Saturday, February 6, 2016

Building For Tomorrow: Comics Merchandising

I'm going to try to hit this theme, Building For Tomorrow, once a month or so until our eventual expansion, when it will become a lot less planning and a lot more building it all up.

Desert Sky Games became "and Comics" in November 2013, but comics didn't really hit their stride until about a year ago.  The personnel and workflow sides of the equation have improved many times over since that clumsy beginning, and I'm starting to get really happy with those.  (Not coincidentally, in late 2015 comics became reliably profitable at healthy metrics.)

What I still have not mastered is comics merchandising.  I was surprised on my way into the category at just how unintuitive it is.  Books on racks, right?  How complicated can that be?  It turned out there was a lot more to the equation:

  • Books sell better when faced out, not when cascaded or browse-binned, but this takes up the most space and fixture.
  • Books keep better when bagged and boarded, but it's not practical to bag and board new releases for the rack.
  • Some fixtures damage books, introducing wear patterns, dents, and the like, which serious comic buyers take as a signal that this store doesn't care about their collecting needs.
  • It's actually okay to have previous issues behind the current issue in the "recent" racks.  Comics buyers will happily shop the stacks.  They actually enjoy doing so quite a bit, especially when working on closing out a recent run or miniseries they joined in progress or just missed.
  • Movement of merchandise from one fixture to another needs to cause as little physical distress to the books as possible.

There are no fixtures out there that address all these issues at the same time.

My first attempt at comic fixtures was to use what we had, which was slatwall, with what we could obtain inexpensively, which was angled wire racking.  It looked bad and was merchandised worse, if that's even possible.  I don't even remember any other rationale I used at the time in deciding to install this stuff, but I do remember I left it alone for a depressingly long time out of need to upgrade more central revenue lines first.  As recently as a year ago, here is how my new release wall looked:

And here is my new release wall now:
The difference is striking.  How did we get from there to here?  In stages.  And there is another stage still to go, when my new releases are in fixtures more resembling this:
Or even more likely, for need of maximum capacity, resembling this:
Those comic wedges are manufactured by Skyline Designs and, to my knowledge, nobody else ever.  If you know otherwise, please speak up, because Skyline doesn't let you off easy at the cash register.  It's one of those things that's important enough that I am willing to pony up the funds, but obviously I need to do my diligence and make sure I am not overlooking a competitive option.

You may observe that the old wall had the books bagged and boarded.  At the time I was receiving perhaps 250 books per week, maybe not even that.  As a comic store, DSG was a pretender.  These days it's a rare week when I'm under ten times that figure in new books.  And I am still not big by pure comic specialty store standards.  Jesse James Comics across town can probably fit one of my weekly Diamond invoices in the margins of one of theirs.

The new release wall wasn't the only place where I was fumbling the ball and watching haplessly as it bounced to and fro.  Behold the inadequacy of my recent release wall at the time:

Some of the defects in that design are apparent and some are not.  Having the back issues on tables was bad because of the weight of the boxes; the tables bowed inward.  I have them on steel racking now and it's not pretty but it holds them up extremely durably.  The wire racking with the four issue cascade was nice for capacity, but extremely poorly built and weighed just slightly less than an aircraft carrier.  Worse, the wire was powder-coated and actively damaged the books.  Bagging and boarding them for that display was not optional, it was mandatory, meaning labor and materials expense.  The rest of the racking clashed considerably because it was white, but at least was not harmful to the merchandise.  I saved all that white wire racking for a future new store location in case we should find a suite that's already slatwalled in white or some color compatible with white.  It might be three or four years down the road, but it's not costing me anything to hold on to it, versus the cost of new fixture, which always adds up even for the cheap stuff.

Here is my recent release area now:

Like my new release wall, I took a cue from some good stores in other states and used wire racking that stood the books up a little better and faced them solidly toward the shopper.  You can see more readily on the new release wall photo earlier that every book position has a thick plastic black divider board to hold the books without allowing wire frame marks to their back covers, since the books are not bagged and boarded anymore (except variants).  This also stabilizes and flattens the overall hold of the book, addressing the problem of spine dents to a great extent.  Spine dents are impossible to eliminate entirely, but right now the options that are slightly gentler to them, such as more angular diagonal racks, are poorer options in other respects, especially for the diminishing returns they present for that issue.  If and when I go to the comic wedges, I will continue the practice of backing each book position with a plastic divider.  The wedges have the hazard of impressing a crease onto the back cover if the book sits too long.  Divider backing eliminates that concern.

Speaking of issues: For back issues, I still just have white longboxes, which it appears is common in the industry.   They are on steel racking, as I noted above.  Skyline, again, offers an option for stores whose floors are paved with gold:

I like it, but I think it's probably possible to adapt a conventional fixture for this part of the deployment and not end up paying freight.  I am also not a fan of drawers as they conceal merchandise from the shopper's direct sight.  Anything that takes product away from shopper access has to have a pretty damned good security or logistics justification or I oppose it.  "Backstock" is a four-letter word to me; there's a reason Costco and Target build giant power displays when they have a lot of inventory of an item or product grouping.  Projecting abundance stimulates sales.  Putting a few copies (or, gasp, one copy) of a game or book on the shelf is much worse.  Not only could you miss sales in between cycling the next copy out, but a lot of people will look suspiciously at a singleton and wonder what's wrong with it that it's the last one and is still sitting there unbought.  (If the item becomes hot and difficult to find, this is less of a problem, as the customer can brag about "getting the last one.")

My back-issue racking is the same as what you see here in this photo from Coliseum of Comics in Florida:
I like their plastic boxes for the back issues, and I may go this route.  Like them, I use the undershelves for comic storage supplies and the like.  It needs some spiffing up but it's a very functional arrangement.

With expansion on my mind, what I'm really hoping to do is scale up while keeping the accessible, inviting, welcoming attributes of my comic rack and fixture.  Here is how comics scale up when they scale way up, in this photo from Mile High Comics in Colorado:

I don't see that happening for DSG for a few years yet, but it's not actually that impossible once you get the core merchandise movement and presentation done right.  After that it's just a matter of constructing additional pylons.  You can't tell me a comic collector wouldn't revel in a place like Mile High.  I bet you could get lost in there for hours.  I bet I would struggle to get out the door for less than fifty bucks on any given visit, if not more.  That's the moonshot, right there.

So the software infrastructure is well in progress -- I've just put up the funds for ComicSuite, which I discussed in the previous article in this series -- and with the technical backbone in place I should be able to achieve much greater fine-grained control over comic stock deployment and movement.  Our eBay comic sales have been on the increase and we have the physical mechanics for that pretty well realized.  It's just a matter of elbow grease now: building and processing and repeating.  On the front end, Patrick and Dustin and the staff get books into the hands of readers.  Achievement Unlocked: Comic Book Store.

I'll come back to this topic again in March.  Anyone have any suggestions for next week?  Questions, items you'd like me to riff on?  Email your thoughts to me using our web contact form.  Thanks and have a great week!

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