It's no secret that many American comic shops live or die by how they sell Marvel Comics. Most often the #1 comic book publisher in the stable that ship through industry anchor Diamond Distributors, Marvel's titles account for a massive chunk of the market - both in terms of the amount of product produced and the amount of money made. With moves in recent weeks, the publisher has significantly upped its already aggressive online presence - celebrating the release of its second major motion comic and launching an iphone comics program through several outlets. Add those initiatives to Marvel's already expansive Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited program, and many are left asking exactly what the company is doing to strengthen the bottom line of the brick and mortar shops whose existence both supports and is dependent on the publisher.
Marvel's answer is a new website program called the Marvel Retailer Resource Center. A pay site open only to comic shop owners, the MRRC looks to serve as a new web platform to bolster the businesses of direct market retailers big and small. "The first and the main reason for the creation of this resource is the launch and maintenance of retailer websites, while the second is the actual resource center complete with marketing tools, sales and ordering information, and more," Marvel's Senior Vice President of Sales and Circulation David Gabriel told CBR.
Retailers who opt in to the MRRC program are able to build their website with features of their choosing, and Marvel provided CBR links to three shops who have already launched sites under the program: NewCastle Comics & Games of Maryland Heights, MO, The Paper Escape of Dixon, IL and HawgHead Comics of Fort Smith, AR. "These websites are equipped with Google Maps, store images, events calendars, complete Marvel product listings (updating by Marvel, not the retailer, saving hours of labor each week) product listings for all other companies," Gabriel said. "Plus, we provide printable on-sale lists of all our comics and collections, so a store's customers can click a button and print out a checklist of all the books on sale that week."
Beyond the segment of the program which retailers use for their own publicly viewed site, the MRRC also functions as a full-service site, highlighting up-to-date Marvel product information. Gabriel noted that the site includes "up-to-date ordering info, sales info, incentives, new cover art, variant cover art. Because we can actually manually update all of this daily, we don’t have to rely on sending out announcements to internet press to notify retailers of cover changes, unseen variants, newly added content…any standard updates generally are made on a weekly basis." He also explained how "All Marvel comics are previewed one week prior to the on-sale dates so retailers can place reorders. There’ll be exciting news about this feature in a few weeks."
The main MRRC site also contains marketing resources like flyers, posters and leaflets which retailers can download and distribute, advanced and social features to keep shop owners in contact with the publisher, including a message board where "retailers will be able to correspond directly with Marvel sales, marketing and editorial, as well as the LIvetech support team on a daily basis to get all their questions answered." Lastly, Marvel plans to release advance preview PDFs before the pages hit news websites.
Asked whether the retailer site will help allay fears that an expanded digital platform for Marvel comic books could hurt direct market stores, Gabriel said, "For those retailers who didn’t have the necessary funds or time or skills to create their own websites and reach out to a whole new customer base through the internet, I think they’re finding a much more leveled playing field now - one that they can compete in with very little, if any, investment." The executive then reiterated statements that Marvel's Ira Rubenstein made to CBR last week about future plans to allow its traditional partners to benefit from online comics sales. "The steps we have taken here will allow us to more actively integrate future digital offerings with our most important partners….the hobby shop."
The hobbiest nature of many comic shops has often been cited as a reason why "mom and pop" comic shops haven't always capitalized on more 21st Century sales methods like point of sale product tracking. In response to that school of thought, Gabrieal said, "With only anecdotal evidence to support my answer, I’d say that as a whole, [comic shops] are still operating with a vastly different variety of tools. The MRRC, in my opinion, sets them all up on the same playing field, talking the same language with a never before seen ease of communication, as well as managing to reach out to a new audience or to expand their existing audience as never before. And all this is pretty much being accomplished without any extra effort on their part. When you couple that with the fact that the entire thing pays for itself, it’s a win win situation for all."
However, not all retailers have jumped on the MRRC band waggon just yet, though Gabriel was ready to make the hard sell. "Most retailers we’ve spoken to do not want to pay the monthly fee," he explained. "However, when we did the individual math and consider the cost to maintain and create a website, add in the First Looks program that most retailers were a part of and then throw in the slew of free books, exclusive variants and special members only sales, the retailers that participate are definitely coming out ahead. I liken this to paying your monthly basic cable bill and then being reimbursed for watching certain programs each month.
"Any retailer still on the fence can go to www.marvelretailers.com to get set up. There are video tutorials, a dedicated staff who will help all retailers sign up and get started, as well as answer any questions along the way, and there’s a special email address that comes right to my inbox for even more personal service."