In light of Alex's article about GameStop forcibly removing OnLive coupons from boxed units of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I just don't know if I can deal with GameStop opening up shrink-wrapped SKU's and then reselling them, and I still don't think the methods they took were exactly tactful or business ethical. It's easy for almost anyone to say "well that's kind of weird", but I thought I'd give a little more insight than what seems to be the blanket statement of "GameStop sucks".
Wait a second, what the hell is a 'SKU'?
If nobody knows what I’m talking about when I use the term ‘SKU’, SKU is an acronym that stands for ‘Stock Keeping Unit’, which is defined as a unique boxed product unit. For example, a 355mL can of Coke for the United States is a single unique SKU, and a 355mL can of Coke for Mexico is a completely different and unique single SKU. Another example of SKU’s in the context of video games would be an NTSC copy of Deus Ex: Human Revolution with the Canadian bilingual language packaging, or the NTSC copy with only English for the rest of North America. PAL or the Augmented/Limited Edition designations would also all have their own unique SKU.
Even though the game on the inside might be exact same disc, a separate and unique SKU is given to every uniquely packaged product for items that may require any kind of variation. Whether it is a different language instruction manual, a different DVD case, or the inclusion of a promotional OnLive coupon, each unique packaging of a product is defined as a SKU.
What does this have to do with GameStop ripping out OnLive coupons?
In GameStop's defense, yes, it has every right to protect it's competitiveness in a retail market regardless of opinion about the archaic nature that video game sales in a physical retail box store. However, you might not have been aware of the fact that retailer chains actually get to participate in SKU compiling decisions, especially when it comes to things such as pre-order bonuses. In fact, this is not a new concept to Eidos Interactive at all.
Eidos Interactive also published Batman: Arkham Asylum in 2009, which when released, had a pre-order exclusive incentive from GameStop/EB Games to include an extra "challenge map", while other stores had differing bonuses, or none at all.
When the game was shipped to retailers, that SKU with the GameStop-exclusive content was shipped only for GameStop to sell because it had the pre-order bonuses packaged inside the packaging with the game disc. It's not always apparent on the box (unless you scanned the UPC), but in this case, those unique GameStop SKU's of Batman: Arkham Asylum had a unique GameStop/EB Games sticker on the front, whereas a retailer like Best Buy would have received a completely different SKU with different packaging.
Knowing this, if GameStop wanted to complain about the SKU of Deus Ex with the OnLive coupons inside because it infringed on their competitiveness, GameStop should have raised it's voice to Eidos long before when these decisions about the retail SKU's were being hammered out to begin with.
Defining and Understanding 'Brand New'
You may also be asking why other products get a pass when it comes to being sold as 'brand new' even though they've technically been 'opened' in some way, or could be used in some manner. Some examples can include cars, musical instruments like drums or guitars, clothing, or furniture. So why can't video games have the same sales policies and norms?
To be blunt, different products, different businesses, different policies, and different markets. Let me explain.
In the case of video games, GameStop is uniquely notorious for breaking open their shelved units of sealed video games, yet they will still sell the product at full retail price. There's two major barriers for video games that show a customer that without a benefit of a doubt, that the video game has not seen any use or tampering, which guarantees the customer that he/she is receiving what they expected:
- Shrink wrapping
- Official product seal sticker (eg. that official XBOX sticker that seals the DVD case closed that has an official watermark and UPC code on it) or other official packaging. Hell, with reference to GameStop, we should say the original box as a blanket.
If any of these things have been broken (especially the official product DVD case sticker), then it should be completely reasonable that the customer can fully question the product's authenticity, reliability, expected value, and actual value.
Yes, if you go to a store, and buy a TV or piece of clothing, you can inspect the product previous to purchase as to making sure it fulfills all their respective properties of a 'brand new' product. However, those products don't have the same norms and applications. Televisions and clothing don't suffer from the same kinds of market problems such piracy. Yes, there are 'knock-off' authenticity issues, but I'm not just saying that a product has to suffer from piracy to be uniquely different. What I'm trying to say is that the very definition of 'brand new' can be variably different across all products sold in a retail marketplace, and is defined by the product's market itself and the conditions surrounding it.
For instance, if I inspect a brand new television after buying it, I have the commercial freedom to bring it back to the retailer and either receive a full refund (usually within 30 days), full store credit, or full cost replacement. As dictated by the retailer's store policies, this is a normal practice among retailers that sell TV's, and well within the expectation of the consumer for all other retailers.
With video games however, I do not have the same level of consumer freedom, and the expectation is completely different. As soon as I open that shrink wrap and official product seal sticker after buying it brand new, I've already devalued my purchase. According to common store policy, I'm taking back a used product and my product purchase will only be reimbursed as a used product, even if I bought it and opened it only seconds later.
Knowing this about video game retail store policy, the fact GameStop as a business can open a brand new product (which according to their store policy should be a used game because of a broken seal) and then resell it and fully market it as a brand new sale, does not inspire confidence to consumers, let alone it being highly questionable and contradictory to their own store policy. But like I said previously, retailers dictate their own store policies, so take a term like "commercial freedom" with a grain of salt.
The Bottom Line
When it comes down to it for Deus Ex PC customers, it shouldn't have even come to this, given the fact that GameStop is notorious for ripping open new copies of any game and sells it as brand new. This whole situation could have been completely preventable given some better planning and communication between the retailer and the publisher. While the process of opening brand new copies of Deus Ex and taking out the OnLive coupons wasn't illegal by any means, it definitely was ethically questionable.
When there are so many grey areas and variances in the marketplace regarding consumer rights as to what can be sold as 'brand new' for video games in retail, it's hard to take this situation as anything but negative from the perspective of a consumer, even when I completely understand from a business-standpoint why GameStop took the actions it did.
Sometimes a little tact and a little communication goes a long way.
Let me know what you guys think in the comments.
2011-08-25 Update: Just as I posted this and had it fully written, reports come out that Deus Ex: Human Revolution on PC is being pulled off the shelves from GameStop locations, and information has passed that Square-Enix did not inform GameStop that this coupon was going to be included at launch.
This doesn’t change my outlook on what I’ve written by that much, but I should be clear that it isn’t just GameStop that needs to communicate and plan better – but all parties involved, including Square-Enix/Eidos as well.
Buying used games is a dirty business, as in I’m pretty sure there is a lot of actual dirt on these used game boxes and discs. If your germophobia/mysophobia is keeping you from buying and enjoying used games, you should totally check out my personal blog over at http://thedevilshaircut.wordpress.com/, or follow me on Twitter.