Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Comic Shops, the Graphic Novel glut and a retailing class from Brian Hibbs

Comix Experience Inside.jpg

(Interior of Brian Hibbs’ Comix Experience, San Francisco)

Brian Hibbs has been in this business for a long time. He’s owned and managed Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989 and is regularly talked of as one of the first shop owners to really attempt to move comic shops out of the dark, seedy, unappealing business model so many adopted.

So it’s always interesting to read his Tilting At The Windmills column at CBR. But the last two have been not only interesting but, in my considered opinion, essential reading for anyone connected with a comic shop. Whether you own it, manage it, work there or just pop on the till for an occasional shift, this is the stuff you should be aware of.

It all comes off the back of installing a new Point Of Sale (POS) system in the store and then actually bothering to use all of this information at his disposal to look at ways of making his store better. I know it’s obvious but there are so many retailers out there who don’t bother with any electronic POS systems or, perhaps worse, once they have them in, they just treat them as a more complicated cash register.

Column 1: Churn Or Burn:

Hibbs on the ever growing problem of more and more and more graphic novels:

When I first opened, in 1989, there were less than 100 “graphic novels” in print and available; ten years ago, that was probably closer to 2000; today it is something along the lines of 20,000 different books that are in print and available to sell.

I’ve been seeing the “trade paperback bloat” on my shelves for some time now — as a greater and greater percentage of my racks wind up as spine out. This makes what is on those shelves harder and harder to sell, as any given title gets lost in a sea of spines (even with good genre-driven shelving, and aggressive straightening and alphabetization!), and means that (generally) only books with “pedigree” or “buzz” turn with an appreciable regularity.

Like I say, I’ve been able to visually see this for quite some time, but now with the POS, I’m able to quantify some of this in ways that I would never ever have been able to do with a pen-and-paper driven system.

For instance, I can quickly see that there are approximately 3800 book format SKUs that we stock that we’ve sold one or more copies of in the last twelve months. Then there are the roughly 1400 books that we’ve sold no (none, zero, zilch) copies of since our initial inventory and installation of the POS system.

Yeah, that’s what I said, too.

That’s just utterly shocking. MORE THAN ONE QUARTER of his Graphic Novels with zero turn in a year. And you have to remember that Hibbs is one of the more enlightened and turned on retailers out there.

He then takes a long hard, cold look at what he has to do. And gives details of some of the dead stock as well. The results are illuminating.

Column 2: The Leftover Bits

After the shock of the realisation that he had so much dead stock, this is a column devoted to what Brian did next. And along the way he gives one of the fullest and most illuminating essays on the nuts and bolts of comics and graphic novel ordering and stocking I’ve ever read.

These two columns should be required reading for your local shop.

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(A Manga-led Graphic Novel glut? Row upon row upon row of digest format manga says yes.)

My own take:

I’ve worked in comic shops for 19 years. 1987-2006. My shop was Nostalgia & Comics in Birmingham. But the lessons I learnt there can easily be applied to any shop.

I saw the horrible fallout from the black and white glut and the speculator boom in comics. And it frightens me to see that it’s possibly happening again with the absolute glut of graphic novels that a shop has to consider stocking nowadays.

The main problem is one that’s affected shops for years. Fear. Fear of getting it wrong, fear of missing out on the latest hot trend, fear of missing out on something/anything. What this has traditionally led to has been a willingness to over-order on the whole line just to catch this.It happened with comics and now it seems just as likely to happen with graphic novels.

There’s no way we’re going to be able to stop the publishers churning every crappy comic series out into a book and drowning the shelves with product. At least not in the short-term. (Long-term is another matter, if we follow the logic and the numbers of Hibb’s example, stopping ordering these graphic novels that have zero sales will, eventually, impact upon the publishers and force them to be more choosy about what they collect).

But what we will have to do is take long hard looks at our shelves. Then get the data and be cruel, very cruel. Make the necessary cuts to the stock. I imagine any shop will be as shocked as Hibbs was with the data. After that the shop needs to decide what it wants to be. I believe we’re in the realms now where it’s impossible to be a full service store anymore. There’s no way you have the space (or, given the unsolds, the money to burn) to order everything. It’s time to be selective. Stock what you know will make you a great profit, stock what turns. But after that, when you look at the other 80% of the available books you will have to decide which way you want your store to be perceived. Do you want to be the best superhero store? Or the best manga store? Maybe you want to be a literary store? It’s very possible you could develop your store to be a mixture of many of the types of store. But you can’t do it all, not anymore.

But it occurs to me that the possibilities from this are potentially huge. If we take Comix Experience as the example, Brian suddenly has 30% of his Graphic Novel space free to do with as he pleases. We’ll assume that Brian has been making money on his store before the changes, he doesn’t necessarily have just treat this as an immediate opportunity to expand his profitable lines into the space as they’ve obviously been doing well as they are. Instead it’s a perfect opportunity to look at where he wants to be positioning himself in the market. He could decide that this 30% of his space is to be given over to marketing books he absolutely loves but feels aren’t getting the sales they deserve.


(My own solution at Nostalgia & Comics to attempt to stop books I loved and thought deserved spotlighting from being lost in the shelves beyond: The Propaganda shelf, a regularly rotated, annotated display rack. A classic example of a cobbled together solution employed by a willing staff member but with the wrong racking and too little space. Too many comic shops suffer this way, despite the best intentions of all concerned.)

After writing this, I sent it off to Kenny Penman, one of Forbidden Planet International’s directors and half of the team behind Blank Slate Books. I thought it may be interesting to see what his take on this was, from both sides of the Publisher/Retailer divide.

Here’s what he had to say on the subject:

Kenny Penman’s Take:

1. A full service store was never a possibility in some locations even 5 years ago - if you are in San Fran, London, Glasgow, New York, Boston, Sydney this is relevant if you are in Dagenham, Wonga Wonga - less so. The ability to be full service was always an equation which needed to take note of the potential customer base. In small towns most stores will not stock Indies - as they can’t afford to stock, and represent, the full range knowing the high risk of unsolds - they probably stock none. they don’t have the time and money to develop a market that probably doesn’t exist.

2. Our competition are full service stores - Amazon stock everything - and notably most comics commentators who allege they love the direct sales industry link to Amazon as the default place to buy (a business who do a great job but let’s be honest don’t give a stuff about comics) - irrespective of the fact that the direct market often does compete on price - this quickly diminishes the return in stocking obscure material, for comics retailers, as anyone wanting to buy it after reading a review you’ve probably been pointed away from the direct market already. This becomes a self fulfilling prophecy with stock range in comics stores shrinking - making them less and less interesting to customers like myself who have fairly catholic tastes. With the exception of a few stores like Hibbs, Jim Hanley a few other comics stores in the US and UK most comics shops would probably bore me now and I’m a long term comics fan and still a big buyer and reader. You just need to keep abreast with the argument on the upcoming Kramers Ergot which at $125 looks like almost all the purchases will go through Amazon or BV directly, as most stores simply won’t take the risk on an item like that. The part of the industry which could be a wider readership future for comics shops is slipping over the horizon unless you have already built the trade. You don’t need EPOS to see this.

3. I think the sell or burn attitude set in a long while back - I’d say at least 3 years now. Mostly this was because of Manga and largely the enormous in print glut is also due to Manga - Manga sales are down - and people like TokyoPop who initiated this land grab are in trouble - the market has a sort of in-built self correction mechanism even through the worse stores with the least info. Almost all retailers are now treating Manga as if it were a comic - not a GN - they buy to sell out - and only keep the real big sellers in stock on a total collection basis - Naruto, Death Note, Battle Royale etc. The same has crept into GN’s - people, with shelf space shrinking relative to output, are returning to core - and giving more and more of that space over to Marvel/DC.

4. It was always thus - there were always items that had no or little turn in a store. Russ Cochrane EC box sets for instance - took up a lot of room - sold maybe once a year. But before I was in this as a business, as a comics punter, the fact one store had a row of those always in stock and I could dream of saving to buy them - made that my store of choice over others. That will still be the same today . I would be more likely to go to a store with those books on their shelves, copies of Kramers Ergot, Any Given Sunday Nemo reprints than one that didn’t have them - irrespective of which seemed the more efficient store. There is still a place for a number of ‘Trophy’ books in any store. OK the space and turn may not work out - but think of them as a cheap form of advertising.

5. The publishers will slow down and stop turning out product that doesn’t sell. That will start to happen soon with the likely contraction in the retailing base in the current economic downturn. As you say many stores order just to have it - with fewer stores - there will be less in the way of ’spec’ orders. These won’t be made up by online sellers who buy to order. It won’t take long for that to impact on publishing.

6. The one worry I have here - now with my publisher hat on - is that this approach will slam the door shut in the face of new small publishers - how will they ever get into a market which is totally risk averse. Unless they can sell their books directly online they will never get a start. So the comics stores will retrench even further into straight superhero mainstream which I fear in the end is a ‘dead end’ option.

I think you are essentially right - but this isn’t just science - a good comics retailer should also be able to sprinkle a little alchemy - either through look and feel and presentation or through the personality of the owner/s - Page 45 being the best example in the UK - and transform the marketplace. Sadly almost no-one is achieving that right now, even some of our own stores fall short of what I would want a store to be as a comics buyer.

Copy of DrawnQuarterlyAlisonNaimark-725519.jpg Copy of photo_3.jpg fantagraphics.jpg

(Perhaps not what Kenny meant by sprinkling a little alchemy in the look and feel and presentation but there has been a recent vogue in the US for boutique comic book stores. From left to right: The Drawn & Quarterly Store, Secret Headquarters, The Fantagraphics Store. These are obviously not viable models for a larger store, but do provides certain ideas that the larger stores could appropriate and certainly look absolutely gorgeous.)

& back to me again:

Okay, that’s it for now. Obviously being part of the FPI blog we have a vested interest in seeing comics go from strength to strength. It does us all good to have a vibrant, thriving market. Here at the blog we’re determined to bring you the best in comics news, reviews and articles because we passionately care about the medium. But we also care deeply about comic shops and would encourage you to simply make one choice about where you buy; choose somewhere that treats you well & has the stock you want to read. If you’re as passionate about comics as we think you are, you’ll be with us when we say that there are many great comic shops out there and many horrible ones. It’s up to you to keep the good ones going with your patronage.

I have in mind the idea of doing a few posts on comic shops, good and bad. If you've got anything you want to say on the matter feel free. Even better, if you're a comic shop owner or manager, get in touch and tell me what you do and why you're doing it right.

1 comment:

  1. This is fascinating -- a really useful piece I've just passed on to a couple of friends -- and clearly, stock control and having the right stock in the first place is going to play a huge part in the success of any store.

    But my feeling as a customer is that if a store is going down the route of appealing to specific niches, it should complement that with some decent customer care (result: customer satisfaction), too.

    While it's been a long time since I worked on a comic stall, I learned a lot from the the first comics seller I ever encountered, Keith Chandler, who ran the stall in Lancaster Market back in the early 1980s. A naturally cheery man, he sold comics because he liked them, but also clearly knew that repeat business is down so much to that most ephemeral and difficult of qualities: making the customer feel wanted, ready to suggest titles they may like, etc.

    No easy task, but when I hear awful stories about some of the numpties left to run Britain's remaining comic stores, disinterested in anyone who comes through the door, it's fairly obvious some training in customer care is sadly lacking.

    Unfortunately, the problem of cack-handed staff is not just a problem with comic shops: several big chains, such as Waterstones, have a policy of keeping the store and the shelves tidy, first, focus on re-stocking and, it would appear, avoid customer care, which is demanding on staff time and may not be "cost effective" as there might not even be a sale in it even if you are nice to them.

    This is in marked contrast to supermarkets and other stores where it is staff policy that, if a customer asks where to find something, they aren't just pointed vaguely down an aisle, they are physically led to the product. Surely a wise move designed to encourage sales.

    Personally, I'm much more inclined to return to businesses with even the pretence of interest in what I'm buying rather than ones where a purchase or enquiry is greeted with zombie-like ignorance.