Yesterday, I wrote a column titled, “Geek Winter Is Coming,” in which I laid out the reasons why there’s going to be a significant period of weakness in the business of geek culture. I didn’t write it to spread doom and gloom, but to prepare those of us in the business for the coming period of want, and to point to places that can lead us to opportunity. Geek winter is coming, but spring will follow.
The biggest asset on which to build is that the ultimate customers, the fans of the comics, games, and merch that make up the business, are incredibly passionate. They’ve been finding ways to continue their hobbies over the past month even with daunting barriers. And the communities rallying around stores have been heartwarming, even at a scale that doesn’t come close to making up the lost revenue. So in the midst of turmoil and disruption, how do we build a new business around those passionate consumers? The answers can be found in the answers to three questions.
What is a store? I believe we are in the process of redefining what it means to be a store. In the past, a store was a physical location where people went to buy things. What is evolving now in geek culture, beginning long ago but now accelerated by the coronavirus crisis, is a store as a community that comes together around commerce and other activities related to common interests. Many stores will continue to have physical locations, but both in the brick-and-mortar store and in the digital world, that connection built to the customer is the key, and the filling of demand can take place in a multitude of ways, in person, or not.
This is the concept behind omnichannel retailing, which has been all the rage for chains like department stores, mass merchants, and specialty retail in recent years. The difference is that stores in the geek culture business start out with a different kind of customer, one that has a strong emotional attachment to the products they buy and the cultural milieu from which they originate. That’s a core business advantage that can build a better retail relationship than the one between a chain with hundreds or thousands of stores and an individual with little attachment to a seller of commodity products.
The advantage the large retailer has had has been one of scale, which has allowed it to develop technology not available to independent retailers. A new opportunity, however, is arising with the number of digital platforms that have been launched or are being developed for stores in the business of geek culture. I expect and support increasing use of those platforms, which can aid in the conversion to multi-platform retailing, in assessing and enhancing demand using digital tools, and in managing customer relationships. Those tools are going to be a key to the transformation that disruption is driving, a transformation that is essential if large numbers of comics and game stores are to survive.
In the games space, there’s TCGPlayer, which provides a platform on which to sell TCGs to consumers, and can also provide an e-commerce store for the retailer’s website; Crystal Commerce, which can provide an e-commerce storefront, and can also manage sales through TCGPlayer, Amazon, and eBay; BinderPOS, a newer system with features somewhat similar to Crystal Commerce; and others.
In the comics space, there’s ComicHub, which provides retailer websites, digital marketing tools, and advance order tools; and Bookshop.org, which provides a way for stores selling graphic novels to let a third party do the work and get an amount far larger than normal affiliate fees. Crystal Commerce can also be used to manage comic sales on multiple online platforms.
Events can be also taken online; today I saw social media marketing for “A Double Shot of Noir at the Bar,” an event run by bookseller Kew & Willow and hosted by Alex Segura on Crowdcast, which brings together authors with customers and takes online orders generated as a result. And once that capacity is built, think of the opportunities it opens: events with creators that get customers excited, without the travel and other expenses that come from in-house events. It eliminates the need to be in physical proximity to creative talent, creating the opportunity for stores in any part of the country to run events with creators.
Stores are going to have to evolve, fast, to survive in the new environment and those tools, and others, are ways to do that. Ultimately the goal is to have multiple ways of communicating with customers, using email, social media, videos, texts, and voice to keep them active with the store and the community.
What kind of supply chain to retail is needed? Publishers and other companies producing geek culture products are going to value flexibility and simplicity in their supply chains if they want to survive through the coming months and years. Working with multiple manufacturers, some domestic, is going to be essential, whether because manufacturing shuts down for a time in a hot spot, or because logistics break down on a particular route.
Flexible paths to retail are also going to be valued by both suppliers and retailers, so that if one way of reaching stores is shut down, others are available. The biggest example we’ve seen of this evolution was in DC’s decision to open two new distributors to service comic retailers while Diamond was shut down (see “DC To Release Comics Through Two New Distributors”), but that’s unlikely to be the last.
Where do the best ideas come from? It’s clear that some of the geek projects with the biggest audiences, like movies and TV shows, are going to take the longest to gear back up. In the meantime the projects with smaller creative teams that are faster to produce, like comics (as pointed out by Darin Henry of Sitcomics in his Talk Back, see “How To Save Comics in Two Easy Steps”) and games, have an opportunity to grab attention share and audience. The consumer decision we should hope for is, “There’s nothing new on TV and I can’t go to the movies tonight, so I’m going to read a graphic novel, or play a game with my roommates/family or with friends on Zoom,” and that those decisions drive commerce through a network of retailers that can get product to that customer.
Cultural products with shorter pipelines have the opportunity to grasp the zeitgeist more quickly, and I have great faith in the creativity of the writers, artists, designers, and others that create comics, games, and other art forms that make up geek culture. Put that together with a window of time when the culture desperately needs new stories and activities, with a retailer network that builds on the passion of its customers to reach them in more ways than ever, with technology and flexible supply chains that support those retailers, and spring will come sooner, rather than later.
Change is hard. Back when I was running a company with over 500 employees I developed the rule of thumb that “change is hard.” It’s difficult for people to change the ways they do things, and it’s a lot more work than trying to continue to do things in the same way.
Smaller companies actually have an advantage in managing change because there are fewer vested interests inside the company and fewer layers to work through. That's a big advantage in the current environment, when big companies are being asked to respond to regional conditions and changing situations on the fly.
Regardless of the size of the company, when there are no alternatives, change comes easier, or at least more inevitably. It's change or die time, and I know which side of that choice i want to be on.
Note: Like every other discussion of the future, this one has to make some assumptions about how the U.S. deals with the Covid-19 coronavirus. My assumption is that the disruptions in daily life that we’ve seen for the past five or six weeks are the beginning of an extended period of such disruptions that will likely continue into next year. That means the recovery in the business of geek culture is going to be long, and choppy, not a sudden re-opening of the economy followed by a surge of pent-up demand. I say choppy because even if social distancing is relaxed at times and places, there are likely to be other times and places where it has to be tightened in response to surge in new cases.
We’re putting these World According to Griepp coronavirus columns (the most recent was on distribution cash flow in a crisis, see “World According to Griepp: Distribution Cash Flow 101”) on the public site instead of the Pro site because of the importance of the times, but please support our Pro site with a new or ongoing subscription.
Milton Griepp is the founder and CEO of ICv2, and long-time executive in the geek culture business. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer.