(This column was published in its original form in Comics & Games Retailer #120, February 2002. It has ben altered slightly for the purposes of this use.)
Long-time retailers share the hard knocks of experience
I get a lot of questions from people about what it takes to open and run a comic book retail store. In this column, Im sharing my advice and that of some of my retailing colleagues.
First up is Phil Boyle, owner of the Coliseum of Comics chain of stores in Florida, with a list of things he wishes he had when he first got into the business nearly 20 years ago:
A sound business model for growth. No map means no direction.
A system to track every aspect of sales and expenses. I have this now and wonder how I ever made Dime One without it.
An employee handbook. Not only what my employees should do, but what I should expect of them, what they should expect of me, and the ramifications if either one of us doesn't follow through.
A screening process for hiring employees. I've spent a LOT of good money on bad employees.
Time. I never seemed to have enough time to get all the things done promotion-wise that I wanted to do. I'm still working on some great ideas from 1991 that I haven't had time to develop.
A comparison basis. I'm human and not a slug so I have a bit of a competitive nature. I want to know how I'm doing in comparison to other comic stores.
An advocate. When small, I was always treated like... well, a small account. This was deserved as I was a small account but many small accounts may actually have some good input.
More guts. Sounds odd now but I had a real problem being stepped on by customers and businesses that I dealt with in the early days. I always had this feeling that my $100 wasn't as good as someone else's $100. Real odd, but I think I've gotten over that. Throwing a distributor out of my store a few years after I started helped me to gain some confidence in this area.
Later in the same thread, Jim Hanley, "figurehead" from Jim Hanleys Universe (with stores in Manhattan and Staten Island, New York), related some of his thoughts on the critical components to being a successful comic book retailer
I think a commitment to serving your customers is the priority. This is not necessarily giving them everything they want. It has to do with keeping promises and, as such, being careful what promises you make. One of my mentors, Bob Horak, always said that customers will take you at your word, so if you say you're open until 10:00, you can't go home at 9:30 because there's a hot game on Monday Night Football.
Scrupulous honesty. If Diamond sends you 25 copies of something you ordered 24 of, call that in, just the way you call in the shortages. It doesn't matter what rationalization you make, when you ignore the golden rule, you dishonor yourself and invite your employees to steal from you. If you ask them to steal for you, why shouldn't they be allowed to steal from you?
Imagination. Making the leap from having a job where someone else makes the decisions, to making them all yourself is not something that rewards timidity. If your dream is to get your comics for free and have enough left over for a Big Mac and a Big Gulp, as Carol Kalish famously put it, you won't enjoy this. You have to have outsized dreams to achieve greatness. (At least that's what I'm told. Not having achieved it, I assume that I've just been rubbing the lamp in the wrong direction.)
A willingness to take risk. Not insane risk, like guys I knew back in the B&W boom, who lived to get a corner on a book, trying to guess what the next hot comic would be from the title and a two sentence description in a distributor catalogue. I'm talking about being willing to try things that are not guaranteed sales. You don't do this because you are "supporting" any publisher or manufacturer. You do it because that's the way to build a business. If you are just opening so your customers can buy things they are already getting, why do they need you?
A willingness to do the math. All sorts of outlandish decisions get made because comics retailers are either afraid of math or think it's unimportant. If you pay 50% more for a product than your competitor and sell it for 20% less, you are advised to have a rich uncle. A very rich uncle.
Firing line. Once the decision has been made to let someone go, never delay it. It may seem like it's better to wait until vacations are over or you find a replacement, but procrastinating will cost you more than the disruption of setting them free now would seem to. We once had a guy run over a kid on a bicycle while driving to the bank the day before we were going to fire him. You might think that this could happen to anyone, anytime, but this guy bragged that the kid "played chicken with me. He lost." I still wish we had acted sooner. If we had, and this guy ran over a kid, at least we wouldn't have been liable. (Luckily, the bicycler wasn't hurt badly. We just had to replace his bike.)
Once bitten, twice shy. Never hire someone back who has left under bad circumstances. People who are fired for dishonesty may be forgiven, but they have to earn their redemption while working somewhere else. The same applies to people who are discharged for any cause. And don't forget that people who give you short notice or call in sick for their last week have made a parting shot at you. When they turn up on your doorstep looking to return to the bosom of "the best place I ever worked" remember that shot and politely give them your regrets.
Rory Root from Berkeley, CAs Comic Relief then continued the topic, with these valuable pearls of experience:
Get good professional accounting advice, and pay a fair dollar for it.
Location, location, location.
Spread your inventory dollars widely, not deeply. Count everything, often.
Often the deal that is too good to pass up, should be.
Every successful retailer projects from what has worked for him or her. Just because Phil and I may disagree, doesn't necessarily mean one of us is wrong.
Do the math. Many vendors offer different prices. It can pay, and pay well, to shop around.
Measure yourself against real world successes, not what your cousin Harry said the guy down the street made last year.
Keep learning. The Comic Book Industry Alliance (theCBIA.com), Book Expo America, and the San Diego Expo have taught me much. Both what to do and what not to do. Learn from the mistakes of others because its much cheaper that way.
It never hurts to ask. Many a discount or deal is possible, but you have to ask first. Give fair value when making a deal, it makes the next one easier.
When that little voice inside you says it's time for an employee to go, LISTEN.
Never having been one who knows when to shut up, I offered the following keys to store start-up and operation.
Do your homework. I did about two years' research before opening Flying Colors. My business-genius father-in-law (bless his soul) made me do it and it was the best homework I've ever done. I had motivation to find out whether this was a viable business. That motivation was my family (the ever-amazing Libby and our three young daughters at the time of the research) and my pride (its probably a healthy thing to have a bit of ego invested in your operation).
Know your motivations. Are you in this only for the money? (Ha!) Are you in this as a hobby? Are you in this because you couldn't do anything else or because you're too lazy to do something else? If it's the latter, you won't be here long...
Know your store identity. Try as we might sometimes, we really can't be all things to all people. We need some focus. Many decisions are so much easier when we really know what kind of store we want to have, whether the present concern is about product (what to carry, what not to carry, how to merchandise, etc) or promotion (where and when to advertise, what to promote, what signings to host, which ones to turn away, etc).
If you're not having some fun with your comic retailing business, maybe its time to get out. Ultimately, the least successful stores are the ones run by the most jaded, cynical and negative owners.
Know that a business is a breathing entity---there are times to inhale and times to exhale. Times to change and times to stand firm. And a business is an ever-evolving enterprise, so get ready to roll with the punches.
(Joe Field runs Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff, 2980 Treat Blvd, Concord CA 94518. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)