Sunday, September 22, 2013

The pull list and keeping your word

Today, I'd like to discuss a service offered by most comic-book shops that is used by many customers: the "pull list."  I'm going to discuss that service because of an argument I started having on a comic-based blog, and the irresponsible attitude taken by one or two of the folks there.

First, a little history.  Originally, comic-books were printed on pulp paper, very cheaply, and sold for a few cents. When I was growing up, comics could be had for 30-40 cents, depending on the exact year.  They were mass-marketed through news stands, much like regular newspapers, and the rules for selling and distributing were very similar. The distributor would bring the news stand its allotment, and the news stand put them out.  The news stand owner could return all unsold copies, and was not financially responsible for them. Now, to be sure, the owner wanted to sell them -- he made a small profit on each one, so comics did make him some money.  But if he didn't sell some, it was no skin off his nose -- ultimately, the cost of unsold comics was borne by DC, Marvel, and the distributors.

Then in the 1980s, comic-book specialty shops started springing up with more and more frequency (I remember when the first one opened in around 1981 in my local mall).  These shops were not news stands.  They would get comics directly from the companies (these were called "direct sales"), and sell them to the customers.  Because of the differences in distribution, direct-sales shops could not return unsold quantities of comics. Therefore, they had to order the number they wanted, pay for each one they ordered, and then hope to sell each and every one.  Unlike the news stand, comic-shop owners took a loss from every unsold copy.

The inability to return comics, and the cost associated with accidentally buying way too many copies of an issue that didn't sell, forced comic-book shops to be very careful with their ordering.  It wouldn't do to order 45 copies of Teen Titans if only 12 are going to sell.  On the other hand, since the comic-shops catered more to serious collectors than kids walking in off the street, they had more demanding customers who would be very angry if they "missed" issues.  Thus, it also wouldn't do to order 12 copies of Teen Titans when 45 people want to buy one.  Comic-shop owners thus had to make informed, careful decisions about each order, with the goal of ordering just enough copies for the people who usually buy a series, with maybe a few extra to allow for "impulse buys," but not so many as to be left holding stacks and stacks of comics.

This led to a situation where, if a collector wanted to be sure to get the next issue in a series, one had to go to the comic-book shop on opening night to guarantee it.  If the shop knows that 30 Teen Titans usually sell each month, they may only order 34 or so. And if the issue turns out to be more popular than usual, it will sell out.  The collector showing up three or four days later might well miss out.

To help collectors avoid missing out, and also help the comic-book shop do more accurate ordering, comic shops around the country started offering an in-store subscription service.  Customers can use this service by providing name and contact information to the shop, along with a list of comics that the customer wants to buy each month.  Thus, if you are a Teen Titans and New Avengers fan, you give that information to the shop.  When new comics come out each week, the shop pulls out a copy of the items on your list for you, before putting the comics out on the shelves for walk-in customers, thus giving you first crack at new comics and ensuring that you never miss an issue.  Because they are physically pulling a comic book out of a stack and putting it aside with your name on it, this subscription service eventually came to be known as a 'pull list' to customers. As an interesting aside, I've noticed that most shops still call this a 'subscription service,' but most customers still call it a 'pull list.'  Since I'm a customer, I will continue to call it a 'pull list.'

Before someone starts a pull list with a comic-book shop, it is important to understand what the pull list represents, and exactly how it works. Comic-shop owners have to put orders in to the comic companies roughly 4-8 weeks before a comic-book is shipped.  This gives the companies time to set their print runs.  Thus, if Thor is on issue 100 this month and it's on your pull list, when you walk in to pick up Thor 100, the shop has already put in its order for 101 and possibly 102 from Marvel.  They are ordering 1 extra copy each month of Thor because you said you wanted one.  That is, they are special-ordering this comic-book for you, over and above what they would have ordered if you did not have Thor on your pull list.  That also means that if you don't buy that copy of Thor, it may well sit on the shelf unsold (because the shop already accounted for all the copies of Thor that are likely to sell besides yours -- the one on your pull list, they got specifically for you).

The key here is that everything on your pull list is being ordered specifically for you by the shop. But unlike many other retail settings where unsold items can be returned, if you don't buy the items on your pull list, the comic shop has to eat the cost of those items.  They cannot sell them back to DC or Marvel (or Diamond, the distribution company).  Thus, every time you refuse a copy of something on your pull list, you are costing the comic-book shop money.

And I've seen this happen a lot -- customers trying to turn back items on their pull list.  Back when pull lists first started in the early 1980s, I remember a customer who must have had every DC and Marvel title on his pull list at my old comic shop rifling through the stack and then trying to return half the items.  The shop owner went ballistic, telling him that this was not right, and that he needed to take the ones he ordered, because she already paid for them.  She ended up letting him turn them all back "this time," but said from now on, he had to either take everything or cull his pull list.

More recently, there was a conversation at my comic-shop between the owner and one of the workers. They were trying to get in touch with a customer who apparently had not been into the shop in several months.  She had a huge stack of comics waiting for her.  They had since canceled her pull list, because she hadn't been coming in to pick them up, but they still had this pile of unsold comics that she had ordered, and never been by to purchase. The owner told the worker to keep trying to contact her -- they needed to make her "fulfill her obligations."

And that is what one is doing when making a pull list with a local shop -- one enters into an agreement with the vendor, and each side has an obligation.  The vendor's end of the bargain is to order comics in sufficient quantities that he can put aside mint-quality copies of every item on your pull list.  If you miss an issue or get a damaged copy, the vendor is not honoring his obligations.  Your end of the bargain, as the customer with the pull list, is to buy every single item on the list.  Remember, the vendor ordered these items for you -- on your say-so that you wanted them. If you don't buy them, then you are costing the vendor money.

Now, I have heard a lot of excuses from the one or two customers who seem to think that "this is America" and they "can't be forced to buy a product they don't want."  And perhaps legally, these people are correct.  I suspect that, in a court of law, the comic shop would not be able to legally force anyone to buy the items on the pull list, because comic-shop pull lists are typed up in-house and are not likely to be written as proper, legally binding contracts.  (And of course, no comic-shop owner would have the money to take a customer to court and make him or her pay for a handful of unsold comics.)  But these arguments miss the point.  This is not about what the law says you "have to do" -- this is about doing what is right.

When you make out a pull list, you are giving the vendor crucial ordering information. You are telling the vendor up-front that you want to buy an issue of Miss Fury and Captain America each month. The vendor is ordering extras of those comics just for you.  And if you don't buy them after the vendor orders them for you, then you are making him eat the cost.  Surely, no one with a conscience would consider it fair to make the vendor pay for something you specifically asked him to order.

Before making out a pull list, make sure to discuss the rules with your shop.  Ask them if there is a policy on "turn backs" (books on your list that you decide you don't want). Most shops will allow a small quantity of turn-backs, because you are giving them guaranteed monthly business on your other titles. One shop I dealt with in the 1990s had a "10% rule" -- you could turn back 1 title for every 10 you had on your pull list.  Surely they had calculated that as long as people bought 90% of their pull list, the shop could still make money.  Other shops may have more, or less restrictive rules.

Thus, I suggest that customers familiarize themselves with the rules before starting a pull list. And always remember, you have entered an agreement that puts an obligation upon you. The benefits are high --  you never miss an issue of your favorite series.  Also, you don't need to rush out on Wednesday night, because the items will be waiting for you days later if you want. You can go to the shop at your convenience (heck, my shop will even mail them to you).  But in exchange for these perks, you are giving your word that you will follow the shop's rules about pull lists.  Failing to do so means you are breaking your word, regardless of what legal recourse the shop may or may not have.

Therefore, if you are a comic-book collector and you are considering making a pull list, please understand that every item you don't buy is going to cost money to your local shop. In addition, you are breaking your word if you turn back items on your list.  If you have a very fluid collecting pattern so that you can't consistently be sure you will buy a title every month, don't make a pull list.  And if you do make out a pull list, and later change your mind about an item, please do the stand-up thing and alert the shop so they know for the future, and buy the ones you had previously ordered, even if you may not really want them any more.  It's the right thing to do.

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