The final days of Grainger Games—as told by those who worked there

The closure of Grainger Games is likely to have come as a shock to many customers — but it’s been absolutely devastating for its employees. I spoke to three staff members about what it’s been like working for the company, how they reacted to the news of the closure and what they plan to do next.

Steph has managed to find a new job, but it’s a demotion with an accompanying pay cut. Stuart has only been able to find part-time work — and his wife has been forced to cut short her maternity leave to help support their four kids. Jane, meanwhile, has no idea what to do next. She started working for Grainger straight out of school a decade ago, and it’s the only job she has ever known.

Here are their stories.

Life working for Grainger Games

Steph (not her real name) was an assistant manager at a Grainger Games store, and is worried about talking to the media: “They’ve not really said anything about talking to anyone, so I’d rather be anonymous just in case it affects my redundancy.” I spoke to her on the phone on Saturday 31st March, her last day, as she and a colleague packed up the remaining stock in their store. She had nothing but good things to say about Grainger Games.

“I absolutely love the company. I love working for them, I’ve made all my friends here. All the friends I’ve made in this area have all been from the local stores, and it’s just a shame because all of my friends are losing jobs – and I’m not going to be able to see them as much. I can’t just call them up and have a nice chat with them on the phone when I’m ordering a game. It’s quite sad.”

“It felt like a family. My manager was older, and if I had any problems, like if I didn’t know what was going on with my council tax, I’d just ask him and he’d help me out. And if I ever needed any help with just general life, I could go to all these staff all around me, and they’d all help me because we’re so close.”

Stuart started working in the Bishop Auckland branch of Grainger Games around one and a half years ago. I spoke to him on Tuesday 3rd April, a few days after his store had closed. When I asked what it was like working for Grainger, he replied: “In short – the best time of my life. It honestly was. Everyone was friendly, the customers included.” He says he’s been going to the Bishop Auckland store since it opened, and by the time he eventually started working at the store, he’d already got to know the staff well as a regular customer. “It was so easy because we already knew each other. I couldn’t speak ill of anyone in there.”

The Bishop Auckland store.

Jane, a manager in a North East store, was similarly enthusiastic about working for Grainger, saying it was like a family. I caught up with her as she and her colleagues were clearing out the last of the stock from the shop on Saturday. An overwhelming sadness clung to the empty racking and torn posters.

The first signs that something was wrong

Steph says that a few things seemed awry over the past few months. “Every now and then something would tip us off that something wasn’t right, and everything seemed a bit desperate. They decided to try and save themselves with [Funko] Pops, and the Pops were doing well for them, and then we moved on to new Alcatel phones, even though we’ve done new phones before but they didn’t do well.”

The Funko Pops were part of Grainger's 2017 'Be More Geek' strategy, which in a nutshell was about selling video game merchandise rather than the games themselves.

Stuart also says the Pop figures were selling well and management had perhaps realized that “this is the way to go, the games are dying now.” The company’s internal communications were enthusiastic about the sales of figurines and other merchandise: “We were getting told from head office and in bulletins that we’d done really well this year because of the POP vinyls and because of the ‘Be More Geek’ range.”

But around the beginning of March, Stuart noticed that something was up. “We normally get three deliveries a week, but we had nothing for about two weeks – six deliveries, gone. And we’d heard that three or four people were off the rota in the Durham store and we couldn’t think why.”

Hearing that Grainger was in trouble

Stuart recalls the shock of hearing that Grainger Games was going down. “I got a call from Stu [a colleague in the Bishop store] saying we’re going into administration. At first I thought he was joking – turns out he wasn’t.”

“I’ve never been in that situation before. I’ve been in retail for like 15 years, and I’ve never been in a place that’s closed down before. It was sorta like, ‘Well, what do I do?’ you know?  It was basically ‘red alert – new job’. I’ve got four kids at home and a house to run. As soon as we heard about the credit being cut I went straight on the net and applied for about four jobs in one day.”

Inside the Bishop Auckland store.

Steph remembers the moment when Grainger’s financial difficulties became clear. “We got woken up to a message off our manager. He said he’d been in touch with the company owner and things weren’t looking good. So that warned us, because it was like ‘We’re going to need to find a buyer,’ but he didn’t tell us too much because he didn’t know much. We got an email saying things aren’t looking good, we don’t know what’s going to happen, we’ve had our credit cut and we should be able to update you by the end of the week.”

“They wouldn’t tell us anything. We were supposed to have a managers’ meeting on the Wednesday, and then they told all the managers to just go into the stores instead, so we thought there was something up. We kind of assumed that something bad was going to happen. According to my manager, he said that it was a bit of a surprise because we thought that we were doing well, but as soon as the credit got cut, there was not much we could have done.”

Steph said that they’d only just hired a new member of staff a few days previously.

Jane knew that games retail has been getting tougher, but she was as surprised as anyone at just how quickly Grainger folded. “Obviously the gaming market’s been down for a while, and it’s not been the most striving company, I get that, but I didn’t expect the creditors to just pull out and us be gone in a week. I didn’t see that coming, it happened so quickly.”

“I thought someone would buy us out – I mean, someone always buys GAME out. I thought someone would do the same for us.”

"Nobody knew anything."

Steph says that there’s been little communication on what’s been happening from head office. “Pretty much everything we know is gossip from other staff. We got told that the first stores would be closed by other staff, and we got told that the rest of the stores are probably going to go by other staff. And then they did. Nothing’s really been communicated.”

She found out about the initial round of store closures when a manager whose store had been shuttered forwarded the email they’d received saying that 21 stores were going to close. “I got a bunch of phone calls from customers saying, ‘Hi, I’ve just gone to the Salford branch, what’s going on, the store’s closed?’, and I was like, the only reason I know the store’s closed is because one of the closed stores has let me know.”

The Darlington store.

“We got an email later in the day saying that we’ve closed 21 stores, but they still didn’t tell us which stores. Eurogamer was the first place to actually tell us which stores were closed.”

Stuart says he was frustrated at the lack of news from above. “I don’t want to speak ill of the company, but basically they were telling us that they had a buyer, they had someone who was interested in taking over a small games company like ourselves. Then they said we’ll keep you posted, and you’re talking like four or five days’ worth of silence that was followed by ‘crates are coming your way, don’t open, we want all the stock batched up.’”

“It wasn’t so much the redundancy that got everybody, it was more the fact that no one knew what was going on. That was the problem. Nobody knew anything.”

Dealing with customers

Steph says that as soon as her store heard that Grainger had had its credit cut, the staff began preparing for every eventuality. “We started telling customers who asked that we were closing down, just in case. So we’d tell them, ‘We’re gonna close down, we don’t know when, it’s not guaranteed but we have no idea what’s going on.’ As soon as they said we might be going into administration, we didn’t have any faith in the company being bought out.”

“I was calling every pre-order we had, all the customer orders, and I was just letting them all know to come in and spend their credit as soon as possible.”

Jane says she’s been touched by the response of the public. “The majority of customers have been really upset, they’ve given us presents and said how sorry they are.” I asked her what kind of presents. “Like Easter eggs and chocolate and things like that, and they’ve brought us letters and stuff. I do feel for the ones who have outstanding credit, but they’ve all been told to request refunds from their bank, so hopefully they’ll all get sorted.”

“We were set up to have such a good year, there are so many good releases coming out… it just sucks.”

The Bishop Auckland store.

The last few days

Steph has been finding it difficult during the last remaining days of Grainger. “I’ve cried. Everyone’s just pretty sad. All the local stores, we were all really close, and it’s kinda hard to think that the people I’m with now I’m probably not going to work with again. It sucks.”

She notes that there was a last-ditch attempt by the company to get cash through the till. “A lot of stuff went on sale recently – they knocked a lot of the prices down to sort of claw back the money. They’ve got three for two on 360, PS3, DS, but not games people buy. No one cares about the old [games] any more. The sale just flopped. They knocked a bunch of money off new games but it wasn’t marked as a sale, so no one really noticed, they just thought the games were really low in price.”

Stuart says the last week has been tough. “It was emotionally tiring. I’d get home, I’d be on the couch, I’d be asleep by nine, just thinking ‘what the hell am I going to do?’” He notes there was very little for him to do in the shop during the run up to closure. “There were absolutely no tasks to do. No deliveries, no new stock, we couldn’t trade any consoles in, we couldn’t trade any phones in.” He says he spent most of his time in the last few days applying for jobs.

Moving on

Jane isn’t sure what she’s going to do next. “I’ve got too much loyalty to work for a competitor – I couldn’t go to GAME, I couldn’t go to CEX, not the way they’ve shrekked Grainger over the past decade. I’ll just hopefully be out of retail, because retail everywhere's on the down. Everyone’s in trouble.”

I asked Jane what’s she’s going to do come Monday. “Cry a lot. Just sit and cry. But I spoke to some people in head office, and all the managers we’ve got a WhatsApp group, and everyone’s sticking together. It’s a really close-knit company – I think the majority of staff will all keep in touch.”

Steph has moved quickly to get another retail position: “I’ve got a job already, I start on Monday. As soon as we got the email saying you might be made redundant, I was getting my CV out and applying for places. Most of us didn’t think the company would get saved. And my way of thinking was, if the company did, once we went into administration, everything would get very tight, hours would be cut, things would get very strict, very target-based, and it wouldn’t be a very good company to be with any more.”

Her new job is with a rival games shop, but it’s far from ideal. “It’s a demotion,” she says, “I’m going from an assistant manager to a supervisor. But it’s a job. My co-worker here has been applying to a few places, but nothing’s really come from it. And my manager’s had an interview yesterday that looks good, but again it’s a demotion, a pay cut.”

Stuart has also managed to find more work, but again it’s a big step down. “I’ve taken a pay cut. I was on a 30-hour contract with Grainger, and I’m now on a 16-hour contract.” He's now a sales assistant at WHSmith. “I’ve taken this job to pay the bills,” he says, noting that other staff were applying for equivalent or higher positions, but “I said screw that, I need money, I need to get anything. Hence why I took the cut. It’s better than nothing.”

He says the job loss has come at a terrible time - not only is his wife on maternity leave, looking after their fourth child, but “because I thought my job was stable, me and the wife had gone out and bought a brand new telly and decorated the house.” The sudden loss of Stuart’s job and the fact that he won’t receive any redundancy money because he’s been with the company for less than two years has meant his wife has had to go back to work early. “She’s had to go back to work today, when she should have gone back in four months’ time. So it’s even cutting into her ability to feed the bairn, to bond with the kid.”

The future of games retail

I asked Steph whether she thinks there will be any high street game stores left in five years’ time. She doesn’t see a bright future for the sector. “We can’t compete with Amazon, and we can’t compete with supermarkets, because supermarkets subsidies the money they lose on games with bread and eggs and stuff. We don’t have that luxury because we have to sell them at RRP, and people don’t seem to understand that. They just get annoyed that our prices are higher than Tesco, who can sell it as cheap as they want because they can sell everything else.”

In the time she has worked for Grainger, Steph has seen more and more customers switch over to digital purchases. “A lot of people say they just want to buy online these days because it’s instant, the discs don’t get damaged, you get games cheap in the sale… There’s one guy that comes in, and he trades in a lot of his games, and he says now that he never buys discs any more. He’s traded in all the games he’s got, and just spends it all on credit. I sold him £200 worth of Amazon credit in one go so he could play Warframe. At one point I sold someone £3,000 worth of PSN credit for FIFA points.” Apparently this huge sale was a result of some kind of bet - but the wafer-thin margins on digital sales mean that the store saw very little of that wodge of cash. “It’s great that we get to put £3,000 in the till, but the money that the company sees of it probably isn’t even going to cover my wages.”

I asked Jane whether there’s any hope for game shops like Grainger Games. “Well I think game stores were dying out anyway,” she says, “with digital gaming and things like that. Which is why we got all the ‘Be More Geek’ stuff in. Credit to head office, they did everything they could physically do to keep us open. But gaming was the core, so once that got pulled…”

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