In Episode 3 of the Official Ultimate Pullbox Guide to Conning (we’ve been promoted—Woot!), we will examine the fine art of working the con to get yourself the best deals.
If you’re like me, one of the great appeals of the con is the opportunity to shop the vendor floors and exhibit halls. Among so many other glorious things, a comicon (or gaming con, or sportscard convention) is a unique opportunity to shop among a huge variety of collectibles vendors on the same show floor, which often presents the chance to find that special item, that one variant issue or mint-on-card figure that’s eluded you as you’ve scoured the comic shops and toy stores of your home town. And, it’s a chance to find some serious bargains.
Now, I’ll warn you—to get the best deals, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty: bartering, interacting with the vendor (or vendors) to negotiate the best price point for you. You might have to argue; sift through a not-insubstantial amount of bullcookies and arm-twisting. This frankly isn’t for everyone. My wife tends to hide whenever that time comes when we’re car shopping, and my daughter basically covers her ears and pretends she’s not there; my son, to my eternal pride, has finally recently started haggling out his own deals. I remain convinced to this day the reason my mother did the grocery shopping in our family was she couldn’t handle the idea of my dad (the grandfather of all bargain shoppers) bartering our neighborhood Piggly Wiggly down on a gallon of milk.
But you won’t necessarily have to do that to get a good deal. More on that in a bit.
First, the tools of the trade: always have with you a well-juiced smartphone, a pocket notebook and pen, and cash. Always cash (stored in your front pocket). Vendors will commonly provide better deals to cash buyers, as they don’t then have to pay the 1.5-5% card or Paypal fee they would otherwise have to pay. Also, using cash holds the distinct value of not leaving you with an unanticipated and potentially massive credit card bill the next month. I typically carry my spending wad in my right front pocket and once it’s gone…well, time to sit in on some panels.
I will also bring a spreadsheet that includes my current collection, organized by title and grade, as well as my “shopping list.” Paul stared at me a bit agog the first time I busted it out when we were at Mighty Con last February, but got to appreciate the idea when I narrowly avoided repurchasing an old Red Sonja I already had, and he couldn’t remember which of the Golden Keys he had and didn’t. So there, Paul.
Now, the smartphone you’ll be using to check eBay, or Amazon, or whatever other online vendor you might use, for price comparison. It might seem like cheating, but trust me—the vendors are using them. I’ve worked with one gentleman who routinely uses recent eBay sales to set his sales prices. Now, there is an advantage to purchasing in person, especially when you’re talking condition-relevant raw collectibles: anyone with a lick of experience in shopping eBay for comics or cards has had the experience of buying what they thought was a solid VF/NM, only to receive the book and find a crease that didn’t show in the photos, or a stamp cut out of the interior. Buying on sight allows you the opportunity to examine the book directly—and you should do so. But the online sites can be a good starting point to negotiations.
The notepad (and you could certainly use your cellphone or tablet; I just get a certain visceral satisfaction out of physically writing and scribbling out things, but that’s me) is for you to jot down notes. Vendor locations and asking prices, who you talked to, etc. Trust me on this—you think you’ll remember, but after a whole day of meandering a vendor hall the size of a small city (I’m thinking C2E2 here), one stall starts to melt into the next. Scribbling down the stall number can save you beaucoup time later, believe me. It also arms you in your comparison shopping, if you can say to the guy at Y-606 that the lady at U-1304 has the same book for $20 less.
Now, on to strategies. First, take your time. Spend a stretch meandering the floor, taking notes as to who has the better deals, or just who has that special item you’re looking for. Do some comparison shopping. Depending on what level of collectible you’re shopping for, this can be time really well spent. Now, if you happen to stumble into what you believe is an absolute bargain, don’t mess around—make your offer, and strike a deal…but typically, if one vendor has a particular item (especially if it’s a more recent product) at a certain price point, other vendors are likely to as well.
Once you’ve got the “lay of the land,” so to speak, then it’s time to get to the real work. How and when you’ll want to do this will vary a bit, depending again on what you’re buying and how much time you have. If I’m at a Friday to Sunday con (which is most of the cons I attend), I’ll spend Friday “scouting” (and getting autographs, as discussed last episode). If there’s a particularly hard-to-find book (I typically deal in early Marvel and specific cover variants by my fave artists) that I know isn’t going to last the weekend (as a fer instance, George Perez made one of his last con appearances at C2E2 last year and I wanted a nice copy of his first published work, Astonishing Tales 25 to have him sign it; I quickly discovered I wasn’t the only one with that idea though, as at least three vendors told me they’d sold their only copy minutes or hours before I made it to their booth), I’ll make my offer and purchase it then; if it’s a more common item, and especially if it’s a larger, more difficult to transport piece like a statue, I’ll take my notes and wait ‘til Sunday to strike. As mentioned last episode, if you can wait ‘til Sunday to buy, it’s nearly always worth doing so, as vendors are going to want to unload as much product as they can, especially of the difficult-to-transport variety.
Under no circumstances should you ever pay full price! Or at least, not willingly. Most vendors are born negotiators, first and foremost, and many enjoy the give and take of a good barter (I’ve actually had a few express their laments that not many people choose to do this anymore)—but even those that don’t still go in planning on having some flexibility in their pricing. This can especially be true if they happen to be having a strong weekend.
Case in point: a couple years ago I’d had a particularly good spring at my clinic and had decided to reward myself and my collection with a premium item. I found a dealer with a very nice (later CGC’ed at 8.5) copy of the Golden Records Reprint of Amazing Spider-Man #1. At the time, that book, in that condition, was typically going for around $1000-1200; he had it marked at $850. I offered him $550, anticipating we’d settle in the neighborhood of $700 or so—still a bargain, by any definition. Lo and behold, he’d sold the accompanying record to a collector earlier that day for a ludicrous sum ($1200, when they normally went for $250; he’d been asking that much for the set), and took my offer with no negotiation. Ended up getting the book, a Stan Lee auto on it (his last C2E2 appearance) and CGC grading for several hundred less than the book was worth raw—and the vendor was still happy with the outcome. Score!
Finding that balance between making an offer that maximizes your chance of a good deal and offending the vendor can be tricky. Lowball someone and they won’t have anything to do with you; offer them too much, and you’re just bidding against yourself. I typically will offer 60 to 70% of what I believe to be a fair settling price (not necessarily their asking price), anticipating some room for upward negotiation. The vendor will oft-times then offer their “rock bottom” price (which is usually a minor amount north of what they’ll actually accept); if they flat out refuse, well, time to either swallow my pride and fork over some cash for an item I really want, or move on.
One method of negotiating which has been popularized by the American Pickers in the past couple years, but which has always been an effective tactic, is bundling. Find several items from the same vendor, and shoot for a lower total price; sometimes the opportunity to move some volume will ameliorate some of the sting of losing profit on a single item for the vendor. This can be especially true if you are shopping for something that isn’t a hot item—a niche comic that never hit it big, a trade that was mass-over-produced. I’ve gotten some great deals with the approach of bundling a couple items that I know the vendor is motivated to get rid of, with one that’s a bit more desirable.
Now, I will add one caveat to the Pullbox Guide to bartering: these rules generally don’t apply to Artist Alley. Not because they won’t work, but because it’s just poor etiquette. The folks in Artist Alley are selling their personal work, their lifesblood. They’re not merchants; they’re artists. While the well-known and long-established among them, the Neal Adamses and the Adam Hugheses and the Frank Chos, command significant premiums for their work and are (or should be, at any rate) financially comfortable, most of the folks on the Alley are squeaking by, and the cash they make on commissions, original work and prints at the cons allows them to continue (or, in some cases, to establish) their careers producing the books and art we so dearly appreciate. Don’t begrudge them that opportunity.
Ok, sermon over. I hope, once again, this tip sheet proves helpful, and aids you folks in getting the most bang for your buck at your next (and all future) cons. Best wishes, and see you next time, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!
Original Content by Andy Patch, thePullbox.com