A Chain of One
presented in Joe's 'Big Picture' column in Comics & Games Retailer
magazine, February 2003.
Seems we get this question fairly regularly: 'Is Flying Colors part of a chain of stores?' I've always taken the question as a compliment, even though many times I believe it's undeserved. So when the question is posed, my bold response is 'Yes. We're a chain of one.'
Many aspects of what we try to accomplish at Flying Colors boil down to attempting our best. As I have mentioned here before, it seems the longer I'm in the field of comics' retailing, the less I seem to know. Not a week goes by when I feel like a situation couldn't have been handled at least a bit better, whether by me or by one of my ever-stellar staff. So if I can no longer cram it all into my ever older and more distracted brain, I certainly can't expect everyone on staff to know it all, either. The key is learning from mistakes we make, so, hopefully we won't make the same ones over and over.
There are a number of things we retailers can do to make incremental improvements in running our stores, but one of the most effective is taking pen to paper--- or fingers to keyboard--- and writing about what goes on in our stores and then learning from it.
Writing about individual experiences with testy customers, for instance, can be both cathartic and educational. For years, we've maintained a small book filled with the odd stories, questions and circumstances that are unique to comic book stores. Staff members, when feeling frustrated by a situation or when feeling moved by the strange things customers sometimes say, can exorcise those pesky little experiences by writing them down in what we call our 'Stupid Book.' Part 'Tales from the Comic Shop' and part therapy, it's one way for staff to release the frustrations of dealing with a less informed public.
I suppose that segues into what we do to inform the public. Particularly in the early years of operation, but still occasionally as we've become seasoned veterans in the retail trenches, situations can lead to changes in the way we present policies and ideas to our clientele. For instance, our 'layaway' policy for years seemed to change simply by which customer happened to be asking about it. For one customer, a steady $50 per week guy, layaway wasn't an issue. We figured the guy was good for it, so we'd put the item on hold indefinitely with no deposit required. For another customer, a previous check-bouncer, we'd require a 50% non-refundable down payment. Still others fell somewhere between the two extremes. There was no rhyme or reason to the layaway service---until we wrote it down. Until we made a form for it, with the policy clearly defined to inform the customer and to make it easier for staff.
There are now a number of forms we use to standardize our one-store operation. These include advance order forms (which look a lot like video rental applications), search and/or special request lists, a price list for various supplies (including odd-ball sized plastic bags and mylars), weekly re-order forms, holiday wish lists, specialty-product inventory lists, etc. All the forms are in place to prevent us from repeatedly making the same old mistakes.
Years ago, comics' industry analyst Mel Thompson told me that Flying Colors was the perfect 'cookie-cutter' look for progressive comic retail operations. I know it was a compliment saying we could take the look of our store and drop it into almost any city with positive results. But 'cookie-cutter' also implied to me a sameness, that what we do here could be easily replicated by anyone.
I believe each of our stores takes on the personality of who's running it, owner and staff included. The senses of a store---the look, sound, smell and feel, created by a store's staff, are essential elements in making customers feel welcome, which is a great first step to increasing sales.
I mention smell as part of store ambiance because I've heard from many retailers who've dealt with especially odiferous customers. There's one guy who comes into our store at least once a week, known simply as 'Smelly Green Guy'. We don't know if he works and/or lives in a septic tank. All we know is that each time he leaves the store it's most definitely time to use the spray air freshener.
Other important elements in creating an attractive store environment include store layout, organization and merchandising display. A store that looks the same week after week is a store that is likely losing sales to stagnation. I try to show something new and different on a weekly basis in the entrance area of my store. But I also know that as long as a display is moving product, it's acceptable to keep it in the same place for a longer time.
Store cleanliness is another part of the equation in looking like a chain of one. Customers do notice details like this, so it's best to have a regular schedule of cleaning and maintenance.
Music also plays a vital role in how customers feel about the store. For the most part, we play a mix of independent power pop (which we also sell in the store) along with classic rock and some soundtracks. Staff members are allowed to bring in their own CDs, as long as the music fits the feeling of the store---upbeat, bright and cool.
I think it's critical to make your store unique while striving for civilian accessibility. Along with the day-to-day experiences that we can learn from, it's important to learn from other businesses, too. One way to do this is by shopping other stores outside the comics and games markets to discover things that can be interpreted into your own store.
We can also learn from acknowledged experts in the field of marketing, advertising, positioning and branding. For that, pick up any of the books by Al Ries and Jack Trout, including the essential 'The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk!' and 'Positioning'. While each use many examples from corporate America, there are lessons for small business owners to take to heart.
Let's constantly look at our operations with an eye towards improvement whether your goal is to have many stores or simply to have a successful 'chain of one.'
(Joe and Libby Field run Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff, 2980 Treat Blvd., Concord CA 94518. Joe can be reached by e-mail at joe@FlyingColorsComics.com)
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