Robot 6

Comic stores vs. the economy: a grim tale of two retailers

Comic Evolution

Economic forces continue to take a toll on comic retailers — online stores and brick-and-mortar shops alike — a gloomy reality illustrated by two recent developments.

The first comes from Khepri Comics, the 12-year-old Internet bookseller specializing in independent comics and the works of creators like Brian Wood, Becky Cloonan, Ross Campell and Cliff Chiang. According to owner Brian Johnson, it’s been a brutal past few months, with “gross ‘summer’ revenue” down 43 percent versus 2009, and 58 percent versus 2008. “Sorry — one more summer of decline, and Khepri is done,” he writes on the store’s blog.

“Sure, the economy is crap,” Johnson says in a follow-up with The Beat. “Undoubtedly, downloading (legal or otherwise) must takes its toll. But excuses won’t pay the bills. So I’ll redouble my efforts and see what the next twelve months bring.”

As Johnson suggests in his nod to downloading, he doesn’t think the recession is solely to blame for Khepri’s declining revenues.

“It’s tough sledding out there competing with Amazon’s free shipping, Hastings’ new impetus, Mile High’s incredible selection, Midtown’s dogged advertising, and on and on,” he continues. “At the same time, Marvel is now Disney, DC is Time Warner, Comic-Con International is now Hollywood, and only Big Business is Too Big To Fail. It may be sluggish yet, but the future is now – this is the new comics industry, this is the new global economy. Where, exactly, do I fit in?”

Meanwhile, as Puyallup, Washington, retailer Comic Evolution heads into its third anniversary next month, owner Chuck Messinger reveals he has experienced a decrease in business of more than 60 percent in recent months.

“In years past, it has been safe to assume everyone is enjoying their summer and will get back to reading the good stuff in the off months,” Messinger writes on the store’s Facebook page. “This year we have not even made enough to cover invoices since June.”

In addition to “the harsh reality of this economic downturn,” Messinger lays blame on subscription customers who abandoned their accounts without notifying the store, leaving him “to write off more than $30,000 this year in neglected subscription files.”

In the Facebook plea, titled “State of Evolution: Save Our Store,” Messinger asks for subscription customers to bring their accounts up to date or at least notify the Comic Evolution that they’re unable to do so.

“For the first time since our opening in 2007, we are experiencing a financial crisis that unfortunately we may not be able to pull out of,” he writes. “Not having enough revenue to pay the utilities, the rent, and all necessary commodities has opened our eyes.”

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Comments

6 Comments

It’s a shame that most customers do not realize the effect they have on their local shops and that a drastic change in their buying habits without notice to their supplier will have ramifications. Most comic shops are run out of love and cannot survive without their repeat customers. As for Khepri, despite my personal friendship with Brian, he is really trying to do something unique with his shop and really focuses on pushing independent minded creators and their work. It’s too bad more people do not reward that bold mission statement.

The store I used to go to asked for a credit card when you signed up to be a reservist. After X amount of time went by and some phone calls letting you know that you had a ton of books in the store, you would get charged for them. Even video games make you put 5-10 bucks down to hold a copy. It would certainly benefit these stores to implement a similar policy.

You want a fix?

Lower the price of a comic book from $4 back down to $1, or at least less than $3.

I feel for the retailers, and I fear for them as well. I spent the past year working for my LCS during a time when sales were up. The store tripled its profits over previous years (after the end of one of our competitors) and things were looking like the market was stabilizing. I went by the store yesterday to pick up my books (forgot it wasn’t new comic day) and starting talking with the owner, who reported sales had dropped in the past month over 50%.

Subscription customers can be both a blessing and a curse to a store. Yes, it’s repeat business and is great in helping a store determine its ordering quantities, but when a customer decides to stop his or her comic buying for whatever reason without telling the store, that creates an instant loss. When I started at the store, it had dozens of customers that it hadn’t seen in over a year, but it was still pulling comics for them. We ultimately killed most of those pull lists, but the owner insisted on keeping alive the worst offenders, those who wanted more than 10+ comics a week pulled for them, in the desperate hope that these big spending customers would return to the hobby. By the time when i quit, only 2 of the 25 or so had come in to clear out their boxes during my year there while the majority of them closed their accounts without buying anything held for them.

That said, I am curious just how a store could allow their subscription customers to “cause” a $30,000 loss. In my example, our losses could have been mitigated if the owner had made a business decision instead of a personal one (most of those pull lists we kept around belonged to customers the owner considered as close friends) and we could have reduced our orders accordingly. Seems to me that someone was asleep at the wheel, so to speak.

My LCS’s experience was slightly different; a lot of his subscribers are/were military and National Guard. As these people got deployed, they would beg him to keep their subscriptions going, and promised to come back and buy everything. And of course they didn’t. They would come back, but almost every one of them had an excuse for not buying all the comics saved for them. He won’t do it any more, but he sure got burned a few years ago.

So, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the low-overhead Internet shop kills the high-overhead brick-and-mortar shop. Seems like an average day, complete with the “blame the customer” mentality, not the state of the industry which seems intent on providing ever-decreasing quality for ever-increasing price.

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