“That’s all new money”: Big Bang Comics’ John Hendrick and Bruno Batista on Diversifying Products

Back in 2018, I had the chance to visit Big Bang Comics in Dublin, Ireland, one of the finest comic shops in all the land. When I went in, I was met by a rather nice layout. To the left was a lovely display area, with high end figures and items in nice glass cases. Dead ahead was the cash register area, with comics and assorted other products along the way and comprising the face of the register displays. Basically everywhere else were a whole lot of new comics as well as trades and graphic novels on wall and table displays, with a smattering of related products nearby. The eye for merchandising was the real separator, as it looked like a well-thought out retail store rather than a typical comic shop, even if it had most of the standard products you’d find in one.

Flash forward to this past Friday. I’m on Zoom with Big Bang’s owner John Hendrick as he walks me through the new layout. To the left is the display area, still, but now the wall next to it as well as the opposing windowed wall are completely covered with action figures. Dead ahead now is a big table loaded with all-ages graphic novels, with all the cash register displays now laden with other all-ages single issues and releases. The left is now all manga and even more action figures, while the right side is graphic novels, trade paperbacks, and a considerably smaller selection of new comics. Throughout the rest of the store you can find all kinds of other products, like Dungeons and Dragons and other games, nerd culture related calendars, and more.

In the span of three years, Big Bang Comics completely reoriented its store around different products, maximizing the floor space for action figures, all-ages graphic novels, and manga while minimizing the dedicated shelving that’s utilized on single-issue comics. 9 That’s not because they aren’t selling new comics anymore. They’re actually selling more than ever, with the bulk of their customers – even local ones – going mail order after the pandemic. It’s just the way they’re handling their business has completely changed, with a greater focus on diversifying their product mix and getting regular customers to utilize the shop’s online store. And it has generated huge gains, as 2021 is Big Bang’s biggest year yet.

Hendrick believes in the value of comic shops expanding their product lines, and the success Big Bang has seen is something he wants other retailers to be aware of, if only because of what they could learn and benefit from. So Hendrick and Big Bang’s other owner Bruno Batista joined me recently for a free-flowing chat 10 about what they’re seeing in their shop, how it’s generating substantial gains for them, how replicable it is for other shops, and a whole lot more. It’s a great chat with a lot of insight into the Big Bang Way.

As per usual for this kind of thing, this interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You wanted to talk about diversification of product, and how important it is.

John: Yeah.

It’s interesting, because there’s a lot of discussion right now about single distributor versus multi-distributor, what product lines you should have as a comic shop, etc., etc. Some people don’t want to work with multiple distributors. Some people don’t want to have more product lines. You are not necessarily one of those people. Why is that?

John: Because being where we are and doing what we do, we have a fairly good idea about the size of the market. And we have a fairly good idea as well about what our share of the market is. And that doesn’t really change. Whenever we lose a big customer of comics, somebody always comes along to replace that big customer. We’re selling more comics than ever because of our website. We’re selling more comic books than ever because of ComicHub. 11 But yeah, I’m fairly certain that everybody’s selling more comic books than ever. If the pandemic was good for one thing, it was reigniting people’s interest in comic books.

But the other key is, there’s way more stuff out there. Now, I do not do anything with the manga personally. Bruno 12 orders all the manga. But manga has been absolutely insane. And we could’ve made a lot more money on manga this year had things been in print. We lost a ton of money. We’ve already matched 2020 sales and we’re on the 25th of September. That’s just on manga. But the thing about manga is it brings in a whole new client base. All-ages comics do really well. They don’t do really well in single issues. They do really well in graphic novels. predominantly late teens to middle-age dudes. That doesn’t change.

The graphic novel market is way more diverse in terms of the demographic, but the manga market is even more diverse. And that brings in new money because those customers weren’t coming into the store before. And those customers, in my experience, might pick up something else, whether it’s a comic book or they’re intrigued by the Hawkeye trailer or whatever. That manga market has probably been as important as what I would term the MCU 13 market, the people that come into a comic book store because they like the movies.

On top of that then, we’ve started to stock more gaming stuff. Dungeons and Dragons, Magic, Games Workshop as well. We’re not a game store. That stuff is very much there as ancillary products. We know that we’re not going to be a gamer’s first point of call. But, if there are gamers in the vicinity, or the college down the road, and they need stuff, they come and they get it from us. I don’t invest a huge amount of capital into it, but it gets them in. And again, that’s new money.

But, in terms of the expansion that I’ve been doing, that’s essentially built on a dedicated mailing list for action figures. My time is very much taken up by action figures and merchandise. So, generally, there’s very little crossover between action figure customers and comic book customers. Marvel Legends fans used to read Marvel Comics a lot of the time, or they like the movies. Marvel Legends fans, you’ll get some people that buy both MCU related items and comics, but normally you’ll get people that focus on MCU or comics, because they can’t buy everything.

Star Wars, which is the leading toy line in here, all of those people don’t buy comics. About 5% do. But there are also the people that will buy anything to do with Star Wars.

Anything but comics.

John: Including comics.

That’s what I’m saying, with all of our Star Wars customers, about 5% also buy comics, but they also buy everything that we have to do with Star Wars. They’re Star Wars collectors.

So, looking at the figures here, we saw an increase of 138% in action figure sales between 2019 and 2021, and there are still three more months left in the year.

Wow.

John: So, that’s growth. And that’s all new money that’s coming into the shop. The other thing about action figures is before the pandemic I had a store full of broken promises. Now it’s on my own terms. I’m not tied into any Diamond system. I’m not tied into any ComicHub type stuff. I can put these action figures up for pre-order now and customers immediately start buying it. The latest blast that went out today, customers have already started buying stuff. Those figures will not be in store until March 2022. So, it’s a really good way of helping out your cashflow.

Now, the other thing about it is that if I get one customer that buys ten figures a week, and there are customers like that out there, or even ten figures a month, that’s close to 300 euros a month in turnover. If I’ve got one customer that’s buying ten comics a month, that’s like 40 bucks.

So, in that regard, it has brought in extra cash. It’s brought in new people. It’s brought in new eyes. So, what we’ve been able to do is we’ve been able to take all of this brilliant action figure money and invest it into things like more manga, more games. It’s helped the store, and it’s helped us sell our comics.

The store has changed a lot since you were here. As soon as you walk in, it’s all ages everywhere. After that, half the store is divided up into action figures, the other half into graphic novels. New comics, we only keep that week’s releases on the shelf. Everything else then goes into the back because we’re not selling comics off the shelf. We’ve trained all of our customers to do it via the app, via the website.

All the growth that we’re seeing is customers who are getting used to our website and used to our app, and they’re just ordering from the comfort of the home, because we trained them to do that during the pandemic because they were our core customer base. That hasn’t changed. As soon as we get a new customer in to the store to start buying comics, yeah, they come in. But they very quickly start ordering comics through the app and start ordering comics through the customer website. Every day we come in there are orders waiting for us from the night before, and it’s a huge mix of things, whether it’s manga, games, toys, or comics. And generally, the people that are doing the orders on the website, they might buy something from this week, but maybe they’re buying comics that came out one, two, three, four years ago. It’s a great way for us as well. We’re not losing money on bad stock.

A look at the right side of Big Bang Comics, laden with graphic novels for all-ages readers and beyond

You’re talking about the diversification of product. You mentioned new money. And I think that’s interesting because it’s…

John: Super important.

Well, it’s super important because let’s say, you have your customer base for single issue comics, and even to a certain degree regular graphic novels. They’re spending more, which is great, but also, because their behavior has changed, that means that it opens the floor for doing different things. And the thing about new money is it represents growth. This was an important topic for you to talk about, but it also seems logical, as if everyone should know about it already. Why is this something you really want to get out there? Why should other shops hear about it?

John: It’s something that I feel a lot of shops resist. Now, look, I’m not an expert in anyone’s market. I’m really not. I’ve been in many different comic book stores around the world, some of those with you. But what I’ve noticed is that from speaking to a lot of people, they either, number one, don’t want to take the chance, or number two, they don’t want to stock stuff that they’re not necessarily personally interested in, which I think is bad for obvious reasons.

It’s not that it wasn’t lots of hard work. It is lots of hard work. But it’s as hard as stocking comics is. But the payoff is a lot easier to see. And it’s a lot easier to quantify because all the money that’s coming in. Not only has all that money come in, all that money’s come in and it’s helped improve the store. It’s helped hire new people. It’s helped make our lives easier.

And currently, we’ve got, what, 92 days left till Christmas, 93 days left till Christmas? That’s my countdown at the moment, because of the way stuff’s going with freight. But in terms of bringing in new money, we have to bring in new money, because the people that are buying single issue comics, week in, week out, there’s more that are stopping reading than there is coming in, in my opinion. For every kid that comes in that spends their pocket money on comics, there’s two stopping.

Dang.

John: I do feel as well that with the way the single-issue market is set up, because of the way the companies are… You saw the House of Slaughter numbers, 460,000 copies ordered?

Yeah.

John: All driven by variants and special issues. 100%. Everyone wanted returnability on that book, and they didn’t get it, and BOOM! has just shown everybody that they don’t need to offer returnability on a book to sell crazy amounts. The speculatory market has driven those sales. So, how many people are actually going to read that book? 50,000? I don’t know. You don’t know. It’s like that photo of that dude sitting on his throne of Spawns so he can get how many Todd McFarlane signed things.

But we’ve been here before. Everyone’s always saying that the comic market’s bubble is going to burst. But the thing about the graphic novel market or the all-ages market or the manga market or the toy market is, even if it bursts, toys still sell. Manga’s not going to burst. It’s not going anywhere. This is all young new people. The graphic novel market, it’s young new people or it’s people actually reading this stuff, and if you can cultivate them and turn them onto a good series, then they’re going to keep coming back. Whereas, I just feel that if you are a store that stagnates and only does single issues and only does this and only does that, not only is your market naturally dying off faster than you’re replacing it with your new market, but if you’re not diversifying and expanding your market, then you’re never going to be able to sell all those things that you know wouldn’t sell anyway. Does that make sense?

Totally. This reminds me of a pal of ours, Third Eye’s Steve Anderson. He said something along the lines of how it’s almost like comic shops are becoming book stores that are also like nerd emporiums, to a certain degree. And that’s not an exact quote, but it’s interesting because what Steve did, from my view as an outsider, is he took the success that he had as a comic shop and then turned Third Eye into not just a comic shop, but also a vinyl shop, a clothing store-

John: Third Eye’s a lifestyle store.

It’s a lifestyle store. Exactly.

John: It’s Third Eye Lifestyle.

And that’s the thing. You’re talking about how there’s a 5% overlap between Star Wars fans and comic fans. But at the same time they’re all in the family. It’s celebrating fandom. We’ve talked before about how Big Bang, if you switched it out to make it a shoe store, it would work because that’s the way that you’ve set it up. But that stuff, making the comparison to a sneaker store even more thorough, it’s like some people are fans of Nike, some people are fans of Adidas, some people are fans of whatever. But they come there and they can find anything, all the things you might be interested in, if you’re a fan of shoes. That’s the same thing for the fandom of comics, or just the nerd stuff in general. You go to Big Bang, you’re not just going to find comics now. You’re going to find Black Series Star Wars toys. You’re going to find Chainsaw Man manga. Well, maybe not Chainsaw Man. Depends on when we’re talking.

John: I wish. I fucking wish.

A look at Big Bang Comics (to the left of the entrance when you walk in, an area that’s loaded with action figures)

All those different things. You can find whatever you want, and maybe you’re going to find other things you won’t, and that, to me, is the rising tide that lifts all ships. That will help you make more money in different places than you did before if you reinvest your comic success into other things.

John: Yes. Fandoms intersect all of the time. Lots of fandoms, I think, can look down on each other, because comic book nerds look down on gamer nerds. Gamer nerds look down on toy nerds. That does happen. But what I’ve noticed is more and more throughout the years is that that’s not happening anymore.

Bruno Batista (comes in from the front): Did you see the order (that just came in)?

John: No.

Bruno: (says a significant amount of money for a single order)

John: On the Star Wars toys that I just emailed out? There you go. Somebody just spent (sum of money that will not be named) from the email I just sent out today. And that’s all stock that doesn’t need to be filled for months. So, in that regard, just switching it up and changing it…I remember it was me and Bruno sitting there, and I was like, “Bruno, you know how people put stuff up for pre-order? Do you think we could do it?” And he was like, “Fuck it, why not? Try it.” Because FOMO 14 is an amazing thing, Dave.

It is.

John: How much did we make on comics today, Bruno? Bruno’s going to actually test what our turnover on single issue comics was today while this customer spends a lot of money.

Do you have customer accounts?

John: Yeah.

Do you run everything through ComicHub, even the toys?

John: Yeah. Much to our chagrin. That’s changing soon, though. Me and Stu 15 are talking about that.

Bruno: Comics today made (an amount that was lower than that single action figure order that just came in).

John: Yeah. That guy just spent more on one order on toys than we did in an entire day selling comics. 16

That’s amazing.

John: You see what I mean?

It sounds like you are matching what customers want and a lot of other shops are trying to tell customers what they want.

John: That’s what it feels like.

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  1. It’s roughly down a third from its peak.

  2. And I mean free-flowing, as they effectively swap out completely in the second half before we conclude.

  3. The point of sale system they use that also allows people to order product on their site.

  4. Our other interviewee, who at this point is up front in the store.

  5. Marvel Cinematic Universe, as you likely know.

  6. Fear of missing out.

  7. Colson, the person who runs ComicHub.

  8. This was a Friday, so not new comic book day. Still impressive!

  9. It’s roughly down a third from its peak.

  10. And I mean free-flowing, as they effectively swap out completely in the second half before we conclude.

  11. The point of sale system they use that also allows people to order product on their site.

  12. Our other interviewee, who at this point is up front in the store.

  13. Marvel Cinematic Universe, as you likely know.

  14. Fear of missing out.

  15. Colson, the person who runs ComicHub.

  16. This was a Friday, so not new comic book day. Still impressive!