Ralph DiBernardo of Jetpack Comics, located in Rochester, New Hampshire, shares his frustrations on street release dates being ignored and the lack of consequences.

Navigating the world of small business is tough.  Trying to compete with Walmart, Amazon and all the internet deep discounters is a challenge, to say the least.  When your sister small businesses break the rules it's frustrating, deceitful and morally questionable.

The release date for product is called STREET DATE.  That is, the date product is supposed to go on sale.  Street dates exist for books, comic books, video games, toys, games, and more.  Street dates exist to put all businesses on a level playing field.  It allows the manufacturer to provide distribution to all retailers and prevents one retailer from putting the product in a customer’s hands ahead of another business.

The more popular a product the harder street date is enforced.  When a new Harry Potter book would come out, retailers had to sign an affidavit promising to not open the boxes before street date or face lawsuits.  Star Wars toys used to have some of the most serious street date rules.  Street date is important because it prevents one business from having an early in-hand selling advantage over another.

To support small businesses and help them survive against the megacorps, some of the top selling game companies give small businesses a week or more head start on selling product.  It's a very effective sales tool.  In exchange for us running in-store card game events, both The Pokemon Company (Pokemon TCG) and Wizards of the Coast (Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons) let us sell their new products a week before the big box stores.  It's a trade-off that the manufacturers deem worthy.  Businesses like Jetpack Comics get that special early street date for providing a service that ultimately benefits the manufacturer.

The manufacturers know that people want that new product as soon as they can get it. In the case of many card games, tournament play is the cornerstone of their product.  This sanctioned early release encourages more stores to provide in-store play, bolstering the game and helping to shore up the small businesses.  If you play or collect these games you know how bad you want that new release. You want it yesterday.  There are other companies that give us the same courtesy but Pokemon, Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh! and some of the other card games are the ones that provide the biggest income to small stores.

This all sounds like another boring Ralph diatribe.  "Thanks for that useless education Ralph."  I'm getting there.  Before COVID, street dates were taken seriously.  One major distributor actually paid a company to shop their accounts and verify that street date was not broken.  We know this was effective as we received dozens of reports on Jetpack, over the years, from these companies, showing that we had NOT broken street date.  The company would send an adorable old person into our store, the day before a product would release.  They would tell a sob story about how they needed the item for a relative but could not come back the next day.  They were quite compelling stories but NOT ONCE did we break street date. Both Rich Brunelle III and I have always had the same stance.  We would not break street date for our mother.  We won't even ship product until the day before release to ensure it does not arrive until release date.  We take it seriously.

Two years ago we learned of a shop breaking street date by several days, on comic books, a few towns away.  Early last year there was a local shop running events with the new Magic product the day they got it in, before release date.  IT WAS POSTED ON THEIR FACEBOOK PAGE.  Late last year we learned of a shop selling the new DC comics the day they came in, a week ahead of time - ONCE AGAIN, IT WAS POSTED ON THEIR FACEBOOK PAGE.  A couple months ago, a shop was selling a new Bandai card game product over a week before release.  Now just this past week we learn of a shop selling the new Magic set almost a week ahead of time.  I understand this all sounds like whining but this is all within a 40-mile radius of us.  These violations all result in a big financial hit for us.

In every case we reported the violation to the appropriate parties and in each case our complaint was NOT acted upon, even with the Facebook proof.  Don't misunderstand the bad actors.  We all know when street date and release date is.  It is clearly marked on invoices and in emails from Wizards of the Coast.  Every game shop knows when they can sell product.  Every comic book and book invoice tells you street dates.

It is heart-breaking, and yes, I mean heart-breaking.  We are a competitive business.  We price aggressively trying to find the balance between price and profitability.  We aggressively stock the products we think people want.  We work hard to provide a welcoming, fun environment for everyone that visits us.  Every staff member at Jetpack works hard to establish relationships.

Stores that break street date are simply using the only "morally wrong" advantage they can use to boost their sales.  Street date only works to protect businesses if everyone abides by it.  You break street date under the guise of "helping your customers," but you know you're really doing it for a competitive advantage to bolster your sales.

"Ralph, don't your customers love you enough to wait?"  Nope.  The average person has no idea what street date is, nor do they care.  They just want the product they want.  When they see the Superman or Digimon on the shelf they buy it.  It gives the customer the impression that we don't know what we're doing because this shop has the Digimon for sale and Jetpack does not.  It makes us look like we are inept at our job when in truth we are following the rules that we are all supposed to follow.  Most card collectors do not care about street date at all.  Cards are an extremely lucrative business right down to the single person flipping a few cards for profit.  The sooner you get those cards the sooner you can make a profit and the sooner you have a more competitive deck to beat your friends.  We are a world that wants immediate gratification.

We lost customers to the stores that were selling comic books early.  We lost sales of Bandai product because of the store that sold it a week early.  We keep our Magic prices as low as possible (often matching online discounters) and now our Magic sales have suffered.  It is even more dumbfounding that friends and family of Jetpack Comics knew about these things happening and no one even warned us when it was happening.

Street date is not a legally enforceable rule and any civil action would take years and tens of thousands of dollars.  Manufacturers and publishers are supposed to be enforcing the procedures by imposing sanctions on stores that violate their rules.  Store owners are supposed to have the integrity to abide by the rules. Patrons?  If I wasn't in the business and I knew I could get something early I'd be right there as well (just being honest - it's human nature - immediate gratification).

In full disclosure we have broken street date ONCE and it was pre-Covid!  On bad advice, from a sanctioned Magic judge, we sold single magic cards before street date.  Our actions were based on believing what we thought was a reputable source.  Wizards of the Coast called us, we pulled them from the shelf, and haven't been a part of anything like that since then.

If you're a publisher or manufacturer, please either enforce your rules or get rid of them.  While I'd rather see them enforced, we can afford to have our product shipped in to sell it earlier.

If you've read this far, I applaud you and I urge everyone to share this and tag publishers and manufacturers in it.

If you're a manufacturer / publisher / distributor reach out to me for more info.  I will gladly share every single detail I have about these violations and more.  If you're a consumer please support the stores that are operating with integrity and honesty.  Boycott and report the stores that are breaking the rules.  If you're not sure, reach out to me.  I'll let you know the truth.  If you're one of those shop owners breaking street date and laughing at me with your friends and staff because of my temper tantrum, I wish you the best of luck.

The opinions expressed in this Talk Back are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.

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