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Comics & Games Retailer

Online Auctions - Part One

By Oliver Chin

One of my few regrets as a comics publisher was not diving into the booming sector of online auctions. Eager to test the waters, I did start some marketing (selling Pokémon comics signed by artist Toshihiro Ono for charity) but unfortunately did not wade in deeply to move old products that were gathering dust in inventory.

Nevertheless, I still wanted to explore how the comics community could benefit from web exchanges. Surprisingly, my investigation confirmed that certain parties already have made substantial progress in this field, which should encourage the rest of you to take the plunge.

Growth is Good

Auction sites abound. From Auctionwatch and Bidder's Edge to Yahoo itself. Of these, eBay continues to be synonymous with the growing movement. Their public relations manager, Kevin Pursglove, confirmed that all measured activity has doubled in the past year. The second quarter of 2000 rung in 15.8 million registered users who were selling 54 million items (5 million per day) for gross merchandise sales of $1.4 billion.

Of eBay's membership, 80% of the items sold were by 20% of the users (called "Power Sellers"). These Power Sellers were mostly retailers but also some hobbyists who had converted into being "collectible sellers." Ebay also owns Half.com, where individuals post items at a fixed price for immediate sale. Pursglove cited that many "people are crossing over" from using both auctions and this "immediate seller format."

Amazon.com also has expanded into this attractive territory. Sam Wheeler, group manager for special sales and auctions, confirmed how "Amazon wants to be the place where you find, discover and buy anything online." Amazon charges a lower commission rate than eBay (5% for items selling for under $25, 2.5% up to $1,000, 1.25% for over $1,000) and a nominal listing fee. In addition, Amazon sponsors "Zshops" where individuals can set up web storefronts. Wheeler emphasizes that zShops retailers, such as Mile High Comics (which operates their own site too), can succeed and in fact compliment Amazon "by selling things Amazon may not, such as out of print titles."

Comic Relativity

To bring auctions closer to home, Shira Levine, eBay's category manager of books, comics and science-fiction, counted 60,000 comics and ˝ million collectibles on the site currently. Drawing from her DC Comics background, Levine reorganized eBay's "categories by how people actually collect" (ex. Gold vs. Silver age), added new segments, and created a specific comic destination page. While conducting "ebay 101" seminars at the San Diego Comic Con, she partnered with the Comics Guarantee Corporation (CGC) to authenticate, grade, and seal issues for web users.

Positioning eBay as the "highway of all possible collectors," Levine stated it's "challenging for new retailers to create community greater than what ebay has concentrated and grown." She estimates that 50% of all comics retailers engage in online auctions and that it is a "known and accepted method for doing business." As an alternate channel for liquidation or retail selling, web exchanges allow retailers to clean out inventory (back issues and overstock).

If online auctions are a safety net for people who miscalculated initial ordering or experienced unpredictable drops in demand, ultimately they "allow retailers to become better business people and improve their customer service" according to Levine. Affirming that fans are "brand loyal to the experience of community center," Levine argued that online auctions do not reduce traffic to local stores, but rather act as "ancillary contacts" that satisfy both retailers and consumers interest to transact more.

Retailers new to online auctions can dedicate one employee part-time to manage sales. Also retailers can function as consignment centers for customers by taking a commission on the products they sell. On eBay, popular categories are statues, golden age comics, and original artwork. Anime and manga are scattered throughout the site (from movies to toys) and certain items' popularity are seasonal, depending on the timing of new releases and TV exposure.

Publishing means Promotion

But as always, comics find it difficult to expand from its niche. For publishers who want to compete in this digital age and become more entrepreneurial, online auctions are great places to launch projects.

However, most publishers have not auctioned new products to any great extent. Even though the secondary market revitalizes the primary market, publishers can't immediately auction new releases since it conflicts with their direct retailers. Despite this, Dark Horse has progressively marketed to their cultish fan base, such with as with Buffy auctions. Recently newcomer Thunderwave Studios has pushed their debut title "The 10th Muse" (Reno Mero, aka Sable from World Wrestling Federation) in conjunction with Dynamic Forces on eBay, where Publisher Darren Davis was willing to pay for better placement to generate the necessary buzz.

On the magazine end, Dan Haggerty, VP of www.wizardworld.com, has launched their online price guide to be a market for 150,000 comics. Without listing fees, fans can open a free account to buy or sell titles. People can change the grade of an issue to get a different price estimate, add comics to their personal portfolio, and select ones they want to acquire. Purchasing will be on a first come, first served, where buyers and sellers communicate via email. Now that the Wizard Mall (formerly affiliated with Another Universe) is a compendium of links to comics retailers who are online, Haggerty wants WizardWorld to be a complete resource where customers can have an "online inventory, Merchandising, and sales system" in one place.

Beyond promoting of original art and collectibles (such as eBay selling Mark Waid paintings and Stan Lee's desk), publishers can be enormously creative online. Amazon's Sam Wheeler specializes in producing "high profile events, such as for movies, TV, and theatrical events." Maximizing consumer awareness of entertainment for film studios and record labels "is integrally important" Wheeler states. Amazon's core competency is selling books, video, and music, so that if he can get "more people looking for them," the better his chances are to successfully "migrate them to online auctions."

State of the Sale

Users are redefining the web as a trading platform to suit their own needs. New auction categories evolving by the day, as eBay has just opened up autos, real estate, and a business exchange for Sun Microsystems.

However, one thing remains constant. Avid collectors are more unique than the general public - they are "completists" who want to add things to their lineup. Retailers' challenge is to extend their relationships with regular customers, so that consumers can deepen their association with nostalgia and memorabilia.

More people are coming around to the idea where you can find anything online. Isn't it time you took the swim too?

Magazines

Comics Buyer's Guide is the USA's longest running magazine about comic books. Every month it features new comic reviews, nostalgic retroviews, interviews and a price guide. Oliver Chin reviews anime, manga, movies, videos, graphic novels, comics, and books.

Comics & Games Retailer provides news to comic and games retailers about practical how-to tips on selling comics and keeping up with industry and market trends. Monthly issues include Oliver Chin's column "Going Global" and other articles that give a national overview of the market.