A number of tabletop game companies, including Asmodee North America (see "Asmodee North America Moves to MAP") and CMON (see "CMON, Inc. Adopts MAPP"), have instituted Minimum Advertised Price policies in the last couple of years.  Some of those companies, including CMON, use outside companies to monitor online sellers and assist in enforcing MAP policies.  We talked to Hunter McKissock, Enterprise Sales Manager for Oris Intelligence, which offers online price monitoring and enforcement tools and serves over 20 game brands.  McKissock shared some valuable insights on the landscape for companies trying to enforce MAP polices.

ICv2:  Tell us a little bit about Oris.  How long has it been around, what were you founded to do, what kind of services do you offer?
Hunter McKissock
:  Oris has been around for a little over five years.  Oris delivers actual insights that help preserve pricing integrity for manufacturers, which really, at the end of it, helps them protect their brand.

How we were born as a company?  We were actually built from the inside out.  We originally stemmed from an online retailer that was focused in the durable medical equipment realm.  At that time, we were struggling as a retailer ourselves.

We were struggling with other retailers that were competitively pricing some of the same products of brands that we were carrying and trying to sell.  We would basically go out there, scour our competitors' prices, and report back to the brands that we were trying to carry, saying, "Hey, we can't compete with these other retailers."  Those reports that we were providing these brands ultimately were getting a lot of attention.  More and more brands were requesting the reports that that retailer had, and ultimately, Oris was then spun out as its own individual company.

With that, Oris now provides a cloud‑based platform ‑‑ it's called Prowl ‑‑ which is helping solve some of the complex selling challenges of today's manufacturers by allowing them to now control and enforce a minimum advertised price, or pricing quality, for that matter.

What is Prowl?  Is that a system of bots that check prices?
Prowl is a dashboard that our customers have access to, to see all of their sellers and their prices in near-real time.  What we do is we go out there and scour the entire Internet, looking at an unlimited number of websites, or any website that may be listing their products.

We also scour over 20 marketplaces and are trying to find any 3P [third-party, ed.] sellers that might be also listing their products.  Once we find and do all that discovery of those sellers, we now bring in the ability of seeing what sellers are currently in violation.

We're doing this every three hours every day.  Eight times a day, so it's near-real time. We're providing this reporting of violations back to the manufacturer.  The third leg of Prowl is then, once they have these violations, that they can simply send-off notices directly to their customers in just a couple of clicks within the platform itself.

Those notices are typically templated and are in alignment with their minimum advertised pricing policy, or whatever pricing policy they have.  Typically, a manufacturer will follow a strike one, strike two, strike three type notice system.

Those templates, a strike one, for example, would be imported into Prowl.  We would be taking any sort of screenshot of the exact violation as it happens.  Say it happened last this morning at 3:00 AM.  We would show a time‑stamped PDF of that seller's listing in violation.

They would ultimately put that into that template, and actually send it off to that seller. That's really the evidence that they need to show that seller, "We saw that you were in violation."

Your website says you can also find unauthorized sellers.  Do you actually match up a database of authorized sellers against what you find?
As we are doing that discovery process, we are finding all sellers.  Some of them are going to be authorized, but many of them will also be unknown or unauthorized.  Our system, for every seller that we find, they have a unique seller profile within the platform.

Those profiles often house contact information, whether it's a phone number, an email, an address.  Any sort of nugget for these manufacturers to potentially figure out who that seller may be.  Also, having that email is something that they can then use to send off some of those templates that we had just covered.

What's the landscape like? Are you the only company like this, or are there others?
There are obviously many types of companies like this.  Our biggest competitor is typically those customers that are manually monitoring.  They're trying to do this themselves in‑house.

One of the biggest differences with Oris, as opposed to a lot of the other competitive software, or in this case, a manual monitor, is we are going about it slightly differently, where we are scouring the entire open web, trying to find any seller listing their products.

We don't necessarily ask for a list of, "Who do you want us to monitor?"  That used to work.  That was the old school way of doing things, so to speak, where it was, "Hey, give us your top 10 websites or domains that are listing your products."

If you end up following a model like that, where you're only focused on, say, 20 sellers, the thing is, is there's probably 60 other sellers out there that they're missing.  Those 60 other sellers are what the 20 that they're sitting there playing whack‑a‑mole with all day are price-matching.

If you're only focused on a sliver of the pie, so to speak, you're going to be missing all of the other price changes that are happening.  Therefore, you're going to play a never‑ending game of whack‑a‑mole.

The average brand across all of our customers today, the average brand we see has 85 domains selling one of their products, on average.

That's domain.  Places with third party sellers, or the marketplaces, could obviously have a lot of sellers, right?
Absolutely. Specific to the toy/games industry, I found that on average, there were 402. The board game industry alone, they actually have a lot more sellers.  On average, there are 402 online sellers competing to sell their products.

That's across all domains, or websites, but also all the 3P sellers found across those different marketplaces we’re scraping.

That's a lot.
It is.  To dig a little deeper on that, there are on average, across all those tabletop game manufacturers, there are 120 3P Amazon sellers competing just on Amazon alone.

Maybe you could start out by just talking broadly across all product categories.  What do you feel like the current landscape is like, and the trends are like, for companies using minimum advertised price?  Is that a growing trend?  Are there more companies doing it, and what's the enforcement landscape like?
I think industries are adopting it as a whole.  One really key stakeholder, one major brand, if they were to adopt MAP, you're typically going to see a lot of their biggest competitors quickly adopt MAP.  Gamers are increasingly continuing to buy online.  That ability to compare price right from their pocket or their cellphone is there at any point of the day.

I think MAP and pricing policies as a whole are looking more as a necessity by these manufacturers in order to really maintain that price parity and prevent brand erosion.  Sellers, as these trends of MAP policies are taking place, these sellers are actually becoming very creative in finding loopholes within those policies.

These brands and manufacturers, although they might have a policy that they drafted two years ago, fast forward to today, that policy may already be outdated.  It's really important that these manufacturers are constantly reviewing their policy, and ways to ensure that these sellers are not utilizing any sort of loopholes.

A loophole example could be the use of add-to-cart, for example.  Many times, a seller might, rather than listing below minimum advertised price on one of their product pages, they will suggest, "See lower price in cart," or, "Add to cart for price."

That is some schemes or tactics that are often used for sellers to try and drive the consumers into their shopping cart to then basically purchase on that lowest price.

How involved is Oris in the board game or tabletop game business?  I came upon your company name from one of your clients in that business.  Do you have others; is that a big or a small category for Oris?
It's a large category; it's actually continuing to grow. We saw significant growth in 2017 alone.  To date, we work with 20‑plus brands just within the board game industry alone, and several other brands outside of board games, just within toys.

Is that a reflection of more companies adding MAP policies, or more companies going to outside providers for help, or both?
I think it's a reflection of two things.  One is that more and more brands, as they have MAP, and are actually publicizing that they do have MAP to help really reinforce to their authorized dealers that they're doing something to help defend them, that's putting more pressure on other manufacturers to look the same way.

The toy and game industry, as you probably know very well, relies heavily on their brick and mortar stores. As e-commerce sales continue to rise, it is putting that downward pressure on these manufactures to protect those brick and mortars, or the specialty retailer stores.

Those are authorized dealers of theirs that they must protect.  They're finding that, with this surge of 402 online sellers, let alone 120 of them being on Amazon alone, of which 50 percent could be unauthorized or unknown, that's a big problem.

Those are the ones that are typically lowering prices and causing a lot of that consumers going into the retailer or the brick and mortar store, doing a little bit of showrooming, then simply going right online and finding a better price.

Are MAP policy enforcements successful?  Do you see changes in the behavior of the online sellers, or is it whack‑a‑mole?
It can be whack‑a‑mole if you're not enforcing consistently and aggressively.  When you have manufacturers that are taking their pricing very serious, and really have their authorized dealers first in their mind, they are not afraid to cut off some of those dealers that are continuing to cause turmoil in that space.

You're looking at the 402 average online sellers.  These manufacturers quickly understand that they do not need 402 online sellers necessarily competing for the same products.  If you have a majority of them that are not willing to play fairly, then that brand has every right to choose not to work with that online dealer, because they're probably not the best partner for them.

With that being said, by just helping eliminate some of those sellers, you now have the ability for the authorized dealers to compete more fairly.  They know there's less competition out there, so therefore, those sales are likely going to drive into those respected authorized dealers of the manufacturer.

With that, margin begins to increase so that these authorized dealers can compete more fairly, using that margin for those digital campaigns, and drive consumers fairly to their websites.  Overall, that's going to increase revenue for those authorized dealers. It's also going to increase revenue, hopefully, for the brand itself, and everybody's happy.

One of the things I hear from independent brick and mortar retailers is that they feel like MAP enforcement is different for the very largest online sellers, specifically Amazon or Walmart.  What do you see in terms of differences in enforcement between large and small online retailers?
I think there are no major differences.  A manufacturer must unilaterally enforce, whether you're big or small.  I think some of those larger ones tend to be a little bit more of a bully and for a manufacturer to really prove a point, they have to unplug a large dealer, that such as maybe a Toys 'R' Us, for example, if they were still around.  To unplug them, versus a small little boutique shop, clearly that's going to hit the bottom line a little harder, but we see lots of examples where they are not afraid to actually do that to really prove a point, make a point, and say, "No, if you're not willing to play our game, you're really doing harm to the rest of our authorized dealers."

What do you see going forward in terms of the future landscape for MAP enforcement in the games space?
I think that these brands are going to continue to bring on these policies.  I think that these brands are starting to take a good look at that, really understand that pure volume, and trying to figure out where these different sellers are sourcing their products.

I think there's a strong push toward trying to bring that number of sellers down, which will actually help solve this whole problem, and have less competition in the market.