Comic Store in Your Future – Replacing Free With Paid-For

Rod Lamberti of Rodman Comics, Ankeny, Iowa writes weekly for Bleeding Cool. Find previous columns here.

In previous columns, I have written about not having Free Comic Book Day. About having something else instead. Changing things up. Being unique and different is a large part of why Rodman Comics is still open. When we first opened, we did what other stores were doing. We had free gaming to try to attract new customers. It did not work. We had people, lots of people, though no one spent any real amount of money. We had free Magic the Gathering events, free D&D and free Heroclixes. All packed the store with people, people who would not spend a dime or next to nothing. Having free gaming was a terrible mistake for us. The players who played D&D and had comic pull-lists abandoned them. They went from paying customers to ones that cost us money by abandoning their pull boxes. The others playing games weren't spending money, why should they? That thought process slowly crept in and took over. 

We started having gaming events that cost money. Gaming events where people buy something. All those people that only wanted to hang out for free, stopped coming. That had no negative effect on the money made. Instead, sales increased. People were now coming in to play with a spend-money mindset. There is a reason Walmarts and Targets do not have free gaming spaces. Free means no money spent.

Change is scary. It is human nature to fear change. After a previous column about not being a part of FCBD this year I received an email with this statement, "If the cell phone industry was the comic industry, we would never have the phones we have today, innovating and evolving and competition only gets businesses better. 2002 called, it wants it's FCBD back."

I have still been talking with our customers about not having FCBD this year and possible ideas on what we may have instead. Not a single person has been disappointed by us not having FCBD this year. By not taking part in FCBD we are free to do what we want. Of course, we are going to try to have a day that is even better than FCBD for us. We are going to have change and see how it works.

Throughout the years we have changed. I want our store to be unique and stand out from other comic and gaming stores.

Here are various ideas to get a comic store and/or gaming store to stand out that we are doing, have tried or I have read about.

For Magic the Gathering, Wizards of the Coast does have free packs of Magic specially made to get brand new players into the game. I call them half packs when they are really intro packs. What gets tricky is oftentimes. just as on FCBD, free brings in people just to get freebies. A person comes in because their friend got one for free and now wants one even though they have no desire to actually play the game. Die-hard players of Magic who already own the cards in the decks come in wanting them just because they are free.

Other than free packs, roughly $15 is the entry point for a new person to start to get into Magic by buying a Planeswalker deck. For many that is too much of a risk. What we have done is taken the extra magic cards we have and made up 60 card decks that are fully playable and wrap them in brown wrap and sell them for $5. Rules are easily looked up online. For us this has proven very useful for getting new players into the game. I only spend fifteen minutes or less making up a deck because they are only being sold for $5. Only a few die-hard Magic players have complained. Some buy them to try to get their friends into the game and then say, "This $5 deck did not do very well against my deck." I have to fight back the urge to not say no kidding? A $5 deck did not beat your deck that you spent over $100 making? Other than that, they work well for us. Currently, we only have one left. I need to make up some more.

Using online platforms such as Facebook for auctions. I have seen other stores online do this. I assume it has value for them because these same stores have done it multiple times. This may be an excellent way to have people who cannot make it in still spend money or interact with a store. We do use Facebook to post items that are part of our Rod Deals sales. One time it may feel like all the effort to post pictures and descriptions are for nought while the next time it really helps and moves the sales needle.

Sales, a customer recently reminded me that when we first opened, I said we will not have any sales. Yes, I was quite the foolish person when we first opened. Sales help move inventory. There are many people that enjoy sales and use them as an excuse to visit a store. Our Rod Deals sale is an event that luckily a lot of people enjoy. My employees were threatening a mutiny after our last one held on the day after Christmas due to having had so many in a short period of time. However, even this month people have been asking when the next one will be. March is our current target month. The trick with a sale is how to make it stand out from a typical sale. How do we get people excited about a sale? Big discounts? Comic pro signing? Being in Iowa means getting comic pros is tough. We do have some great local comic talent such as Bombshell artist Ant Lucia (who also is a super nice person to deal with) and artist and writer, Phil Hester. No personal slight meant against Phil, I just have not met him.

Back issues are gaining more and more popularity. Posting online about a new hot back issue comic could give the store that acquired it some free comic cred and free promotion.

Kid-focused days at a store. From what I have read and seen here in the store, kids are getting into comics more and more. A fun kid day activity event to get kids into a store could prove worthwhile. We have had coloring pages that Marvel sent us. We passed them out to kids in the hope of getting them more interested in comics. Kids are great. They do not care if a comic is a first issue or if it may be worth "a lot" in the future. They just want to be entertained.

Newsletter. When we first opened, I collected peoples' email addresses and we emailed a newsletter. Currently, we post our newsletter on our website. The idea of a newsletter is to let people know what one's store is doing. What events, what comics are recommended, future news that a store wants to share with their customers and so forth.

Store vehicle. Many businesses have vans or cars made up with a store's logo. We, of course, have the "Rodmobile". The IROC with the Rodman Comics logo on the sides. It is basically a mobile billboard. It is not a paint job though, it's a wrap. It cost a pretty penny but it has lasted for years and the cost proved to be worth it.

Mystery boxes. Truthfully as a purchaser, I was never interested in mystery boxes. I enjoy gambling though never wanted to gamble on a mystery box. As a store owner I enjoy making these. Comic mystery boxes are popular here. Magic the Gathering mystery boxes are popular. We even have Heroclix mystery boxes. The old saying one man's trash is another man's treasure does come into play. I had one Magic player get a comic mystery comic box from us and wanted to exchange some of the items in it. I was like no, that is not how it works. There have been comics in the mystery boxes that have gone up in value along with others that have dropped.

Personality. When we first opened, I wondered if my years of collecting comics meant nothing in the age of the Internet. Now we can simply Google a comic-related question so I wondered is knowledge that important? I figured out it all depended on the person. Some people want people with knowledge some could care less. What I did learn is personality helps even more than knowledge. I have a person here who people bring in gifts such as food because they like her so much. The feedback from the customers is great. I know at times I am not at my best personality-wise and drop the ball. I was working until 1 am getting everything ready for release day of the latest Theros Beyond Death Magic release. I was tired and also worked the following night running Friday Night Magic. I know this is my own fault and hoped to simply push through it and give it my best. Some people like a lively person to give them customer service some do not and prefer to deal with purchasing online because they do not have to deal with people. When people walk in, I should make a point to greet them and let them know if they have any questions to feel free to ask me. I should also do my best to make a personal connection with customers. You love comics from the 1980s? So do I. You're a fan of Geoff Johns writing? So am I. You are a fan of Chuck Austen's writing on X Men? I remember those stories.

I have learned a lot over the years thanks to trying new things. Not everything worked. Some things will work in one store while at another store, they do not. Location plays a lot into what a store is able to do. One store may not have any other stores for a 100-mile radius, another may have multiple stores within a few miles. A store's customer base is often very unique and different store to store.

An advantage to being a single owner of a store means we can experiment and try new things. Things may also change on their own. When I first opened nearly a decade ago, back issues were slow sellers. Now back issues are far more in demand. Graded comics were also slow sellers when we first started selling them. Currently, we can sell graded comics in the same week we get new ones in. Things change and we have to try to keep up with the market.

There you have it, trying change, being unique, getting people interested in a store and seeing what customers like. Giving customers that unique experience that they want and only can get through a store.

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About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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