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Touring the Marvel Retailer Resource Center [Review]

As evidenced by the fact that I still have the occasional nightmare about missing order deadlines, I worked at a comic book store for six years. During that time, I became pretty familiar with the struggles and annoyances that retailers go through, and even though I haven’t been on that side of things for a while now, I’m still interested in the things that make it easier for the people running the shops to get comics into the hands of the customers.

This month, Marvel started a new program meant to do exactly that with their recently revamped Marvel Retailer Resource Center, and I took a tour through it to see what it had to offer!The first thing that jumped out at me from the MRRC page was that they’re keeping the Final Order Cutoff information in a very prominent spot, which is pretty handy. For those of you who don’t know, after they do their initial orders every month based on what’s in the Previews catalog, retailers can still make adjustments until about two weeks before the comics actually ship.

It’s pretty handy for when there are changes to books, or when sales unexpectedly drop or spike; if you keep up on your FOCs, there’s a much lower chance that you’ll be stuck with two months’ worth of comics that aren’t selling or constantly sold out of books that were initially under-ordered. The problem comes from keeping all that information straight. In general, what I did when it was time to do FOCs at my old shop was print out the list and compare what I’d ordered to how many copies of the previous issue we had on the shelves. If there were more than a handful of copies left over (or if I’d made a note that something had sold out quicker than expected), there needed to be adjustment.

The problem was that there are often additional pieces of information about the books that are easy to lose track of. I remember completely missing out on the infamously popular Barack Obama variant for Spider-Man because of some confusing terms in the order information that completely slipped my mind when I was adjusting orders, and more than once I ordered a comic based on a creative team, only to find that one or more members of that team were replaced by the time the book came out (I’m looking at you here, Streets of Gotham City). The changes to the team are only reported in a sidebar in the weekly Diamond newsletter, and those are easy to lose track of when you’re trying to keep up with everything else that running a shop entails.

With the MMRC page, the week’s FOC titles and info are right there at the top of the page, displayed prominently, with the solicitation text available to check out before you make the adjustments:

Even just having the covers available helps, as opposed to the text-only list you see on the Diamond site. There are, however, a few things about the setup that really need to be tweaked, of course. For one thing, while the issue numbers are included on the thumbnails of the covers — they’re the same images that Marvel releases in their solicitations elsewhere — they’re not included on the titles. Presumably you’ve already got that information on Diamond’s FOC list, but not having them here just seems counterintuitive.

For another, the descriptions of the issues could use a lot of work. An issue of Thunderbolts I checked out listed a creative team that included everyone from Stan Lee to Laurell K. Hamilton in a roster of writers, but not Jeff Parker, the dude who’s actually writing the book.

This is the sort of thing that’s only really useful if it has accurate and up-to-date descriptions of the issues. Otherwise, it’s even less useful than not having it around at all.

There’s a similar list of the titles that are on sale this week, and again, while it’s information you already have on your shipping list from Diamond, it’s nice to have the solicitations and covers handy in one place. It’s especially handy if you’re putting together a weekly newsletter or updating your store’s website. There are certainly other sources to find the information — Midtown Comics in New York has a great website that stays up to date with exactly this kind of information — but getting it all in one spot is pretty convenient.

It’d be even more convenient if the information was available from all publishers across the board — DC, Image and Dark Horse are on the FOC list too, after all — but as far as something Marvel’s doing for themselves, it’s pretty handy. There are other services too, including a gallery of covers for the month, and even a website for your store at a marvelretailers.com address, but those are part of a much more expensive package.

Another thing that’s really nice to see is the return of Marvle’s First Look program.

Marvel (and DC, and briefly Image) used to send retailers an advance pack of the next week’s books every week, which was great, and not just because I used to be able to half my reading done early. Knowing what happened in the next week’s books made it a lot easier to hand-sell titles to customers who were looking for specific things. If Customer A wants to be aware of, say, any Union Jack appearances or Customer B wants to know if this current storyline he’s on the fence about is going to get better, and they both come in first thing Wednesday morning before you’ve had a chance to sit down with your own stack, it’s a lot easier to direct them to what they want if you’ve had a little extra time.

There’s a little weirdness in that respect right now as well — one of the “First Look” titles is Wolverine #5 by Jason Aaron and Renato Guedes, which came out over a year ago — but I imagine that’s just part of the shakedown of being new. There’s also the fact that the previews are done with Marvel’s digital comics viewer, which I personally find a little awkward. I’d much prefer to have PDFs, and while I understand that Marvel would have concerns about getting something out there that could so easily lead to piracy, I’d like to think that most retailers would rather not shoot themselves in the foot by giving away the products they sell for free. I have, however, been proven wrong on that.

The First Look stuff alone makes the MRRC extremely valuable to readers, but overall, accurate solicitations, an interface with Diamond’s retailer site, a way to set up and schedule in-store events and promotions, and even a list of Marvel paperbacks and hardcovers (which go out of print all too quickly) that are actually available to be ordered would really help more than information that can be found elsewhere, and the pay wall is mystifying. This whole thing is geared at marketing their comics, and a lot of that seems like retailers paying to advertise Marvel’s books for them.

Overall, it’s a neat idea with a lot of potential that could easily help retailers, with a few major bugs that still need to be fixed. Here’s hoping that it keeps the good stuff and ditches the rest.

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