Monday, May 18, 2009

Retailing 101, Why do it?

A few years back I had a series of columns about comic book retailing called "Counter Intelligence" published on a comic book commentary called Sadly that site is no longer operational and hasn't been for at least a year now. Not to brag, but I always thought these were useful columns for people who were considering going into comic book retailing, especially since so few such resources ever become published in this industry. I used to have many people contact me for more information on these columns, so I know they were informational for at least a handful. Since the former host site is no longer functioning I am going to republish these columns as they appeared at the time of publishing, posting one each week for the next few weeks. I will label them as Retailing 101 so that once they are all posted it will be a bit easier to find them all, should someone decide that they are interesting enough to read.

Formerly published on

In my next several columns, I plan on discussing, in great detail, more about being a comic book retailer. This piece gives some insight into why I’m in this business of comic book retailing. Future columns will go over how we started our comic book store, provide some tips and tricks we discovered as we’ve gone down this road, discuss things we have done that have helped us be successful in our area, and address industry trends and how we have dealt with them. If you have ever thought about opening your own comic book store, or if you have wondered what it is like to own one, my next several columns should give you the positives and negatives as well as provide some insight into what it takes. Let me just ad a disclaimer: we are only a couple years old, so it is difficult for me to look back and see how successful we have been in the long term. Also, I am not, in any way, saying that we are the most successful store out there, or that my way is the only way. This is just the tale of one retailer with one little store in a Milwaukee, Wisconsin suburb who is a handful of months away from celebrating a three-year store anniversary and budgeting for our first store expansion. Now, on with the show!

WHY do we do this? I recently threw that question out to owners and managers of some of the best stores in comicdom. Many responded with the slightly sarcastic answer, “for the money.” One clever publisher and comic creator said he got into it for the women, but stayed in it for the money. Another sarcastic comment from a retailer in Georgia was that he “wanted to create a collector's market in the area, lord over multiple comic books and jack up the prices, gain weight, an be a true collector by packaging everything in mylar…and to be a character on an animated TV show by Matt Groening!” Then he quickly realized that these things had already been done by someone else. Out of those who answered honestly, there were a few reasons that seemed shared by several comic book professionals. One being that they “fell into” it or had the opportunity present itself in a way where they felt they could not say no. Another was that they had worked a more stressful job and were looking for something more fun to do, where he or she could be his or her own boss. And the last common answer comic book retailers seemed to have for opening their own shop was that they saw a need of some kind and wanted to fill it, mainly due to their love of comic books.
There was only one person who got into it more because it was a hobby they enjoyed and wanted to sell/buy for that hobby, and he was a Magic: The Gathering player, not a comic book collector. But, industry wide, this is often a common reason for people to decide that they want to open a store. It is a hobby they love, so they want to be able to both grow and sell their collection. That can be a perfectly fine reason for opening a comic book store. However, if you run the store like it is your parent’s basement instead of a business, you will, more than likely, run into problems. I will get into this more in a future column, but let me just say this: no matter how much you love comic books, or how long you have been collecting them, or how much you think your collection is worth, or how badly you want to buy other people’s collections and new books at a discount to ad to your growing portfolio of comics that you think you will one day sell and retire on, or how much you know about X-Men, Superman, and Amazing Spidey, in order to be really successful as a comic book retailer, you need to treat a store as a business, not as a warehouse for your collection.
In my retailer survey, there was one retailer from California whose answer would be almost exactly what I would say my reason was for having a comic book store. He said, “I bought my shop because I love comics and wanted to be my own boss. I'm keeping it because I love the customers and I enjoy helping people find good comics.” I did not buy an existing shop; I started one from scratch, but for the same reason. My husband Craig and I wanted to own a business together. We looked at several other businesses, but Craig kept bringing up his comic book store idea, over and over. I brushed it off, thinking it was just some phase he was in—wanting to relive some lost element of his childhood. Sure, he had some long boxes filled with comics up in our attic, but I never thought it was something he wanted to pursue as a business. Besides, I just could not grasp how one could have a successful business by selling two-dollar pamphlets about super heroes. I started to say to him, “sure, whatever,” thinking he’d eventually let it drop and move on to a serious business idea.
Craig bought Brian Hibbs’ book, “Tilting at Windmills” and started to read that. Then he contacted one of the top business consultants for comic book retailers, Mel Thompson. Suddenly I thought he must actually be serious about this crazy idea, so I asked him how on earth he thought we could possibly be successful as comic book retailers. So, he took me on a tour of a bunch of comic book stores, some a couple of hours away and others that we hand been driving past almost daily. Some were beautiful stores, others…well…let’s just say they didn’t make me feel comfortable shopping there. Another seemed to never be open, and we had gone by it several times over a few different days. That convinced me – the fact that there were successful stores in the area, both good and bad, having grown and stood the test of time. I thought we could make our store really great by not doing the things the “uncomfortable” stores did, while taking ideas from the more impressive stores and incorporating some of our own ideas into it. I had never collected comics myself, and only casually read them every once in a while, but I thought they were cool and that it could be fun to own a business that dealt in “funny books.” I said, “Let’s give it a try,” and soon the wheels were in motion.
I have done plenty of shopping in my life, in stores in a number of states as well as a few foreign countries. No retail experience compares to that of the comic book store. This is sometimes a good thing, and sometimes a bad thing. We have had ups and downs, emotional highs and days when we thought maybe we just couldn’t do this. Sometimes it is great fun, and other days we ride quietly home in the car at the end of a day that seemed like it would not end. But one thing has been constant; we enjoy the business of selling comics and games. That, and you definitely won’t get rich owning a comic book store.

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