Saturday, April 04, 2009

Comics vs merchandise. I think comics are winning - reflections on a modern comic shop.

A while ago I went back to Birmingham and visited my old workplace Nostalgia & Comics. As usual it was lovely to catch up with folks, pick up some comics and books to review over at PROPAGANDA at the FPIblog & it's always nice to get myself back into the retail environment again to have a look around.

Since moving up to Yorkshire I've really missed being in a comic shop. Missed that actual physical sensation of standing at the shelves and actually browsing the racks. My nearest is Travelling Man in York and although it's a nice enough store there's just something about it that doesn't appeal. Until recently they had everything in comic bags, making browsing just impossible for new comics. And the Graphic Novels are always a bit cramped and difficult to get, with a small selection plus the small shop and a lack of music just kills the atmosphere..

With Nostalgia & Comics it was more than just feeling part of the store as a customer. It was the sense of family that came through working there. Of course, despite still thinking of it as my store, that sense of ownership, being part of the family and having a hand in shaping where a great comic shop was going has passed. Nostalgia & Comics is no longer "mine" and quite rightly it is changing and moving forwards. The big fear with N&C is that one day I'll walk in there and know no-one behind the counter. I'll just be another customer, rather than Richard; the guy who did 19 years there and helped shape the store for many years.

Anyway, melancholy over with; the most interesting thing about N&C is that it's been changing in a way I think is reflecting a positive change for comic shops as a whole. I know the credit crunch is biting and that sales all over are down and that the economic climate has meant that Diamond Distributors have increased their prices due to a stronger dollar. But the change is still a positive one and makes me quietly confident for the future.

You see, Nostalgia & Comics is, relatively speaking, a big store. Certainly big for comic shops. It's also part of the Forbidden Planet International chain. And over the years the size of the store and it's membership of a comics chain have meant that we've had to adapt to changing mores of comic retailing. Hence, a few years back, when we were first inducted into the fpi family, we saw the amount of merchandise increase incredibly fast. The product mix changed radically and that scared us all. Because, we were, are and always will be a comics store. It's what Nostalgia & Comics does best. So when staff at Nostalgia & Comics, all of us dearly loving comics and graphic novels, saw the space for comics shrink and the merchandise increase we didn't like it, even if we understood that financially it was a good policy for the time. But none of us wanted to turn into a pop culture store. None of us wanted that and we all did anything we could to keep Nostalgia & Comics as a comic shop. Mostly this involved getting out there and selling, selling, selling the comics, selling the graphic novels and making sure our comic shop was as good as we could make it. And we made it work. Our comic and graphic novel sales have always been great and held up far better than other neo-pop culture stores in relation to merchandise.

The irony of all this is that after leaving the store I got more involved with FPI and started reviewing over on the FPI blog. Getting to know the folks there; people like Joe & Kenny, has shown me that we weren't alone in all this. There's an awful lot of folks at FPI that really still see the company as a comic shop company rather than a merchandise store. It's been a nice eye-opener.

But on visiting N&C over the last couple of years I noticed an important change. It looks like comic shops have seen the peak of the merchandising boom. There's merchandise still on the shelves, but crucially, there aren't the guaranteed money spinning core lines that we used to have.

Back in the height of the merchandising boom I could look at the shelves and the stocks downstairs and point out several core lines that were guaranteed pots of money; Star Wars, Buffy, Simpsons, MacFarlane Toys, Marvel Legends. But every one of those lines has either finished or stalled. And nothing is replacing them. Sure the Doctor Who toys have taken up a bit of the slack, but nowhere near the levels of the aforementioned core lines - and the Doctor Who merchandise is ubiquitous. The great financial benefit of the Buffy toys or the early Marvel Legends is that we were the only place you could get them.

But as the popularity of the merchandise increased, we found that suddenly we weren't the only place in town to get that Wolverine figure. Whether it was Woolworth's (when it was still around), ToysRUs or Argos you could pick up these lines easily everywhere, often at prices less than we were able to sell them at (economies of scale and all that). Marvel Legends figures used to disappear from the shelves in big £15 a time chunks. Now Woolies, Tesco, Asda and Argos are pumping them out cheap and suddenly, the pile of unsold second rate Marvel figures grows to heights where oxygen is recommended.

And once that happens, the comic shops lose every time. We just can't compete with them on volume, discounts, profit or availability.

It happened to us before with anime dvds. For a long time many years ago, when manga and anime was a relatively niche market we stocked a lot of anime and sold it really well to the growing numbers of manga fans that flocked to us as the only game in town. But as soon as manga and anime hit big and reached a mainstream recognition, HMV started stocking them in depth, with discounts that they could absorb due to their greater buying power and killed our sales dead practically overnight. Over the years we clawed some of the sales back, through careful manga marketing and building up our customer base through being the only store in town that gave a large amount of shelf space to manga graphic novels and genuinely caring about what we sold. These manga fans gave us their custom and loyally bought anime from us as well.

So merchandise sales are changing. No longer driven by a couple of core best sellers, the merchandise seems to be far more thinly spread, with lots of different lines, all selling less.

But we always felt we were a comic shop first and stocked merchandise as an extra line. And this is what will see us through; the belief that comics and graphic novels are our core market. Like we always used to say: Nostalgia & Comics, because it's what we do best.

(And obviously, this is just my thoughts on the shop I used to work at, not backed up by anything other than observational evidence and certainly shouldn't be seen as anything officially connected with Nostalgia & Comics or FPI. So there.)

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