I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan, which means every time there’s a new comics release I head for the comic-book store. I did this when I was a kid and Marvel brought us monthly Star Wars tales ranging from the goofy to the sublime, I did this living in DC when Dark Horse relaunched Star Wars comics in the early 90s, and for the last 17 years I’ve done this at my local shop here in Brooklyn.
That became habit a long time ago — check the new releases on Wednesday, fit in an extra errand on Montague Street if there’s something to buy. It’s hard to break habits. But the world keeps pushing us to do so, particularly when our habits can be digitized.
One of the earliest bits of conventional wisdom when I was covering technology for WSJ.com more than a decade ago was that the web eliminated middlemen. Which was a bit of an oversimplification: What the web and other digital technologies do is provide alternatives, which forces middlemen to justify their existence.
People may jump at the chance to do things themselves, eliminating a middleman. They may switch to a better middleman that geography or expense didn’t allow them to use before. They may find a new middleman that makes an old routine more efficient. Middlemen die, yes, but middlemen are also born. Amazon’s a middleman. So are the new class of aggregators and curators and some bloggers.
A key question for customers or businesses is what makes people jump. I quit going to baseball-card shows as soon as a decent digital marketplace arose. To my surprise, I quit going to physical bookstores — something I once did every couple of days — because Amazon was a cheaper, more comprehensive marketplace for used titles. I quit calling travel agents years ago, and started doing business directly with Delta instead of digital travel services because I could earn extra miles doing so. I’ve changed a variety of habits for a variety of reasons.
But I didn’t think my comic-book habits would change. I liked physical comics, and my routine worked well enough.
So what happened? Put simply, my local shop made me want to switch.
My kid is nine, and used to accompanying me on weekly forays to the comic-book store. When he was younger, like all kids, he sometimes lost track of how badly he needed to go to the bathroom. A couple of times he used the shop’s little WC, tucked behind a discreet door.
This happened again a few months ago. When I asked if he could use the bathroom, the cashier said, “I’m sorry, we don’t have one.”
“Yes you do,” I said, pointing at the door. I was less angry than confused. “We’ve used it before.”
She looked only slightly embarrassed.
“The owner doesn’t let customers use it,” she said.
Really? Was he about to emerge from a secret lair in the ceiling? What kind of person doesn’t have sympathy for a child who needs to pee?
I was mad now, and wanted a reason to punish them. There’s a good shop in lower Manhattan — I used to go there sometimes when I worked for WSJ.com. But that’s a subway ride away, and a $4.50 surcharge on each comic-book trip seemed like a lot of money for spite.
So I reluctantly stuck with my local. Maybe it was just that one cashier. Maybe she was having a bad day. You’ve had your moments too, pal.
Last weekend was Free Comic Book Day. Dark Horse had a split Han Solo/Serenity book that I wanted. I dropped by my local, figuring I’d get the Han Solo comic and also buy something for my kid, so they’d make some money on the deal. I couldn’t find the Han Solo comic and asked. They told me the free comics were random — you stuck your hand in a bag and got what you got.
But I only want the Han Solo comic, I objected. Blank looks — and no attempt to stop me as I left. I bought the Han Solo comic off eBay for $7 shipped, fuming as I typed in my PayPal information.
Now I really wanted to switch. I’d heard of mail-order subscription services, and asked Star Wars fans if they knew a good one. Go digital, was the response. Who buys floppy comics any more?
Huh. I started looking into that, and whaddya know? Dark Horse had an iPad app. That iPad app let me download comics for the same price as the printed ones, then keep them organized. I downloaded the new Knights of the Old Republic title, out today. I downloaded the Dawn of the Jedi issue I’d missed. I could have the Han Solo comic for free.
The iPad turned out to be perfect for reading comics. And, I realize, I’d no longer have to deal with selling off bundles of individual issues on eBay to clear space after buying the trade paperbacks.
More money for Dark Horse. An easier experience for me. As for the trip I’d planned to my local for later today? Not happening. Never happening again, in fact — there’s one fewer middleman in the world.
I’m aware that this puts even more pressure on comic-book shops. I know many of them won’t survive. And in abstract I regret that. But that’s the law of the digital jungle — someone gave me a better way, and sentiment isn’t going to keep me from it. Besides, remember that I was loyal to the old way. I didn’t switch until I was pushed — until two bad customer-service experiences ended a 17-year relationship with my local.
And therein, I think, lies the lesson: As a business, you’re increasingly competing with businesses you never had to worry about before. They might be in another state, another medium, or both. You have to adapt — and more than that, you have to safeguard your relationships with your loyal customers. Endanger those relationships, and there’s no shortage of competitors ready to offer your customers a better deal. And once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.