Thursday, May 29, 2008

Mortar Combat

The comic shop, as we know it, is a strong and mighty thing.

So was the record industry. And much like the record industry, digital downloading threatens to take a substantial bite out of the industry pie.

We've heard the arguments:

"Comics cost too much."

"They're doing too many crossovers. Who can afford to keep up with them all."

"Comics haven't been very good lately. Why should I pay for something I may not want?"

Sure, alot of the blame could and SHOULD lay at the feet of the comics publisher but you know what? I've never published a comic so I can only talk about what I know: selling comics in a comic book store.

With bookstores, online subscription services and digital downloading more prevalent, the comics shop as we know it, is on notice and doesn't seem to know or care.

I think the idea of the comics shop needs a lot of tweaking. Too many comic shop owners hold onto a model of “If we open the doors, people will come in.” Maybe they will but can you make them WANT to stay? Only in the comic book business model does the usually customer EXPECT to get “fair” to “middling” service on a weekly basis. Too many comics shops run like extensions of an owner's basement. Televisions blaring, product remaining unorganized, their friends hanging out. You walk in and usually you're asked if you can be helped, all said in a way that infers they'd rather be doing anything but. This is no way to run a business. The brick and mortar experience, in some stores, isn't anything you'd want to experience. In order to combat this, here's my advice to any comic shop wanting to do better:


You sell other's ideas, some of these ideas have been done to death. There's nothing you can do about that. All of the other comic shops have access to the same Previews order forms and the same product that you do. There will never be anything you can do about it.

You can't change the product so here's what you do:

You change the customer.

You have them expect SERVICE.

You bother to memorize their names. They walk in having CHOSEN to do business with you. This is what you call a “business relationship.” Box numbers are for soapbox racers, not customers.

Greet them as they walk in. You don't know what type of day this person is having. Your store should be their own little “Fortress of Solitude” each and every time they walk through the door. Don't kill that buzz, encourage it. Treat your shop as a their haven. This is how you keep a customer by building community and reputation one customer at a time. Encourage that.

Keep in mind that with your actions, the first time someone walks into a comics shop could be their last time. You don't want to be the cause of that.

Make yourself obsolete. When I say this, I don't mean it in the sense of, "Fire yourself." No, train your employees. Train them to be knowledgeable. Don't keep them ignorant. Enable them. Encourage them. A good employee will work as hard while you're gone as they would when you're there. The greatest compliment I ever got was from a customer who called to let me know he didn't know I was on vacation.

If I request something, don't give me an "I don't know." Any business that follows that up with a "...but let me find out for you," will likely keep me as a customer.

Order as if you were a new customer. This should be a no-brainer but keep comics & trades in stock. Don't think that because someone bought DC: The New Frontier Volume One your job's done. Ask yourself, while you're waiting for that person to come back and purchase Volume Two, did you lose a new customer by not re-ordering Vol. One?

Don't arrange your sections according to some sort of logic that only you can understand. Alphabetically by book title usually works for me.

Be quick to make it right. Screw-ups happen. Diamond may have screwed up your order but you know what? The customer really doesn't care. Instead of making excuses, make it right. Do whatever you need to do remind that customer why they chose your business in the first place.

Try to order a few titles outside of your comfort zone. Not everyone's in love with superheroes. Stock your store as if you were a customer on the hunt for something new and exciting. Treat your store as if it were a treasure chest. Try a new Oni Press title every once in a while. If it doesn't sell, lesson learned. There is no sweeter sound than a customer shocked that "They have this!?"

Have a favorite title? Try and keep it that way. Books get canceled due to low sales. Sell a book as if its life depended on it. When I worked at a certain place, I would scream from the rafters the glories of Blue Beetle, Local and Manhunter, we took our numbers from single digits to doing “mid-tier” X-Men title numbers. All on word of mouth. Use your words to sell your comics.

Always remember that your doors literally open to some of the greatest stories ever told. Under your roof, gods battle for control of the universe, redheaded teenagers in their 70's stay young and alive, aliens invade on a weekly basis, animals stand upright and do whatever it takes to make you laugh, Superman fights “The Never-Ending Battle,” crime wars are waged on top of rooftops and giant typewriters and stories about ordinary lives thrown into extraordinary circumstances unfold on the comics page.

These are the things an online subscription service can't offer the consumer, that sense of adrenaline you can feel on a new glorious Wednesday. This is the thing only you can offer them.

A "New Comics Day!"

If the idea of that doesn't excite you then, man... you're in the wrong business.


Scotus said...

Great post. I've been in dozens of bad comic book stores (though most of them have thankfully died out over the past ten years), and the one thing they all had in common is that the people running them seemed completely indifferent to their product and their customers.

I've always thought it was a shame that the Internet didn't become big until the late 90s. Because if it had been around earlier, a lot of the guys who opened (and subsequently closed) stores during the speculator boom could have just started blogs or message boards instead. That way, they could have talked comics 24/7, which is what most of them seemed to be after, without having to sink their savings into a glorified club house.

Unknown said...

I have an excellent local shop. The owner is a really good guy and practices most of what you're talking about here.

If I had two general complaints, it would be the fact that comics are too expensive for the kids (something no shop owner has any control over), and that my local doesn't always put out a good enough sampling of independents on the rack. He gladly orders anything you ask for, but usually not more than what the subscribers have ordered.

I don't know if he has to eat those books if they don't sell, and if that's the case I don't blame him... but I thought the distributors allowed for a certain amount of restocking for unsold books. Am I wrong on this?

James Meeley said...


I wish I could say I completely agree with you, but in reality I can't. I mean, running a good shop is important, but there is very little in the way of customer loyalty today, no matter how good you are towards them. I'd go into detail, but I don't want to write a huge essay here on you. Drop me and email sometime and I'll regale you with some personal tales on how I know this to be true. Could be good fodder for a follow-up piece to this. :)

Cascade/Jordan said...

As a retailer, this pretty much our business model and I think we do a damn good job doing it.

As to what Chris said, often times we end up eating the books. In special cases, like a publisher is releasing a new series, there will be an incentive program that will allow you to send back books you dont sell. But thats pretty rare.

Patrick C said...

I don't know if I'm a typical customer, but I'm very loyal to my LCS. I had been going to a comic store near my parents house since I was 12, and when I went away to school I would still get my books. It was hard sacrificing my wednesdays, but I just picked up my books in a lump every month or two and instead of reading a few books every week I read a lot every month or so.

That changed about a year ago, when the owner called me up and changed their policy that they would only hold books for two weeks. My option was to travel 2 hours to this comic store every other week, or I could leave my credit card number with them and just get charged for the books as they came in. This was finally what drove me away. For 7 years I had been getting books on this bimonthly schedule without a problem, but I was finally given a reason to find a new LCS. Well, that first one wasn't really local anymore but I think you know what I mean. Now I love my new comic store and have rediscovered the joy of new comics every wednesday.

Anyway, that was a long way of saying that I disagree with James. I'm very loyal to my store when they treat me right, and I don't think I'm that much different from most customers.

Anj said...

I agree wholeheartedly.

The last 2 comic book stores I have frequented knew me by name and gave a "Hey Anj" as I walked in. I felt like Norm from Cheers.

They had subscription services so I knew I wouldn't miss any issues. My current store (New England Comics) even knows I love Supergirl. As a result, they will ask me if I want variant covers of her title, DC Direct items of her, etc.

It is that personal service that makes me drive 20 miles to that store rather than the crappy store 5 miles away.


Siskoid said...

Devon, you've shown once again why you're the most inspirational writer in the comics blogosphere!

Harvey Jerkwater said...

A bad LCS is what drove me out of comics for a year or two in the mid-nineties. It wasn't that the shop was an "Android's Dungeon" style of nerd-clubhouse, but rather the owner's pull-box tactics. Pulling books I didn't ask for or want, shoving them in my box, and then demanding I pay for them is a great way to earn both a middle finger and a lost customer.

I think that shop's out of business by now.