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Behind the Counter: No, we can’t just return this.

People often think that stores can just return items that are not sold. This may be why people will order something from one store, then buy it from another and cancel the original item they ordered. This may be why some people will place an order and simply never come in to collect and pay for it, ghosting the store with which they placed that order. It also may be why some people order the same item from multiple places, then cancel all but one depending on who is the fastest or cheapest.

​The ugly truth is, your independent comic/game store is likely to be on what is called “firm sale” terms. This means once we confirm an order for it, we are required to pay for it and unable to return it (unless it is genuinely faulty – but defining something as faulty is another subject, so we’ll talk about that another time). It doesn’t matter to our suppliers if the customer has failed to collect, or told us they’ve changed their mind, or bought it elsewhere, or that they’ve moved to a different country and didn’t bother to tell us to stop their regular orders (true story). We ordered it, we’re stuck with it.

Being stuck with uncollected orders sucks.

Sometimes we can make an uncollected order work – if it’s an item that we normally sell through anyway, we can just add it to our available stock and make a note to refuse any future orders from that person. If it’s something we could see ourselves having on the shelf anyway, it’s less of a worry and more of a minor irritation.

​Often though, the item in question is something we normally wouldn’t keep in stock – obscure books, comic issues from the middle of an unpopular series, game expansions where we don’t keep the core game in store, big or heavy items with high price tags, etc. These can often be difficult to sell to anyone else, as the likelihood of someone walking in to your local shop looking for exactly that thing is very low. (This may be higher in cities with bigger population centres, but this article is based on our own experiences in a smaller area.)

​Until that item sells to someone, the money we have spent on that item (because remember, we still have to pay for it) is tied up, reducing how much money we have to stock other things. This can build up very quickly if it happens too often. Situations like this leave stores with a difficult choice: take up shelf space and budget for a very long time hoping someone wants it enough to buy it some day, or reduce the price to try and clear it as quickly as possible, even if it means making a loss. Neither is a good choice.

Asking for payment in advance isn’t as simple as it sounds.

When explaining this to customers over the years, we are often asked why we don’t just ask for payment up front. Surely that would eliminate the problem, right? Well, there are a few main problems with requiring payment for everything in advance: customer resistance, sheer quantity of products, availability of the item, and refund windows.

Comics and games are two of the few remaining industries where people expect to pay on collection, not at the point of ordering. This can be for a number of reasons – price changes, payday schedules, and release date delays, just to name a few – but largely it feels like it is because this has been the norm for years. Many customers withdraw or delay orders when asked to pay up front, and either order elsewhere or not at all, because they don’t feel like they should have to.

Advance payment for comics is made extremely difficult by the sheer amount of titles that can potentially be ordered. We have to be able to record each and every item both when it is paid and when it is collected, and we either need to have a Point Of Sale system that can do both or we have to track it all by hand. POS systems that can handle the hundreds of new comic lines we are offered by our suppliers every single month, without falling over from the digital load, are extortionately expensive. Recording by hand is extremely time consuming and carries a high risk of human error. Neither option is suitable for a small store like ours, so we simply don’t take advance payment for comics.

Some items don’t have a guarantee that we’ll be able to fulfil the order due to lower or uncertain availability. For items where we know there is a high possibility of not receiving enough copies (”allocations”), or backorders where restocks may simply never be supplied, it is difficult to ask for payment if there is a chance we may not be able to actually provide the item.

We also need to consider refund windows in this time. If we take payment for an item that takes months or even years to arrive (very possible with highly collectable items like Hot Toys, big graphic novel collections, or even some board games), we only have a certain amount of time that we are able to issue a refund if something goes wrong. If allocations become an issue, or the item is cancelled, and it’s been too long since the original payment was made, we can’t just issue a direct refund due to payment security reasons. We have to find another way to get the customer’s money back to them in these instances (and then we’ll most likely need to pay card fees on top of that).

For some things, we do ask for a deposit or advance payment in full when ordered. This goes for anything that we know for a fact we would never normally order for our store, things that we have previously had to sell at a reduced price due to low local interest, and things that are particularly expensive and will cost us a lot of money up front to order. We also do this for anything ordered by a customer who has previously abandoned an order with us (assuming we accept the order at all), as we have no guarantee they won’t do it again.

On very rare occasions, we do get to return a small amount of stock.

I can count the number of unsold games I’ve been able to return to our games supplier over the last five or so years on one hand. On the extremely rare occasions where this happens, it is often linked to a minimum purchase – buy at least X copies of this game (where X is a good amount more than we would normally order), and we can return any unsold copies after three months. This seems like a good deal, until we read the fine print that states the store is responsible for covering the cost of return shipping. As many players can confirm, board games are not light and can be expensive to ship. This cost can often drain away the benefit of being able to return those unsold copies, particularly as these deals are often reserved for bigger, more expensive games with many heavy components.

​Comic returnability is slightly better, but not by much. We sometimes have similar minimum-purchase-to-return offers (I think we’ve had two titles do this in the last twelve months). Sometimes we are able to return issues that were “not as solicited”, or significantly differed from what we were told it was going to be when we ordered it. Sometimes publishers go out of their way to make titles returnable to reduce the risk for stores, which encourages us to order more copies in the hopes it sells well. (Frustratingly, some publishers work hard to make first issues of new titles returnable – Image Comics being a notable example – but this returnability does not extend to the UK.) I think I need two hands to count the number of comic issues that have been returnable over the last year. It’s not much, considering we see an average of 50 new comic issues release on a normal week.

​Sometimes people just forget they ordered it.

This is true. Sometimes people genuinely forget they’ve ordered something, and are surprised when it arrives. And we completely understand on occasions where releases are delayed and it takes several weeks or months for something to turn up!

​The problem is the number of people who “forget” to respond to the email we sent letting them know it had arrived, and “forget” to answer the second email reminding them, and “forget” to visit on the day they promised during that phone call we made to them, and “forget” they definitely need to pay for this order and can’t just pretend we don’t exist, and finally “forget” to answer the phone when we call after trying to communicate with them and be as understanding as possible for months about either the £10 book that arrived four days after they ordered it, or the £200 comic pull list that they’ve had on order for three years and suddenly stopped paying for without any warning (true stories).

Please don’t ask us if we can just return something.

​In almost all cases, we can’t. If you genuinely don’t want something you’ve ordered from us, talk to us as soon as possible; but please understand that, if the order is already confirmed or the item has already arrived with us, we won’t be able to cancel it. This isn’t because we don’t want to be supportive of our customers – it is because we want to make sure we’re able to get in all the shiny new releases people want, and aren’t sitting on a pile of uncollected orders no one needs.

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