Comic book stores face toughest foe as digital competitors hit hard
24th March 2019
When Vlada Edirippulige opened a comic book store in inner Brisbane she did not anticipate that just four years later she would find herself buried in debt and pushed out of the market.
- Pricing pressure from digital retailers forced the closure of Junky Comics
- Numerous comic book stores in the Brisbane CBD have closed as a result of digital disruption
- A UQ business expert said bricks and mortar stores needed to find a niche to keep customers turning up
Junky Comics in West End is the latest victim of the digital retail boom, and one of a string of comic shops across the country forced to close its doors.
“For a long time I was like, ‘it’ll be okay, I’ll just go through another Christmas, and Christmas will fix everything’, but I think the main thing was that Christmas didn’t fix everything this year,” Ms Edirippulige said.
The small business, which stocked mainstream and independent comics, graphic novels and work from local artists, was set up to fill a gap in the city’s creative scene.
But Ms Edirippulige said it soon became impossible to compete with the prices of big online retailers such as Amazon and Book Depository.
“You’re falling, falling deeper into debt and all I wanted to do was dip out of that, but it kept going down and towards the end, plummeting,” she said.
“How am I supposed to compete with free shipping and a book that I can’t put any less than $49 and Book Depository is selling it for $30?”
Ms Edirippulige said customers would often browse the store and take photos of books and comics, only to purchase them elsewhere online.
“It was like getting winded every day,” she said.
University of Queensland business innovation expert Dr Sarel Gronum said comic book stores faced enormous adversity from the domination of digital retailers.
“It is not just a wave of disruption happening, but a whole tsunami of digital disruption that is currently being experienced by traditional brick and mortar retailers in this space,” Dr Gronum said.
“The biggest threat is in terms of price competition. They are lowering their margins … to the extent that brick and mortar [stores] with their business models cannot compete.”
‘We’re the last ones standing’
Comics Etc in Brisbane’s CBD slashed its prices to compete with Amazon.
Store manager James Jagic said the risky decision had kept them afloat, but digital threats still loomed.
“It’s been really sad. Two years ago there were four comic stores in the Brisbane CBD, now we’re the only people left,” he said.
“Amazon are doing a very good job at predatory pricing — they’ll sell books before they come out at a shockingly low discount that a retail store, which has to feed staff and pay rent, will never be able to combat.”
Comics Etc sells mostly superhero comics and action figures, and has been in business for about 30 years.
Mr Jagic said the store would have folded years ago if they had not embraced online sales.
“We’ve seen our share of the market change from about 10 to 20 per cent of online [sales] five years ago, to 50-50 — some days we make more online than we do actually in the store,” he said.
Do comic book stores have a future?
Dr Gronum said brick and mortar comic stores could only survive if they radically changed their sales approach, so as not to directly compete with digital retailers.
“They need to look at attracting high-value niches … that is the key to their survival and potential growth,” he said.
Comic shop owners argue nothing beats the in-store experience for customers.
“Actually finding something, picking it up off the shelf, or having someone recommend something to you, it’s such a special feeling, and you feel like you’re a part of something,” Ms Edirippulige said.
“Especially in the local comic scene, we’ve so much to give and we need places like this to stay alive so that people can keep making stuff.”
Illustrator Niqui Toldi, who sold her art through Junky Comics, said the West End store’s closure was a huge loss.
“Junky definitely helped me build an audience that I don’t think I’d be able to do on my own,” she said.
“I will miss having a space that I felt fostered a community and encouraged creativity.”
Ms Toldi said the shop gave her work credibility and allowed her to connect with other local artists.
“It feels like we’ve lost that — I do hope that something else pops up … but it feels like something’s been uprooted,” she said.
Junky Comics now operates online.