Hastings – The First National Comic Store Chain In US?

We’re told the future of comics is digital. We’re told the comic store is a dying breed. We’re told it’s iPod uber alles. Someone disagrees. And is about to open up 127 new direct market comic outlets across the USA.

Hastings is a national media store, selling books, DVDs, games, music, that sort of thing. Of late, the word is that its music sales have suffered most significantly, as digital downloading takes the lion’s share.

But I was told that in response, the company was moving into comics. Big time. Already stocking graphic novels as part of their book mix, they had approached publishers and distributors nationally talking about increasing their comic books selection. Including selling brand new comics distributed by Diamond as well as stocking back issues in depth. In almost 130 stores nationwide.

In a stroke, this increases the number of direct market comic book sales outlets by a very significant margin. And makes Hastings one of the major players in the comic book industry, and effectively the first national chain of comic book stores in the US, an equivalent to a Forbidden Planet in the UK.

I called up James Parker, one of the central people at Hastings behind this move. He  not only confirmed the story to Bleeding Cool but agreed to exclusively speak to us regarding the move.

Rich: Twenty states. 147 stores. Hastings will effectively be the first national comic book store chain in the USA. Can you talk us through the decision to move strongly into this area?

James: With the decline of music last year (which has shown growth for us this past year), several of our key personnel and our CEO, John Marmaduke, saw great potential in comics as a growing market. They toured throughout the US visiting comic shops from major cities to small towns to gauge the question, “What makes a great comic shop?” They quickly learned Hastings already carried a large selection of product that most comic stores have, including action figures, graphic novels, Manga and more. What we were truly missing was the center piece that these shops carried, comics from Direct Market distribution.

After the decision was made to pursue the comic industry, two test stores were chosen to see what impact a full comic presence would make in our stores. These stores would contain 32 feet of new comic releases, 32 feet of back issues, 44 linear feet of Manga and graphic novels, an expansion in action figures, role playing books, comic-related merchandise and supplies among other things. Almost immediately, these stores showed a double-digit improvement in comic sales, and a significant sales increase within the department in which the comics are featured.

After the success of these two large expansions, our team began to move quickly with two exciting versions of comic layouts within our chain. One expansion mirrors our two test stores, while the other smaller version contains mostly comic new titles and back issues with 16 linear feet each. Out of the 147 stores, approximately 27 will have our large expansion and 100 will have the smaller comic expansions by the end of the year. Along with these expansions, we have added skateboards and the accessories one would need to enter the sport in our 27 large expansions.

Rich: By the sound of it, it’s very likely that, overnight, you are about to become the largest buyer of monthly comics in America. As a result, you will have a large amount of influence over what comics are sold and how they are sold. What kind of impact do you think you might have on the industry?

James:
Hopefully a very positive one. Hastings stores are typically in the small to medium size markets where comic shops are normally anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours away. This puts us in a position to provide comics to areas that have never had a local comic shop.

As we specialize in multiple forms of entertainment, we are not strictly a “comic book shop”. We sell and buy new and used video games, movies, books, and rent videos and games. As you know some of the biggest theatrical blockbusters have been based on comic properties. We recognize that comics have become an important part of popular media, such as movies, video games, and books giving us a unique opportunity to cross promote within these areas.

Rich: Comics is a diverse medium, rarely confined by any genre. Are there any general buying decisions that you can share, the kind of things that customers may expect to find?

James: Of course, like most markets our customers are very “Super-hero” oriented, so most of our selection will be from the two largest publishers in the field. However, we are not ignoring the medium-sized and indie publishers in our selection. Hastings has great relationships with all of the publishers in the industry, from the two biggest publishers to the smaller presses. As for back issues, we have been able to gather several large collections that we can offer for very reasonable prices in all of our stores.

Rich: Previous non-specialist store comic book coverage has tended to be sporadic and blanket, never having a real understanding of the product they’re selling or the audience it appeals to. How does Hastings intend to be different?

James: One of the first things we did was move our comics and graphic novels from our Book department to our lifestyles department because we felt the customers buying “trends” product (i.e. action figures, collectibles, accessories, etc) in our stores were also the customers who were into comics. Since we are a “total entertainment” chain, we will be able to offer more value with our products than other shops. We currently offer a “Comic of the Month” program singling out a specific comic each month getting front counter promotion in all of our stores. This becomes an impulse item that people who would normally not buy a comic find themselves picking them up. These comics will gain new readership, regain lapsed readers and solidify current fans. We have also been able to get exclusive variants for our comic of the month which has had great responses from customers.

Plus, as the buyer for this section, I am also a comic enthusiast. I have been collecting for many years and, when given the opportunity to over see the section, I immediately jumped on board. As a buyer for the category, I try to stay abreast on the news, and I also read a large variety of books to stay current.

Rich: Most comic store owners will say that customer taste radically alters from area to area. How does Hastings plan to reflect that in the product it stocks?

James
: Our system that we buy product through allows us to pinpoint which product sell in our different stores throughout the chain. As we grow, Hastings will be able to buy very specifically to our various regional tastes and give each store a unique selection. Hastings, as a company, has always recognized the diversity in our markets and we hope to be able to reflect that in our comic selection.

Richard: How does Hastings intend to cope with comics that may not sit with a family friendly audience. Both Marvel and DC have been running more mature storylines in their general superhero comic book line, and there are mature readers imprints such as MAX, Icon and Vertigo. Does Hastings envisage any issues with this kind of product? Or with more challenging comics such as Lost Girls?

James: Hastings has always been able to carry “edgy” material in our stores in most markets and we have a strong customer base to support those titles. We do recognize children and their parents shop in our stores and have taken steps to minimize the exposure to the more mature lines by providing a children’s spinner in our Kid’s department in most of our expanded stores. This spinner contains titles typically associated with children and helps us keep these sections separate. However, as I mentioned before, markets differ depending on where a store is located. We are very cognizant of our customers’ preferences. If a title is too much for some of our stores, we will take the most appropriate action at that time. One of the benefits to having Graphic Novels in our stores is that, if a comic is too edgy to carry in single issues, we can pick up a shrink wrapped copy of the graphic novel to offer customers as an option. Additionally, our systems can flag certain titles at the registers to not allow minors to buy the more adult titles. This allows us to carry high demand titles and give comfort to our customers.

Rich: The market trend seems to be away from printed materials towards digital offering. Hastings seems to be running against this perceived wisdom. I understand you’ve told publishers that the comic book expansion will replace a dwindling music market – replaced by digital downloads. Do you have any worries the exact same thing will happen with comics?

James
: Not in the near future. Comics in general have had ups and downs in the past 50 years. Hastings is very flexible with the current trends and will always find another venue to move into if needed. We don’t foresee comics dwindling anytime soon; there are too many people who enjoy having a collection on hand to show off!

Rich: How much of this is a commitment and how much is an experiment?

James: This is definitely a commitment. As the buyer, I am dedicated to the comic section and we are sending people to comic conventions nationwide to get a broad perspective on the industry. This is an investment Hastings has taken very seriously and has planned out very carefully in order to achieve the success we have seen in the past year. Of course, we are still learning about this industry as a company and are evolving as we go. Hastings is definitely taking a large stand in this industry and, already, the comic department is an important part of our stores.

I asked a number of retailers and publishers about their reaction to this news. Bleeding Cool proprietor William Christensen of Avatar responded

Hastings is a big supporter of Avatar Press and we are always pleased to see new stores opening, even more so when they are professionally run and supporters of Indy publishers like us.

Chris Powell of mycomicshop.com and Lone Star Comics in Texas told me;

We’ve counted Hastings among our retailing friends for a great many years, and look forward to working with them to broaden the comics market’s reach.

Two of the things the comics industry needs most are additional quality venues selling comics and greater exposure to those that are not already fans of the medium.  I think that this move on the part of Hastings will contribute to both, and will have a positive impact on the industry as a whole.  I think that specialty comic shops and mail order companies will continue to meet the needs of the majority of the customers that want to be “a regular” at a store that can relate to them and their hobby, and who can provide targeted recommendations and specialized services like filling back issue requests or maintaining subscriptions.  I hope that Hastings’ more “mass market” approach will serve to bring new customers into the hobby, which would certainly be a positive thing.

Rick Shea of Famous Faces & Funnies in Florida saw it less positively.

Although I wasn’t very familiar with Hastings before reading this interview, my feelings on this are certainly mixed. It looks like Hastings feels comics would be a great replacement for their dwindling music sales although trying to order such giant quantities for their 150 store chain is much easier said than done. It is kind of scary that some comic stores are now competing with a giant chain that has enough capital to become the largest Diamond account in such a short time. The hope for comic retailers is that new customers may be exposed to new comics or graphic novels through Hastings and then hopefully find their way into our stores that are more dedicated and knowledgeable about comics. The fear is that Hastings will cannibalize customers away from their local comic stores, although I hope that doesn’t happen.

I certainly hope that they manage to get new readers interested in our industry, although I’m sure it will cause trouble for stores that are located right near a Hastings store. I can’t imagine they’ll have as much luck juggling orders for all 150 stores instead of just the two test stores. The situation in our store is that the less people that know it’s a comic before seeing the movie, the better we do with it. While I’ve done okay with new faces around Iron Man 2, Spider-Man, Batman, or X-Men movies, I’ve done better with Kickass, Watchmen, Hellboy, Hellblazer (Constantine) and I’m sure I’ll do great with Walking Dead and Scott Pilgrim as people become more interested in those characters over the next few months. Once people realize it’s a comic book, they come searching for more info, although everyone knows that Batman and Spider-Man were originally comics. I know it sounds odd, but that’s been our experience with almost every film and we heavily promote with our local movie theater, Cinemaworld, four minutes from our shop on the same street.

I just fear that Hastings may now be the first place that movie fans are exposed to Walking Dead and Scott Pilgrim instead of their local comic store, but I’m sure some new people will be exposed to these characters that would have never found their way to a comic shop, so there are certainly positives and negatives to this situation. Anything that exposes new people to comics is always a plus, but I hope it doesn’t hurt any comic book retailers.

Joe Field of Flying Colors in Northern California was far more breezy.

Speaking as one retailer among a couple of thousand and not speaking in my role as president of ComicsPRO… I look at Hastings opening these comic boutiques in its stores as a very positive thing. There are many regions of this country under-served—even un-served— by comic book specialty retailers, so the addition of prominent comic book departments in 127 new outlets should be a very good thing for our market.

I’ve been saying for a few years that our market could use another 1000 good stores to open in under-served regions of North America. Hastings may be trend-following with this move, but it could be a very good thing for that company as well as for the entire comics’ market.

That’s all easy for me to say, though, since I don’t have a Hastings anywhere close to my store. For retailer that do have a Hastings close by, this is a wake-up call to work even harder and to be even more creative.

And Michael Ring of Bridge City Comics in Portland, Oregon was more expansive;

As a Direct Market comic shop owner, I couldn’t be happier that Hastings is getting into the comics biz. If they are true about their commitment to expanding their comics offerings, this will greatly expand the number of places that people will be able to access comics. While we don’t have any Hastings locations in my town (Portland, OR), I think this will offer a great testing ground for numerous new Direct Market comic shops to open. As impressive as their stores sound, it still sounds like the environment won’t be that of a comic shop, rather it will be more akin to buying comics at a Best Buy. This could be a great “feeder system” where people (young and old) are exposed to comics at Hastings and then seek out a Direct Market shop to find a more knowledgable staff who can answer all of their questions, as well as have a large inventory that only a specialty shop can.

I think this is the kind of story one defines as “developing”.

Here’s how Hastings describe themselves…

Founded in 1968, Hastings Entertainment, Inc. is a leading multimedia entertainment retailer that combines the sale of new and used books, videos, video games and CDs, as well as trends and consumer electronics merchandise, with the rental of videos and video games in a superstore format. We currently operate 147 superstores, averaging approximately 24,000 square feet, primarily in medium-sized markets throughout the United States.

We also operate www.goHastings.com, an e-commerce Internet Web site that makes available to our customers new and used entertainment products and unique, contemporary gifts and toys. The site features exceptional product and pricing offers. The Investor Relations section of our web site contains press releases, a link to request financial and other literature and access our filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”).


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