animefringe july 2003 / editorial
The Changing Face of Retail

Just a little more than a year ago, manga was still being released one book every six months at a relatively high price point. Most major bookstores that carried manga had them randomly mixed in with domestic graphic novels, though the selection was almost always limited to Lone Wolf & Cub, Ranma 1/2, or X / 1999. If you found manga in a mall-based bookstore, then it was because the people working there went out of their way to get it or because a customer had ordered it and neglected to pick it up, and no one had bothered to return it. Kids might have known that Yu-Gi-Oh and Dragon Ball came from Japan, but that didn't mean they were treating the shows any differently from anything else they saw on TV.

Oh, how things have changed. It's impossible to cite any one factor for the sudden explosion of interest in manga and anime, but the import industry's popularity is growing no matter the reason. In fact, analysts are expecting the manga industry to continue its trend of doubling sales each year, and with new titles like Trigun, Hellsing, and Excel Saga selling alongside popular favorites like Dragon Ball, Chobits, Love Hina, and Inu-Yasha, it's not hard to agree with these predictions.

So, apparently we're on the right track. But are retailers with us? Of course you can go to dedicated online sites that have always carried these products, such as Animenation, The Right Stuf, Planet Anime, or a number of other web-based storefronts. However, while shopping online is becoming increasingly common, something cannot succeed as a mainstream product unless it can sell everywhere. Once you're able to sell manga to the public in a venue that also sells John Grisham novels, The Backstreet Boys, and the latest teenybopper movie, then you've hit the mainstream.

And let's face it, that's what we want for the anime and manga industry. That's my goal, at least, for I believe that the more this stuff sells, the more of it publishers will bring over for me to enjoy. And if a fan base of thousands expands into the millions along the way, then that's fine by me, so long as I get my manga and anime fix.

My personal motivation aside, let's take a look at the stores I'm talking about. I'm limited to mentioning stores in my area (St. Louis, in the middle of the USA), but essentially, there are three basic venues. First of all, there are the collectors' shops. These tend to be independently owned and operated, and they also don't attract a very wide range of customers. For the most part, if you're going to a comic book shop, then you may already have a proclivity towards items of Japanese origin. Next is the mall-based store. For movies, these tend to be stores like Sam Goody, the Suncoast Motion Picture Company, FYE, Saturday Matinee, or Musicland. For books, it's limited to Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, Coles, Coopermiths, and Brentanos. On the largest scale is the warehouse-style stores such as Circuit City, Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, Borders, Hastings, or Books-a-Million. Again, there are other stores besides these particular chains, but you should have the general idea by now.

On the anime side of things, not much as really changed. Stores such as the Sam Goody family of video outlets have always had a good selection of anime, usually having a wider range of titles than even warehouse giants such as Best Buy. You may notice these stores, however, reorganizing their sections, allowing for more room or a better display of artboxes that are becoming increasingly common. The Sam Goody family of stores (which, oddly enough, is now affiliated with Best Buy) has an exclusive deal with Viz that allows that chain to sell Inu-Yasha DVDs earlier than its competitors, which is a marketing ploy that hasn't really been widely attempted before last year. Perhaps the most surprising change for the selling of anime is the unexpected availability of anime DVDs in a few Waldenbooks stores across the US. It's quite odd to see Boogiepop Phantom next to a display of Harry Potter books, but the store I work at carries at least fifty unique titles, ranging from mainstream hits like Spirited Away to smaller series such as Sorcerer Hunters.

I think the largest change in retail as far as the selling of Japanese products is concerned would have to be on the manga front. Manga is now carried in certain Sam Goody stores, which balances out the fact that Waldenbooks now has anime. Yet, the way other bookstores handles manga is evolving swiftly. The biggest changes seem to be coming from the Borders Group, which includes the warehouse bookstore, Borders, as well as Waldenbooks, Brentanos, and their affiliates. Similar to Sam Goody's deal for Inu-Yasha, the Borders Group has exclusive early selling rights to the Di-Gi Charat series of manga, another benchmark in the industry.

Aside from these special release contracts, however, there's also the fact that Borders and Waldenbooks have both clearly increased their stock of manga. Stores that used to only carry five or six titles now have hundreds, and sections are being rearranged to accommodate this completely new genre for the company. So far, Barnes & Noble, Hastings, and Books-a-Million seem to be behind the trend a bit, with only a hundred or so titles in stock at once. Yet, when they realize how much their competitor is banking on manga, they're sure to follow the leads of Borders and Waldenbooks soon enough.

All major retail chains are supplied by a primary distribution center. The items that get shipped to each individual store is usually determined by what sells well in a particular location, so a store with a strong fantasy section will most likely also carry more manga than others. The books and DVDs that any company carries are chosen by a "buyer." It's up to these employees to scout out potential products and then acquire them for sales within the company. Having a buyer that knows what he or she is purchasing makes a world of difference.

While it's up to the company to choose what products will be carried, it's ultimately up to each individual store's employees to actually move the product. Any well-organized store will tend to perform better than a venue that haphazardly displays its stock. Smart merchandising will also help increase the sale - and thus the popularity - of any type of product, but manga and anime in particular. For example, video stores that break up every anime title into various genres and scatter them throughout the store are a bit bothersome. I prefer all of a store's anime to be in a single place. Besides, it's pretty hard to break anime down into genres, usually. Where, exactly, would Excel Saga go? Comedy? Science Fiction? And what about Chobits? Drama? Romance? Science Fiction?

You see the mess this can lead to. Every item in any store has a variable probability of selling. If you put the product in a location where potential buyers are not going to see it, then you've just effectively reduced that percentage to zero.

For bookstores, this logic applies in the same way. Keep the manga together - don't mix it with art books or English graphic novels. It can be shelved near relevant sections, but the titles should be segregated from one another. When I'm shopping for manga, I want to see it all in one place. Then I'll slide over to check out the American comics.

Paying attention to other nitpicky details tend to help out even more. Say you have all of your anime or manga in one place. Within that section, then, the items should be alphabetized by title, and kept in number order as well. Again, this may seem anal, but when people are looking for the eighth DVD in a twelve-disc set, then they aren't going to expect to find it at the beginning. Put things where they belong and you're on your way to selling more stuff.

Incidentally, some stores also have problems with putting these products out on their specified street dates. If it's not the latest season of Friends, then certain DVDs can be sadly overlooked when their big day arrives. One annoying example that I probably won't forget soon was just a few months ago, when Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, and Kiki's Delivery Service were finally released on DVD. This wasn't necessarily a case of not putting titles out, but an allocation oversight. I went to Best Buy the morning those three fine films were released, and everything but Spirited Away was sold out.

I got there at 11 AM.

Apparently, each store in the area only received five copies of Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service. I realize that not everyone is a diehard anime fanboy, but you can bet that there are more than five of us for each Best Buy in the area. I drove from store to store that day, stopping at other dealers on the way. The media head at the largest Circuit City in town had never heard of Spirited Away.

Again, I realize that I may be one of the few people in the area to be aware of the fact that the film was the highest grossing film of all time in Japan, and that it just took an Academy Award not even a month prior to its release, but c'mon. I was a bit annoyed by that point.

Luckily for the fifth store I stopped at (another Best Buy), I eventually found all three DVDs in one place. My crisis had been averted, and the bliss of owning three of the finest films released this year outweighed my annoyance at having so much trouble finding them on their release date.

I went through the same trouble when The Animatrix was released. This time, Circuit City had both editions of the DVD displayed in its weekly ads. Once again, however, I was given funny looks when I asked for it. It was as if the retail community was playing a joke on me. Annoyed, I went to the Best Buy that had my three Miyazaki films earlier in the year and found it. They matched Circuit City's price, and I left, happy.

With books, this is less of an issue, as most stores are not given mandatory street dates for manga. I put new titles out the minute they arrive, and it is usually a good two or three weeks before their specified arrival date. Hopefully, things will continue to arrive early, for nothing makes me happier than books coming in ahead of schedule.

This is undeniably a period of great change for both book and video stores thanks to the manga and anime explosion. Just last week, the Waldenbooks I work at started carrying Wallscrolls. About a month ago, we received anime soundtracks, Ein plushies, Kuroneko-sama bobbleheads, Ranma statues, T-Shirts featuring Rurouni Kenshin, Yu-Gi-Oh, Cowboy Bebop, and Inu-Yasha), Chobits trading cards, and imported Di-Gi Charat trading figures.

All of that, in a mall bookstore in the middle of the USA. Life is good.

The most interesting question about all this that I've been pondering lately would have to be where does it go from here? With hundreds of new anime and manga titles being released each year, and sales continually climbing, this is not a phenomenon that is going to fade away soon. Personally, I think there's only one direction that this is all eventually going to take.

I predict that within a few years, we'll start to see the major chain stores opening a new subsidiary company - one devoted entirely to Japanese merchandise.

Most people are aware that Barnes and Noble runs B. Dalton, a bookstore usually found in malls. However, it also operates Funcoland, Software Etc., and Babbages. Waldenbooks used to have a software branch as well, and most recently they were affiliated with Electronics Boutique (unfortunately for me, they no longer are). Soon enough, there will be a large enough market for a store dedicated entirely to manga, anime, and other merchandise any otaku would be glad to own. Just last year, Borders experimented with a small assortment of products in a mall-based kiosk called "Otaku."

Independent owners have already done this in a few malls around the nation, and it's only a matter of time until the retail giants wake up and realize the potential for such a shop. All I have to say is, these shops better offer some fantastic discounts for us obsessive fans. Otherwise, the introduction of such a nifty store will go unnoticed as we all continue to stick with the less-expensive option of online shopping.

I have to admit, however, it'd be amazing to enter a bookstore in America that carried only manga. If we all keep on buying anime and manga the way we have been lately, then it's only a matter of time.