The State of Comics Retail is Good?

By | Friday, January 24, 2020 Leave a Comment
John Frazier at Brainstorm Comics & Gaming
Back in December, I talked a bit about signs that the comic book back issue market was rising after a several year lull. This week, I came across two different articles from different outlets talking about how the comics retailing market is doing overall. While this Frederick News-Post piece focuses on two locations, this piece over at SKTCHD looks a wider array of stores. As far as I can tell, the two pieces were written entirely independently but they both, interestingly, come to pretty much the same conclusion...

"We're doing pretty well at the moment, but we're not sure how secure that will be."

No one actually said that, but that seems to be the gist. The shop owners they interviewed -- including the ones linked to from my December post -- generally seemed optimistic. Even the ones that saw some declining sales in 2019 attribute that to unusual factors that interrupted normal business operations. (Like moving locations or opening new ones.)

This is, of course, good news for the comics industry in general. But why are people seemingly down on retailing? At least enough that multiple journalists felt the need to dissuade the myth the comics retailing is hurting.

I suspect it's the public perception of what's actually helping many of these businesses. Namely, back issue sales. All of these articles (and others) note that back issues sales have increased in the past few years, but that seems primarily due to the fact that retailers have started pricing them affordably. With the exception of "key" issues, a lot of these comics are in dollar bins, where they once would have been filed in with "regular" back issues and priced according to an Overstreet Guide. So what consumers are seeing are back issues that used to be $5 or $10 suddenly marked down to $1. That looks, from the outside, like a fire sale. "We're going out of business! Everything must go!"

In point of fact, those back issues were simply over-priced to begin with so they weren't selling. Retailers were racking up inventory (any new issues that came and didn't sell became back issues) but it wasn't moving. They wound up paying for storage costs, either in the space they took up in the store itself or in some warehouse, but were getting nothing in return. Sure, they might sell the occasional issue of The Defenders or something but those sales wouldn't make up for all the other books that weren't selling. Now that everything is priced more in the dollar range, the sales become more brisk. Books that might have been sitting in retail shops for years are now, finally, leaving to make room for other merchandise.

Several years ago, I heard Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics talk about the costs of back issues. When he factored in the space they took up, the time it took an employee to price and store them, the electricity used to keep the facility at a reasonable temperature/humidity, etc. -- when he factored all that in, he calculated that he was only earning about 10¢ off every new comic that he held onto past thirty days (i.e. it went from being a new issue to a back issue). Ten cents. Hardly seems worth the effort, right? But if you cut the time down that you have to hold on to a back issue from, say, a year or more, to a month or less, you're earnings on that back issue go up. And if you're able to price the vast majority of your inventory that way, you're severely mitigating any losses that you might've incurred by ordering too many copies of that new issue in the first place!

Basically, as a retailer, you're making up higher priced sales with a much greater volume of lower priced sales. And, sure, you're not selling at Overstreet prices, but retailers don't buy at Overstreet prices either. They're buying comic collections in bulk, and essentially paying only pennies per issue. You can turn a tidy provide if you're able to sell them quickly for cheap, even if they are theoretically worth more. That's what this back issue market requires, and that's what retailers have apparently figured out over the past few years.

But, again, from a consumer perspective, they're seeing tons and tons of comics on sale for less than their original cover price, where it the back issue sticker used to be double or triple. So their assumption is that the retailer has thrown up their hands, and is trying to sell as much as they can so they don't completely lose their shirt.

Ultimately, that's speculation on my part, but I suspect that might be why people think comics retailing isn't doing as well as it is, and why we need multiple articles like these to say otherwise.
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