Sporadic Sequential
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Feeling Frugal: Buying Comics on the Cheap

One of my favorite sites for buying new graphic novels is Tower.com. Their prices on comics always seem to be a little bit lower than other sites. For example, here are the prices for several books I'm tracking:

Book List Price Tower Price Amazon Buy.com
A Drifting Life $29.95 $18.86 $19.77 $18.63
The Photographer $29.95 $14.99 $19.77 $18.63
Emma 8 $9.99 $7.99 $9.99 $9.00
Kekkaishi 15 $9.99 $7.99 $9.99 $9.00
Flower of Life 4 $12.95 $8.99 $10.36 $12.38*
Total for all 5 $92.83 $58.82 $69.88 $67.64
Total savings
$34.01 $22.95 $25.19
% savings off list
37% 25% 27%
* Flower of Life 4 wasn't listed at the time of this writing, so I used the price for vol. 1.

As you can see, buying the books from Tower represents a significant savings not only off cover price but also from other sites. OK, time to place an order on Tower for these books, right? NOT SO FAST!! Even though the prices are low, they could be lower. In my experience, Tower's prices frequently fluctuate and every now and then the prices can get close to half-off. So now I wait for the prices to hit at least 40% off before I buy them.

But how do I know when the prices reach my desired threshold? In the past I would check periodically on my own, but now I use the site Shopping Notes to track price changes for me automatically. The site allows you to save lists of items you want to watch and then sends you alerts whenever the price changes for a product (or drops below a certain threshold price if you prefer). There's also a bookmarklet feature that allows you to install a bookmark that you can then click when you're on a product page at a site like Tower or Amazon to save the product to your watch list.

Using the site definitely helps me catch sales that I might otherwise miss. For example, a couple days ago I set up a monitor for CMX's Fire Investigator Nanase (after Katherine Dacey reminded me it was out and renewed my interest by describing it as "ridiculously entertaining" and "a glorious mash-up of Firefighter Daigo of Company M, Silence of the Lambs, and Quincy, MD"). Yesterday I received an alert that its price had dropped to $5.79 (42% off), so I placed an order for it along with several other books whose prices had just dropped (20th Century Boys 1, Real 3, Parasyte 6). Today I received an alert that the price for Fire Investigator Nanase 1 had jumped back up to $7.99. If not for the alert, I probably would have missed that short-lived sale.

A couple caveats about using Tower:
  1. Shipping is free for orders $25 and over, so make sure to buy enough to qualify for that.

  2. The free shipping is pretty slow. For a couple of my last orders, items took even longer than the upper limit of "15 business days" to arrive after they'd shipped.

  3. It looks like Tower no longer ships items individually as they become available, or at least that's what the change in language in their email notifications leads me to believe. The emails used to say "Your item, [item name], has just shipped from our distribution center and is on its way to you RIGHT NOW!" but now the phrasing is "Your item, [item name], has just processed in our distribution center. If you qualify for free standard shipping please note that your order may take an additional 5-7 business days to ship after all items in the order are processed." So I take it that an order won't ship until all items in your order are ready to ship, which could hold up an order containing pre-orders. So plan your orders accordingly. (I understand the reasons for doing this — why should Tower pay to ship items individually, especially when I don't know of any other sites to do that — but it does remove one of the big reasons why I used to love Tower.com so much.)
Related thoughts:

The changes in my shopping techniques have led to changes in my reading habits. I used to be more obsessive about tracking when certain books were coming out, grouping books with close release dates together and ordering them when I had enough to qualify for free shipping. Now that I'm setting up monitors to track price drops, my main qualification for buying a book is how much I'm saving, not when it comes it out. This results in my falling behind on certain series, such as Kekkaishi, which has two volumes out that I'm still waiting to buy once the prices go down. It also means that I can forget about books I was once interested in if I fail to monitor it, as I almost did with Fire Investigator Nanase.

As Augie De Blieck, Jr. wrote in his infamous column last week, training yourself to delay gratification can lead to interesting results. Augie was talking mainly about weaning yourself from weekly Wednesday visits to the comic shop (a step in my comic-reading habits I remember all too well), but his point applies to other forms of delayed gratification as well. When I was more concerned about buying books as they came out, I would often fill orders with interesting but inessential items to reach the free shipping limit. Now that I'm putting off my purchases longer, I often pass over items that originally caught my interest but that now seem less like something I absolutely have to own. (For books like this, I usually end up checking them out through the library if they're available.)

To be fair, other factors are probably helping my resolve besides sheer willpower: A general unease about the state of the economy; a lack of time due to kids and a recent attempt to exercise more regularly; a quasi-resolution to avoid (or at least reduce) new book purchases until I make more headway in my unread stack. All of these undoubtedly contribute to my glacial pace in acquiring new comics.

I'm glad that the comics I'm interested in were never serialized in another format (at least not within the U.S.) so I don't have to bother with attempts to make me feel guilty for not supporting the current method of subsidizing the cost of collected editions.

I have nothing against local comic shops. It's just that my overriding concern in deciding where to purchase my comics is getting the best possible price. I don't care about getting it quickly, being able to browse it before I buy it, or interacting with other like-minded customers face-to-face. But obviously if any of those factors matter to you, buying online won't be as attractive for you as it is for me.

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