The brick and mortar retailers that make up the comic book industry's direct market are struggling. Though the reasons for this struggle stem from a cocktail of factors -- evolving consumer habits, online piracy, rising cover prices, distribution difficulties and an overall uncertain economy -- it's clear that the current cornerstone of comic book sales is in the midst of change. The unexpected closing of prominent Arizona chain Atomic Comics
brought the issue to a head in August, prompting many fans and retailers to examine what might be done to reinforce and expand the value of their local comic shop. ComicsAlliance reached out to a number of retailers to see how they're moving forward in an ever-evolving retail space and to see what customers can do to keep their favorite shops stable through uncertain times.
Whether a fan is after a reliable supply chain for cape titles or coffee table-crushing art books, the case for the local comic book shop comes down to community and trustworthy expertise. Jason Leivian, owner of Floating World Comics in Portland Oregon operates his store primarily as a book store dedicated to sequential art. He says for him, running Floating World has always been about becoming "a part of the local culture and art community, a place for friends to hang out, a place for parties and art shows. We become a resource for networking, distribution and encouragement."
Leivian also emphasized the importance of making a shop unique and imprinting one's interests and personality into the DNA of the store.
"I really try to put my personality and interests into the store. Just like following a blog or magazine, I think customers that recognize what I do start to follow my links and count on me to always be sharing new art and product they'll like. So you have to have personality. And it also takes a good amount of energy to constantly be interested in new stuff. If you're bored at your job it's going to make for a boring store. There's definitely a lot of curation in my store and what I choose to promote," Leivian told ComicsAlliance, 'I think customers are always looking for something new to grab their interest. I'd get sick of going into shops and feeling like I already had everything I was seeing on the shelves."
CLO/CMO of New York City's Midtown Comics Gary Gladston also considers local comic shops a kind of community hub for likeminded people to socialize and connect.
"The sense of community in a comic shop cannot be replaced, nor duplicated anywhere else, not even with online social networking (and we do a ton of that!). Spend 15 minutes at Midtown (or most comic shops, I'm sure), and you will hear the most amazing conversations, with topics that run the gamut of all possibilities within our industry, and with the kind of passion that is most evident face-to-face only. You can join in a conversation, whether you know the folks who are chatting or not; it's Facebook in person. Oh, there's one more thing that makes a comic shop the best place to buy comics: No other type of store has all that glorious comic-related stuff in one place!" wrote Gladston in an e-mail to ComicsAlliance.
Joel Pfannenstiel, owner of Astro Kitty Comics in Lawrence, Kan. echoes both of these sentiments, describing comic shops as a curated source for seeing all kinds of product in one place.
"Essentially, the local comic shop is the hub for discovering comics in their natural habitat. I order all sorts of titles from every publisher under the sun to ensure that potential customers have plenty to choose from," Pfannenstiel told ComicsAlliance, "For me, the comic shop was always the place I could find those weird indie comics alongside the mainstream books. I could easily get turned on to a new title just by luck...by turning my head and seeing them on the nearby rack. A good comic store does that...and doesn't just cater to the superhero/mainstream offerings."
When readers have a local comic shop to call home, it's helpful to know how best to support their hangout apart from embracing some heavy-handed "buy more" mentality that may not be feasible for them. In a shaky economy, being a supportive customer is as simple as maintaining consistent and open communication with a retailer.
"As a customer, one of the simplest (and best) ways to help keep your favorite store open is to set up a box
. This takes a lot of the guessing game out of the equation for the shop owner, and lets them maximize profits (which is very hard to do in this industry) by helping to minimize the inventory position they have to take on titles that won't sell," explained Things From Another World's Senior Director of Retail Operations Andrew McIntire in an e-mail ComicsAlliance. "Equally important is to update your subscriptions and clean out your box regularly!
Don't set up a box, and then leave 75 percent of the titles that you specifically asked them to order for you sitting there. This adds up quickly, and subscribing to titles you don't actually want can rapidly add up to major losses for your favorite local comics shop. Also, it lets them become familiar with your tastes as an individual, thus enabling them to better recommend other titles you might enjoy!"
For Pfannenstiel, regular customers are the easiest to interact with and give the best service to, no matter how much or how little they're in for at a given time since they're interactive and interested in the medium.
"Having that ongoing discussion with them that shapes their pull/hold (subscription) throughout the time they shop with us is very important. They understand what we need in terms of information/notice to change their pull/hold and we understand who they are as a reader, over time. But, again, they come to rely on you to put extra books they might have missed but you know they'd want. They aren't obligated to buy those suggested items, but most appreciate the foresight. These customers, even if they just read trade paperbacks and hardcovers, are invested in what the store is about and are not fair-weather comic customers. For them, comics are a primary source of entertainment and, possibly, a serious hobby."
Gladston and other retailers also shared ways shoppers can help spread the word about their store of choice to those who may only need to be pointed in the direction of the right shop. Most noted that while social media and word-of-mouth provides a boost, the best thing a shopper can do is bring their friends into a store to see what it's all about.
"Give [your LCS] lots of attention on Twitter and Facebook, and/or write a blog post about 'em if possible. Let other folks know what's so great about your favorite store," wrote Gladston.
"Tell your friends and family about why you like a store, and encourage them to give it a try. Be patient with your favorite store if they don't have an item in-stock, and give them a chance to order it in for you, instead of running out to a Barnes and Noble to pick it up. Predicting sales velocity can be really difficult, and most local comics shops just don't have the overhead to carry everything," wrote McIntire, "If you had a good experience, tell people about it via Facebook, Yelp, Foursquare, and Twitter. We're an increasingly plugged-in world, and leaving reviews on sites like these can really provide substantial support for your favorite shop."
As much as shoppers might support a given store, it's ultimately on retailers to deliver a shopping experience worth repeating and promoting. To that end, local comic shops must work to address contemporary buying habits, engage trends and be willing to balance priorities. Retailers have different strategies depending on the size of their store and tastes of their shoppers, but the most important thing a shop can do is pay attention and get scientific. Stocking some product is a gamble, but many trends can be predicted based on a retailer's internal data as long as thorough records are kept.
"A comic shop buyer has to have his finger on the pulse of the comic book reader, as well as on that of the mainstream public. He or she has to be on top of ALL related trends, with buying planned and executed well in advance. A comic shop buyer has to be completely objective and buy everything within reason, within his budget, to offer as much width as possible, while still having enough depth to satisfy his customer base, all while knowing that what doesn't sell can't be returned! Boy, is this tricky," explained Gladston. "A buyer has to try to have a little bit of risk tolerance, and try to predict those 'surprise hits' that so many retailers miss, whether it comes to increasing an order for a particular book (due to new content in an upcoming issue, for example), or trying out a completely new title. Know your customer base, and be prepared to offer interesting new things that they would probably like, as well as the tried-and-true stalwarts."
Comic shop salesmanship can goes a long way. Putting desired comics into a customer's hands on demand can trump a shopper's desire to spend their would-be reading time hunting for the absolute cheapest prices online or otherwise.
"There definitely seems to be more demand than supply for good comics. I swear customers come in all the time ready to spend all their money on something awesome. There's nothing better than finding a new creative team or mind blowing new work that you haven't tapped into yet. Once you find it, it's not a question of money anymore, you'd rather have all those books," wrote Leivian, "I read a comment one retailer made, they were upset about people 'waiting for the trade,' said it was killing their business. Even called these people cheapskates! What an attitude to have towards people that are nice enough enough to enter a comic shop and also spend a lot of money there. Trades cost between $20-$40. People get hooked on something and they buy three or four at a time. Do you know how many single issues someone would have to buy to ring up $80 or $90 bucks at the register?"
Though running a successful shop requires serious attention at every level, one basic component can make all the difference. The key to supplying product and crafting a positive shopping environment? Retailers seem to agree that success in these ares comes down to having a positive, attentive and responsive staff.
"It's always a great experience to walk into your local comics shop and have an employee turn you on to something that you've never heard of before. This is without question the most frequent customer praise we receive, and really serves to highlight the level of service that TFAW, and other local comics shops, provide to their customers. There just isn't that level of passionate knowledge for the medium at a Barnes and Noble, for example. But it's an equally terrible experience to walk into a shop, start geeking out on something you're passionate about and be told, "That comic/character/creator/etc. is lame." Goodbye, customer," wrote McIntire. "I can't stress enough how important it is for those who work at comic shops to always be open to learning more! A good store employee can educate their customers about their favorite titles. A great comic store employee takes the time to let their customers educate them about the titles that the customer loves, and why--and then goes and applies that knowledge to better serve all of their customers."
"Having a staff that can represent the store in an informed, helpful, and courteous fashion as possible is important. Having high standards in employees rather than just putting someone in there who can cover for you -- that matters," explained Pfannenstiel, "I've not always been able to do that, but when I do I feel much more comfortable and know the customers who come in when I'm gone will probably come back and not end up going on Yelp to relate how terrible their experience was. That should haunt you, as a LCS retailer... the possible crappy reviews."
The bottom line for the future success of local comic shops seems to be about making good first impressions. If first-time or casual customers don't consider a shop efficient or welcoming, they'll take their business elsewhere. Furthermore, retailers advise taking the opportunity to becomes more than "just" a comic shop, making a store a part of its wider community.
"Your LCS needs to not look like a den for the 'boys' to hang out in.
If people who randomly stop in think they're intruding in some 'club,' you've probably lost a chance to show those potential customers all of your options/wares. They might just assume they'll get a book on Amazon or Thwipster instead. Or, y'know, digitally (paid or not). So, first impressions are important," wrote Pfannenstiel.
"We're not perfect, because no one is...but we do try to make the space airy/quaint/fun/colorful and we engage our customers. We try to make stuff look nicely arranged and set up displays for like-items. We try to offer a wide array of merch, too, so that people can fully immerse themselves in comic culture and, to some extent, genre culture in general. Plus, it allows friends/family of regulars, or just the comic fan in their life, to feel like they can buy something the recipient might not already have, whether it be a t-shirt or a poster or some other item. Making that interaction as positive and inclusive as possible is really important."
McIntire also emphasized that turning casual customers into regulars can be as simple as providing adequate attention and being responsive to each shopper's needs.
"As a shop owner, remember this: It takes different strokes for different folks. Don't ignore the people you don't see every week. The weekly surge on New Comics Day is obviously the tent-pole for a local comics shop. But relying solely on that sale day, and failing to be relevant to your non-box customers' interests the other six days of the week, can often spell inevitable doom. Wednesdays are busy, which is great for business, but not always great for establishing authentic relationships with your customers. A friend of mine loves to say, 'Growth is in the margins,' which in this example means your non-box customers. Find ways to serve them as well, and make them feel just as special, as the customer who picks up 20+ titles a week, and you'll be well on your way to not only establishing secondary and tertiary revenue streams, but more importantly, turning casual customers into regular visitors.
McIntire also suggested encouraging the non-diehard customers to come in on slower days of the week, and and using that time to learn their interests and offer more personalized suggestions. "In a similar vein, setting up off-peak events such as a casual gaming afternoon, or an after-school children's graphic novel group for parents and kids, are both great ways to simultaneously prioritize non-box customers, be relevant to your community, and maximize sales the entire week long."
Being a merchant -- any kind of merchant -- in an unstable economy is no easy thing. For all of the universal woes a retailer might face, local comic shops have a number of specialty-specific hurdles to jump simply to keep their doors open. Fear is a bit of an ugly word within superhero reading circles, but uncertainty seems to be motivating many stores to put forth their best effort and serve current shoppers while seeking out new patrons. This hunger could ultimately prove beneficial for shops that are willing and able to create more demand for their wares and productively supply them.
Comics come and go, but a welcoming shop with a knowledgeable and friendly staff may always be able to count on foot-traffic if it can balance efficient business practices with community-focused customer service. There are no guarantees as the direct market responds to comic book climate change and the burden of sustainability rests -- fairly or unfairly -- on the shoulders of store owners. Short of simply spending more money, loyal shoppers can best ease this burden for shops they deem deserving by communicating openly, ordering honestly and introducing the medium to friends. As long as shoppers can count on their local comic shop, local comic shops should seemingly continue to be able to count on their customers. The key to the future seems to be keeping the relationship mutually beneficial and curating a culture of inclusion.