TILTING AT WINDMILLS #14
By Brian Hibbs
As you (no doubt) remember reading 2 months ago, I made a challenge to publishers to come and work retail for a week, to get a sense of "how the other half lives". After all, it's damn hard to sell comics, if you don't know your customer's needs (and we, the retailers, are the true customers, after all).
So far, we've had Marvel's Director of Sales, Lou Bank come and go, and bites from at least one other publisher (it's Milestone).
I thought that it was important to not only have my impressions, but those of the visitor, as well, so this month, we have a special TaW Point/Counterpoint installment.
Without further ado, I'll hand you over to Lou Bank, in his own words...
Lou Bank: Sitting in our high tower on Park Avenue, we tend to expound on the problems and lost opportunities of comics retailing about as frequently as – well, as frequently as retailers expound on the problems and lost opportunities of comics publishing. It's very easy for me to tell retailers to cycle sheet, to cross-promote with other retail venues, to publicize in-store events and to make sales suggestions to customers. Having to do it myself is entirely another story, and that story is the week I spent working for Brian Hibbs at Comix Experience.
Don't take this to mean that I'm lazy; the point I'm making is that the demands of the individual tasks are great and added together are incredible. As well, the abilities that are necessary to complete the various tasks that both maintain a store and create store growth are so varied that no one person could possibly be adept at all of these aspects. The more employees a store has the greater the likelihood that it will be able to grow the store, not just through sheer volume of hands but because individuals are able to specialize at certain tasks and improve their ability to perform those tasks.
Making these tasks even more difficult, you have to expect customers and phone calls to set you off track. I've found that most jobs have a rhythm that builds and allows you to work more quickly once you've found that rhythm. Like a train derailed, once you've lost the rhythm you have to work to get it back again. Obviously you should be appreciative of customers; they're the reason you're able to remain in business. You won't remain in business long if you don't complete the tasks necessary to maintaining a store. It's the worst kind of Catch 22.
Besides the sheer volume of work I discovered a number of other things about comics retailing that week. The first item of note that struck roe was the importance of putting bar codes on the comics. When I was faced with having to restock the trade section of the store, I felt like I was working ass-backwards. Listing what you have and searching distributor stock for what you don't have is time-consuming and inefficient, not to mention frustrating.
Having to do the cycle sheets the following day only reinforced this belief. The importance of accuracy in cycle sheeting is the defining purpose of the task; without codes you can neither guarantee accuracy n6r efficiently complete the task in a timely manner. To say that I am absolutely" astounded that retailers didn't physically assault comics publishers to convince them to institute the direct market bar code system years ago is a dramatic understatement.
A related realization was the danger and complexity of poor sell-through. If a comic suffers from reader drop-off, because of the ordering system and the time it takes to note a real trend in cycle sheeting it can take anywhere from six to 12 months to correct an ordering problem, and in that six to 12 months you can lose an awful lot of money. The result, I would guess, is that the retailer cuts deeper than is probably necessary as soon as he can react in order to ensure that the problem doesn't continue to snowball. The likelihood that the retailer will reorder the title if it sells out is almost non-existent. In order to avoid this problem we really have to take greater measures to produce greater sell-through.
On a different note, I was struck by the enormous range of ages that came through the store. It really increased my belief that comics stores should be organized by genre and interest rather than alphabetically. Racking to appeal to a generic comics fan cannot possibly produce better long-term financial results than racking to market to individual tastes and ages.
I also noticed that most customers complained about the cost of buying everything they wanted. I'm uncertain if the complaint was that they had to pay a lot of money, or if the complaint was that they did not have any more money, but the end result was that they were putting back a lot of comics that they obviously wanted. This in and of itself is not a problem, but the fact that consumers are working off of a budget, self-imposed or otherwise, and retailers (as evidenced by April order numbers) are by and large not budgeting their purchases as title counts increase leads me to believe that there are an awful lot of unsold comics sitting out there, and a lot more on the way.
The other side to that problem is that adequate racking space is rare in today's Comics shop. Retailers have to make decisions about the display of new comics. There is no longer space to display two month's worth of comics effectively, and there is no logic in allocating the same amount of space to each title, I suggest that stores analyze sales of new product against two month old issues still displayed on the new comics rack. I suspect we'll find that 90 percent of the copies that are going to sell at all sell in the first four weeks. This being the case, that month old issue is taking up space that could be allotted to better displaying the new titles and perhaps increasing the sales on the new titles. Further, a title like Spider-Man, which sells nearly four times as many copies as Avengers, should be given better racking. If it sells better already, then the likelihood is that the title has a broader appeal than Avengers. By granting it more display space the chance that a new customer will pick it up is increased. When making this type of decision the retailer should always gamble on his best selling titles, whatever they may be. The analysis needed to prove this is obviously great, but once the bar codes are in place and stores are running electronic cycling, this data will be readily available.
At Marvel, we tend to believe that any title selling 35,000 copies has no market appeal. Obviously, that title has an appeal for 35,000 people. It's our job to figure out what it is about that comic that appeals to those 35,000 customers, and flaunt it; find out who the customers currently are, and find more people like them. Similarly, store owners need to not give up on a title. If you're only selling a handful of copies of some comics, find out why those customers are still buying that title. If it's out of force of habit, you're out of luck; if, however, they can explain why they like it, then find other titles that have a similar appeal and self-suggest the lower selling title. You build your customer base from scratch, and even if you influence your customers to a great degree in their reading choices, there is still an enormous range of personalities and tastes. While I hear a lot of complaints that there are too many titles being solicited, I feel that all this means is that retailers are fully armed with as diverse a selection as they could want. Certainly the bulk of the titles fall under similar categories, but there are comics available for every taste conceivable. Order what you know you can sell and build on that business – with all of your free time.
Lou, you ignorant slut...Oh, that's right, this isn't a comedy bit! (sorry, I couldn't resist)
In all seriousness, you can see that Lou walked out of the week with a couple of astute observations.
I ran Lou through (virtually) every aspect of running a store – doing the cycles, taking calls, ringing up customers, pulling the new orders, etc. Just about the only thing we didn't get to was having him do an order form (and it's not my fault – Diamond shipped the catalog a week late, which, might I add, is an extremely screwed thing to do, considering that they didn't extend the deadline to turn it in a single iota...)
Lou seems to think that the panacea for a lot of the time-consuming processes will be bar-coding. While I don't doubt for a moment that it will make life marginally easier, there still a bunch of different problems that come from computerized systems. In any event, you still need to physically count the stock on a regular basis, and, in fact, I might say that you need to count it more frequently (having seen several programs in operation), because if you're not always completely on top of the inventory processes, you can just as easily be screwed, blued, and tattooed. My best example is Last Gasp, the underground distributor in San Francisco. They've got a pretty high powered system that seems incredibly efficient, but I cannot count the number of time the computer has insisted that an item is out of stock (and, hence, they can't sell it to me), and I'll find a six-inch stack sitting on a shelf, somewhere in the warehouse. Another good example is Diamond and Capital’s computer systems, which are both, in theory, supposed to automatically shift product from location to location, and place reorders. In practice, of course, these systems barely work.
I'm not trying to cap on bar-coding systems here, but they certainly aren't going to solve problems overnight. Particularly when you factor in the fact that very few of the 6000 stores in this country can actually afford the computer system in the first place, and that smaller publishers show no signs of moving to the bar-coding. Personally, at this very moment, I see it as exchanging one set of problems for another.
I'm very pleased that Lou see the twin problems of sell-through and lack of customers funds. Obviously, these two are linked together, at least tangentially. As more and more product (at increasingly higher and higher price-points) comes out, the customer is forced to make immediate decisions on what to buy. The problem comes from the fact that as retailers, we're forced to make wild guesses as to what's gonna ship when, and how our customers will react when it does. More often than not, these guesses are shots in the dark. Even the best retailer doesn't have a crystal ball to arrival dates, and one week can make all the difference between feast or famine.
I notice on a daily basis that after a book has a gimmick (or, if you'd like, you can call them enhancements...), there is a disturbing trend for the title to sell-through at a lower amount than it did before the gimmick. Lou saw this as well, looking at the cycle sheets. I think the answer is two-fold: 1) Since gimmick books DO increase sales (on a one-time basis), publishers should never raise the cost of that comic book to the consumer. The consumer is sick and tired of paying 1.5-3x as much for some flashy cover, or bagged something. It's a lot easier for them to walk away from the title completely, even though we are the ones holding the bag. Lou said to me a week after being in the store that he was going to suggest this to his bosses. Hopefully, they'll listen, because, once again, it's making a short-term buck at the expense of a long-term customer. 2) We should be allowed to make order decreases, up until the print run is finally set for the title, just as we're allowed to place advance reorders. If Spud-boy #49 sells 20 copies, #50 (with a gimmick cover) sells 40, then #51 sells only 15, we should be able to drop our orders on #52 & 53, without having to wait until #54 shows up on the order form (and, of course, in a lot of cases, we're ordering #55-60 "blind" as well) I, personally, would call that customer service: a quality that most every distributor is sorely lacking. (in fact, to digress a bit, I was mildly amused to note that Lou, who is used to coming in the front door of the warehouse, with the suit and all, getting the "official" view of life at a distributor, was fairly distraught by the utter lack of help the people at the loading dock provide. "They didn't offer any help at all!" said Lou. And that's what it's like in the [not to be pejorative] real world)
Lou goes on to talk about rack space (or the lack thereof), and I agree with him that it's no longer practical to give maximum exposure to every title. I will, however, mildly disagree that the best sellers should always get the best exposure. This is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Little" books become "big" books by promoting them. Avengers needs more help and more space than Amazing Spider-Man because it doesn't sell as well. It's always bugged me that the comics that get the covers of the distributor catalogs, and the ads in the fanzines are always the titles that are sure-fire hits. Spider-Man #1 would have sold (in my humble opinion, though, of course, there's no way to prove this contention is true) just as many copies, had it not been the focus of that intense ad campaign. And even if it did drop a little, I believe that the profits would have been more than made up by the sales of other books that could've used the push. Rather than taking an attitude of "O.K., here's a good comic, let's see what we can do to make it sell better", this industry (as a whole) has always fostered the path of "Here's something that's selling really well already. Let's remind everyone of that fact" There are far too many unsold comics on the market as it is. Let's help the stuff that needs it.
In any event, the idea of keeping a sharp eye on stock, and racking accordingly, is a damn fine one. Every store should heed this advice, while adapting the way you do it to your owns needs, and clientele.
As a final direct note about Lou's piece, I can't help but note that "At Marvel we tend to believe that any title selling 35,000 copies has no market appeal." I suspect that there are several titles that Marvel (and every other company!) produces that have that number of readers, or lower. Based on my (admittedly biased) empirical observations on sell-through, multiple copy purchases, distributor stock, retailer back-issue stock planning, and "I'm-just-buying-it-to-keep-my-collection-current" (to just touch the tip of the iceberg of unsold copies), I suspect that the actual number of readers on your average superhero comic book is between 1/2 to 1/3 of the circulation. On some titles, that ratio may be as low as 1:10! There are a lot of unsold (and unread!) copies floating around the market, and there are going to be a lot more. You're reading this in June, so you'll know by now what some of the effects of the "Summer of Glut" are going to be, but I have a feeling that this time next year, we're going to be facing an entirely different market, with an entirely different set of problems and challenges.
Lou Bank came out and took my challenge, and I think he did really well, because he came to it with his eyes and ears open. He came to learn, and learn he did. I honestly don't think that half of what Lou really learned made it into his piece above – there are so many things (that we all know) that just can't be articulated. And more than learn, he taught me a few things too, in the way that a new set of eyes on an old problem always will. I believe that this was an invaluable experience for the both of us, and although there are still a dozen things I dislike about Marvel (and I'm sure there are a dozen things Lou didn't like about how I run my store), we both came away with a clearer understanding as how to try and make it better. I wouldn't trade that time for almost anything, and I hope you can find the time to do something similar. There are hundreds of publishers out there, with thousands of people who need the education that we can help provide. I threw down the TaW gauntlet (which, might I add, is still down, with dozens of quarters unheard from), why don't you throw down one of your own?
'cuz we all can use more knowledge.