I have been a busy store owner these last few months, with summer being one of our busiest times of year. Now things have settled down slightly so I have found the time to think up a new column for you, fair readers of Sequart.com. I will attempt to post to the site a bit more often.
Over the last few months I have had several people who are considering opening comic stores ask me for advice on what to buy when first starting out. This is a tricky thing. To be honest, I think it can be one of the hardest things to do if you are opening your very first comic book store from scratch. With an existing store there is already a history, so things are not quite so complicated. If one is opening a second location there is also some history and past experience, as well as the opportunity to share some inventory between locations if need be. But figuring out what to buy and how much when you have absolutely no customer history to base things on can make anyone’s head spin, especially if you have ever seen the amount of comics and other products listed in each month’s Previews catalog.
There is no set formula to figure out what and how much to order. Even after running a comic book store for over three years we get it wrong sometimes. If one were to call Diamond they typically send out a Previews catalog and will point out the discount structure. Calling other stores might help, but every market can have different customers with different interests. Inventory costs are one of the largest annual expenses for a comic book store, well any store really. Little to none of it is returnable either, so large mistakes can be costly. There will be a lot of trial-and-error in those first few orders.
In spite of the fact that I basically just said that there is no way to know what to order, I will do my best to share some bits of advice to those of you considering taking on the challenge of opening your first comic book store. Just keep in mind that this is based on my experience along the way as well as bits and pieces I have picked up from other fellow retailers.
First, go to one of the comic book news sites and see what they have listed for the top selling comics and graphic novels. You can find these every month. Do not order every one of the 300 comics listed! But you can use this list to see what comics are the best sellers and go from there. Marvel and DC comics will top the list most of the time. You might want to order the top 25 and then look through the top 50 for a few good selling independent comics. With comics, at least in the beginning, you are better off going wide rather than deep. What I mean here is order a little bit of a lot of comics. That way you are not stuck with 50 copies of something that your current customers are not interested in. This will help you get an idea of what your customers like, as well as letting your customers know that you have a good selection of comics, both super hero and others. When we opened our store we converted some customers from other stores as well as people who did not think they would like comics, just by having a good variety of comics.
With trade paperbacks, again look at the top selling list. However, keep in mind that with trades, some sell well for a few months while others sell well for years. Books like Watchmen, Kingdom Come and Marvels can sell well for years and years, while New Avengers Volume 4 might sell really well for a few months and then slow down to virtually nothing after a year. Some trades outsell their comic book counterparts – 100 Bullets is one example for my store, we sell only a couple of issues of the comic every month, but can sell 5 copies of the trades within the first three months of its release. If a movie is coming out that a graphic novel is based on, it can give a temporary boost to the trade. For example, we sold a ton of Sin City graphic novels before that movie came out, but not many before or since. On the other hand, some comics will greatly outsell their trade paperback partners – in my store we sell lots of Spider-Man and Super-Man single issue comics, but maybe a copy or two of any single trade that comes out. Typically, at least in my store, the non-superhero trades outsell their comic companion titles, while the super hero comic single issues far outsell their trade paperback partners.
If you plan on carrying manga, that can also be tricky. We carry only the most popular titles consistently. The rest we’ll try here or there and then order upon request for customers who want something we do not have on the shelves. For example, Bleach and Naruto are great manga sellers for us. We try to keep an copy of every volume on the shelf. But then titles like Blame! and Dazzle we order for specific customers who have a standing order and we don’t put any on the shelves. Other stores do great with manga and carry a variety of it. With manga, if you are going to carry a large variety of titles, you should have at least one person in the store who reads a lot of it who can help people pick out things that interest them.
Some communities have a very active local comic book creator community. If you have the time, find out if yours does and contact them. Often these local folks do not even put their comics in Previews, but instead sell them via a web site and at conventions. Usually you can get them to bring you some copies of what they’ve got on a consignment deal, or if you really like their work, buy a few up front. Have a section in your store for local creators’ works. If you do a consignment type arrangement it can be a very low cost way of having some diversity in your store as well as showing good will to the local talent.
As you have your store open a while you can start to get a better feel for what your customers are buying and then order based upon that. I recommend getting a computer inventory management system so that you can keep somewhat accurate records. But, if you don’t do that, then at least keep track on paper. This way you should be able to figure out quicker and more accurately what people are buying in your store, as well as keep track of buying trends, which change over time as old customers leave and new customers come and as publishers change talent and story lines.
If you offer a pull/subscription service for your customers this will also help you get an idea of what to order. Keep in mind that the pull service can have its own burdens on you as a retailer, but it is a service many comic book shoppers expect. If you have a couple of customers pre-ordering something that maybe you would not have thought to order, it can be a sign that you could have another customer or two who walk in and would buy it off of the racks if you had it. Even if customers do not have a pull list, be sure to have a copy of the most current Previews catalog out and visible so people can page through it and let you know if there is something they think they want to check out when it comes in. That way you will be sure to have it in a couple of months when it comes out. And you can really impress that customer by pointing it out to them when they come in – they’ll be happy you remembered that they were interested in that comic and took the time to point it out to them so they wouldn’t walk right past it.
As I said, ordering can be a crap shoot even when you have an established store. The more publishers pop up and the more comics become available, the more and more difficult it can become. Initially feedback from other stores and web sites can help you get a good base line for what is most popular and therefore most likely to sell in your store. After that, I recommend active communication with your customers to see what their interests are, as well as a computerized inventory management system, so you can actually see what is selling and what is not selling and order accordingly.