Friday, May 9, 2014

Business Ideas that Are Causing Damage to Businesses

I'm going to take us on a strange topic today that is completely different than all of my blogs to date.  As I spend time working as a retail manager, I find that there are a lot of business practices that aren't really helping businesses at all.  I'm not here to talk about my business or the things that they do, because I would be out of a job that I need.  What I'm here to talk about today are the business ideas that keep cropping up around the United States that need to go away.  Many of these businesses are trying to fill a need.  What they're doing instead are creating havoc and theft.  Let me take a step back and give a few examples of what kinds of businesses I'm referring to, as they are causing far more theft and crime than they probably ever meant.

  • The first of these businesses I want to talk about are scrap yards.  I am sure everyone has seen these huge plots of land filled with various scrap metals and cars.  These yards have been around for ages and really haven't caused all that much trouble in the past.  Most of the time scrappers simply go around picking up cars, appliances and other scrap pieces of metal from the curb of a household that doesn't want it anymore, and they take it to sell at these scrap yards.  Most of the time they'd get a hundred dollars for the amount in a pick-up truck or some other amount depending on what kinds of metals that they have brought in.  This worked pretty good because home owners who couldn't afford to pay to have their oversize garbage taken away found it gone the next morning.  I get rid of lots of things that I know I can't sell but someone else can use and I can't afford to drive it somewhere to donate it.

  • The second business is very similar to the scrap yards, as it deals with selling electronics or gold or some other items for cash.  Mind you, pawn shops have been around for a long time.  You take in small items, and they give you a bit of cash for it, and you can either leave it behind forever or come back to get it when you have the money to pay the loan back.  Simple enough.  But now there are places that buy more specific things like gold, electronics, phones, etc.  These places will usually recycle the items much like at a scrap yard and your items are gone forever.

  • The third business has to do with gift cards.  In the past gift certificates were non-transferable pieces of paper that one could buy from a business if they didn't know what to get someone from that store.  The person could bring it in and use it as cash to buy something they actually wanted.  Certificates changed to gift cards when the technology for card swiping machines were included in nearly every store as the credit card companies expanded.  Around the 1990s everyone could get credit cards and so businesses started selling gift cards, cash cards, phone cards, you name it.  But what if someone bought you a card for a business you didn't like?  Suddenly there were websites popping up to exchange the cards.  Then, more recently, there are kiosks that could exchange cards for cash.  The company would take a small profit for the card, but you got money instead of a card you couldn't use.  More recently, CoinStar is starting to exchange these cards as well, making it less of a local program to a wide-spread problem.  (I say problem as you'll soon find out).

All of these companies and businesses fill a need in our consumerist driven society.  How to get rid of something you don't need to get something you do need - money.  That's all fine and dandy.  I, like everyone else, needs money to get by.  These ideas on paper probably look really good and for many people, they use these businesses rarely and use them honestly.

However, there's a catch.  What if these offerings are not used honestly?  What if people start selling other's items to get money for themselves?

Sure, you see pawnshops in every lower class area, every 'ghetto' area, everywhere that people start finding they're just scratching by.  I won't even talk about loans and check advance places or gambling places because they all have their own problems and you'll see them everywhere as well.  Most of the time these places move into a bad neighborhood, but as things change they get forced out by a changing economy and eventually the run down neighborhood gets a face lift and the pawn shop moves away.

But what if the area doesn't make a comeback?  What if things make a turn for the worse when something like the Great Recession of 2008 happens?  There's a huge bankruptcy crises, mortgages collapse because banks let people over-borrow, they go into dept because of credit cards, and large businesses that never had trouble staying afloat are suddenly buried.

Suddenly homeowners are forced to leave their homes in foreclosure.  The honest ones will leave their houses quickly but fairly intact.  The others, instead of being able to crawl out of the debt by moving on, take every scratch of appliance, every wire, everything that isn't nailed down (and even some that are) and run to the nearest scrap yard to sell it.  That doesn't get them out of debt, it merely helps them survive.  They run out of things to sell and so they start taking things to sell.  They steal from friends and family, they steal from empty houses on the street and take pool pumps and air conditioning units.  They take copper wires and clear out entire homes of everything that could bring them a bit of spare change.  Suddenly these people allow themselves to do corrupt things in order to just get by.

I digress... the reason for this blog is to point out that these ideas that should be helping honest people are merely helping thieves.  Thieves will steal purses and backpacks to steal phones and laptops.  They don't use these items because they need them, they steal them to sell.  They break into cars and into homes to steal and pawn TVs and computer equipment.  The police can't track them down or won't unless the items are worth just so much, and if they find out the owner has insurance, then they won't bother at all.  The items will just get replaced.  That, in turn, makes the insurance fees go up and it causes those people who were stealing to go around without insurance because they can't afford it any more.

Gift card kiosks are the worst of these businesses in the last few years.  It's stores that get hurt because they're trying to be nice to the honest people.  Here's how it works:  Thief knows that store will take back merchandise without a receipt and give them a gift card in return.  So they go in and steal stuff.  Maybe they'll have a crew that steals and a crew that 'returns' the items.  The person who 'returns' these items takes the gift card they get and takes it to the kiosk.  They get free money.  It might be $20, but for some of these people it's enough to buy a meal and some drugs.  Most of them are usually out for the drugs since food stamps pay for the food.  So the stores are out the money, but if they refuse to do the return, they're out the items.  If they take back the stolen items, the store shows an extra in their stock and when they have inventory they'll come up short which takes a hit on their theft shrinkage.  That means they'll get hit twice, first with the theft of money, and then with the supposed theft of items in inventory.

But thieves don't stop there.  Eventually the thieves realize that the store isn't cooperating and if they find out that it's too easy to steal things, they'll go to great lengths to get tons of things out the front door.  I've seen huge boxes and carts full of things leaving the door.  I don't work in a retail establishment that sells food or items of great value, nothing that these people would need to live.  So what are they doing with these items?  Pawning most likely, some of it.  Flea markets maybe.  Selling it to other businesses that buy items for money, I'm sure.  Whatever big score they can get to buy them a bag of drugs or some money to feed their kids.

And what is stopping these thieves?  These businesses say they track these people.  They say they only let people get just so much money a day...  But how do they stop them if they use fake IDs?  Many of these people have drivers licences as well as just IDs... And I'm not sure why the government is allowing this, but I won't get into that.  What I'm saying, however, is that there's nothing stopping these people from getting multiple "IDs" with various addresses and they can get around all of the rules in place to stop them from fraud.

What I hope though, is that these businesses would take a much better look at how people are going to use their product.  Will this cell phone sell-back service cause theft from honest people?  How can this business be abused?  If every business would take a step back before promoting their product and ask, "can this go wrong?"  I think perhaps that thieves would have to think twice in order to make a profit.  Businesses are losing money because they aren't planning ahead.  Sure, if everyone was honest, putting that gift card kiosk in the store would be great.  You would make a profit and customers could have the convenience of buying a card for a gift.  However, what about those people buying gift cards with stolen credit cards?

How about we all just start looking at the world with a bit more suspicion.  I like to be optimistic when the economy is starting to bounce back after our recession, but there are too many out there who have gotten used to this dishonest system.  They take advantage because the system has taken advantage of them.  Maybe someday these people will all get jobs and be productive members of the society again, perhaps the government will give them a reason to, but more likely these people will keep doing what they are doing, teach their kids to do the same, and if we don't stop them from doing these things, it will continue to get worse and worse.

So, I plead with new business owners and these people who are thinking about starting up the 'next great thing' - ask yourself, "How can this be abused?"  Don't put it into practice if only a few honest people will actually be able to take advantage of this and a few hundred thieves are using it daily.  Take a good hard look at what protections you have in place.  Then, not only will your business thrive because thieves aren't taking advantage of you, but the honest person will also trust you to know that you're taking care of them too.


EDIT ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS:  It was brought to my attention that of course not all homeowners forced to allow their homes go into foreclosure are thieves and vandals.  Some, like those in the military, may have to move and cannot sell their homes and have to forfeit the home they bought.  There are others, as well who just have financial crises and family problems, job lose, etc.  In this article, I'm talking only about those people who, instead of finding ways to make ends meet honestly, turn to making a quick buck as an answer.  There may be some people who turn to this life of crime or vandalism once and then find their way out again without letting anything get on their permanent records.  However, there are still so many more out there who allow themselves to be swept up with the lie that "it's okay because everyone is doing it" or "just one more time and I'll quit this drug and won't need the money anymore."

I sincerely believe that anyone, anyone can go through a hard time in their lives due to unforeseen circumstances.  A job can be taken out from under them, a loved one can die, a tornado or flood can take out a house where insurance won't cover it...  Good people (and I believe everyone can be good, but it's much harder to do sometimes than to be bad) will try to crawl out of their situation even if that means taking a part-time job that pays squat, or they'll give up and start over again somewhere new.  It might be hard, but there's always an honest way out, so long as one is willing to put everything they have into it.  The problem exists in the 'easy dollar' or trying to find some way out that usually results in a temporary solution that tends to hurt not only the person doing it, but those around them as well.  And perhaps if businesses paid their employees enough to live, they wouldn't have so many employees stealing from them and adding to a whole set of other problems!  But...that is for another day.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Followup: The Demise of Anime Conventions

If you have not read my previous blog on this topic, please skip this entry and go to "The Demise of Anime Conventions".  I got a bunch of interesting feedback and I plan to do a short followup with some questions that arose after publishing.


In my blog entry, "The Demise of Anime Conventions" I pointed out a distinct shift away from "anime-only" conventions and towards more of a return to the sci-fi/comic book convention that originally spawned these genre specific conventions.  Some people agreed with me whole-heartedly while others disagreed with me completely.  This made me realize that I have been looking at anime conventions from a distinctly East Coast point of view, and more likely a Mid-East/North-East point of view since I've never been further than Chicago in my convention wanderings.  That doesn't mean that everyone West of Chicago disagreed with me as a few of them also agreed that things were making a distinct shift, but I did start to wonder about location and also about saturation of the market.

Let me start with talking briefly here about West Coast conventions.  Now, really, I don't have anything but my own personal perceptions of these West coast conventions as I've never been to one.  From what I can see online, however, most of them are quite large and run by possibly, larger corporations.  I could be completely wrong, there may be dozens of little conventions (and I'm sure there are) all over the West coast, but because of population numbers, I wonder how near to one another these conventions are located.  Simply looking at population, I can only imagine that larger cities tend to host these conventions as most of the time larger cities are where there are more convention spaces and hotels.

That said, if you move to East Coast conventions, we have a whole heck of a lot of them.  They range from fairly large 22K or bigger Otakon, down to some very small 100 people conventions.  Within the range of where I am in Ohio, I could probably drive to a few dozen conventions just within an 8 hour drive.  I usually attend at least 2-5 conventions a year which are within the 3 hour range.  What does that mean to me and those who agreed with me on the demise of conventions?

Perhaps it means that the true demise of anime conventions lies in the demise of smaller conventions.  These conventions range probably less than 2,000 attendees and are forced to cater to a larger group of genres for their attendees or risk losing attendance each year as children/teenagers grow up and move on to other things rather than just anime/manga.

Perhaps though, this genre switch is also taking place in the larger conventions.  The largest conventions that I've attended are Anime Central, Ohayocon, and Otakon.  I've attended Ohayocon since 2003, and Anime Central off and on over the years, and Otakon only once in 2006.  So, if I take Ohayocon for example, it started out in 2003 as perhaps less than 5,000 attendees, their dealer room was about 12-20 vendors who dealt strictly with figures, plushies, manga from Japan, doujinshi from Japan, Funimation, MediaBlasters, and maybe a sword dealer.  Artists in the alley attempted drawing doujinshi, but more often they had tables full of fan art.  I do not remember any cosplayers playing anything but anime or manga characters.  Fast forward to 2014 and there were American comic book stores, card gaming and video gaming, artists and clothing ranging from cosplay to gothic to steampunk.

Now, Ohayocon was always an ANIME convention.  It's expanded into something a bit more, and for it's size it can have anything it wants.  It's a Pop Culture convention, no matter what it may call itself now.  And if you ask the 18-20 sect, they might still say it's an "anime" convention.  However, don't be fooled, because running the anime convention Tsubasacon and sitting in the Ohayocon dealer room advertising for that convention... we had people coming up to us saying "Oh, you're an anime convention?  We don't go to anime conventions."  WAIT..... WHAT?  But YOU'RE AT ONE!

I've seen the same shift in genres at Anime Central a few year's back and at Colossalcon, at Matsuricon, Tekkoshocon, and every single other convention that I've attended in the past few years.

Does that mean it's happening everywhere?  No.  It doesn't.  But...I have a feeling it is happening everywhere.  You can't stop cartoon characters from popping up at anime conventions.  Can't stop people cosplaying various objects and people found in other sci-fi genres.  People go to these events to share in their geekdom and they've realized that if they stand out a bit by wearing something from a different series that isn't Japanese, then they'll get more photos and more interest.

Ah... so there you are again.  Interest.  People are interested in far more things now than just anime.  It was actually a lot easier a few years back to pick up dozens of manga and anime every week and keep your daily dose high.  Heck, I used to drop $100 a week on all of that and it was my life for a few years.  However, it's a lot harder to do that now with only a few companies putting out anime and manga.  Okay... so I take that back, there's a WHOLE LOT of stuff out there on the internet, and if you're reading this then you're probably thinking "well, I watch all of my anime on Crunchyroll or I download it, and I read all of my manga online" - but when you're online, are you only doing that?  Aren't you downloading "Game of Thrones" and watching "Adventure Time" as well?  And when you go to a convention, aren't you hoping to find something to support those genres too?

I'd really love to know if anyone else out there has a different opinion on anime conventions.  Feel free to drop me a line at my email:  if you have a different idea on this.  Or just comment below.  If you go to a convention that is sticking with it's anime roots and not bowing to the American comics or cartoons... I'd love to know.  If you think that there are still 'pure' anime conventions that will outlast this 'death' I've foretold, it would be interesting to look into for me.

Otherwise... I have a feeling I'm still somewhat right about this.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Demise of Anime Conventions

This is going to be a serious look at the demise of anime conventions.  Over the past twelve years I have seen the rise and fall of anime conventions, and it's at once a sad, and yet inevitable fall of this strange incarnation of fandom conventions.

If you were to Wiki the term "Anime Convention", you'll find a fairly accurate description of this strange beast.  Originating around 1980 or so, anime conventions spawned off the more popular comic book conventions of the age, and those spawned from even earlier science fiction conventions that started around the 1930s.  In that day and age, conventions were a way of drawing authors and fans of the genre together for a day or weekend in order to share their common fascination with science fiction.  At the time, science fiction was mainly found in the format of dime novels and compilation magazines, the occasional radio show or movie, and later in comic books.  Obviously, drawn comics spawned animated comics, called cartoons, which were for a typically younger audience.  As those youngsters grew up, however, they found a need to gather at conventions of their own where they could celebrate all things comic-book related away from the older science fiction group.  Comic conventions were created, which eventually drew in the likes of Japanese comics, called "manga" (mahn-ga, not MAN-ga) and the animated equivalent of "anime" (short for animation).

Right around the early 1980s, anime was starting to creep over to the United States in the form of recorded Beta/VHS tapes, many of which were sent over from people who were stationed in Japan as part of the US Military.  At that time, things of Japan were starting to take on a new level of fascination since WWII was starting to fade from the minds of many Americans and there were these strange cartoons, books, and foodstuffs starting to pop up around Japanese immigrant areas (Little Japan).  People could find sushi and Pocky and these strange adult cartoons that were often of a pornographic nature, but not always of course. ( I'm sure the guys who brought back some of these tapes in the day probably got a real kick out of it while they were stationed in Japan!)

With very few copyright laws surrounding these VHS tapes, the bootleg industry boomed.  Comic book conventions were an excellent way to pick up VHS tapes of these strange Japanese anime shows, and slowly the artwork of manga started to trickle over to be translated by comic book companies in the USA.  By the 1990s, quite a few of the fans of Japanese comics started spawning their own conventions.  These conventions were typically run for an entire weekend, rather than one or two days of the weekend.  Often held in a hotel which could be open 24 hours, they would show anime translated by fans (fansubs) and sell bootleg merchandise that could be anything from figures, posters, wallscrolls, whatever could be imported or bought from shops that imported from Japan or China.  At the time, it didn't really matter where the fans were getting this stuff, so long as they could get their hands on it!

I came into the anime convention circuit rather late in the game.  American comic companies were starting to get copyrights from Japan in order to translate and distribute anime and manga.  Funimation was born after the success of Pioneer (which was a Japanese company with US distribution) and MediaBlasters had the corner on hentai (pornographic anime).  Many of these companies were reacting to the demand and picking up titles that had not yet been copyrighted.  Japan, excited to get their product sold in the USA, started licensing titles to all sorts of up-and-coming companies.  Many of these companies would rise and fall, leaving only a few survivors today, but I'll speak on that later.

About the time I was getting into anime, Cartoon network had followed in the footsteps of SciFi (SyFy now) to play the now English dubbed anime.  Children's programming such as Pokemon, Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura were being chopping and recombined into new shows for American audiences at an alarming rate (note, this was done 10-20 years earlier but it started to gain more popularity since merchandising around these shows were so much more profitable to the 80/90's era children).  Tokyopop had started printing manga in it's original, although translated, form, rather than the left-to-right format most people read.

This whole huge boom of anime, manga, and conventions reached a head right around the year 2000.  A handful of companies were bringing over anime titles to the point there was a new DVD each week, if not more than one title a week.  The anime section at Best Buy in my town grew to encompass 16 feet (maybe even more) of 5 foot tall racks: hundreds of titles, with more coming each week.  Bookstores went from one 4 foot shelf of graphic novels to entire walls of manga, and at one point Borders even started to buy up manga straight from Japan to sell in some of their locations.  Before long there were figures, wallscrolls, T-shirts, posters, bags, stuffed animals and food stuffs and just about every store you walked into.  Something Japanese could be found anywhere from the local grocery store to the shelves of Walmart.  

The true saturation limit of all of this anime and manga hit right between 2002-2006.  For a time there were actual anime/manga stores cropping up in college towns where only normal comic book stores once controlled the territory.  Anime conventions could bring in 2,000 people on their very first weekends, and some of the larger conventions were starting to break out in LosAngeles, Chicago, Baltimore, New York, and quite a few other places as well.

But for every good growth period, there comes a downfall.  2008, or the beginning of the "Great Recession" in the USA, suddenly things started to take a downturn.  The Blu-Ray/HD Disc war started, and VHS tapes were no longer being produced.  DVDs were on the decline.  The internet was starting to take over the distribution for anime and manga.  During the height of demand, quite a few fans moved to Japan, learned Japanese, or perhaps made contacts overseas.  Suddenly there were hundreds of fan subtitled anime, hundreds of scanned/translated manga, and conventions were no longer a place to meet friends, because the internet could instantly connect someone with dozens of others who liked the same things as they did.  Japan started realizing that they could make a whole bunch more money if they brought over anime and manga themselves rather than selling the rights off.  And especially after the scandals over the many anime/manga sites that were just distributing fan copies all over the internet reached an all-time high.  Eventually many of them started to bring lawsuits against this illegal distribution and many companies couldn't compete against the rising prices of licensing Japanese titles.

I always kind of mark the downfall of anime conventions with the death of Big Apple con.  I'm not sure what happened there in New York, but for some reason this very large convention died a pretty big death and other smaller conventions started dying off afterward.  Maybe it was because every other anime fan thought that he could 'start a convention of his own' and with very little start up money and no financial backing, went overboard and brought themselves into financial collapse.  It takes a lot of money and time to start up a convention, and even more to keep it running.  I've personally seen two or three 'almost cons' start up and fail either before they even had a single weekend or after that one weekend.  The most successful conventions of course were run by business people who perhaps run two or more conventions around the country.  With proper financial prowess and dozens of contacts in the industry, these conventions will most likely be the last ones standing when all the other conventions fail.

The true demise of anime conventions today is the stigma of being an anime convention.  It might sound strange, but the same thing that used to drive people to an anime convention now drives them away.  "ANIME."  You wouldn't think the title would mean a lot, but anime conventions are starting to slowly be driven back to their original roots.  These conventions must now drop their subtitle.  They must reach into the American comic book interests, the pop culture and the cartoons that drive the geek interest in today's world.  The younger fans drive the money, and if they think they don't like 'anime', then they'll say so.  They won't come to an anime convention unless they think they'll get something from their Marvel universe.  

Anime conventions are now being forced to either allow the cosplayers of American comics to compete, or they find themselves shunned by the fan community.  There has to be Steampunk and Cartoon Network related things, there have to be memes and trading games.  They have to encompass all things "Geek" now just to keep bringing in the attendees.  In essence, these Anime Conventions are becoming Pop Culture Conventions.  

Will some of these conventions die if they continue on with their chosen category of fandom?  Yes.  Why?  Because the fans are no longer fans of just one thing anymore.  That guy over there who likes watching anime also likes Game of Thrones.  That girl who reads manga also likes to watch Dr. Who.  No one likes just one thing when there are so many things to choose from.  Social Media has made staying in touch with others who like our fandom easy.  Conventions merely provide a place to socialize in person.  Many of these also provide a change of pace and scenery.  Conventions are starting to become places to go on a vacation.  They have to have a unique venue, unique guests, and interesting vendors to shop from.  They have to cater to a wide variety of fans, must have a wide variety of programming, and must continuously find new ways to hit these marks each time.

This, of course, is not to say that new fandoms won't spawn from these conventions.  I'm merely stating that anime conventions are no longer the social meeting places they once were.  Anime conventions now spawn off other conventions such as My Little Pony conventions.  Will these last longer than the series?  A few perhaps, but more for collectors rather than fans of the series.  Comic book conventions have survived the growth of anime conventions, and they will most likely out-live them as well.  Many anime conventions will most likely return to their roots or join back with the comic book conventions of the 70's/80's.  Many of them will end when those who run them grow older and wish to deal with families and their futures.  

We will probably never see a time again where anime conventions were once the sprawling places where someone could dress up in their favorite outfit and get surrounded by other fans of the series.  We won't see 'glomping' or dozens of fans sitting around a room watching a 'new' anime because almost everyone has seen it within the week it was released in Japan.  Cosplay won't be limited to just characters coming out of Japan.  Video game rooms won't be limited to titles released in Japan.  We won't be able to find the vast numbers of bootleg toys and items (which, is actually a good thing) but we won't find the vast numbers of manga and DVD/BDs that we once could in dealer rooms.  We won't see artist alleys filled with fan art of our favorite series as now they're limited to mostly original artwork and comics that are more American.

All of these things are in the past.  I hope, if you are reading this, you were able to enjoy some of the rise of Anime Conventions, and if you are still attending them now, I have a feeling many of them will never been the same as they once were.  My guess is many of them will have fallen to the Pop Culture influences (if they haven't already) within the next few years.  Enjoy them while they last, as they are a dying breed.