there are a number of comic book retailers who secretly still long to
be comic book artists or writers. Many of us got into this business to
avoid more mundane professional pursuits, some after the realization that
being a cartoonist is a lot more difficult than just slapping ink on paper.
We may have
started out with written business plans, sketchy as some of them may have
been, but the hope wasn't necessarily that we'd make tons of money. Rather,
it was that we'd make enough for a decent living while also enjoying a
preferred lifestyle, dealing in products for which we already have a great
deal of enthusiasm, if not outright fanaticism. Being a comic specialty
retailer is partly an art, even as it is a business.
So much more can be learned by listening rather than talking. By listening
to our customers and our staff members, we can get a feel for parts of
business that may need our attention. When Flying Colors first opened,
I thought I knew a lot about comics. This was particularly true when it
came to independent comics. I came into this business as a naïve
and unapologetic superhero fan. I was in for a rude awakening to be asked
a thousand different questions about comic-related topics that were outside
the range of my radar.
note of all customer requests and relying on the suggestions of my staff,
I learned about areas of the business and art-form of comics of which
I was previously unaware. I knew I had to stock my store with more than
just one flavor, so I listened and learned...and then read and enjoyed...and
way to listen and learn is to go where other comic industry professionals
gather. That means attending major conventions, the occasional distributor
or publisher sponsored trade event, or going on-line to forums such as
the Comic Book Industry Alliance (www.CBIA.com).
Listening leads to growth---first in knowledge, then in sales.
I have always watched expenses like a hawk because it's essential for
me to know my cash position at all times. Until I was certain I had a
long-term handle on business income and expenses, I refused to ask for
terms from my suppliers. This was my awkward way of making sure I never
outspent what funds were currently reasonable. By regularly tracking income
and expenses, and having a dependable history of both, retailers can stay
on track, growing steadily while alleviating risk.
Now here's a tough segue--- talking about sound financial management,
then advocating taking risks. There are times when your gut tells you
to simply roll the dice. It can be as simple as taking a stronger inventory
position on a new product or it can be a bigger step like investing thousands
in a an advertising program, moving your store to a new and better location
or opening additional stores. Taking risks is a fundamental element in
keeping a business vital and growing. Keep in mind that it's consistently
sound financial management that allows for the occasional calculated risk.
The "art" of managing one's time is the area that makes the
biggest difference to small business retailers. In my previous career,
I sold radio advertising. We were allotted a certain number of commercial
minutes to sell per hour. If we didn't sell the time, it would expire
as unsold inventory, essentially a wasted opportunity. Nothing is as useless
as unsold time! That was a valuable lesson to learn. Getting the most
out of each day is critical to the small business owner. In the comics'
biz, there are so many distractions. It's truly an art to avoid the things
that conspire to drain us of our valuable time.
Own Worst Critic
I always enjoy getting comments from customers and friends about how good
my store looks. Behind every compliment, though, as a retailer who spends
as much time in my store as I do anywhere else, I constantly try to look
at my store with an objective eye. I can see the holes. I can see the
product that's looking a bit stale on the shelves. I can see whether everyone
on staff is doing all they can to keep customers happy, while keeping
the store looking good and functioning properly. Each week, I take time
to walk around the store and make notes of what needs to change. I prioritize
what changes need to happen by how important they are to generating sales
and making the store experience more enjoyable for customers. Granted,
some of the changes may come slower than I'd like, but that's also a result
of being my own worst critic.
After 15 years as a comic book retailer, the comfort zone I've found cuts
both ways. On the plus side, with everything I've experienced as a retailer,
I've learned that most of what I thought were pressing concerns now seem
relatively ephemeral. On the downside, however, I've found my comfort
zone, as all my current systems seem to be working well. So why bother
to change? Because being a small business owner is all about adapting
to change. Personal and business growth comes from openness to change
and willingness to continually look, listen and learn.
can be found most days at Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff,
2980 Treat Blvd., Concord CA 94518. E-mail is joe@FlyingColorsComics.com.)