on pickup (or place a deposit and pay the rest later). All guarantee your release date copy and don't have separately shipped pre-orders like Walmart, though you'll need to go to the actual store both to place the pre-order and to pick it up - why you can't choose to pre-order and pick up in-store from the online portal is a mystery, but at least here you know you'll get your copy on the day it comes out.

To make a long story short - Walmart sucks and whoever is in charge of their in-store pickup pre-order system is wasting the company money from their stupidity. If you are an executive at Walmart reading this and use my simple solution to save some money and improve your lousy customer service, feel free to cut me a check as a thank you.


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