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A Bust of a Boom

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According to this press release masquerading as a news story, the supermarket chain Tesco is selling far more of its chess sets than expected. This is bad reporting in many ways. A surge in sales compared to what? The only stat is that they are selling more than they expected to sell. That doesn't mean more sets are being sold this year than last year overall. They didn't even launch their chess set until earlier this year. Basically it says they did a lousy job of forecasting. We don't know if there is a boom or not at all. It's dandy they may sell 35,000 sets, but it doesn't mean much if that's 35,000 sets not sold by other manufacturers.

There is always a big increase in set and board sales around Christmas, often together with a primer as a gift for a junior. I'm sure we can poke around and see if such sales are up this year over last.



Retailing is the area where I probably have the deepest professional expertise. My family has been in retailing for 5 generations, and I myself have worked with more than half of the 20 most successful online retail sites during my career as a retail consultant. (I retired a few years ago, as you may know, for health reasons.)

To my eye, the Tesco announcement is perhaps a bit more significant than it might first appear.

To begin with, Tesco is NOT a "games manufacturer." It's a very large supermarket chain, rather like Safeway or Krogers in the United States. In fact, it is the #1 food retailer in the UK, and has a strong international presence as well.


Now here's where things get interesting. Tesco was founded as a deep discount company, something like a Walmart philosophy. In recent years,though (in part perhaps to stave off potential Walmart activity through its ASDA subsidiary), it has moved considerably more upscale. Not Neiman-Marcus, but definitely more in Target territory.

Like most great chain retailers (and Tesco definitely IS one of the great ones), it bases its projections on deep analysis of hard numbers. Retailers even more than manufacturers know precisely who buys what and when. If a chess set is sold, they'll know what else was bought with it, the day of the week, the time, the type of payment...This "data mining" is equivalent to the deep, deep research profesisonal chessplayers do in their databases. It's serious work.

Retailers can and do misstep, of course, particularly in fashion. (Teens may sudenly decide that red is out, blue is in, and there's little a retailer can do but go along.)

But a chess set SHOULD be a classic item. With demand based on prior demand and a demographic forecast.

Tesco, like most supermarkets, sells some private label goods. Items that are actually manufactureed by others, but carry the Tesco brand name. (Or in Walmart's case, the Sam's brand name.) The retail brand adds the trust factor without the cost of advertising.

So Tesco deicded to carry some private label chess sets. And they sold. In a major way.

That's really interesting.

Toy Manufacturers of America is the trade group that publishes US toy sale statistics, but they're not widely available to the public. However, there HAS been a definite trend in the last five years, with board game sales increasingly up at about 10% per year while video game sales go up and down depending on whether there's a hot title or a new game platform, but never up more than 12% and actually down in 2 years by a bit.

Overall toy sales are down about 3% in the same period, one reason Toys R Us has been having trouble.

Anyway...board games are still a tiny fraction of "game sales," perhaps 7 to 8% of the amount earned by videogames.


So of course it's easier to show manjor improvement when the numbers are small to begin with. But the improvement does seem to be real nonetheless.

So...when a major, major retailer like Tesco says sales of their private label chess sets are way up, I think it probably does show an interesting trend. This isn't a case of a generic substituting for a name brand--few of the consumers who buy at a Tesco are likely to have a favorite brand of chess set.

So, yes, I think it's probably significant, at least for the UK.


Funny, I had copy-pasted "supermarket chain" from the story itself and then ended up with something else. Mid-day posting, always risky.

I don't think it's totally meaningless, but it could be. We don't know without the context of if they sold other chess sets before, and if so, how many. That they decided to make their own is relevant, but a chain that large can make decisions on small margins. If they were selling 30,000 sets that someone else made (and it seems unlikely that sets weren't available there previously) it was likely worth producing their own. Anyway, too little context, too much guesswork for the reader.

An increase of board-game play was in the news last year:


You're right, of course--a lot more information is needed to make sense of it.

It's possible that with the shift towards a somewhat more upscale mix that they DIDN'T sell chess sets before, but who knows? Perhaps CHESS magazine could do an interview with them. :)

As a regular Tesco shopper I am fairly certain they did not sell chess sets before (pocket sets excluding - you know the cheap and tacky things with drafts/chess and kitchen sink all in a plastic container that won't actually fit in a pocket). The new sets are actually well marketed - eye line and in the section with the quality books and all the DVDs and CDs. At least this is the case in 3 of the stores I have been to recently. Also the sets are attractively packaged - hey I even looked before deciding that the DGT set and board not to mention the various others was probably sufficient for my needs!

My opinion is that Tesco's are not simply taking sales away from other outlets (although some of this is most likely happening). Sadly however, I do not believe it is the start of a surge for chess clubs. The sets are relatively cheap and well marketed. People just think 'hey a chess set - I remember playing as a kid' so they buy the set and then, like the book on the history of some civilisation, it will sit untouched on the coffee table for a year before finally being packed up into a box somewhere.

Still maybe I'm just tired and my pessimistic nature is coming to the fore!


Whether or not the article has enough data to be meaningful with regard to chess set sales, I do think it's interesting in and of itself as an example of the kind of power that chess has in advertising.

Tesco is the #1 grocery retailer in the UK. Thousands of stores. You point out that the article looks like much of it came from a press release. OK, isn't that pretty cool just as a standalone fact?

Tesco didn't choose to put out a release saying they'd sold twice as many salt shakers. Or twice as many boot laces.

They thought it would be a good press story to say they'd sold twice as many chess sets.

One reason why, I suspect, is that iconic power of chess we've discussed before. The subtle message is that Tesco is a place where you CAN buy chess sets. And that Tesco shoppers DO buy them. So it's saying, subtly, that smart people shop at Tesco.

This is very powerful from an advertising and sponsorship standpoint.

Not only does it make a positive connection with Tesco and chess, but it's a wonderful example to show to other potential sponsors as well. Because Tesco is very, very good at marketing.

So while the trend itself may or may not be interesting, the fact that Tesco thought it worthy of a mention strikes me as important in itself.

for what it's worth,

Duif has a good point, which probably also means that the statement from Tesco is not necesarily true...

BUT, even if the increase is minute, and JayPBee is right about most of these board are for decoration, maybe one or two people has a friend over, says: Hei want to try a game. (and ends up in a fist-fight over the en passant rules, goes on the web to check it out, finds "weapons of match destruction" and is saved back into the world of us chess crazies.)

Short version: Selling just av few more chess sets is progess.

This Saturday 13th November on the BBC morning TV newsprogram they carried a piece about increased sales of chess sets in the UK.

GM Daniel King and a lady representing a toy trade body were interviewed in the studio. The trade body rep said that sales of chess sets were showing significant increases through many outlets in the UK. This was put down to innovative packaging and simplified versions of chess that introduced the rules in stages through basic versions of the game.

Daniel King was good at explaining the beauty and mystery of chess and how it could compete with video games for kids attention. He also briefly plugged a book on learning chess he has just had published.

I think that even if the press release is ambiguous, it is an important step. Let's be honest, for years chess has been seen as uncool and passe. The very fact that Tesco think it will be beneficial to mention the rise in the sale of chess sets is significant in itself. This means that it must be profitable for them to at least imply that chess is becoming more popular.
I am sure we are a long way from the repopularisation of chess in Western Europe but subtle releases like this one can only help.

I have only just returned to my local club after four years and I was shocked at the meteoric rise in attendance. This has changed due to the presence of titled players, success in the club and the odd interesting story to the local press. If Tesco see a rise in the sale of chess sets as a good marketing ploy then chess in Britain could see similar results.

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    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on November 11, 2004 2:39 PM.

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