Friday, March 07, 2008

Countdown to Extinction or Lifelong BFF's? Exploring the Storefront Versus Internet Comic Shop

Earlier this week I asked for suggestions on a new place to buy books from. For various reasons, we want to make a change, and I was hoping for assistance. Lucky for me, I had thoughtful, educated assistance from you folks, and I am going to work with my hubby to do the research this weekend. What I didn’t anticipate was a discussion that started with regards to “bricks and mortar” loyalty. I think that this is a much needed conversation, and I am interested in hearing your opinions on this.

For much of my life, I have walked into either a grocery store or a retailer shop to purchase my books. The last fifteen years, I have mainly bought from our local shop, with the exception of a six to nine month period where we bought from the Mile High NICE program. I have always found comfort in a routine, and knowing that I could pick my books up weekly has filled that void.

One problem I face on a regular basis is the lateness of the books, whether by Diamond, UPS, or the retailer being unavailable to pick up the books at the local UPS warehouse. Because of my work and my commitment to fitness and the community, I have very limited time to allow for schedule changes. I have also been faced with apathy and derision from time to time from these mostly kind folks I have had a long relationship with. It is a bit confusing and awkward, and too involved to go into, so let me just say that the time has come to make a change.

The situation I face in doing so is that our town only has one comic book shop. Any alternative would mean at least an hour’s drive. That isn’t going to cut it. My alternative is getting my comics by USPS, UPS, or one of the lovely shipping companies, and to receive them from a reliable distributor, whether it is a brick and mortar shop that provides that service or an internet based store.

Do I think the day of the brick and mortar shop is over? No. Why Not? As a consumer there is still the comfort of human contact and relationships. Also, there are several top notch retailers out there who provide great service and have made long lasting customers. I have also found that the majority of comic book readers I speak to like to go browse before purchasing. This is bad for the purist but great for spurring extra sales.

Storefront retailers encounter their share of problems in flaky customers and the “babysitting” service some parents mistakenly think they provide. They also have to keep a good faith that their customers will purchase what they ordered in Previews or have on their pull list. We have one customer in town who has been blackballed on most of the East side of Washington for special ordering thousands of dollars of manga and comic statues and books and never picking them up. I know these folks exist, and they are just waiting for a new shop to open to try and dupe the new guy or girl on the block.

I think there is also a market segment that appreciated the expediency of the internet experience. Order it and it shows up on the doorstep. Nice. Concerns that the handling of the credit or debit card is secure may detract but for others it makes the ease of purchase one step better then trying to write a check every week at the local store.

Okay, enough rambling from me on this topic. I would love to hear your thoughts. Mortar and brick versus online? Is there an extinction factor or will customers always maintain a loyalty? Let’s talk.


Elayne said...

Actually, I was kind of hoping you'd throw the discussion open insofar as the "lateness" thing. Why do you feel you can't read comics, for instance, a week or a month after they come out? Online community pressure? Nothing else to read? I'm curious because I'm no longer tied to the "must buy everything as soon as it comes out" mentality, due to lots of circumstances (some of the books in our DC comp box being at least a month old, my inability to get to the store where I shop on a regular basis, etc.), and I really don't miss the Must-Have Wednesday mentality at all.

James Meeley said...


Well, I don't want to speak for Heidi, but being her husband, I can say that there are a couple of factors that I notice on why getting stuff long after it's ship date could make for a problem.

1) Some titles she just really enjoys. Like Woner Woman, for example. She'd make the book daily if she could, just so she could read more of it. So, to know it's already out, but you have to continue to wait to read it, is a sort of slow torture for a series you really enjoy.

2) Heidi also likes to keep up with the comic blogging community. So of them aren't very considerate about spoiling a new book's story, just hours after it has been released. If she waited long periods of time for her books, there'd be a lot of blogs and websites she'd have to stop going to, because of that. Which, of course, would affect her blogging, as well, since there are less places she'd feel safe enough to go to and link or look for interesting thoughts by them to discuss.

So, these two bits just come right off the top of my head on why getting the books when they are released is shuch a big deal to her (and many others, I'd gather).

Lisa said...

Because there are enough people "our age" that have purchased paper comics since we were kids the direct market brick and mortar store continues to do well, thankfully. But in 10 or 20 years - who knows. My prediction is that the good ones will continue to do well and those that do not modernize, clean up and treat customers with respect will be the ones that fail.

While there are several mail order comic shops that do a great job, they typically do not offer the same kind of service a brick and mortar store does. Mail order can offer you discounts, fast shipping, returns... but they don't usually make suggestions for comics you should try, they don't contact indie publishers or creators and try to find out more about their works and support those people. They typically don't contribute to comic book industry fund raisers or participate actively/publically in the comic book community (a couple do, but not most). They mostly just move product - efficiently and cheaply. That's one reason why mail order, both in regular books and comics, has not overtaken the store. That and our silly compulsions where we just have to run and pick up something right away or see something cool and decide that we must have it.

I have always wondered why people continue to shop at a comic book store they don't like. There are so many excellent stores now! Why support a store that doesn't treat fans and the industry with respect? Now, it becomes more difficult if there isn't one of those good stores in your area. But I have always told people that I'd rather have them shop on line than support a brick and mortar store that doesn't deserve their business. There ARE plenty of brick and mortar direct market stores that also do mail order. If you feel like your LCS isn't treating you, a comic book fan, the way they should, and figure you are probably not the only one, then spend your hard earned cash with a store that will, even if they have to ship comics to you. If there are a couple of comics you HAVE to have right away maybe see if your local book store has some, or grocery store - many other retailers carry a small selection of comic books now. Or only buy those one or two comics from that store and get the bulk via a good store or mail house.

The only other option - you and James open a store yourselves. Sure, I know you're probably not in a financial position to do that right now, but I still think the two of you would be DAMN good at it.

James Meeley said...

The only other option - you and James open a store yourselves. Sure, I know you're probably not in a financial position to do that right now, but I still think the two of you would be DAMN good at it.


You are probably right about that, but knowing you could do a good job isn't what matters in opening a business. It's all about money-money-money-money... MONEY! And just between you and me (and everyone else who'll read this ;)), I've really come to HATE money, with a white hot passion I usually only reserve for obnoxious jackasses, who I'd like the beat the living hell out of with my bare hands.

Still, if you know a place where we could pick up a quick 100K easy, we'd probably start one. :)

Heidi Meeley said...

Elayne, Jim hit it pretty well. I feel a great deal of frustration about having to avoid other websites if I haven't seen or read a particular book. That is a huge factor for me. Also, there are a few books that I really look forward to and love to read. When a new issue of 100 Bullets hits, I can barely wait to get home and read it. It is that kind of excitement and anticipation that keeps comic book reading fresh for me.

The fact that I am considering the move from a brick and mortar store to a mail order service shows that I am willing to forego instant gratification for good service. As much as it makes me unhappy, it is the way things must go and I will adapt.

Excellent question. It made me really think things through.

Heidi Meeley said...

Lisa, I agree with what you had to say. The older readership experiences a comfort level that can't be beat by the internet experience. I prefer a long, fruitful relationship to do my business with rather then the computer. I enjoy the human experience and the occasional debate. I also think that you are very correct in the fact that a person can offer suggestions and guide their customers to new material much better then an internet site.

It is really painful to make that transition. I wish I lived in your town. Truly. It would make my life very simple, because I would have such a high level of confidence and comfort. Unfortunately, our local retailer is going through a transition of employees and basic principles of business that are making our loyalty come into question.

Stores that will make a bit of a modern transformation will last while the old school ones will not. It is sad but true.

Your comments here are invaluable, Lisa. I wish that someday Jim and I could start our own shop. We would call and pester you for help!

David Beard said...

I teach, among other things, a smattering of marketing talk to English majors so that when they graduate, they can compete for something besides Grad School. This week, I was reading a report on the indy bookstore market. States like Wyoming and Idaho have a higher per-capita number of bookstores than New York. The reason is, sparsely populated areas generate indy bookstores, mega-populated areas generate big box bookstores.

I have no idea what to do with that, but I wonder whether some analogy to the comics world might be worth exploring, as a way of thinking through the future of the LCS. I look at Milwaukee, (spitting distance from Neptune, I think) as it crawls toward becoming a one-shop town (one shop, four locations), and I see that "Big Box" effect in action.


Lisa said...

James & Heidi - you both just need to move over here to Wisconsin in another year or two. Then we'll put you in charge of Neptune 2! Unfortunately Washington State is just too far away for a second location.

But seriously - Craig and I were by no means wealthy when we started our shop. We got a second mortgage on our house and a loan from the SBA via their Women's initiative. Even then we had about half the money most recommended we should have to open - but since Craig had a full-time job that could just about support us if we cut back on things, we went ahead anyway. The store was pretty bare at first, but over time we built it up into something we're proud of. Most people don't even know or remember the days when we had a total of 20 graphic novels. Those that do smile fondly and are also proud that they've gotten to witness the growth of the store - almost feeling like they had a hand in it too because they shopped here from the beginning. Still, it wasn't easy for us and I don't recommend it to anyone that doesn't have a love for comics and the ability to live on one income for a while.

Lisa said...
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