The process for deciding how much inventory to ship to a convention is very involved and always stressful.
Step 1: Look at numbers from last year
We’ve been in this business long enough that we have several years of prior numbers to consult. This is particularly true in the case of GenCon where I can look up how much we sold last year and the year before. Our GenCon team is amazing and keeps wonderful track for us. Yet looking at those inventory numbers shows me all the flaws in my convention inventory management systems. Without fail there is some number I want which is missing. This time it was magnet sales not being itemized out from other things. I know I had them itemized at some point, but I must have made a data entry error in my accounting software. Either that or I was tired and instead of looking up the specific number, rolled it into an additional book sale. This means that last year’s numbers over count on a book or two to account for the magnet money. Little bits of fudging on small ticket categories happens every time. Usually it reveals a flaw in my system rather than any fault of those who are on the ground running the booth. More often all the numbers line up perfectly the week after the convention, but then I fail to record them because I am tired and distracted. Or sometimes I record them and then file the record in an odd place. So the seemingly simple task of looking at numbers from last year gets time consuming.
Step 1b: Look up numbers from comparable conventions
WorldCon changes locations every year. The inventory sold numbers from the previous year are kind of useful, but only as a rough guideline because attendance varies. Also our sales vary depending upon whether the location of WorldCon is in a place with a strong Schlock Mercenary fan base. Reno was nearly home turf, Australia was largely new territory and in a foreign country. How much do I use those numbers as guidelines? Or would I do better to use numbers from another convention and multiply by number of attendees? I rarely know the answers, so I usually look up several sets of numbers to have them on hand.
Step 2: Adjust for new releases, cross promotion, and other factors
GenCon has a host of new factors this year. Our booth mates both have big new releases this year. We have our shiny new board game. Also Brandon and Mary will both be at GenCon doing Writing Excuses things with Howard. All of these factors will, in theory, drive additional traffic to the booth and thus lead to more sales. This leads me to round up on the inventory numbers. Also we have an established team and a place to store excess inventory, both very good things. But perhaps there is some other extremely shiny thing that will drive traffic and dollars in a different direction. It seems like WorldCon Chicago is completely made of factors for which I should adjust the numbers. Mary will be there and the convention is writer heavy, so more WE stuff should go. Except Brandon will be at Dragon Con and Dan will be in Germany. Usually we have them sign at our booth, thus luring in new people. We have a fantastic team, but perhaps most of the WorldCon regulars have already bought their Schlock books. I turn all of these things over (and over and over) in my head before moving on to step 3.
Step 3: Make a guess
This is when I write down how much stuff I need to send. It really feels like stabbing in the dark, though I can be reasonably sure I’m in the right vicinity. If I send too much, I’ll have to pay for shipping both ways. If we run out of something, we’ll disappoint someone who wanted to buy.
Step 4: Ship the stuff and fret
All the time I’m packaging and shipping I will worry that I’m sending too much. I particularly worry this when I look at the shipping bill. Once I’ve sent it, and during the booth set up process, I am always convinced that I didn’t send enough. Sometimes I will oscillate between too much and not enough at a rate of 10 minutes per oscillation.
Step 5: The convention
Things sell. We pay the bills for the show. Usually we end up in the black. We make a huge mental list of what we should do differently next time. Sometimes I remember to write down the list or parts of it. Sometimes I even keep track of the notes and file them where I can find them next year.
Step 6: Post Convention accounting
This is when all of the stuff comes back home to me. In theory I conscientiously count everything and make copious notes. I’m also supposed to write up a post convention report which includes all those mental notes. The notes and reports go into a file neatly labelled for next year. All the convention gear should be neatly put away in places where I can find it again. Perhaps this year most of those things will happen because I’ll be staying home and thus not convention exhausted during this phase. In past years the boxes, reports, and gear get shoved out of the way as I scramble to recover and handle other things. Then a month or so later I finally get around to cleaning it all up, by which time some of the thoughts and pieces have been moved or lost. I do muddle through, I do at least shove the relevant information into file folders so I can find it the next year. I have folders full of GenCon papers for the past four years. I have WorldCon papers for a similar length of time. If I at least shove all the papers into a single location, I have a hope of making sense out of it later when I need to.
It always feels messy. I always feel like I’m doing it wrong. Yet I don’t think I am. I think the guessing and mess are part of the nature of the work. Which is why I write this blog post to let everyone know when I make jokes about casting the bones to guess how much to send to summer conventions, I’m only partially joking. Its how it feels.