Comics specialty retail shops continued to report optimism over increased sales at the recent San Diego Comic-Con, even as distributor Diamond Comics announced several programs to help new stores launch. The mood was very upbeat, mirroring that reported in PW's recent retailer survey. Or as Diamond's v-p of purchasing Roger Fletcher told attendees at a retailer lunch, "2012 is rocking it. We're up over 13% for the year. Comics are up 20.5%, graphic novels are up 13.5%."

At the lunch, held during the San Diego Comic-Con on Friday, July 13 and sponsored by Dark Horse and DC Entertainment, Diamond unveiled several programs aimed at helping stores. One is a subsidy to encourage stores to install the Diamond-sponsored POS system, ComicsSuite. POS systems, which help a store monitor inventory more cost effectively, are still not always in use at comics shops, which often have a very low operating margin. Under the new program, stores that purchase a new POS system will receive a subsidy of $6,259 in backlist graphic novels from Boom, DC, Dark Horse, Diamond Select, Dynamite, IDW, Image and Marvel. An older Diamond program that offers stores reduced financing to buy the system is still available as well.

Diamond's executive director of business development Chris Powell, who was hired last year to help new stores get a foothold, announced several programs to help new stores or new outlets of existing stores build inventory. Under one, qualifying retailers will receive a discount of up to 69% on backlist products. A separate initiative offers a consignment program, which will allow new stores to order stock and defer billing for six months. This program also allows limited returnability—retailers can return unsold stock after 6-12 weeks, helping them correct their orders based on demand.

Publishers are also offering Store Starter kits, free graphic novels from their lines to attract a wider audience to new stores.

Powell explained that the cost of initial stock is often the biggest hurdle for an existing store to launch a new outlet. “With this new initiative we will work with retailers to minimize these risks and outlays," he said. "This way you are not stuck with inventory but can make a good first impression with fully stocked shelves. The strong backlist will give you a shot to look your best and get new product."

Diamond CEO Steve Geppi made a rare appearance at the lunch, making his first trip to Comic-Con in eight years. "What an exciting time to be in the comics book industry," Geppi told the room of several hundred retailers and media. "We've taken our lumps but I can't imagine someone who's never been in comics before not getting totally lit up and excited. We've weathered the storm." Geppi mentioned all the superhero movies—this year's The Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man and Dark Knight Rises—as the thin edge of this new comic invasion and concluded, "Keep it happening and keep it going."

Diamond also announced that its long-brewing Diamond Digital program will finally hit on July 23rd, allowing brick and mortar comics shops to sell digital comics, either via physical codes, or their own digital storefronts.

Sponsors Dark Horse and DC also made presentations. Dark Horse announced on ongoing Star Wars monthly periodical, to be written by popular writer Brian Wood, as well as a horror-themed program for later in the year featuring books by Mike Mignola, Guillermo del Toro, Steve Niles, Tim Seeley and Richard Corben.

DC's v-p of sales Bob Wayne ran through some of the publisher's big announcements, including the new Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, and promoted this September "Zero Month" promotion for the next wave of New 52 titles. That blockbuster program continues to lift sales and the "Zero Month" will provide another jumping on point for readers.

Pointing to the new Sandman title, Wayne noted that DC has many more titles in its arsenal. "Everyone said what are you going to do after the New 52, and then what are you going to do after Before Watchmen. Well, we haven't run out of things we have to do."

The optimistic tone struck by Geppi was echoed in a panel called "Retail Optimism" in which store owners—Joe Field (Flying Colors Comics, Concord, CA), Carr D’Angelo (Earth-2 Comics, Sherman Oaks, CA), Thomas Gaul (Corner Store Comics, Anaheim, CA), and Calum Johnston (Strange Adventures Bookshop, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada)—shared success stories. Field noted that his sales for the first half of 2012 were higher than the last half of 2011. "And the second half tends to be the dominant half," he said. "It's an anomaly."

The panel noted that the high quality and diversity of material and growing general interest in comics were fueling the rise in sales. "We run sales reports and not only do I see the per transaction number has changed but, more importantly, we're seeing traffic increase on a weekly basis," said D'Angelo. "In our Northridge store we're having an incredible rise. The number of people buying things each week has gone up. It’s not like this community changed somehow—people found us."

"The pie has gotten bigger," he concluded.

Events and social media are also fueling sales. Gall reported a promotion for The Walking Dead #100 which included bringing in a local artist to do sketches, a zombie make-up artist, a food truck and purchasing a cake for $32. "We spent $32 and ending up with 150 customers and sold 500 copies," he said.

Johnston recounted several programs for diversifying his stores audience, including a Ladies Night, run by women who work at the store. "About 150 girls come by from 7-9; it's been phenomenal," he said, noting that as word of good comics spread, "the customers turn into your salespeople."

Specific books that are driving sales include the omnipresent Walking Dead, which is a genuine phenomenon at this point—issue #100 sold more than 380,000 copies, although many variant covers were involved—and Saga by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples. DC's top New 52 titles also continue to do well. Several retailers mentioned books by indie cartoonist Jeffrey Brown as real crowd pleasers for diversity, including his two books of cat cartoons from Chronicle and the popular Vader and Son.

Although the mood was upbeat, Field observed that stores need to plan for the days beyond The Walking Dead. "The goal is to keep playing smart and don’t let the momentum die."