(This column was originally published in Comics Retailer #123, April 2002.)
There's something remarkable about the comics business these days. Like I had to tell you.
Every week it seems there's a buzz about one product or another. There's anticipation for the Spider-Man movie the likes we haven't seen since Batman in 1989, and I'm noticing big interest from former Spider-fans finding their way back to the fold. Reinvigorated longtime readers are genuinely enthused about titles across the comics' spectrum. Steadily and surely, sell-in numbers are trending up on major new title introductions.
Conventional wisdom has it that Marvel is responsible for leading the charge back with its new management team and radical shift in editorial openness. While most definitely an integral part of the current market growth, I believe this sales surge goes back before the advent of the Jemas/Quesada tenure at Marvel.
I'm convinced the upswing we're enjoying now was born at the end of the last strong market. Back then DC Comics took care to develop its fledgling book program and that has grown into a constantly amazing, thriving back-list market. Through several down years for our entire industry, DC leadership never lost the clear vision of building a long-term foundation by giving special attention to its trade paperback publishing program.
On top of back-list growth came the Pokemon phenomenon. I had seen fads before, but Pokemon accomplished something unique. First, many retailers credit the Poke-cards as the life preserver for their stores when comics kept trending down. The first issue of Pokemon Adventures from VIZ, with something like a dozen different printings, became the best-selling single issue comic book of 1999 after its November '98 release. Importantly, Pokemon moved younger males to buy into a different section of our stores.
Females, both young and adult, have been the core audience for much of the manga sold in the US for many years. RanMa 1/2 tpbs were already evergreen even back then and TokyoPop's Sailor Moon got off to a stellar start in the summer of '98, but the infusion of new readers for Pokemon, then later DragonBall and Gundam Wing, accomplished something that even the best shoujo manga couldn't do. Getting young males back into comic book stores and getting them to buy comics from a whole new area of our stores, was a significant step in turning the market around.
Among other factors giving our current market a better chance for a longer positive run? The previously mentioned arrival of Marvel's new editorial direction (geared at much older male readers)---- the continuing, unabated successes of vital back-list programs from DC, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, VIZ and other many other publishers--- the introduction and promotion of Cross-Gen---the Internet's exhaustive coverage of comic-related news and gossip--- and the media successes of X-MEN, Ghost World and From Hell. It all adds up to a much more vibrant market for comics and related cool stuff.
Realize my opinion is definitely open for plenty of debate and discussion. The market as a whole is getting better and is reaching higher sales in a healthier way than we did during the last comics boom a decade ago. What lies ahead is a potentially continuous sales surge for comics for years to come. There are still major holes left in making a more substantial recovery, perhaps the most important of which is the need for more new stores so that more new readers can find the breadth of engaging material available in comics form right now.
Here, then, are some thoughts on making the most out of this continually positive business climate.
We should recognize up front that business does run in cycles. Experiencing both the highs and the lows of the last ten years, we know that no cycle, whether improbably positive or darn-near dead negative, lasts forever. If history is any indicator, and it usually is, this upswing is good for a run of probably two to four more years, barring exceptional circumstances. That would include things such as rapidly increasing inflation, prolonged instability on the world stage that has an effect in the US, such as other, more sustained 9/11-like calamities.
Just how long the growth can be sustained, even with all other factors remaining somewhat constant, will be determined by how we choose to move forward. With a steady stream of movies and other media events that point back to comics as their source, things look promising. With our historically fractured industry coming together for Free Comic Book Day, I hope that mutually beneficial spirit of cooperation will continue. Knowing how things fell apart with the bust of the speculators' market, perhaps we can steer in a better direction this time, based on entertainment and content rather than fads and packaging.
It's vital to know what your precise financial position is at all times. Retailers trying to get by solely on credit give themselves a false sense of financial security.
One of the reasons my business successfully weathered the lengthy storm of the down market was that I rarely accepted terms from any supplier of goods or services. As a matter of fact, it was only when I was unable (for a short time) to pick up my weekly shipment from a local warehouse that I even got terms from Diamond. My philosophy has always been that if my business couldn't pay for something at the time of purchase, we'd do without. But paying cash has often saved me money and has rarely kept me from making necessary capital improvements.
No matter the circumstances, knowing your cash position at all times is crucial to making key business decisions. When you know just where you are financially, your vision is much clearer for continuing to steer your business in a positive direction.
A strong market is not the time to rest on meager laurels. While it's fun to kick back and enjoy the ride, there is no bad time to be preparing the next push. I'd really like to wake up our market to the fact that people do still like comics, if only they could find them. The success of my recent advertising program has convinced me that even without industry growth from new stores, there's plenty of growth to be had from same store sales.
According to Plunkett Research Ltd, "Retailing in America has undergone a very painful and revolutionary retrenching over the past ten years, and big changes will continue to evolve." Among the trends that should hold particular interest for comics retailers, Plunkett's cites:
1) "Continued decline of the mom-and-pop store." The comics specialty store market is fairly unique in retailing. I still don't see any true chain stores breaking into comics, so I don't see the mom-and-pop store decline in our market the way it may be throughout the rest of the business world.
2) "Continuous changes in demographics, tastes and fashions." There's a clear difference with our emerging market now and the high cycle we experienced a decade ago: our current recovery is something that is happening across most demographics and tastes. When disparate media offerings like Ghost World and Spider-Man can both have positive effects to our collective bottom line, diversity really becomes a shield against 'continuous changes.'
3) "Entertainment as a major draw to the retail environment." The culture of comics is has never been more prevalent in all other entertainment media. It is incumbent upon us, as the retailers of that culture to the rest of the world, to make our stores as engaging and dynamic as possible. Consumers will come to our stores not only for what we sell, but also for the appealing environment that we create around the product.
As business continues to head north, retailers need to keep making smart choices---and some gut decisions---about ordering levels. My motto when I have some comfort level with a product is 'Order strong 'til proven wrong.' One idea is to get aggressive with the titles that you and your staff can whole-heartedly stand behind. Personal recommendations make a very strong sales tool.
This business cycle presents a new set of circumstances with the emergence of associated product lines other than just comic books. Just how do we accurately project orders for tpbs, statues, toys, wall scrolls, etc? The answer is effective information management, allowing us to make informed orders based on experience, so we can push up orders based on our confidence in each product. Additionally, stale merchandise casts a poor light on a store, so be wary of continuing to give shelf space to products that just aren't moving.
The best time to make alliances with promotional partners is when your business looks like the coolest place to be. Whether it's setting up a major movie promotion with your local multiplex or simply trading coupons with other entertainment oriented retailers, use this burst of interest in comics to keep up the momentum.
... and try not to look small. Single store retailers need to be able to compete in the world of huge chain-store operations, even if those chains don't compete against us with our core product. I have just one 1800+ square foot store, but constantly get questions about whether we're part of a larger chain. That speaks to how the store looks, how the staff members respond to customer needs, what our signage looks like, etc. We're still a small business, but operationally we do try to do everything 'big'.
Use this new period of strong sales to re-examine your store policies and services. What we lack in terms of the sheer number of locations we should be able to make up for in terms of how our single store operations look, and how we deal with our customers. Petty things like surcharges for debit card usage on small purchases or restrictive return policies are things that make a store look small and leave poor and lasting impressions with customers.
I've noticed in my 15 years in this business that customers are also somewhat cyclical. I'm starting to see some familiar fair-weather fans from years ago. Some are back to try to make a quick buck because comics are getting more popular again, but many seem to be back for the fun, because they know that the first place to find the cool stuff is in our stores. Let's hope this time we can all stay on track and keep them coming back for many more years to come.
(For more information about Plunkett's Retail Research, go to www.plunkettresearch.com . Joe Field owns Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff, 2980 Treat Blvd, Concord CA 94518. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.)