Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Letting nature take its course...

I wrote the blog entry below on June 25, 2009. I never posted it because I was afraid it was a little too much 'customer blaming.'

But in retrospect, it seems rather mild. And it shows where my mind was at the time. And most of all, there is a happy postscript I can add. Look for it following the post below.



I've found, over the years, that sometimes letting go of a problem will actually solve the problem.

I'm hoping for that.

I mean, it's idiotic for me to try to influence people's behavior.

First thing I can do, is try to change MY response to that behavior.

If that fails, then I need to change the conditions that created the situation. By removing product, or moving it out of reach, retracting a 'service' that no longer works, eliminating procedures that aren't cost effective. Doing it badly is worse than not doing it at all; if you have an option of replacing it.

For instance, I have about 5 signs with the 'designer toys' (art toys, if you will, usually quite a bit more expensive and fragile than what most people think are toys) saying, "Please don't touch."

The signs are almost universally ignored.

So I'm going to take the signs down and hope for the best. Either I'll have acceptable shop-wear, or I'll put them behind glass, or I'll stop carrying them.

Same with the kid's books.

There are couple of intermediate steps I can take, which I've used in the past. For instance, I bag about half of the art books that are face out, giving the subtle message that I care about condition. This has actually worked pretty well.

In conjunction, I can create 'sacrificial lambs.' I have a bin of cheap sports cards for 1.00 a pack which the kids can dig into; and boy, do they. I wince sometimes when I see all the opened packs and the damaged packs, but that's what they are there for. Better them, than the 5.00 packs.


I have a selection of classic kids books upfront, titles like The Learning Tree, and Where the Wild Things Are. They have dustcovers, and are easily damaged.

I buy my books, non-returnable, at minimal mark-up, and usually pay on that very day.

But I live in a world where 99% of the books are sold in outlets who can return damaged books.

So, I have to accept that damaged books will happen. I figure if roughly 20% are shopworn past saleability, (or half my profitability) I'll just drop the kids books altogether.

If I also drop Pokemon and Yugi Oh, that pretty much clears out the younger kid stuff in the store. I don't think I'm averaging a pack a week, theseadays. That market has moved to the mass market, I think, or died, or moved to stores that have figured out how to still do it.

I'll see if it's workable, first. I don't want to throw out the good with the bad.


Meanwhile, I've got two shelves of used kids books -- I can either increase those and direct everyone there or drop them altogether and give up on the 'kids' market.

Remember, I can't turn a used book into a new book, but it's easy to turn a new book into a used book. I'm going to direct the families and kids to the used books as much as possible, because I don't care as much if they get handled roughly.

But like I said, the impression seems to be that if I am going to carry kid's books, I should expect damage. I'm unable to change that perception.


I have to bow to the reality of what is, not what I wish it was, and if I have to explain -- ham-handedly apparently sometimes -- that we can't do what Walmart does, then I'm going to seem defensive and accusatory, when I don't intend to be.

Meanwhile, my 'kids' comic section is roughly four comics wide, about 1 square foot, these days. Archies, Simpsons, and some of the younger DC and Marvel comics. They sell slowly, but I just leave them out, in whatever condition they become, until they sell, or don't.

On the other hand, both Marvel and DC are going to 3.99 cent comics and it takes but a moment of rough handling to make them unsaleable to my regular customers. Almost all of them are rated Teen+ (PG13) or above. DC has a very small percentage with the comics code. Marvel does have a A (for All Ages), but it is unpredictable. A title may be an A one month, and a T+ the next.

In a nutshell, 90% of what I sell is to adults, who are readers or browsers. On the other hand, 90% of the adults think I sell to kids and collectors. I find even I lapse into this frame of mind -- it's hard to change the perception of 20 years, even though it's not been true for about 10 years.

Plus, I think the content is confusing and not very interesting to younger kids -- or even teenagers. It's just the way the market has developed. I try to direct them toward collections of comics from 20 years ago, which I think is what they are looking for, and sometimes they might buy a back-issue from the era, but mostly they walk away confused that comics aren't what they expected. (Both parents and kids.)

I'm not sure what I can do about that. Comics are what they are. I don't have a time machine.

Any kid who really wants to commit to the whole Marvel Universe or DC Universe will find plenty to like -- but how can that be accomplished? Believe me, I try. Just as I try to get the average adult to consider comics as legit. It's a steep hill, let me tell you.


It isn't, as the parents seem to believe, that they are 'collectible' but that I want nice condition comics for customers to read.

I've almost dropped out of the 'collectible' market altogether. 99% of what I sell is 'reading' copies to active readers. Much of them 'sets' and graphic novels.
Collecting, as I say, is what happens after they leave the store.

Collectors come in and don't find what they want. (Golden age and silver age and hot covers and short-prints and convention issues, etc.) But to try to capture that crowd means I can't do as good a job with my regular readers. (Money, usually much more money, and space devoted to 'collectibles' takes away from money and space devoted to readers.) About 12 years ago, I chose to let go of the 'collector' market.

Which was a conscious decision on my part. Too variable, too selective, too price resistant a crowd for me -- because of the internet.


This selling of new product to active readers and casual browsers is really working, but causes consternation to those who collected comics 10 or 20 years ago and don't realize the world has changed.

It reminds me of my sport card experience. I sold the most cards when people didn't realize they were selling, from 1984 to 1990. I'd get asked all the time -- "Do these really sell?"

Then almost overnight, the impression flipped, and everyone thought I was making a fortune, just about the time I started losing money.

Sports cards were pretty much a moribund section in my store from about 1993 thru 2003, but most casual observers had the impression they were selling great! -- especially in the earlier part of the decade.

Public impression #1 (circa 1985): Sports cards barely exist, and are just playthings.

Reality #1: Sports cards were turning into big business.

Public impression #2 (circa 1995): cards are a money maker and worth lots of money.

Reality #2: they stopped selling for me, and I lost lots of money.

I know people think I'm exaggerating when I say kids don't buy comics. But I'd have to say it's moved from probably 75% under 20 years old when I started in 1980, to less than 10%, probably less than 5% today. If you go below 12 years old, it's probably less than 1%.

I have two shelfholders under 20, an 18 year old and a 17 year old. They are what I would call 'active.' Everyone else is pretty sporadic -- I can't quite fit what people say to me about what their kids read and what I actually observe.

Public Impression #1: Comics are for kids.

Reality #1: comics sell to an average age of 30 years old, are a sophisticated artform at the peak of creativity.

Public Impression #2: Comics are 'collectible' and 'worth money.'

Reality #2: Collectors come and go, and have moved mostly online, but readers have stayed.

I never buy comics, except from wholesalers, and would tell anyone who is 'investing' that they should buy an IRA instead.

The breaking point seemed to be in 1995, when so many collectors and investors disappeared, leaving the real comic lovers.

I slowly built back on that basis; collectors come and go, but readers stay.


Before anyone writes to tell me that comics and cards are worth money, and are collectible, I concede that this market exists, that it has moved mostly online but that there are stores that do well with that market. What I'm saying is that I changed MY business model away from that.

But the public has no way of knowing that, I guess. And if I try to say it, it sounds like I'm trying to discourage them. But it's just the reality of what I actually sell.


If I just stand back and let people do what they do, it's a moot point, I guess. I'll decide at the end of summer what's worth doing and what isn't.

Things get dropped from my store when they stop working. When singles became more of a hassle than they worth, especially pokemon and yugi-oh, I simply removed them.

If it gets to the point where I'm neither making money or having fun, I've found I'm better off dropping the whole line and moving on to something else. Comics...to readers....has always been a joy to me. In 25 years I've never been inclined to drop them or even cut back. I've just tried to integrate other forms of fiction along with them.

I just wish the reality of my store experience -- that I sell comics and books and toys and games to the 20 and up somethings, matched the impression that people seem to have, which is that I must be mostly for kids. At the same time, when I say I sell mostly to adults, that doesn't mean I wouldn't like some kid business too. It's just reality.


So in a sense, I'm saying it's up to the customers whether I continue to carry some of the stuff I sell....I'm going to step back and see how it works out.

I'm simply going to stop trying to influence customer behavior ("Please be gentle!" "Please look but don't touch!" "Comics aren't just for kids, anymore!" "Please ask for help in getting down the games!" etc. etc.) They too often take offense.

Instead, I'm going to adapt to what the customers actually do.

I know a lot of you are going to say, if that's the way you feel, why don't you get out of it. But I do have many fun people come in who buy that stuff -- usually adults, but still -- and I see no reason to let the worst decide the best.

If my non-interference results in adequate sales and acceptable damage, I'll continue carrying certain things. If not, I'll start displaying something else in that space, instead.

I'm going to be easy.




Well, you know what? I succeeded in letting it go. I changed a few things, but mostly I changed my attitude. I let the customers alone, and the result was pretty good. Less damage than I expected. No conflicts at all.

Ironically, I'd been very concerned with conflicts all through June, and had tried my best to avoid them, and yet there were several incidents. Thus the frustrated tone on the June 25 entry.

But once I let go, I stopped having problems. I let "Duncan be Duncan." In a sense, it wasn't so much letting go of all concern, but letting it out in little ways, instead of trying to bottle it all up. As time passed, my little frustrations began to fade.

I've even picked up a few kid customers.

I did change a few displays. Put the designer toys up higher. Bagged some of the kids comics. Got rid of the 1.00 packs.

But the rest of the product I thought about dropping, I'm going to keep.

Mostly though, I politely let the kids go their way, hoped for the best, and concentrated on people I knew were customers. And that worked.

It helped that I had a good summer, and that the store is functioning well. But mostly, I just needed to find a way to adjust my attitude to the new realities.

1 comment:

blackdog said...

"I've found, over the years, that sometimes letting go of a problem will actually solve the problem."

Very Taoist ... and very true.