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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Business Investment in Free Comic Book Day

DSGCW opens at 10:00 a.m. on Saturdays.  At opening on May 2nd, there was a line of customers outside the front door stretching all the way to the Copper Still restaurant.  By 2:00 p.m., we had completely run out of Free Comic Book Day giveaway books, despite my having ordered more than double our book load from the previous year.

Moreover, the day was a smashing success as far as the number of new faces I saw in our building.  Despite cost, which I will discuss in this article, the ROI for the resources I allocated to Free Comic Book Day created results now and should continue to create results well into the future.  From a business perspective, FCBD is an investment that paid off on multiple levels.

FCBD 2014 had been our first; we added comics as a category in late 2013.  For that first FCBD we ordered a book count that fit within our budget.  We did not end up giving them all out.  It wasn't even close.  We had entire longboxes left.  Despite that, with the growth of our comics trade and with some advertising budget opening up thanks to discontinuing an advert that wasn't working -- more on that in a moment -- I went in heavy for 2015 to ensure we would be on the Diamond Locator as a Gold Sponsored location or whatever they called it.  We had a very healthy load of books this year to give away, and it was nowhere even close to enough.  By midday I was gathering any giveaway goods I could lay my hands on and putting them on the tables for people to take.  Free intro Magic decks from Wizards of the Coast, free magazines and posters, overflow regular comics, anything not nailed down that had some conceivable promotional value.

We had engaged in a Register Tapes advert from November through April.  This placed our logo and coupon redeemable for 10% off any item onto the back of grocery store receipts in the immediate vicinity.  This seemed like a promising advertising channel -- it was simple, moms would see it and could direct their children accordingly, it was family friendly -- and it did not work in the slightest.  We redeemed a single-digit number of coupons in half a year.

The entire point of an advert like the Register Tapes coupon is to generate arrivals.

Generating arrivals is really what "advertising and promotion" is for.  It's true that some amount of promotion is intended to keep existing customers excited and happy, but a business cannot rely on that effect alone.  One can only get dollars out of the same customers so many times before attrition occurs.  We have some extremely dedicated regulars, but I do not expect a given "spending level" out of them, even though that is what ends up happening.  I expect to have to earn their business every time.  But even if I'm running perfect on customer service -- and that's a tall order -- life happens and sometimes a regular moves away, or loses interest, or has financial hardship, or what have you.  And even still an advert can generate an arrival from an existing or lapsed customer.  But the best outcome of an advert is one that generates arrivals from people who have never visited before.  That source of new blood is how a business replenishes its customer base and keeps it healthy.

So, to generate an arrival is a positive thing in most cases.

An inviting storefront can entice a passerby to walk in.  Location, lights and signs, et cetera.  It's possible that person is perfectly normal but has no interest in what we do, in which case it's a neutral outcome and you have a chance to be friendly to a visitor and maybe exchange a smile.  And you never know who that person might encounter and pass on a good word about the store.  Such an accidental arrival can also be a negative if some bum or meth-head comes in and is disruptive or potentially threatening.  Even if they are being harmless, your typical affluent mother is not going to want to let her teenaged children hang out at a place that attracts transient loiterers.  So stores have to monitor for that.  But those arrivals, when they happen, are typically accidental and are generated, at most, by the storefront being there.

Advertising and promotion hopes to go a step further.  There are two branches that interest us the most.  The first is generating an arrival from a person who is already interested in the hobby -- an existing comic collector, for example, newly moved to the area, or perhaps a Magic: the Gathering player whose previous watering hole has gone downhill.  This is excellent because the person is already acclimated to spending money on the very goods and services we have on offer.  The second is generating an arrival from a person who is experiencing their initial exposure to the hobby, or almost so -- they are new overall, or perhaps this is their crossover from a related hobby, like when a kid who enjoys Marvel super hero toys gets her first read of Marvel comics based on those characters.  This is the best possible arrival from a business point of view: truly "new blood."

New blood is crucial on several fronts.

A collector or player involved in the hobby will always have a "first store" beyond casual contact at Target or Wal-Mart or what have you.  A "first store" that is an industry comic or game store.  Their experiences at that store set the metric for what they consider "acceptable" from other stores they will eventually visit.  They have no preconceived notion beyond perhaps seeing the comic store on Big Bang Theory or elsewhere in fiction.  It is a chance for a welcoming atmosphere, a clean facility, a smiling staff, a great inventory, and a positive experience to lock in an expectation for that customer that will make your store naturally resilient to competition.  If you are a "gamer pit," it won't take much for another store to wow your new-blood customer away. If you are a gorgeous boutique where it is fun to shop, it is much more difficult for the brand-new Magic closet down the block to attract and keep your customer.  Beyond having to generate the arrival themselves, once one of your first-store customers walks in the door of that closet, the customer will think, "This place is a joke.  Why would I ever come here and not go to DSG?"  And that is precisely the reaction you want them to have.

Beyond the first-impression effect, new blood is great because they don't already own all the games and comics yet.  They do need copies of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Dominion.  They do need the trade paperbacks that cover the past issues of their comic book of choice.  They do need dice and sleeves, even more so than your typical grinder needs dice and sleeves.  Your entire Magic inventory is "live" to them.  They do need comic storage boxes, bags and boards, and by golly depending what titles they like, they may quickly branch out into multiple ongoing series.  A strong proportion of my comic box subscribers right now have exactly four titles in their pull: Marvel Star Wars, Marvel Darth Vader, Marvel Princess Leia, and Marvel Kanan the Last Padawan.  As Leia ends in June, they'll likely move to Lando and whichever others come over the horizon.  Many of those customers were new to comics and new to DSG when they arrived.  Those were outstanding arrivals for us to generate.

So, while most arrivals you can generate are good, and some are great, a subset of those arrivals are the best possible arrivals of all.  New blood is the key.  Advertising and promotion has to address all those audiences, but in particular a business hopes to attract new blood.

Facebook is a revelation in how it does this, because of targeting.  Some adverts are best targeted to "people who Like your page and their friends," because you know the advert is for things they will be excited about.  However, the reach toward new blood in that subset is limited.  Friends of your page Likers is a good audience, but not the widest possible net to cast.  To reach new blood, you have to target people with given interest subsets, without spamming interest tags too thinly.  This takes some practice and finesse and is beyond the scope of this article, but the tools are there.  Facebook's Scrooge-McDuck-Vault-of-Money did not come into their possession by accident, folks.

What about reaching people beyond Facebook?  Well, a proven winner is movie theater screen adverts, which is why theaters charge so much for those impressions.  Down the road we will take that approach also.  Television is also a proven winner for our industry, even if the advert is rudimentary.  The exposure is there and people do watch TV.  Beyond that the options dwindle.  Options like EDDM (direct mail and direct placement of paper materials) are touted as effective, but observational experience indicates otherwise, and besides that our mostly young, mostly tech savvy, mostly progressive customer base strongly dislikes needless pollution of the environment by slaying generations of trees to generate advertising paper.  As we saw, the Register Tapes route did not bear fruit.  Radio and web banner advertising is of extremely limited efficacy.  Convention appearances and vendor tables can be extremely good if it's the right convention for the audience, but that takes resources and labor above and beyond most advertising and promotion, so it's not as automatic as it may appear.

You know what really, really works to generate new arrivals chock full of potential new blood?  Industrywide store-tied promotions.  You know, like Free Comic Book Day!  There are others, of course:

  • International Tabletop Day in April does reasonably well, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago.
  • Magic: the Gathering Prerelease Events have some reach and Wizards of the Coast does a lot of promotional heavy lifting to drive customers to game stores, but that is of course limited to people who already know about Magic, though many may be neophyte players.  (This is still an excellent addressable audience overall).  
  • Free RPG Day in June can be great if your store is deep in the category.  DSGCW is not -- we carry D&D, Pathfinder, the Star Wars RPGs, and the Warhammer RPGs, and that's it.  At this stage in the game we're not rooted deeply enough to go broader than that in RPGs, so our neighbor stores in the metro area like Imperial Outpost Games in Glendale capture that audience extremely well.  
  • American Express's Small Business Saturday in late November can be a great source of new arrivals, in particular potential new blood that also has money to spend, since your typical AMEX cardholder is affluent and has good credit.

But Free Comic Book Day, for sure, is about the strongest of these.

So, knowing that Free Comic Book Day hits all the marks for generating arrivals of mostly new blood and overall an extremely optimal audience -- and that this is proven year after year in observational practice by stores in the industry -- obviously, a store will want to order a lot of giveaway books for FCBD.  Why not just order far, far more?

The limiting factor is that stores do have to pay for the giveaway books.  It's not full wholesale, but is instead on the level of 25 to 50 cents per book.  However, multiply by quantity in the thousands and you can see how it would add up quickly, and that keeps us from ordering gargantuan amounts of giveaway books every year.  Ultimately it has to come from the advertising and promotion budget.  In fact, this year I let our cash flow get pinched because I didn't realize we would get charged for FCBD several weeks in advance.  I thought I had until my usual Diamond terms window after arrival to take care of it.  Whoops!  So that made April much more stressful than it needed to be, but fortunately we were able to absorb that cost in the normal flow of business.

Nevertheless, for 2016 I am going to order more than double again our 2015 order, depending on what qualification tiers exist at Diamond and what we might be able to reach by stretching a book quantity here or there.  I will know when to expect the bills to arrive and prepare accordingly.  With a second FCBD under my belt, my first while having full operations of the store personally, I will be able to prepare better in many ways.  Next time around I hope to attract some industry special guests, an option I deliberately left aside this time out of concern that if I spread my preparation resources and attention too thin, I would do a poor job of everything rather than a good job of core things and omitting the rest.  Depending on a number of variables, FCBD 2016 might also be our last at our current facility, or our first at our next facility, or some transitional combination of the two.  We shall see.

What I do know is that, regardless of exactly what I do with it, Free Comic Book Day 2016 will generate new arrivals thick with new blood.  And I really, really want to see those people and make a positive impression on them when they visit the store.  It is up to me to determine what I can do to ensure that Desert Sky Games and Comics becomes the first store, or the new watering hole, for as many of those arriving visitors as possible.  For that outcome, the business investment I make will absolutely be worth it.

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