Tilting at Windmills

Thu, September 18th, 2008 at 11:58pm PDT | Updated: September 19th, 2008 at 9:33am

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer
8

WORD ON THE STREET

I think if there is anything that the All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder #10 fiasco has shown us is that it really is time for proper and official Street dates, in the Direct Market.

What’s a “Street date,” you ask? No, it isn’t Eddie Murphy in the back of a Camaro. In virtually every kind of retail-driven entertainment field, stores receive material before they’re actually allowed to put it on sale. This allows there to be a level playing field for major releases by ensuring that all retailers have it on sale on the same day, giving no one store or chain an advantage over another.

Street dates also ensure that if there is a problem in distribution (say, UPS losing your shipment; or all of your copies arriving damaged), that there is sometimes an opportunity to correct those mistakes before the allowed release date. It also allows stores time to properly merchandise their stores (setting up displays, etc.), to process any special orders or promotions, and so on.

This is the normal base standard in the books, music, gaming and video industries — very much “how else could we do it?” — basically every kind of physical-media other than comics.

But here’s the important consideration: in other industries, Street dates are supported by penalties for breaking them. The typical punishment is no longer (or for a period of time) receiving shipments early. It’s also possible to be fined various sums for breaking Street, to lose access to Co-op monies, or to even have legal action taken against you (though I am not personally aware of that actually occurring, just that the threat is there). All of this is possible because the Terms of Sale explicitly state such things.

To be fair, it’s also more possible in other fields because retail volume tends to be concentrated in a small number of chains, and when the largest have the most to lose, that tends to keep more people honest.

Street dates are also, to the best of my knowledge, universal to all products being sold within a field — they tend to be limited to the largest books, albums, etc, where there is a significant consumer demand.

This is another reason why DM stores aren’t strictly analogous to other media-retailing fields — in comics we tend to sell a disproportionate amount of product in the first 24 hours of release, compared to other industries, each and every week. Gamers (for instance) might be lining up for the next “Grand Theft Auto,” or similar “AAA” title, but they generally aren’t dropping everything to rush to buy the “b-list” releases. Comics are different in that it’s extraordinarily rare where our equivalent to a “AAA” title doesn’t ship 2+ in a week, and where consumers are using that “AAA” shopping to also buy a wide swath of “b” titles. How many people rush in to a bookstore each and every Tuesday (at least I think it is Tuesday?) and come out with an armload of a dozen books? A handful, I’m sure, but that’s an aberrant consumer. In comics, however, that’s completely typical.

There are a few stores who operate under an effective Street Date in the DM — where we receive books Tuesday for Wednesday release. These tend to be chains (you can qualify for early release by having two or more store fronts that do a minimum of $40k/month, but where the product is sent to a single location to be broken down to the satellites), but there isn’t any legal language in our Terms of Sale to enact penalties. This does not mean that there might not be certain language in the contracts between the brokered publishers and Diamond, however — but at least the most dire penalties (fines, or legal action) can’t be levied directly upon the offending retailers.

There are also a handful of stores that receive Tuesday delivery because of deals that existed before Diamond became the exclusive distributor for the brokered publishers — generally this are in areas that had multiple distribution choices in the 1990s (competition works, sometimes).

For example, in the Bay Area we had one of the few “legal” sub-distributors post DC-exclusive, and when Diamond did their warehouse consolidation, we were allowed to keep this sub-distributor as our pick-up point. When they ran into personal financial difficulty, Diamond saw it couldn’t penalize everyone else for the subs mistakes, so we got individual trucking routes. I’m the drop point in San Francisco for five different stores to pick up from (which can be an interesting logistical exercise some weeks!)

None of these stores, not one of them, would even consider breaking Street Date — this is partly because we understand just exactly how valuable early release is for stress, sanity, work-flow, and customer relations; but it is also because these Bay Area stores all recognize that we are in this together, and if one of the breaks the Street, we all lose this benefit.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me it takes somewhere between six and twelve man-hours each week for me to fully process that week’s shipment, depending upon its size. That’s start to finish, all the way done, taking care of everything between receiving the books, and breaking down the boxes for the recycling truck. That’s a lot of work!

Some of this can be compartmentalized, say having one person count and receive the books, and a different person picking and pulling subs, and another person checking in and shelving reorders, and so forth for all of the tasks there are, but that requires more wages being paid for the multiple employees, and less efficiency as you trip over each other (which happens at least a little, no matter how good you are) — most stores are probably able to handle the new comics portion of their weekly shipment in a real (and frenzied) 90 minutes to three hours, by bringing in enough people.

What I found back in the days when I had Wednesday release was that I was stressed and awful and grouchy over the shipment (ranging from stress over when the UPS truck would actually show up, to the hassles of trying to unpack boxes and pull off the sub copies while customers are standing there wanting to buy those same books), on exactly the day you don’t want to be stressed and awful and grouchy because you’re seeing so many big customers. At the end of a Wednesday, I’d be absolutely exhausted — mentally, physically, emotionally, I was wrung out like a dishrag.

It sucked. It really, really, really sucked.

In the decade since, shipments have only gotten larger in number of line items (it takes effectively the same amount of time to count in 50 pieces of a single title as it does to count in 5), I’m that decade older, and this is also the one and single place where Point-Of-Sale actually slows down the process, because you have to stop and scan each title to confirm the barcode and be able to sell it to customers later. That’s way slower than simply checking off a line on a paper invoice.

Honestly, and no-fooling, if I had to go back to Wednesday shipments I’d shut down the store first, it’s that much of a heart-attack-in-the-making.

There are so many ways that early release makes stores better — beyond the elimination of stress on the sales floor, both from staff and impatient customers, on an important sales day (I actually look forward to Wednesdays now, not dread them), it also allows you to better merchandise your store and control the flow of product display. It’s just enormous, I can’t begin to tell you what a difference it makes. It also makes it much faster to fix mistakes because you’ve got that extra day. I honestly believe the overwhelming majority of retailers would benefit incredibly from properly enforced Street Dates, creating a ton of new capital for the market.

The sticking point is, of course, the “properly enforced” part, because what the ASBARtBW #10 fiasco showed us is that without some sort of possibility of direct legal penalty, there are clearly a number of retailers who will take whatever individual benefit they can, when they can. Even though they (or at least most of them) didn’t break Street itself, the fact that most of the released copies came from Tuesday accounts exposed a deep gulf between Haves and Have-Nots.

Now, there’s no doubt whatsoever that DC Comics catastrophically screwed the pooch by not insisting upon full copy returns, and outlining penalties for not returning 100%, but it would have been mitigated to some degree in a world with a level playing field where everyone receives their books in advance of sale.

There’s a lot of things standing in the way of Street dates ever becoming a reality, and the primary barrier is that Diamond doesn’t want to be the Police. I can understand that, honestly I can, especially in light of them being the sole viable national comic book distributor — it is against their corporate culture to want to be perceived by the “bad guys,” they are very sensitive to that.

I think there are probably ways to solve that, but they involve political will, and thinking outside of the box. At the end of the day, it’s probably going to come down to retailers policing ourselves. There’s nothing more powerful than community values to enforce ethical decisions. Everything else is a mechanical problem.

At the end of the day, a Street Date would relieve a lot of tension one New Comics Day, add a bunch of capital back into the market (Figure 2500 stores incurring just 3 hours of extra employee time each week at federal minimum wage of $6.55 [Yeesh, it’s $9.86 in San Francisco!] for 52 weeks a year is a collective $2.5 million dollars worth of expenses that could vanish tomorrow), and dramatically raise the base standard of professionalism for the Direct Market.

I think it is totally reasonable that as a simple, basic norm a retailer should have their hands on goods at least 18 hours before they’re expected to sell them. That’s really not too much to ask!

Switching gears, I have to say I think it is completely awesome that Marvel was able to do a TV ad. I don’t watch ESPN, but I’m told that the actual ad can be found here, so I’ll assume that’s it as broadcast.

I’m going to totally guess that this was a straight up swap — you give X thousand fans some free stuff (to encourage attendance for the game), we’ll give you Y minutes of our discretionary advertising time — and as such Marvel probably didn’t know very far in advance when it might run.

That’s a problem to a certain degree because the real value of any kind of advertising is the ability to leverage it. The marketing campaign of “Embrace Change” could be a good one, but since the retailer isn’t aware of it until it’s already underway, there’s nothing we can do to exploit it. (This is just as true for DC as it is for Marvel, of course — it’s hard for retailers to be “on message” when we don’t know what the message is until the consumers do!)

What retailers actually need is a few weeks heads-up if we’re expected to participate in any real way. And the promotional tools to support that message.

The other problem with the promotion is that the embracechange.org (hahaha, dot-org is awesomely clever thinking, really) doesn’t give you any easy way to buy “Secret Invasion” like they’re talking about. A few clicks in you’ll get to the Marvel Digital Comics thing, but as far as I know, “Secret Invasion” itself isn’t on there yet (at least, it better not be!), but there’s no immediate “find a comics shop” button until you drill down into the Marvel.com site. And even then it’s a little hard to spot.

Doing advertising that doesn’t direct intrigued consumers to anywhere in particular that they might be able to purchase isn’t going to be effective — while it can’t hurt to create free-floating interest in something, that doesn’t translate into actual demand without drawing the lines a little clearer, or by giving retailers the tools to draws those lines themselves.

So A+ on intent, maybe a C- on execution. Here’s hoping for more opportunities in the future, which can actually be acted upon!

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase a collection of the first one hundred Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) from IDW Publishing. An Index of v2 of Tilting at Windmills may be found here. (but you have to insert "classic." before all of the resulting links) You may discuss this column here.

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TAGS:  all star batman and robin, comics retailing, street dates, direct market

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