Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: Cutting the Strings Can Make/Break a Small Comic Shop

When I thought about opening my own comic book shop, I made a list of all the things that I hated about "traditional" comic book shops. I was going to break the mold -- I told myself. Two years later, I've moved out of a brick-and-mortar comic book shop and now do business online and to a select few, local customers.

Looking back at my experiences in the brick-and-mortar, along with the ongoing experience of developing a mail-order comic shop, I have to say that stupid policies we all hate about traditional comic shops, are the reason they get to be 'traditional,' and those trying to break the mold can't survive.

I understand that there is a lot of personality issues between customers and owners of comic book shops (e.g.; The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy), but in this post I'm only going to tackle two business-model customer annoyances: Prepaid Items and Holds/Comics by Subscription.
"Cold Holds" Nov-Jan, subscriptions of just three customers (210 comics / $735)

Prepaid Items

One of the many jobs I had prior to opening a comic book shop was overseeing the parts department of a Harley-Davidson dealership. The company's policy on ALL special-order items was payment in-full prior to ordering. There was no exception. This policy infuriated customers. I always used the scapegoat of company policy from hurting my established customer relationships. And while I understood customers' frustration (especially for items that weren't very expensive), when ordering a motor-assembly kit for a 1978 Shovelhead, the $2k prepayment made sense.

Fast Forward from Trent: H-D Parts Manager to Trent: Comic Book Guy and in remembrance of my own frustrations of having to prepay for a $2.99 comic, I opened the doors for customers to order and then pay when the item arrived. Sure I had to front the cost and shipping of the item in good faith that the customer would come back, but this is a small town -- I naively told myself -- people don't screw people who are part of their community, and if they wanted to pay for it when it was ordered they could just do that via Amazon. I also justified my order-now-pay-later policy in that as the retailer I wasn't committed to getting a product that had been paid in full, while my distributor could screw up (for those familiar with Diamond Comic Distributors, well... they're the worst).

Customers loved that we'd order product without prepayment. For the most part, specially-ordered items that just sat on the shelf wasn't a multiple offense. However, there is a reason customers have to make special orders: a good retailer will only carry what will sell, so if it's not in the store, there's a reason. Without naming names, let's just say that some very happy comic-con fans were able to pick up $150+ items at below cost while I took financial loss, just to get some of my money back and to move the item off of my retail floor.

Holds/Subscription Comics

Whatever you know it by -- holds, subscriptions, pulls, pull list, et. all -- the idea is simple: you tell the comic shop what recurring comic book titles you would like to have saved for you. In the comic book world this is a HUGE deal. Comic book publishing is an extremely precise endeavor. Due to the rise and drastic crash of comic popularity in the 90s, publishers rely directly on the orders placed by local comic book shops for their printing numbers. During the 90s when comics were printed and sold everywhere, a million-issue printing wasn't an uncommon occurrence. Now-a-days, the most popular comics squeak out with 200,000 issues printed. 

Adding to the pressure put upon the orders of local comic shops is that publishers rarely take back unsold product (unlike the common practice in the book/magazine world which got its start during the great depression). Usually if a publisher agrees to accept returned items, it is based upon an ordered incentive: buy X amount of this comic issue and you can return what doesn't sell. A system that works great if you are Midtown comics of NYC and pointless if you are a one-employee shop as X is an unreasonably high number for small shops.

All of these factors are what makes a subscription with your local comic book dealer an essential key for A- you being able to get the comic that you want before they sell out, and B- the retailer being able to cover the costs of products, by ordering what is guaranteed to have a buyer.

Subscriptions aren't novel. In our world of Netflix and Cable TV, you get a bill -- or more likely have a direct deposit set up -- and when you pay it, you get to keep using the product. And paying for your product once a month is a habit most adults are accustomed to.

The pre-comic book guy Trent would get frustrated when comics from my subscription would be sold to other customers because I didn't come in soon enough, and they "didn't know if I was going to pick them up." While I didn't make it in to the shop weekly, there was never a time that I let more than a month lapse between picking up my comics. Carrying this logic into my mold-breaking comic shop seemed like a good idea.

When you don't pay for your cable subscription, you no longer have access to all of those TV channels. You aren't able to go to Comcast and tell them about how hard times are right now, and how you'd only like to pay for your HBO channels, but will come back later and pay for the rest of your channels when you can afford it. However, that is the exact mentality that slowly ate away at our shop's capital. Compounding the problem are those who have a substantial amount of comic books on a subscription that drop off the face of the Earth, and those who promise that they will be in to pay, but simply never do.

I really hope that this post doesn't come across as a "woe is me the martyr of local comic shops." The failure of my brick-and-mortar comic shop is wholly mine. I accept that. I write this hoping to convey to comic book readers that may be upset about the irksome, pain-in-your-ass policies that their comic book shop has, those policies might just be the only things keeping your comic book shop open. So please, just remember: Someone had to buy that stuff before it could be put on the retail shelf. It might be awkward to tell your comic book guy that you can't afford your subscriptions, but he'll hate you much more if you never tell him.

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