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Comics & Games Retailer

Merchandising Manga 101: Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing

By Oliver Chin

Cross marketing is essential to grow retail sales. You've already done so with the Man of Steel and the Webslinger, so it's time you consider doing the same with anime and manga characters.

Stock products for fans who buy across the board. Anime and manga buyers collect their favorites in a rainbow of flavors. If you offered Pokemon tissue paper or pocket protector they'd probably grab it. The merchandise beyond anime (comics) and manga (video, DVD) are:

Games (video, RPG)
Stickers and cards
Toys (figures, plush)
Wall art (posters, scrolls)

Hard keeping full selection in stock. One distributor may not have all the available product. Need to contact secondary and specialty distributors. Retailers have to be diligent in tracking down products, and establishing accounts for multiple companies, possibly even purchasing material straight from the publisher itself if distribution is inadequate.


Capitalizing on the enduring popularity of comics characters, publishers have sought greater sales through producing merchandise. Naturally distributors and retailers have joined the parade once they realized that anime and manga fans have a steady appetitite and their ranks continue to swell.

Beyond superhero statues and toys, anime and manga characters are resurrected in a wealth of 2 and 3-D products. The array is as mind boggling: puzzles, transformers, and 10 foot metallic posters. The sources are different and require a special attention to ferret out and procure items.

Licensing is different than with US publishers that create and own their own characters. Typically US companies license anime and manga from Japanese companies. These US companies only have the rights for particular products.

That is why retailers get frustrated when they assume one company publishes all merchandise for a particular series, when in fact that company may only control one format.

Problematic due to how many companies can publish part of a series. Due to fractured licensing contracts. Indeed it is rare for a whole property to be kept intact. Not necessarily the fault of the publisher. Market is competitive, and just because a company produces one existing product, does not mean another company can outbid them for another part of the line.

Since US companies may lack the ability to produce a wide spectrum of merchandise. As I am wont to say, illegal supply meets American demand when US products fail to come to market.

Imports and Bootlegs

As retailers know, the import and bootleg market is very large. Question of imports is a delicate one.

Don't sell bootlegs! From a publisher perspective. From a retailer perspective, you want to sell. But in the long run it hurts companies with legitimate rights from recouping their investment. It rewards black market companies who want to make fast buck without building the market. It also hurts your fellow retailers who sell licensed merchandise. Each of you know of bad apples. Let publishers know about them.

The difference between them is a fine line. Import material generally is licensed for sale for a particular country and language. In most cases, import material is not licensed for sale in the United States. But without being privy to the licensee's contracts, retailers won't be able to know. Imports are the lesser of the two evils.

Bootleg material however, has never been licensed at all. These are counterfeits, which steal images or imitate original designs. These typically are printed overseas (Taiwan) and shipped through distributors infamous for dealing in "rip-offs."

I strongly discourage retailers from traffiking in bootleg merchandise. Much like buying a fake Rolex or Polo sweater, buyers are lured by lower prices but ultimately get burned by inferior quality and durability. The poor production and cheaper price undermine the acceptance and establishment of legitimate products. I understand that anime and manga customers will buy anything under the sun, and if one retailer won't provide them another will. But this argument is used to justify any illegal sale (from drugs to guns) and is suitably inappropriate here.

Often retailers unwittingly may purchase these items from distributors, assuming they are licensed. Therefore distributors too have the responsibility to curtail selling these items, regardless of their "hot" value. To continue to solicit unlicensed merchandise, distributors erode the long term business of US suppliers for the short term sale. This myopic thinking contributes to a vicious circle which has inhibited the growth and recovery of the US comics market and certainly would not be tolerated by DC or Marvel.

Get Radical

Radical means getting to the root of the issue. In this vein, retailers must seek the source of merchandise to successfully tap in to its popularity.

Japanese companies may award licenses from Japan, which means US companies need strong overseas contacts. Or now Japanese companies can employ US agents to review and reward licensees, which may attract more bidding from more US companies.

The current frenzy is over Pokemon. The explosion in customer demand has not been met by a plethora of products...yet. The temptation to provide import and bootleg merchandise products is strong. But like the dark side of the force, you should resist it.

The rollout has been building. Merchandising shows the power of tie-ins and have mass media and markets cross polinate popularity. Orchestrate launches and roll outs.

Toy Fair in February 1999, confirmed that many disparate companies can provide unrelated products without any coordination in marketing, sales or distribution. So, retailers don't feel that they are ignoring you. A licensee can be totally oblivious to all their co-licensees, by focusing tunnel vision on their particular market niche. It takes an agressive licensee (and agent) to contact other licensees to take advantage of common product dispersal or reach new markets. There are no rules, as even publishers can be brushed off from even receiving samples from an affiliate licensee.

Retailers may choose to wait to see what distributors can provide. Better yet, they must be active sleuths in detecting where they can get the desired merchandise. Given time and elbow grease, track up the river to the source if you know that you could sell a lot.

Use multiple distributors.
Ask publishers for referrals.
Ask other retailers where they got products.
Ask the major licensor or agent for a list of licensees.


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.