Eye on Comics took a look at the effect of currency exchange rates between the United States and Canada on comics retail a few years ago, when the two countries’ dollars were essentially at par. But now, the Canadian dollar (often referred to as the loonie, so named for the image of a loon on the dollar coin) has weakened significant in a rather short period of time. As of this writing, the loonie is worth 72 cents US, or conversely, the U.S. greenback is worth $1.40 Cdn. That means the average $3.99 US comic book costs a Canadian reader $5.58 out of pocket, before taxes or any sort of discounts are factored in.
Given the shift in the currencies in 2016, Eye on Comics opted to revisit the issue and it’s affecting the Canadian comics retail sector.
Calum Johnston, owner of the three Strange Adventures comics shops in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, said the weak Canadian dollar is definitely a challenge. Currently, he said, his stores charge a 30 per cent exchange rate, meaning new products at Strange Adventures are 30 per cent more expensive than the marked U.S. price, even though the exchange rate is actually at about 40 per cent right now. He said customers prefer the added-exchange approach rather than having Canadian prices stickered on the products.
“If the dollar continues its losing ways, we may have to adjust again,” Johnston said.
Jay Bardyla, owner of Happy Harbor Comics in Edmonton, Alberta, said currency fluctuations aren’t anything new, but there is something unique about recent about the weakening of the loonie this time around.
“The weak dollar isn’t so much a surprise as the speed at which it dropped,” Bardyla said. “People are spending the same and getting less, which they’re not happy with but it’s still better than it was in 1998-2003. For now. There is certainly less speculation on titles people might like as they stick to the stuff they are familiar and comfortable with.”
Customers are cutting back on the number of new comics they’re buying, Johnston said, and they’re spending less.
“Lots of titles being dropped due to cost, some subscriber cancellations of their entire pull list,” he said, but what customers are buying is changing as well. “We have noticed the back issue sales have improved as they do offer good value for the money and are, in most cases, still new-to-you as far as the story goes. (It’s) often cheaper to buy a run of a series than getting the collected album.”
Back issues aren’t subject to currency fluctuations to the same extent as new products, he said, so that fosters an interest in them.
Bardyla said back-issue purchases don’t seem to have risen, but they’re consistent.
“Back-issue sales seem to be holding steady as they aren’t affected as much by the exchange rate,” he said.
This isn’t the first time the Canadian comics retail sector has faced challenges from a weak Canadian dollar, Johnston said, and his approach is similar to what he’s had to do in the past.
“Try to order any Canadian published books from Canadian sources, keep an eye on costs, minimize outlays of cash and do your best to sell what you have in stock would be prudent, and that’s what we’re working on at this time,” he told Eye on Comics.
There’s no silver lining in a weak loonie (the common nickname for the Canadian dollar), he said.
“For retailers? No. I can’t think of any benefits from seeing our wholesale costs rising 30-50 per cent and fluctuating without any input or influence from us,” Johnston said, noting there may be an indirect benefit for some customers. “I know we’re working on improving our back-issue displays and putting together more grab bags and comic-book bundles that offer great deals to readers, so in that way, consumers will benefit.”
“Everything costs more and people are earning less,” he said. “Mail order to the U.S. would be higher except that shipping rates are still high and most Americans don’t like to pay as much as we have to charge.”
Ultimately, Johnston suggested, the currency challenge can harm customers as well as the shops they frequent, and consumers can play a role in weathering the storm.
“It’s a really rough time for Canadian comic stores so I’d encourage folks who don’t want to see their local shop disappear to patronize their local shops — and local shops in general, not just for comics,” Johnston said. “Yes, Amazon/online often saves you a few bucks but when you examine the overall cost to the community, is it really a savings in the long-term?”
Bardyla said the economic environment in his part of Canada has proven to be particularly challenging, as the provincial economy in Alberta, heavily reliant on things in the Alberta oil patch, has been particularly hard-hit recently due to rapidly falling oil prices.
“The rapid decline [of the Canadian dollar], coupled with lots of layoffs in the oil industry, scared a lot of people into stopping with their comic habit in northern Alberta,” he said, and that’s made this situation with the low dollar different for his shop than those that came before.
“In our market, it is a bit different than last time. A higher (and quicker onset) unemployment rate along with a recent boom in store openings (the latter half of 2015 saw six new shops open in the Edmonton area) make it necessary to find new ways to stimulate untapped readerships. Thankfully, there are so many avenues to explore that these alternatives make the job more dynamic and exciting which helps alleviate some of the mental stress of dealing with the current economic situation.”
Publishers can help ease the problem in ways that wouldn’t affect them at all, Johnston said.
“I would plead that they stop putting on foreign prices. If you’re a U.S. publisher, just put the one price followed by ‘in the USA’ and Canadian stores can either sticker the books or use a posted exchange rate,” Johnston said. “When they put a Canadian price on the book, it’s accurate for maybe a month, then it’s out of line, and we either look good because we’re charging less than the printed Canadian price, or we look like gouging crooks because we’re charging more, when in reality we’re just going by the rate we get charged due to the U.S./Canada exchange rate.”
The Canadian economic crunch should also get publishers to examine more closely what they’re offering their readers, he said.
“This is a time when readers are critically examining their purchases. When they spend $4 or $5 dollars on a single issue and it’s not a satisfying read, they don’t buy the next issue. Marvel and DC and many others need to return to the old adage that ‘every comic is someone’s first’ and make their individual issues ‘meatier,'” Johnston said.
“So many story arcs would have been concluded in a single issue a few years ago. The ‘decompressing’ of stories to fill a collected edition is making the single issue comic book a waste of paper and ink. There are exceptions, thankfully, and those series are seeing improving sales as they progress without having to resort to ‘events.’ Just make good comics with some good stories. When was the last time Batman solved a crime? Tracked down some clues? Did some detecting? When you finish a single issue and are unable to convey to a friend what the comic was about and what happened within it, that’s a bad comic, and there’s far too many of them right now. We’re looking at them far more critically at this time due to lagging sales overall and definitely backing the titles that are delivering the goods.”
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