Comic Retailing – What will 2011 bring?

Brian Hibbs, a well known San Francisco retailer who has owned and managed Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989 and is a founding board member of ComicsPro, has long taken on the responsibility of comic retailing advocate.

Brian has written a sign post examination of the comic industry from the viewpoint of retailer and stakeholder, speculating on what the first quarter of 2011 will bring, and for the first time in a long time Brian is very industry critical: he expects the ghosts of comic publishing/retailing past will come back to haunt us next year. Brian’s expected results: many retailers closing up shop.

Brian receives a lot of criticism for being a cheerleader of the direct market comic book retailer amongst a certain segment of the comic industry. This is mainly because the way he compiles data, critiques sales with a view skewed towards a non-returnable viewpoint and, basically, runs his business, does not align with the beliefs of others. While these critics may be made up of various stakeholders, most are internet critics who are not financially leveraged in comics to the same degree as Brian, or any other retailer.

As relates to Canada, Brian looks at things from a very US-centric viewpoint; being a US based retailer, this makes sense. I do believe much of his analysis applies to Canadian comic retailers, but some of the economic perspective is not applicable. Yes, there is a recession, but Canada has not suffered the same decline that the American (and specifically California/San Francisco localized economy) has. If the US jobless rate is 9.3% (California being 12%), this is a huge hit versus 2007 when the jobless rate was 4.8%. As a comparison, Canada currently has a 7.6% unemployment rate. We should still recognize the differences in taxation between the nations, with Americans typically having a greater rate of take home pay and a lower rate of secondary taxation.

Still, Brian’s industry critique seems to be:

  • Event marketing of comics released by Marvel and DC has created a customer only interested in event books and their direct tie-ins, neglecting other titles
  • Line expansions on non-core Marvel and DC characters, multiple titles for the same Marvel and DC character, and multiple one-shots and mini-series of Marvel and DC characters have created a deluge of books that customers aren’t interested in
  • Deconstructed story lines have customers leaving periodicals
  • Price points for periodical comics is too high

This is a very interesting analysis for a number of reasons. Also, I think you can see what Brian’s critics focus on: his focus on Marvel and DC titles.

The worry within Brian’s regional market seems to be heightened by the news that Comic Relief, the Berkley-based comic institution, is on the verge of closing. ‘If one of comics institution stores can collapse, what does that hold for the rest of us?’ is the general notion here. Once we take into account the fact that Rory Root, the store’s founder and owner, passed away in 2008, we can see how a business as reliant on the passion of it’s owner and staff can fail without that keystone individual.

Another point mentioned by Brian in his article is that the “product offerings in January and February look really weak”. Basically, post-Christmas sales are traditionally low and the product that Marvel and DC are delivering is appears to be “weak”. That lack of interesting product, combined with traditionally low sales, could lead to store closings due to lack of cashflow. This is a real doom and gloom scenario presented by Brian, who, as I mentioned, is most often seen as a cheerleader.

What to do? That’s what I’d like to hear from other retailers. Would a retailers conference held at the 2010 Calgary Entertainment Expo be of interest to the retailing community? ComicsPro, the US based advocacy group who has annual meetings to discuss the business of comics retailing, has a board of directors member who is a prominent Canadian retailer. I think we can agree that the economics of the US is not the same as Canada, that we have our own home grown comic publishing industry that is not reflective of the US-based publishers that garner most of the attention, that the number of large cities and population distribution of Canada is not similar to the US; perhaps it’s time to have a Canadian edition of this event.

Does this sound like it be of interest or value to you? A Canadian retailers event where we can discuss our own experiences; the benefits of diversification within a small town market / population base; the product offerings of our Canadian-based publishers; improvements in marketing, layout, utilization of square footage, use of modern retailing practices; switching to a point of sale system for analysis of sales in your store; periodicals vs evergreen products; reaching out to new markets and audiences, finding the next generation of customers; making your comic shop a destination, hosting events; a real retailers event where we can tap into the experience and advice of other retailers in our country.

The goal wouldn’t be to have giant Toronto-based comic retailers come in and tell you how you should run your small town comic shop. I personally think that having a population base of 4 million people makes things a lot easier than being in a town of less than 150,000, which is much more reflective of the Canadian comic shop reality. Instead the goal would be to discuss ways to improve your business that can be gradual and be effective.

We would love to hear your feedback.


One thought on “Comic Retailing – What will 2011 bring?

  1. I’m generally not a fan of Mr. Hibbs’ Pollyanna-ish views due to his overwhelming doom and gloom, when things are going well he always predicts dark times ahead, and when it gets bad, he says “I told you things would be worse.”.

    What’s worse is that he fails to see societal trends as part of the reason for the reduced sales of comics.

    Unfortunately, it’s a fact, the massive changes that the Internet has brought has caused every other medium to suffer. Book sales, cd sales, DVD sales, even game sales have plummeted as people move to online media.

    What’s more, is there seems to be a movement afoot to “reduce stuff”. Personally I no longer buy CD’s, preferring to download them off iTunes. I haven’t bought a movie in forever either, and why should I when they’re constantly available on demand? I buy fewer periodical comics, and buy more trades (which I often give away after reading because I don’t have the space).

    One of the major differences between the US and Canada is why we opened All New Comics, there just aren’t enough comic shops outside of major metropolitan areas, while I don’t know exact numbers, I’d wager there are fewer than 300 comic shops across Canada these days, with many potential customers more than a 1 hour drive from a shop.

    This, more than any other factor is a huge barrier to entry.

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