BARCODES AS CONTROVERSY? ARE WE BACK IN THE 1970S?
POS or Point of Sale systems are a hot topic in the comics world. A POS system can mean a few different things, but is most often taken to mean a computerized cash register and inventory system. In modern usage, inventory is set up according to bar codes (UPC codes), so that when an item is scanned into the cash register, it is deducted from the inventory. This allows for real time checks on a store's inventory, can alert a store to sudden shortages and sell-outs, and can occasionally speed up the check-out process.
This has come to many people's attention, due to two initiatives by Diamond:
First, Diamond is offering to help set up retailers with a Microsoft RMS POS system, in anticipation of their "ComicSuite" software, which would customize the RMS system for comics retailers and streamline some of the interaction with Diamond.
Secondly, Diamond is moving towards requiring all products to have barcodes, much to the horror of many smaller publishers.
What's the big deal about all this? I decided it was time to ask somebody with some experience using a POS system and asked a few questions of Eric Thornton, the manager of Chicago Comics, a store that's been on the POS bandwagon for over a decade.
Publishing Follies: How long have you been using a POS System?
Eric Thornton: 12 years now
PF: Which system do you use?
PF: Will you be using the Diamond "ComicSuite" software when it becomes available?
PF: How does a POS system affect your inventory process and reorder cycle?
ET: It's invaluable. I'm not sure how a shop could run without one.
PF: Is this really an effective tool for early reorders?
ET: Very much so. Like any good program, a reasonable amount of human intelligence behind it is key. It won't run the store. It will help you run your store.
PF: There's been a fair amount of discussion about POS, in terms of managing the graphic novels inventory, and not as much about managing the monthlies. Do you find POS is more important or useful in terms of a particular segment of your inventory?
ET: It's more exact when you're dealing with graphic novels, that's for sure. Monthlies are much harder to keep exact numbers on, with subscribers, holds, etc. But, a POS system is a helluva lot better than nothing.
PF: Does a particular example come to mind of a comic or graphic novel selling much faster than expected that you probably wouldn't have noticed, at least as quickly, without a POS system?
ET: Oh god, yeah. It's my safety net. I could site a hundred examples.
PF: Do you coordinate inventory between Quimby's and Chicago Comics, and did having two stores in the system play a role in getting a POS system?
ET: Nope. We keep the two stores completely separate, inventory wise. Quimby's didn't get theirs until about 7 years ago.
PF: As a retailer using this technology, how do you feel about Diamond requiring barcodes on all products?
ET: As much as I love a barcode, I think forcing it on a community of artists might be a little harsh. I think a slight financial penalty for those who don't would be more fitting.
Having made many a trip to Chicago Comics over the years, I can tell you that when a comic doesn't have a barcode, the tendency is for the cashier to look up the comic in their system during the check out, which translates into a minor inconvenience. Either you do it that way or your POS won't keep inventory records for non-barcoded items. I'm sure there are stores who do it that way, but it defeats the purpose of a POS system and the publisher without the barcode is more likely to have any re-orders delayed until such a time as someone notices their publication is sold out or a physical inventory is done. If that takes a month and demand is cold - too bad, so sad.
To people bemoaning barcodes and POS systems, all I can say is, welcome to the 20th century - the rest of us have moved on to the 21st. (Barcodes date back to the 1970s, for crying out loud. This isn't particularly new, so much as this industry has a tendency to be a technological laggard. When the bar industry has adopted these technologies with greater penetration, you have to wonder what the problem is.)
To illustrate Eric's point about monthly comics being a little harder to keep track of, on my last trip to his store, I inquired about a copy of "Lobster Johnson" #2. The system said there were three copies left, but the shelves said no. Most likely, those three copies were sitting in a subscriber's box waiting to be picked up, but it's always possible the copies had gotten shuffled on the shelves. You still need to periodically do a physical inventory with POS. Among other things, there's always the threat of theft in retail. (Comic creators don't seem to think stealing their comic is nearly the compliment that some musicians do.) You just don't need to rely on a time-consuming weekly inventory to know your immediate sales trends and needs.
Todd Allen is the author of "The Economics of Webcomics, 2nd Edition." He consults on media and technology issues and is an adjunct professor with the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College Chicago. For more information, see http://www.BusinessOfContent.com. Todd even did a webcomic. Sort of.