On Retailing Comic Books and Video Games

I like to stay up on what’s going on in the comic book industry. Chalk it up to curiosity — in my college days I routinely spent forty to sixty dollars a week on comics, and my first job after high school was working in a comic book store. So once or twice a week I’ll take a look at Newsarama, just to see what people are talking about. And maybe I’ll see something mentioned that will get me back in the shops. Like a Hawkman revival. Maybe.

The articles at Newsarama that always intrigued me were the ones written from the retailer’s perspective. I spent seven years as a store manager for EB Games, and it never hurt to see what retailers in specialty businesses were thinking. Comic books, video games — they can be bought almost anywhere these days, but there’s a lot in common between a video game store and a comic book store. Both sell a specialized form of entertainment to a specialized market.

I usually didn’t come away with much of a positive view from the retailer articles. It wasn’t that our businesses were that different. It was that our philosophies were different.

Video game retail is a competitive industry. There’s the GameStop behemoth as a speciality retailer, and then big box retailers — Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target, and others — do major business in video games as well. Every customer that walks in the door is a potential sale, and our goal at EB Games was to make sure the customer spent money and left the store with something in hand, rather than letting the customer go elsewhere to spend his dollars.

In my experience, comic book retail isn’t competitive to that degree. A small-sized town might not even have a comic book shop. A medium-sized town might have only one shop. It may well apply in most markets that there’s only one, possibly two, places a person can go for comics.

And that has an effect on culture.

The more places a customer can go to spend their money, the more you need to fight for the sale, and the more you need to make the sale. If there’s only one place for the customer to go, then you don’t have to make the sale.

Which means that, as a retailer, you don’t have to actively sell. You can get by on just clerking — ringing up whatever the customer brings you to the counter.

Different retail philosophies. :mrgreen:

I bring this up because yesterday I read an article on Newsarama entitled “A Question of Demand: From a Retail Point of View.” Regan Clem, a comic shop owner in Indiana, asks the question: “What makes a successful new release? Why do some books stand out while others rot on the wall until they disappear into back issue oblivion?”

It’s a question I dealt with at EB Games. Why do some games sell, and other games don’t?

The simple answer is — people have to want it.

And that’s where the retailer comes in. The retailer has to do a sales job on the product. There are games that I knew were absolute dogs that I had to sell. (Turok for the XBox, I’m looking at you.) The investment had been made. The product was on my shelf. It had to move.

If the retailer can’t move the product — be it comic book or video game — then the retailer isn’t doing their job. Because the product that doesn’t sell is money tied up in inventory costs.

At least, that’s my viewpoint.

Regan’s viewpoint is different:

Books do not sell unless there is a demand for them. Some very good books do not sell well because there is no demand for them. I stock them and they just sit there. If I stock a book and it does not sell out, it tells me that I mis-measured the demand in my store. If I minimally stock a book and it does not sell out, the publisher has failed to create demand.

The demand in my store can be influenced by me, the retailer. However, if I was a publisher, I would not trust a retailer to create demand for my book. One of us “comic guys” single-handedly increased sales on Scott Pilgrim, and I try to sell Percy Gloom any chance I get. At the store I only visit every other week to make sure things are going well, those books barely move. The moral of this story is that it would be an unwise business move to expect the retailer to create demand because we are fickle and like various stories and artwork. If a publisher thinks their book is good, then they should create demand for that book. It is a dangerous business move to pass the demand buck along.

In short, Regan’s view is that retailers are passive entities in the process. Retailers will sell what they like to sell, but if it’s something they don’t like then others need to do the work of moving the book.

I have a problem with that.

See, retailers are the most important person in the chain. There’s the comic book companies who produce the product. There’s the distributors who take the producers product and send it to stores. And it’s the retailer in the stores who puts the comic book in the hands of the eager reader and makes the sale.

In a Direct Market world where retailers own the product in their stores, if the retailer can’t do that, then the retailer is stealing from himself. The retailer needs to build the demand in his store for the product that he has.

Publishers do have a role to play. They can grant interviews on websites, they can send creators to conventions. They can start up the marketing machine. But it’s the retailer who needs to take advantage of the marketing. They need to be able to say, “Did you hear about this book? Did you read this interview? Did you see what’s coming out next month?” In short, retailers have to be able to promote the product they have in store and in the pipeline — they can’t assume that a book sitting on the shelf will be noticed, especially if it’s a new or little-known title. Publishers can give the retailers tools to generate the excitement, but it’s the retailer who has to make the sale.

Regan writes, “I cannot think of another industry where creating demand for a product is up to the retailer.” I don’t know how long Regan has been in sales, but I would say that EB Games had to create demand for product every day. We had to promote pre-sells on future product. We had to promote items in the store. We had to tell customers what was new. We had to ask them what they were looking for in a game and suggest other products that would fit their needs.

Regan is railing against the need to sell in his store. He seems to think that clerking is sufficient to move product. Unfortunately, clerking is never sufficient, and it will leave product on the shelf and money in the customer’s pocket.

There’s no trick to specialty retail. But it does require an understanding that it’s not a captive market, and that it does require active efforts at selling what you have. Regan Clem hasn’t grasped that.

Note: As a completely random aside, the mention of Hawkman above isn’t completely random. I loved Tim Truman’s Hawkworld, and I loved the John Ostrander/Graham Nolan follow-up series. Brilliant stuff. Hawkman is a character I’d absolutely love to write for, only I couldn’t tell you at this juncture what I’d do with Hawkman. I don’t think Hawkman could ever be an A-lister in the DC Universe, but he could be a solid B-lister, only DC’s so nerfed Hawkman’s history and continuity that they’re leaving him on the shelf for the time being. :vogon:

Published by Allyn

A writer, editor, journalist, sometimes coder, occasional historian, and all-around scholar, Allyn Gibson is the writer for Diamond Comic Distributors' monthly PREVIEWS catalog, used by comic book shops and throughout the comics industry, and the editor for its monthly order forms. In his over ten years in the industry, Allyn has interviewed comics creators and pop culture celebrities, covered conventions, analyzed industry revenue trends, and written copy for comics, toys, and other pop culture merchandise. Allyn is also known for his short fiction (including the Star Trek story "Make-Believe,"the Doctor Who short story "The Spindle of Necessity," and the ReDeus story "The Ginger Kid"). Allyn has been blogging regularly with WordPress since 2004.

5 thoughts on “On Retailing Comic Books and Video Games

  1. I think a lot of the clerking mentality you speak of is a remnant of the ’90s boom when all a comic shop had to do was exist and still be successful. Unfortunately, Regan Clem’s attitude is a little too prevalent in the comic retailing microcosm and is one of the (many) reasons mainstream comics will eventually collapse onto itself.

  2. It’s not just that people have to want the game/comic/book; the store has to have it in stock, too. And that’s why I’ve more or less given up on specialty retail in favor of Amazon and Mile High Comics.

    I’m pretty sure that this attitude is shaped by my having worked at non-specialty retail stores, but when I go in to a comic or video game store, I don’t go because I want to find a new game or comic to read, and browse until I find something I like; I generally know what I’m looking for before I even stepped into the shop. (And if I can, look online to see if it’s in stock before leaving.)

    So for something to be sold to me, generally the retailer doesn’t even have a chance; it’s more or less up to the publisher, author, etc. to sell me on something.

  3. Andrew:

    [W]hen I go in to a comic or video game store, I don’t go because I want to find a new game or comic to read, and browse until I find something I like; I generally know what I’m looking for before I even stepped into the shop.

    That’s absolutely true, Andrew, and I should have addressed that. 🙂

    A speciality store is a destination store. A customer doesn’t go there because they’re browsing. A customer goes there because they’re looking for something specific.

    But that doesn’t mean that the retailer can’t try to interest the customer in other products. If the retailer isn’t trying to sell the customer on something else, then is the retailer doing the customer any favors? It’s entirely possible that the customer might be open and receptive to something else, something that the customer didn’t even know he’d like.

    The article I cited seems to think that the customer has to know about the book before they walk in the door. The publisher needs to do the work, Regan seems to be saying. That doesn’t absolve retailers of their responsibility, though. Especially in a comic shop — where the retailer owns the product, if the retailer isn’t trying to sell product to the customers who walk in the door in addition to what they customer would already buy, then the retailer isn’t maximizing their sales.

    Maybe comic book retailing needs new ideas. “Young minds, fresh ideas. Be tolerant.” 😆

  4. I just ran across this post.

    I do agree with your thoughts. It isn’t just my job to just stock things. I have to sell them. I was arguing that it was a poor business plan for the publisher to depend upon retailer to create demand for their product. I do not depend on my customers to bring people into my store. It is nice when they do. It is my job to create demand for our store just like it is a publisher’s job to create demand for their books. I was not arguing that retailers should not push books. I actually mentioned a book that I pushed and also one that one of our workers push. I do not think I am the passive clerk (nor are my employees) that you describe.

    I think the difference between your role as a retailer and mine is that I also decide what to order. I also will not push a book that I think sucks even if I overordered it. It might hurt my short-term bottom line, but I think it helps out in the long-term if I do not push crap on my customers. They can be assured that I will only push books that I personally enjoyed or I think they will enjoy. I expect my employees to do the same. I have reprimanded one once for pushing a crappy book (and they thought is was crappy) because we had a lot of it in stock.

    I am going to choose one or two books every week to push. I am going to do that based on whether I liked the book, not on whether I overordered. If the publisher did not create demand and the book was not the lucky one out or two of the 50-90 books we receive every week that I decided to push, then they will just sit on the shelf. That will prevent #2 or #3 from being ordered like issue one was ordered.

    I agree with you that a store that is just clerking is not a store worth going to. But a publisher that is just publishing probably will not create any demand for their books and will be out of business very quickly. Too often publishers create books and think there job is done. They also need to create demand. Most companies have people that work in marketing. There is a reason for that. It isn’t just enough to provide something; you also have to tell others that it is there. Those publishers who do not heed the words of retailers like me will be out of business quickly if there business plan for creating demand is to just publish the book and expect retailers to push that book.

  5. About comic retail Vs Clerking just to make things clear .

    A clerk sells an item not a line of products ,they see the single sale as the goal when talking to a customer ,So $5.00 now is worth as much or more then $25.00 from the same customer over the next week or month .

    A retailer Sells the line ,meaning a customer buys One item and you show them all of the current material related to that product either by story line ,Artist ,writer or Cover Artist .

    If this sounds simple it isn’t A skilled retailer will offer Choices connected to a sale Not Hard Sell all of their products ,the customer and not the retail clerk is the one paying for the product .Every customer has a limit on what they can spend .Respect it be help full and sales do increase .
    I say this from experience ,my original store had a standard walk in discount and Huge debts ,I took it over and eliminated the debts by positive retail efforts .

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