Friday, April 17, 2020

DC stopgap distribution move during COVID-19 has echo in 1997 UPS strike

by John Jackson Miller

With Diamond Comic Distributors ending shipments of new comics temporarily at the start of April due to the COVID-19 crisis, it's been a much different kind of month. The last sales reports to come out of the company were the reorder and advance reorder charts for the week ending March 29, and it's unclear when further data publication will resume.

We do know, as of an announcement today, that Diamond intends to begin shipping comics again in mid-May; we also know that DC has arranged for a small slate of comics to begin shipping April 28 through two new partners — Lunar Distribution and UCS Comics Distributors — whom I determined after a little research were likely existing customers of Diamond's, DCBS (Discount Comic Book Service) and Midtown Comics, respectively.

New York's Midtown already handles subscription fulfillment for Marvel and DC, and both companies have systems designed to handle periodicals. It's also likely, given the tremendous physical plant demands involved in serving the entire comics market, that what we're looking at here is a temporary solution for DC to get a limited slate into the limited number of shops that are open. Not a long-term transformation, but a stopgap to deal with what everyone hopes — and which Diamond now promises — will be a temporary disruption.

New York UPS local leader Ron Carey,
with Jesse Jackson at a strike event
I was asked by David Harper of Sktchd about the duration of past disruptions, and possible comparisons — and realizing today was the 17th of April made me think back to the UPS strike of 1997, in which 185,000 Teamsters shut down the shipping giant, resulting in what was later regarded to be a victory for the union. (Read a labor account of the events here.) The strike ran seventeen days, in all — and it caught the comics industry at a fairly tricky time.

In the boom years of the early 1990s, leading distributors  Diamond and Capital City Distribution had vast networks of warehouses across North America; they also ran their own trucks in many locations. Regional distributors were also in the mix, resulting in retailers receiving their comics in a variety of methods.

That competition contributed to the conditions that caused both the market's boom and downfall in that decade, as far more stores — and non-store accounts — opened than the market could bear, leaving the distributors with costly infrastructure once the market began its decline in late 1993 — accelerating when Marvel briefly went exclusive with Heroes World Distribution in 1995. By the time the "Distributor Wars" ended in April 1997, only Diamond was left, acting as a broker for the major publishers — and it had downsized much of its network, relying instead on UPS for a large portion of its shipping.

Marvel had just returned to Diamond in April 1997, so the business had only seen a few months of relative quiet and stability when the strike happened in August. As we covered it in Comics Retailer #67 (October 1997), however, Diamond was able to take steps to ameliorate the problem.

The company established pick-up sites in approximately two dozen metro areas, at the cost of $40,000 per week; it estimated that 85% of its customers were within 150 miles of a pickup site. In one case, a publisher, Chaos Comics, opened a regional drop-off point.

Diamond wasn't able to handle direct-ship reorders during the crisis, and many retailers had to drive hours to get their books. But after three weeks, the strike had ended. Preorders had made August 1997 the third best month of the year; industry efforts during the strike made sure that most of those orders made it to stores.

"This has been a very difficult and challenging time for all of us," said Diamond owner Steve Geppi, "but together we have found a way to persevere. Our distribution center and customer service staffs worked long and hard, and retailers cooperated, rather than competed, to get product out as quickly as possible. Times like this make me very proud to be a member of our industry, and I would like to thank everyone for their efforts."

There are many differences between the 1997 situation and now, of course — today, the work stoppages have been at multiple levels of the supply chain, from printer to warehouse to store, with individual customer mobility impacted, as well. The 1997 solution won't serve. But the DC move appears to motivated by the same factors as Diamond's response to the 1997 UPS incident; extraordinary — and likely temporary — measures to deal with a disruption. How temporary — or successful, especially given how some retailers view mail-order operations — those measures will be is a question we'll all have occasion to look at again.

Comichron founder John Jackson Miller has tracked the comics industry for more than 25 years, including a decade editing the industry's retail trade magazine; he is the author of several guides to comics, as well as more than a hundred comic books for various franchises.

He is the author of novels including 
Star Wars: KenobiStar Wars: A New DawnStar Trek: Discovery - The Enterprise War, and his July release, Star Trek: Discovery - Die StandingRead more about them at his fiction site.

Be sure to follow Comichron on Twitter and Facebook, and check out our Youtube channel. You can also support us on Patreon!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.