The Comic Pimp: Issue #59

Fri, May 19th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
James Sime, Columnist

RACKING IT RIGHT

Looks like your comic pimpin' amigo has opened up quite a can of worms with last week's column with nothing more than an off-handed mention, because my in-box has been piling up with emails from fellow retailers with questions and comments about genre-racking. And certainly the comic gods above know the subject of genre racking has fueled some pretty passionate discussions and arguments among both retailers, creators, and fans alike over the years.

Now, my intention for this column has never been to get up on the soapbox and force-feed readers my rules for "how to do it right" because I believe that the more retailers out there trying new things, the stronger the comic industry will be. And that means throwing all the rulebooks away, including mine. So I honestly never intended to devote a column to the perpetually controversial topic of genre racking, preferring to let my readers draw their own conclusions by hearing what different new retailers around the globe did with their stores.

But it seems there are many folks out there who are interested in knowing what I think about genre racking. So for this column I'm dusting off the ol' soapbox, tossing back a shot of liquid courage, and doing my thing...

So, first off, what is genre racking? Basically, it's the kind of organizational system you'd find in your local chain book store like Borders or Barnes & Noble. Fiction, Mystery, Science Fiction, Gardening, Crafts, Graphic Novels - grouping the books in broad categories that the average consumer will immediately recognize and know whether it fits their tastes. In the comic industry, genre-racking tends to have categories like, superhero, crime, horror, science fiction, etc.

What are the advantages of genre racking? Well, to start, chances are almost all of a comic store's customers have spent time shopping in bookstores, CD stores, and video stores, all of which employ genre racking, so they'll be able to navigate the shelves pretty well on their own.

Also, genre racking is a simple way of recommending books without even requiring staff and customer interaction. A customer who liked TORSO can pretty easily find another great read like A TREASURY OF VICTORIAN MURDER in a store's True Crime section.

Sounds great. Sounds perfect, in fact. Why isn't the whole world genre racking?

There are a number of drawbacks, not the least of which is the fact that there are hundreds of comics in today's market that don't clearly fit into one genre.

I'll admit it, when I genre racked my shop in the past I never knew where the heck HELLBOY and ALIAS and MADMAN and the like are supposed to be. Are they superhero books? Cos they kind of seem like superhero books to me. Only not really. HELLBOY could very easily go into any of the following categories in my mind: horror/gothic/science fiction/fantasy/superhero. ALIAS is a bit simpler as a crime/superhero book, but even a book like MADMAN which by rights should be the easiest book in the whole shop to genre rack is more at home (sales wise) with my SCOTT PILGRIM and AMERICAN SPLENDOR books than with JUSTICE LEAGUE and ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR... although in my eyes it works perfectly in a section with Steve Ditko and Stan Lee SPIDER-MAN reprints, y'know?

Books that you find in your local Barnes & Noble come labeled for the retailer's convenience, but most comics do not. And even though many comic publishers have started genre labeling their graphic novels, following their genre labels requires that a store's staff remember how each book is categorized or have a computerized tracking system to maintain that information for them. For a lot of stores, this just isn't possible. Oh, and what about that one customer who thinks I'm a jerk because I think MADMAN is a superhero comic?

Yep. It happens.

One way around the genre ambiguity problem is to shelve a book in more than one location. However, this requires that the store has enough space to allow multiple books to be in multiple locations. It also requires that the store has enough funds to want to invest in a full run of HELLBOY to go in two or three different genre sections. And unless they do, there's always going to be someone who can't find it because it's not where they expect it to be.

Although it's infinitely arguable, and I'd be the first to agree with both sides of the coin, it's been said that genre racking isn't necessarily the best way for customers to find their next great read either. Not only do readers often want to follow a particular writer, artist, or creative team, but retailers like myself hear things like "I read everything that Oni puts out" quite often as well. In the comic industry, customers have learned to trust that a particular publisher or creator isn't going to steer them wrong as much as any one genre might.

And beyond that, the art of finding the right book for the right reader can involve a lot more subtle elements. Maybe the reader liked a particular book because of its literary elements, or its use of beautiful hand painted art, or simply because it was about an architect... clearly, these are elements that genre racking isn't going to come close to touching.

So with so many possible variables what's a retailer to do?

I don't think there is only one right answer. In fact, I think there are an infinite number of correct answers. I'm all for experimentation to see what works best for you, your staff, and your customers... so if you're a retailer who is thinking about diving in, I say you should definitely try the genre racking. Even if you end up hating it.

Because in my experience re-merchandising your store might very well be hard work, but it's awesome for sales. Even if you decide to just change things back the way they were after a few months. Shuffling your product about keeps it fresh, and keeps people seeing new things they might have missed. And if people hate it, guess what? You can always put it back the way it was and your customers will be twice as happy as they were before you changed things.

As I've said before, I like to experiment with my approach to merchandising, ordering, promoting, and even the every day nuts and bolts of owning and running a business. To me great retailing requires a continuous commitment to change and a evergreen dedication to offering up unexpected surprises for your customers. Sometimes that means bringing in a favorite creator for an in-store event, sometimes it means getting them something cool out of the blue, sometimes it means saying "I'm buying your comics for you this week,' and sometimes it means staying way past my bedtime to re-merchandise the shop."

I'm so serious about keeping my approach to how I stock and sell comics that last year I even gave my store over to my customers for an entire weekend to let them try their hand at doing whatever they wanted with the Isotope, and that included re-merchandising my shop with no interference from me or my staff whatsoever, I called it The Great Retail Experiment and I was very interested in seeing what people on the other side of the counter would do if given the chance.

But enough talk of theory, if you've read this far you probably want to hear which side of the great racking debate the Isotope falls on, so...

Currently, at my shop here in San Francisco, I'm not racking by genre. I'm racking my graphic novels by publisher. Well okay, that's not exactly true. Because I've decided to group those publishers who have a similar scope of materials together.

So why have I decided to rack my store this way? It's the way I feel works best for my staff and my customers right now. We've tried lots of different racking styles in the past, including genre racking. In fact, we've re-merchandised the store at least three times in the last year. Of late, I have found that since my staff is so knowledgeable, friendly and approachable, my store is heavily customer service-based, so I rack the books so that my staff can find books quickly and easily.

Also, I find that many of my customers have very strong publisher loyalty, which was a big part of the reason I decided to not rack by genre in my latest round of re-merchandising. More than anything it was my Drawn & Quarterly readers who outright demanded a dedicated section, so like James Brown I gladly gave the people what they wanted. But I put the Top Shelf, AdHouse, and Fantagraphics books near them because I think the material those publishers carry is quite similar in quality, tone, and aesthetics.

That, and it keeps me from having to remember where the hell I decided to shelve those PROJECT SUPERIOR hardcovers. Superheroes they might be, but that one never did seem to play nice with the PUNISHER, POWERS, or PLASTIC MAN, collections.

Or did it...?

... I like to re-arrange my shop and product all the time, and while I might not be currently racking by genre, who knows? I could be springing some genre racking on my customers next week if writing this column inspires me to re-arrange the shop again!

THE COMIC PIMP DOWNLOAD ZONE

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by Peter B. Gillis and Mike Saenz


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