Tilting at Windmills #49
By Brian Hibbs
(Originally Ran in Comics Retailer #50)
Happy May, everyone. Sure, it's still March when I'm writing this, but as you're reading this, Summer is nearly upon us. The first real convention of the year (WonderCon in late April) has just happened, and with it Comix Experience's seventh anniversary.
Compared to some of you, I'm still a kid a retailing comics, but seven years feels like a fairly significant watershed to me. As we go into "Lucky Seven", CE has actually gotten healthier, as we redefine, and refocus our goals. Those goals are to be the kind of comic shop that I would want to shop in, and to sell the best in comics, regardless "name value" (publisher, creator, or distributor exclusives) attached. If only this were as easy as it sounds.
It's actually starting to look like the publishers are getting their act together editorially -- that's good. But it's costing retailers more money to stock that material, now. In first quarter 1995, I received 55% off on several hundred different titles. Now, I only qualify for that with two publishers -- DC and Aardvark-Vanaheim. In first quarter 1995, I had free shipping (via Diamond). Now, my shipping bills are somewhere around $60 a week! (I expect that to be higher any moment now, too, as I expect Diamond's "freight subsidy" will evaporate almost immediately. Any company that has the nerve to ask $5 a week to fax you an invoice [which, even in worst case scenario, assuming overwhelmingly penurious phone-bills, couldn't possibly cost more than $3] is unlikely to continue to show such stated "benevolence"). Our marginal costs continue to accelerate, and in a field where (evidently) the majority of store-fronts depend solely on day-to-day cash-flow to keep the doors open, that's gonna kill a lot of people. In fact, I've heard about more store closing in the first 2 months of 1996 than I ever have before. Though I admit that this is certainly not empirical evidence to the actual state of our nebulously-defined market, I find it an unsettling omen of the shape of things to come.
As comic book retailers we're actually given very few tools (and inadequate ones at that) with which we can shape our destinies. I'm talking about the ability to do long-term planning, because of the secrecy of the solicitation process, or to do short-term planning because of the uncertainty of shipping schedules, things like that. Historically, I think, we were largely unconcerned about this because our profit margin was wide-enough to absorb this inconvenience. Let us also not forget that, historically, comics have been a very inexpensive medium with a supremely dedicated fan base. It is not until the Excesses of the Nineties where we destroyed both of these paradigms. The financial impact of the lose of the true fan base sent the shockwaves that brought the distribution system low, and we're left with what's left of the non-retailer part of the market trying to maintain their profit margins at our expense. Of course, that's just more Strip-mining, and I think we know where that leads by now.
And, now, we have to face the price of these actions -- some self-inflicted, and others not -- the cost remains the same. Ironically, those without the weight of historical patterns of comics retailing upon them are more likely to find the smart path to whatever the new paradigm turns out to be. I submit the likely path to be the "bookstore model", but I'm just as likely to be surprised by something new. In the meantime, it's the path I'm walking, so forgive me if I commit the sin of universalizing my experiences to believe you can find success in focusing your store, too.
The first thing we did was completely re-rack the store away from a periodical focus. We've always had some amount of genre racking at Comix Experience -- even the week the store opened we had a separate Underground section, as well as loosely themed graphic novel section. In the early days, I would have given you such a pinch if you would even suggest racking by company for regular superhero comics! Back when Marvel was 80% of the market place, it was bad for diversity to segregate, but today, now that no publisher seems to be able to manage more than 1/3 of the market, single-handedly, it allows you to clearly focus and target your sales message.
Prior to February 29th (Superman's Birthday!), the left hand side of the store was all graphic novels, books, etc., while the right hand side was the last 30-60 days worth of periodicals, in mostly A-Z (we had a few exceptions, like Manga, or Alternative that we pulled out, but it was pretty firmly alphabetical). In the Big Change, we broke everything into genre-like categories. We're only a week old at doing this, but the first blush results look promising. We created plastic sign-holders for each shelf which we can quickly change and rearrange categories with little or no fuss. We have roughly 1300 "facings" available to us (though we tend to run a little tighter than that with spine-up titles, as well). In the first round, we've divided the store into the following sections:
EC & other classics
Other Hero Comics
I offer this to hopefully spur your mind into thinking how you'd break your racks out. The nice thing about this kind of set-up is that, for example, on the Batman rack you have both periodicals and trade paperbacks intermingled, heightening sales between both. Some of these "genres" occupy multiple shelves, while others barely take a shelf alone. I fully expect these divisions to mutate significantly, over time.
You'll note that I use "genre" loosely -- splitting the superhero companies into "brands". One of the reason for this is the distribution of space. One of the problems with strictly "genre" racking (as opposed to "family" racking) is that the superhero genre comprises the bulk of the comics available to us, significantly reducing the value of stock separation. The question is what kind of public perception of your store do you want to create? Most regular customers are already well keyed into superhero style comics, and, it can be argued, that's really about all they want, unless you work to change their natural inclinations. But the "civilian" -- well, they've simply not interested in this type of material, as a general rule. If you want to attract a new class and type of clientele, then you need to present them with a vision that doesn't contradict their sensibilities.
Roughly 25-33%% of our floor space is devoted to superhero-style comics, but by dividing the hero publishers into "camps", and disbursing them along the sales floor, rather than keeping the hero books in one clump, I've created the illusion that the presence of hero comics is far less than it actually is. The point is that this type of material is there, accessible, for those who want it, but the overall "color" of Comix Experience presents another feeling altogether.
Another advantage to breaking your racks into closely defined groupings is it will help your perspective in what items sell to what people. As I said earlier, comic book retailers have few and inadequate tools to determine proper stocking quantities -- chief among these tools is our friend, the cycle sheet. Cycle sheets are an incredibly useful tool for analysis of what sells, and when -- but that information tends to live in it's own vacuum, without relationship to other data. By this I mean that my cycle sheets may tell me that I sell no more than five copies each of, say, Youngblood and Blood Pool, but this data is separately wildly by the alphabet. I have a general benchmark to work from in terms of knowing that, for example, sales of 10 copies is modest, 25 is decent, 50 is strong, and 75 is a hit, but my comparisons are limited to book to general benchmark: how does Youngblood compare, how does Blood Pool compare?
This type of analysis, what not un-useful, doesn't give you a lot of qualitive data to work from. By abandoning straight ABC, even in something as simple as organizing cycle sheet flow, you can quickly see the relationships between titles. Now that my cycle sheets are categorized by "genre", just like my racks, I can get better data about the relationships between titles, without having to hunt for it. So, now that all Image/Extreme books are lumped together, to continue the example, I can now quickly see that I'm not selling more than five copies of any of them. No longer am I comparing specific book to general benchmark (5 copies of Youngblood, to 25 copies of overall "decent seller"), but rather I'm comparing specific book to specific benchmark (5 copies of Youngblood to average sales of 5 each on Image/Extreme) and then to the general benchmark. This has caused my perceptions of various lines to change, and allows me to quickly see which lines are "pulling their own weight".
I think the difference in seeing relationships between titles and lines is an important one for the retailer to acknowledge. Given that rack space is finite, and product offered is (at least relatively) infinite, you don't want to think about sales only in terms of the vacuum of your racking system. By having a tool available to show me that I sell an average of 5 copies each on the "Image/Extreme" shelf, but an average of 50 copies each on the "crime/mystery" shelf, I now have the ability to make an informed modification in my "behavior". Maybe I want to fold Image/Extreme into Image/Other, maybe I want to reposition Image/Extreme on my shelves, or maybe I want to make that line of comics available only through advance subscription orders. I've always had this data, but I wasn't getting the "signal" through the "noise" of a straight alphabetical system. This is not unlike the epiphany retailers who didn't cycle sheet get when they've done their first batch -- "Jeez! I thought Youngblood was selling 15 copies a month, because when I eyeballed the shelves, it didn't seem like the stack was too high – but I'm only selling ten copies each month! Whoa!" – I thought Image/Extreme was selling better as a whole than it really was, because I was letting my eyes do the work that is better suited for data.
There is a hew and a cry across the land for retailers to "clean up their acts", to "act more professional", and while it is true that we could stand some improvement, I think the truth is that we're doing the best that we can, within the limitations as we understand them. An important thing to keep in mind, for those critical parties, is just how much the comics retailing has changed over the last half-decade: previously our margin was fat, our cost of goods low, and our customer base large. This created a large amount of complacency is how you run a comic book store. I don't suppose that most of you are much different than me -- I've got only 2 part-time employees, and while I make enough money to keep a roof over my store and my home, I don't have a thick excess of time or money to do all the things I might think I should do. For example, I know it would probably be wise to get a point-of-sale system that can create these kinds of reports at the push of a button -- but the initial cash-outlay for the system, as well as the mountain of data-entry we'd have to do, daunts me. Sure, it would probably increase my cash flow so that a new system would pay for itself, but I'd rather try and find a low-tech solution that accomplishes the same goals than spend the money.
Low-tech is a fine way to go, because you can tailor the path to your inclinations. It doesn't add any appreciable time for me to change colors on the back issues tags once a quarter. But to type every back issue I have into my computer, and have it spit out custom bar-codes, so I can get a quarterly report on what items aren't pulling their weight, is likely to cost me an hour a day, if not more. The low-tech color-coded method accomplishes (effectively) the same general task as the high-tech POS system, but it doesn't significantly increase my work load. In much the same way, simply changing your racking and paper-work system away from the most obvious system (alphabetical) to a slightly more arcane system (by "genre"), you can achieve a much larger knowledge about the minutia of your business without significantly adding to your work load.
You need this type of information to keep your profitability high, as the rest of the industry tries to take that margin away from you.
Brian Hibbs owns Comix Experience. Write to him at 305 Divisadero St., San Francisco, CA, 94117, fax him at (415) 863-9299, or e-mail him at 70314.3013@Compuserve.com (soon that will be COMIXEXPERIENCE@Compuserve.com -- and he can't wait for that day!)