Phill Hall used to be a comics retailer and the News editor for Comics International before launching the PDF comics magazine Borderline – then abandoning comics altogether. Now, however, he is going to look back on it all for Bleeding Cool.
I've told you about the draconian methods the distributors and publishers impose on retailers. These alone should have you thinking 'why on earth are these people so stupid that they'd want to run a comic shop?', but that really is just a part of it. The onus isn't just placed on the retailer by all those above him; it is made increasingly difficult by those who pay his wages. Fans are the most unpredictable of beasts and frankly they couldn't give a shit about you. They act like they do, but it's a false loyalty; like a dog with food.
Retailers and readers = dealers and drug addicts.
There is rarely any sense of loyalty and the reader is more likely to burn you rather than the other way around! You can't really say 'here's ten comics' and only give him eight. But the reader can, and often does say, 'nah, I don't want this.' That might seem simple enough and in all fairness that is how commerce works. But, I told you comics were different and they are. Because of the nature of the beast, these being periodicals and all, people want their comics regularly. They want them to be as guaranteed as the ones that popped through the letterboxes when they were kids. Not getting their monthly fix isn't something they care to entertain. Comics fans have spent more time ensuring they have no chance of missing an issue when transferring a standing order from one shop to another, somewhere else in the country, than they do ensuring their own actual physical move is actually going smoothly.
I know comics fans that have walked out of marriages rather than walk away from comics.
The point is, where the distributors have this Direct Market model that retailers have to adhere to, retailers have a similar model with their customers. This is called the Subscription or Standing Order Service (or SOS, which, believe me, has more than enough irony in its acronym) and once guaranteed about 50% of a good shop's business. It was the essential part of running a shop. You have to ensure that your standing order customers are your most important customers and that means the more money they spend, the more of a blind eye you have to turn when they break the unwritten or verbal agreement you have with them.
There is nothing legally binding about a standing order in a comics shop. It is a service provided by the store and owners would probably struggle to enforce it legally, especially when many of his customers might be under the legal age for such a transaction. So it is essentially an honour system. You tell them what you want and you buy it. It isn't good etiquette to put a comic back on the shelf that you've ordered because your retailer probably won't be able to sell it to any one else and in a lot of cases this fine line is the margin between success and failure. The retailer doesn't want to enforce the unwritten law because comics fans will desert you for the nearest alternative as soon as you start to pressure them on anything. So imagine what they'd do if you 'had a go' at them for not buying something they verbally agreed to buy? Not all fans are like this, but the ones who have massive standing orders are normally inclined to tell you to shove it and you either accept it or lose that huge chunk of guaranteed sales. Loyalty is to the drug not the bloke who sells it to you.
Also, you have to realise that because the addict has no loyalty to you, he will neglect to tell you stuff – like he stopped reading Iron Man months ago but forgot to tell you. So there will be six months worth of comics sitting in his folder, which he no longer has any intention of buying, which no one else will buy, that you end up paying for because of his ignorance. I had one customer, who we'll be talking about more in depth, who did just the example above. He stopped reading Iron Man and used to casually pop the issues back on the shelves without even considering what it was costing us in the long run. Eventually something had to be said; it was only £6 worth of comics, but with 10% of my customers doing the same or similar, it starts to add up to about £50 a month you have to compensate for. I believe it was one of my assistant managers who broached the subject with the customer. He explained in a nice, simple and non-patronising way that if the customer didn't want a comic, he needs to tell us, otherwise we have no one else to sell it to; that we've sort of entered an arrangement where he's committed to buying what he orders and has to do so until he tells us not to order it any more. It was even explained to the customer that we take a hit when he stops something because we've still got two or three advance orders in the pipeline we can't alter.
Over the following three months, we saw less and less of this customer; his SO was accumulating and all I could think about was the amount of piss he was extracting from us. There was also the issue of him ordering stuff that I could sell to other customers; it didn't happen very often and when you're living hand to mouth at times it becomes very important (especially if it has turned into a hot comic. I mean, you can take it out of his folder and sell it for 5 times the price, because you've agreed with him, on principal, to save his comics for him). The retailer really is on to a hiding for nothing from all sides of the retail world. And don't forget that he also has to pay rent, rates, bills, staff and in some cases protection money.
So, you have all these retailing things against you and also you have to contend with a finicky buying public who you have no legal contract with, but you are buying for them on their behalf. You can't even write up a contract; some shops in the past have attempted to get customers to sign an agreement which basically binds them to buy what they commit to ordering; the problem with this, according to a lawyer friend of mine, is that unless you have the contract ratified, signed with a credible witness and written up on the appropriate paper, it will and would be laughed out of court. All a retailer can do is hope that his customer is an honourable person (and even then it's no guarantee). Plus, try telling a 14 year old kid that he has to buy something when he has no money or wants to buy something else instead – there's only one outcome and it's not economically good for the retailer.
Does that stink or what?
Of course this is where the now greatly prayed for Sale or Return was a saving grace. The retailer had a lot of inconvenience, but he ultimately didn't pay for what he didn't sell. If Joe Bloggs comes into your newsagent and doesn't want that month's Spider-Man you can trash it, and send back the headers with the month and title on and get credited for it. Today's retailer has to grin and bear it. He has to accept that the customer is always right and if they don't want to buy some cheap piece of shit fill-in issue, (or, more annoyingly, has already bought the comic from a rival shop) you really have no right in demanding they do. For every one of the full-set brigade out there, there is also the reader who won't be intimidated into buying something he doesn't fancy, even if he has it on his or her standing order. Confront him and you ultimately lose him – comics fans are precious individuals.
Comics shops are also guilty of causing this problem by not monitoring their subscriptions department carefully enough, or worse, by exploiting the good nature of the majority of their best customers by surreptitiously including spin-offs, guest appearances and unasked for extras in good customers' SOs and using the 'I thought you'd want it' excuse. Many readers, being inoffensive souls, buy the comics and might never read them, but feel that it's only right and proper – very English. But many others say 'Fuck that. I didn't ask for it, I am not buying it' and they are so right to do so.
Yet spare a thought for the poor retailer. If he didn't have something like a standing order system in place in the first instant, he would never know what to order accurately. He can't win. And guess what? It gets worse, because, as previously stated, the people he depends on are all weird – it's official!
We haven't finished with customers, but the above is essentially their place in retail; a position of incredible power. As I said, if a customer spends a lot of money then they are afforded leniency; yet ironically, I would have guessed that those people that spend the most money should be the ones who it is better to challenge. If my Iron Man customer spent £100 a month, but put back 10% on the shelf, that is two things I'm losing – the initial cost and any profit. The 10% Mr Big Bucks doesn't spend is the difference between a retailer making money on that customer and not. Suddenly, from an accountant's point of view, that customer is a turnover commodity rather than a profitable one and while turnover is important, profit is the thing that keeps retailers going.
The fact that a lot of comics fans are weird is something that has dogged the industry in the UK especially. I shall spend the next couple of thousand words trying to kill the idea that comics fans are pretty much retarded freaks; but the actual truth about my shop is that I had a far higher percentage of people who would probably feature highly on an autism spectrum than you would find anywhere in your town (outside of the comics shop).
** June 6 2011 is 35 years to the day since I attended my first comic mart.
Next time: comics and why the press loves to hate them