Earlier this month, I wrote a column about the origins of distributor-produced advance order catalogues for consumers, and why their time was past (see "World According to Griepp: Origins of Advance Order Catalogues and Why They Should Die").  The format has been around since 1988 and has long since outlived its usefulness, especially in the COVID-19 era, when supply chains are disrupted, schedules are in disarray, and the whole business needs maximum flexibility to be able to react to rapidly shifting conditions.

I’d like to suggest a new model for taking advance orders on geek culture products, such as games, comics, and merch.

  • The ordering system should allow retailers to begin taking orders from their customers as soon as the basic information about the product is known.  For everything except periodical comics, Amazon and other online retailers are listing the titles months before comic and game stores have the opportunity to begin taking orders using one of the distributor-produced advance order catalogues: Diamond Comic Distributors’ Previews, Alliance Game Distributors Game Trade Magazine, and ACD Distribution’s Meeple Monthly.  That cedes the majority of the selling time on new graphic novels, the largest and growing part of the comics business, on games, and on merch to online retailers, leaving brick and mortar retailers using a distributor catalogue with their customers at a significant disadvantage.  And even for periodicals, a longer amount of time to take orders is unlikely to produce lower sales.
  • The ordering system should allow retailers to place their orders at the last possible minute to have their quantities guaranteed.  There are already numerous ordering cycles in place, making the idea there there’s some magical monthly order due date that works for every product coming out two months later a myth.  Products produced in Asia and/or with more complex manufacturing processes have longer lead times, while standard periodical comics can set their print runs less than a month before they street.  Every week there are order due dates for products coming out any time from a few weeks out to several months later.  Why not just have a weekly cycle of order due dates for all the products with guaranteed quantity cutoffs that week?
  • Consumers must be able to order from stores using an online tool.  Given that few stores use a single supplier, the online tool for retailers to collect online orders is going to have to come from POS systems specific to geek businesses, such as ComicHub, Crystal Commerce, or BinderPOS, or a distributor is going to have to build one that allows stores to add products from other suppliers, so a single tool can be used for complete products lines across categories.  The advance order tool should accommodate automated suggestions for upsell marketing based on creator, property, series, product category, release date, and other key criteria on which consumers make purchasing decisions.
  • The time between when orders are due to stores, when orders are due to distributors, and when distributors place those orders with their suppliers should be as short as possible.  The idea that it takes a long time to process orders came from a period when human beings had to enter advance orders from a physical order form into a computer.  With consumers and retailers placing their orders electronically, the processing time should be measured in hours rather than days or weeks, and the difference in order due dates between tiers only a day or two.  Shortening the time between all of those deadlines allows retailer and distributor orders to be more accurate, which maximizes sales with less risk for both.  A faster process also accommodates opportunistic product sourcing that might require a shorter lead time.
  • Consumers and retailers should both be able to continue to order after the due date for guaranteed quantities, drawing on "available to promise" inventory ordered on spec at the retailer or distributor level until it is exhausted.

Here are the advantages of an advance order system like the one I outline above:

  • Orders are more reflective of actual demand because at all levels, orders are placed closer to release.  The cost of mis-matches between supply and demand in a largely non-returnable supply chain are difficult to over-estimate.  Every incremental improvement that reduces those mis-matches by increasing sales or eliminating excess inventory goes straight to the bottom line.
  • Brick and mortar retailers would be able to compete more effectively with online retailers, taking orders for a longer period of time before release, with more flexibility.
  • An online tool allows more efficient cross-selling.  A print catalogue is very limited in how it groups or presents related products, while an online catalogue is endlessly flexible.  Better cross-selling means higher sales and happier customers at all levels.
  • Eliminating the catalogues would wipe out huge amounts of waste in prepping pages for publication, printing, shipping, handling, and other costs.  And let’s face it, for most purchasers, they’re totally uninterested in the majority of the products in that catalogue, another form of waste.
  • For retailers and distributors, a weekly cycle allows for more efficient use of personnel than a monthly one.  The amount of work each week would vary less.  Instead of building a big monthly catalogue, distributors could focus on quickly adding new products to the upcoming product database for consumer and retailer use.  And instead of trying to collect orders from that big monthly catalogue once a month, each week the retailer and distributor could work on orders for the products due that week.

I developed the system in use today, and now it’s time to start over in a new way.

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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.