Should Retailers Ever Be Negative?

Kevin Church got a retailer newsletter in which the unnamed retailer reviews comics and told his mailing list not to buy Astonishing X-Men #26 by net.god Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi.

Kevin calls it the “stupidest g**damn thing I’ve seen lately”, lacking in basic salesmanship. Commenters predict doom for the store and share their own negative or uncomfortable shopping experiences. Dustin Harbin of Charlotte’s Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find chain disagrees, saying

occasionally myself or our staff will feel compelled to point out that something is stinky. We’re pretty hands-on with our customers, and take pride in having our opinions and recommendations trusted by them. I only very rarely would EVER tell a customer not to buy something already in their hands, but I agree that the occasional negative review builds credibility.

A quick search reveals that, according to this post (link no longer available), it’s from Larry’s Comics in Lowell, Massachusetts. At that thread, there’s a lot less condemnation, with some posters respecting the honesty and credibility and others saying they’d like to shop there.

I agree that a blanket “don’t buy this” is a bit much from a retailer and probably shouldn’t be done1. However, I think the discussion is touching on some other areas without really acknowledging them, so now I’m going to “yes, but…”

A lot of newsletters offer reviews or other original content in order to entice people to sign up for what would otherwise be nothing but a regular ad. And once you start reviewing, you can’t praise everything to the skies, or no one will listen to you, because you have demonstrated that you are unable to discriminate and have no taste.

Now, the smart thing to do, in my opinion, would be to only choose to talk about the things you can praise or recommend. (That’s the approach we agreed upon for my column for internet retailer Comics Unlimited, which is why it’s called “Graphic Novels Worth Owning”.) There are so many comics out there that if you only want to be positive, you can keep finding books to be positive about.

Then again, this retailer might be smarter than we think. If he builds traffic based on more people wanting to come in and disagree with him, then it’s not a bad idea to take a strong position, so long as you do it in a friendly fashion. And while some commenters saw, “Don’t buy this, and if you do, you’re an idiot,” I think that’s reading into what was there with the traditional low self-esteem of the superhero comic fan. (Do I need to say that’s a joking over-generalization and not actually true?)

Anyway, negative recommendations are more safely made in person because then you can more accurately target them to the particular customer and replace them with something they will like more, thus making everyone happy. And not creating more internet hoo-hah.

1 Although KC got a tremendous positive response from Westfield mail-order customers back when he wrote their ordering newsletter when he pointed out to potential buyers that DC doing a Lobo slipcase with an extra bonus volume of “Lobo’s Wit and Wisdom” was something of a scam. The book was blank, you see, and DC wasn’t being particuarly open about that fact in the hopes of reselling the package to Lobo fans. KC wanted people to know what they were ordering before they bought it, even if it meant fewer orders.

16 Responses to “Should Retailers Ever Be Negative?”

  1. joecab Says:

    Plus warning customers forestalled many angry returns which weren’t Westfield’s fault.

  2. Dave Says:

    When I was a retailer, I would often recommend titles which were of a similar nature to what the customer was already buying – or ones I felt they would really like based on knowing the customers and the product.

    For example, I had a campaign to promote Groo the Wanderer in our store. Having loved the series since it began – and acknowledging it was different than most of the other titles in the store – I knew many of the customers would love it if they were to read an issue. So, I offered a money back guarantee for the current issue (#17). Knowing they could return it if they didn’t like it, Most of the people bought a copy. No one returned it and many added it to their hold list.

    Occasionally I’d give a less than favorable review, but this was when a customer asked me what I thought of a series or particular issue. Even then, I tried to be as democratic as possible.

    Customers need to know their retailer will be honest with them – good or bad.

  3. Melinda Beasi Says:

    I do see the value in honesty from retailers, though, on the other hand, I think there’s an argument to be made that their opinions (and after all, that’s all we’re talking about here) may take on inflated importance with local readers and steer newer comics fans (especially) away from titles they might have actually *liked*. My only real problem is with the directive. I thought the actual review by the retailer was pretty informative, and made the reviewer’s problems with the issue clear, but why not let the reader make up his/her own mind based on that? I think it would have been a more constructive choice to simply leave the “Not buy” off the end.

  4. Dan Grendell Says:

    Speaking as a retailer and setting aside my predilections as a reviewer, I only talk a book down if a customer asks me directly what I thought about it and I always end the statement with a comment like ” but everyone likes something different” or “different strokes for different folks.” I’m not going to lie to a customer about what I thought about a book, but I’m not going to go out of my way to let them know I thought it was bad, either, because I know from many personal experiences that plenty of people love what I dislike. The situation is a bit different if the book is all reprints or they are confused by multiple covers or something- the customer deserves to know what they are buying, in which case I’m not trying to dissuade them, just inform them.

  5. odessa steps magazine Says:

    As I said at the Beat the other day, I think giving a negative review to something in a newsletter is different than criticizing/mocking someone’s purchases.

    When I did the store newsletter where I worked, I generally only wrote positive reviews, since a) we only had two pages on space and b) it was a vehicle designed to move product.

    I also found, as mentioned, people are more likely trust your opinion if you mix in good reviews and bad/average reviews.

  6. Johanna Says:

    Joecab: Yes. And that may be an important difference, where it’s simply a matter of opinion vs. where the product can arguably be considered “not as promised”. If the retailer was warning people “don’t buy this, it’s not really written by Warren Ellis but by Joe Fanboy,” I suspect people wouldn’t have been as concerned.

    Melinda and Odessa: I agree.

  7. James Schee Says:

    I think it comes down to how you phrase the negative review. If you just stick to the book, pointing out things that didn’t work or you didn’t like that’s one thing.

    If you are overly negative, to the point where you are saying things like “unless you’re a fanboy who can’t buy Playboy,” or something to that extent. That’s where you could run into a problem.

    Because the second is insulting to potential customers. While the first, well even as much as our tastes align Johanna. There have been times where I’ve see you do the first, and go “Huh, I could see that, but it doesn’t bother me in that way.” and went on and bought the book.

  8. Johanna Says:

    Oh, that’s fine by me. I hope to provide enough information so that someone who doesn’t share my tastes or doesn’t agree with me on a particular book can determine for themselves whether it’s something they want to look for.

  9. Rich Johnston Says:

    Wit & Wisdom made a fine sketchbook for conventions I seem to recall…

  10. Kevin Church Says:

    To clarify: it wasn’t the negative review itself. It was the fact that they emailed their customers on a Monday telling them “Don’t Buy” a comic that was coming out on Wednesday. That they’re presumably stocking.

  11. joecab Says:

    I’m on the fence about it. Part of me would rather they mind their own business and not advise me on how to spend my money, BUT if it’s an extreme case like that business with Lobo, you better believe I’d want to know. But it can turn into such a judgment call: do you warn people about that “Snowblind” issue of Alpha Flight that had all white panels with just dialog? (I say no.)

    I’m reminded of the time I went to some gaming store in NYC and wanted to get some X-Men figurine or something for a friend, and the sales guy there went on a rant about the stupid little Marvel zombies and their mutants … yikes. Or about the comic book store we had in downtown Boston that had a very anti-fanboy sign (“Don’t ask us when comics are coming out: read the signs; don’t talk to us about your favorite X-Man” etc.) You all realize that you’re running a business, right? It’s like someone who hates kids opening a day care.

    But at the very least this is a lot better than deciding not to carry something at all, which is just plain censorship. (Hi, Walmart!)

  12. Dorian Says:

    But at the very least this is a lot better than deciding not to carry something at all, which is just plain censorship.

    That is quite possibly the silliest statement I’ve seen in this whole debate. There are lots of reasons for stores not to carry something, and “we do not wish to be associated with this product” is a perfectly acceptable one.

  13. John DiBello Says:

    But at the very least this is a lot better than deciding not to carry something at all, which is just plain censorship. (Hi, Walmart!)

    Censorship is not the act of not carrying an item in an inventory. Censorship is the act of preventing an entire group of people from obtaining that information or object in any way they could obtain it. Since the CD or book you can’t buy at Wal-Mart is readily available at other outlets, this is not censorship.

  14. Johanna Says:

    Oh, dear. Please not the “what is censorship” debate, not today. Wal-Mart not carrying something is not censorship.

    And Kevin, yes, you’re right.

  15. joecab Says:

    Okay, okay, withdrawn.

  16. Lyle Says:

    I could see reasons why saying “Don’t buy this” could be a smart move, depending on how well the retailer knows his customer base, how they’ll react.

    1. That kind of bluntness can be charming to some customers, creating a “Oh, they won’t push me to buy comics they know to be bad, they were so brutally honest about Astonishing X-Men. Larry’s Comics is the store that cares more about good comics than making sales.” perception.

    2. With such a well-regarded writer “Don’t buy this” could have the opposite effect, making people curious how it could be so terrible.

    What makes it work in this case, I think this is a book you can tell your customers “Don’t buy this” and they’ll buy it anyway, either out of loyalty to Ellis or with a feeling of “Thanks for the warning but I’ll see for myself.”

    On the other hand, he could be the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons just mouthing off.




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