Monday, June 01, 2009

Retailing 101, Laying the foundation

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

Two weeks ago I explained what I think are the basics of business ownership: taking some basic business/entrepreneurship classes, understanding ethical business practices, and understanding the personal and financial demands. Now, I will get into some of the more specific points of preparing to open up a comic book store. This column’s information will largely come from what we did to open Neptune Comics, as well as a few things that we did not do that we later wished we had. This is your chance to find out from a young store how to get started. You can learn from my experiences and mistakes, so that if you should decide to do this for yourself, you can get off to a strong start. If this is the first column of mine you are reading and want to know more about opening your own comic book store, be sure to go back and read the two columns prior to this one.

Let me once again include my disclaimer: Neptune Comics is not quite three years old yet, so it is difficult to measure whether or not we have established ourselves to be successful for the long term. These columns are only based on experiences I have had in my one small store in a Milwaukee, Wisconsin suburb. Before opening your own comic book store, I encourage you to consult with other professionals.

Speaking of consulting with other professionals, once we were fairly sure we wanted to open a comic book store, we contacted comic book industry consultant Mel Thompson out of California. He is, if not the only, the leading consultant for comic book retailing. While it can be challenging to get Mel on the phone, once we were able to talk to him, he was a wealth of information, and I would encourage anyone who is considering opening a comic book store to give him a call. He encouraged us to do an analysis of other area stores and evaluate things like their accessibility to public transportation, their parking lot situation, their hours, what they stocked, how their store looked, etc. This helped us really see what things other stores had, and what things they might be lacking. If you have comic book stores in your area and you are considering opening one yourself, I encourage you to do the same thing. Hopefully this will help you better determine if there is a need for a new store in your community and how you can meet any demands the others might not be meeting. If there is not a store in your neighborhood, I still encourage you to take a trip or two out to some comic book stores and see what they are like. Talk to owners, if you feel comfortable, and let them know you are thinking of opening a store. Many store owners are happy to give advice to new upstarts.

You can, and should, go online to comic book store web sites. Many of them have in-store photos that you can look at. You can see a few photos of my store on our web site home page: This will help you see what items stores carry, how they merchandise and design their stores, what their hours are, and other useful tidbits. Again, if you feel comfortable, contact some of the owners via email and ask them for advice on opening a store. Many of them will give you information if you ask specific questions. Just keep in mind that they are also busy running their own comic book stores and might not have the time to get to you right away, especially if you contact them on a Wednesday. Keep your notes handy, because you will use them a great deal as you prepare things like business plans, budgets, floor plans, and more.

It is not quite time yet to choose a location, but you need to get a rough idea of where you want to set up shop and how much it will cost you to do so. Look in the area’s local newspaper under the commercial rentals. See what is available and what they charge per square foot per month. Drive out to some of these to see what the area is like. Get a feel for the neighborhood. Check out some other businesses there, and see what their shoppers look like. If an owner or manager is available, ask them how long they’ve been there and how they like the area. If they will tell you, find out what they pay per square foot for rent. Be sure to keep track of this information because you will need to refer to it again later. I will discuss location again more thoroughly in a future piece.

Think about what you want to have in your store and how you want to display it. Are you going to have lots of back issues? How will you display new comics? Will you have graphic novels, and if so, will you want them front out, spine out or a combination of the two? Will you carry other products like games or novelty items or clothing? Once you get an idea of the types of items you want in your store, you can get an idea of the types of store fixtures you will need. For those of you who have not taken that entrepreneurship or retailing basics class, fixtures are the displaying furniture you put your product on: racks, counters, display cases, shelves, slat wall, bins, etc. Most stores will have a combination of these items. Check out online retail fixture stores or local ones if you have one in your area. Get retail fixture catalogs sent to your house. These will give you an idea of the costs involved in setting up your new store. Often, fixtures are the largest investment when opening a new comic book store, along with the inventory itself. As you get closer to the time when you need to actually buy these fixtures, keep an eye open for businesses closing up. A great deal of the fixtures in my store (about 70%) were purchased from stores going out of business. We saved a lot of money this way, and as we have grown and changed, we slowly got rid of some of those fixtures and replaced them with new. Look in the phonebook too, because there might be a used fixture store in your area where you could wander through and find some nice pieces to get you started. Whatever you do, be sure that if you do decide to get used fixtures they look nice and will be able to properly display the merchandise you plan to put on it. You don’t want to save money and then have your store look run down the day you open!

Be sure to consider lighting fixtures as well. Often, stores are not very well lit or have areas that could use more light. There is no such thing as having too much light in a comic book store! I had extra track lighting installed in my store. Other stores I’ve seen have also done track lighting, some have installed ceiling fans with lights, and others have floor spot lights. Depending upon how you lay out your store and what kind of pre-existing lighting there is in the location will determine how much and what kind of extra lighting you will need. But do plan on having to spend some money on extra lighting.

Now you have all kinds of information that can be used for a business plan. “What’s a business plan?” you ask. Again, take that business class to learn more about what a business plan is and how to properly write one. A business plan is a written explanation of the business. It is used as a tool for the business owner and managers so they have a model to follow in order to keep the business on track. It is also a tool for you as a future business owner, laying down the foundation of how you plan to start this little venture and how you intend to keep it going in the future. Should you need to borrow money to start your business, you will need to show this business plan to banks in order to help convince them that they should help you out. Showing a business plan to a landlord can demonstrate that you know what you are doing, have a plan to make money to pay the rent, and intend on staying in that location for a while. The business plan is a whole discussion in and of itself, and I will go into it more specifically in my next installment of this “how to” for comic book retailing.

Again, feel free to post any questions you have on comic book retailing here, or send me an email: I might not have all the answers, but I will do my best to give you ways to find out the answers I don’t have. And check back in a couple of weeks to learn more about starting your own comic book store.

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