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COVID-19

News >  Spokane

Enterprising Spirit: Uncle’s has puzzled together a pandemic business plan

Kyle Kemble, president of Uncle’s Games, is photographed with puzzle inventory in the basement of the Liberty Building, Tues. May 12, 2020. Uncle's Game's is adapting to the pandemic by offering pick up and delivery of puzzles and board games. They also created a discord server with weekly tournaments, game night and hobby parties so that regulars who game at Uncle’s can continue to do so virtually. (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
Kyle Kemble, president of Uncle’s Games, is photographed with puzzle inventory in the basement of the Liberty Building, Tues. May 12, 2020. Uncle's Game's is adapting to the pandemic by offering pick up and delivery of puzzles and board games. They also created a discord server with weekly tournaments, game night and hobby parties so that regulars who game at Uncle’s can continue to do so virtually. (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Editor’s note: Our series Enterprising Spirit documents how businesses and workers are managing the economy’s slow return to life after its sudden shutdown in March – and adapting to new challenges ahead.

For more than 40 years, Uncle’s Games, Puzzles & More has given people a place to gather and play games, and the owners aren’t about to forfeit because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kyle Kemble, president of the popular game and puzzle shop, said the company has shifted online, including setting up a Discord server for the store, where they hosted their first Magic: The Gathering tournament over the weekend.

Discord is a “platform for community” as Kemble calls it, where users can chat in various threads, share photos and video chat, all handled by Uncle’s.

Uncle’s is “just trying to facilitate people to sit and chat, show each other what they’re working on so that people can get inspiration from one another and kind of stay connected, despite the physical and social distancing that’s happening,” Kemble said.

The Discord server is new for many of Uncle’s regular gamers but has been a way to keep the community connected, Kemble said.

“People are excited about it. It’s kind of new and we’re learning and they’re learning, but that’s part of the fun of it, right? Everyone is learning to do new things,” Kemble said.

Normally, Uncle’s is a place to create community. Customers can bring their friends in to play their favorite games or make new friends by joining a tournament or group.

“There’s a good gaming community in Spokane,” Kemble said. “In fact, there’s a bunch of them.”

People played board games on their lunch hour, played Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon, and miniature groups came in to share their projects.

“The Discord server is just a virtual avenue for that same impulse that we have of how do we get people having a good time?” Kemble said. “Because it really is about the experiences you get from playing the game.”

Kemble started working at Uncle’s downtown Spokane location more than 10 years ago as holiday help. He quickly moved up the ladder to manage the location and now is one of three owners of the company, which has stores across the state in Spokane, Spokane Valley, Bellevue and Redmond.

He officially became president in February just weeks before the pandemic caused massive changes to life in Washington.

“I got this wonderful COVID-19 incident less than a month into everything,” Kemble said with a chuckle.

Initially, after Gov. Jay Inslee issued the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, Uncle’s stores closed, focused on their online sales and started offering same-day local delivery.

“Initially, everything was done, for the most part, through email,” Kemble said.

Many of the store’s items, such as puzzles, were not photographed to be sold online. It was an involved process to snap pictures to email back to clients, but the local deliveries helped keep some business flowing, Kemble said.

“There’s certainly not enough volume on its own to keep most of our staff on,” Kemble said.

After receiving a Paycheck Protection Program loan, Uncle’s was able to bring back some off its staff, Kemble said.

Now that Washington is in Phase 1 of reopening, Uncle’s is offering curbside pickup. Puzzles have been super popular while people are stuck at home.

Kemble recommends starting with a 300- to 500-piece puzzle.

“It doesn’t take very long, and it kind of gets you going,” Kemble said.

The largest size Kemble carries is 5,000 pieces, but he has sold up to 40,000-piece puzzles that come with wheels because they’re so large.

When it comes to planning for the future, Kemble said Uncle’s will expand the public’s access as far as legally possible with each phase.

“I think anyone who is involved in a small business right now is nervous,” Kemble said. “We’re looking at slowly opening things up, but there’s no guarantee that there won’t be a resurgence or we don’t know what people’s behaviors or patterns are going to look like.”

Kemble said one thing that has stood out to him during this time are the phone calls he gets from customers.

“There’s a lot of loneliness out there,” Kemble said.

He often reminds himself and his employees to be patient and take a few extra minutes to just chat with people on the phone.

“One of the big benefits of the local delivery was that people felt valued,” Kemble said.

Most of Kemble’s employees play the games the store sells and can give recommendations to customers. It’s something that Kemble said provides a unique customer care experience.

While it’s impossible to “play the price game” with Amazon, that focus on customer service and expert recommendations has set Uncle’s apart for decades.

“We choose to focus on trying to be a welcoming place and that connection with our customers,” Kemble said.

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