Converting Pop Culture Fans Into Comic Book Fans: So You Want To Be A Comics Retailer SDCC Panel

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Anthony Desiato (@DesiWestside) writes,

So, who wants to be a comics retailer? Judging by the relatively modest turnout at Friday's panel for aspiring comic shop owners, it seems most Comic Con attendees are content to remain on their side of the counter. However, for those looking for guidance in opening their own stores, the seasoned retail veterans on the dais offered some advice in navigating the difficult waters of comic book retail.

Moderated by ComicsPRO director and FCBD founder Joe Field of Flying Colors Comics, the panel included fellow retailers Perry Plush (Zanadu Comics), Kelly Allen (Comic Quest), John Hendrick (Ireland's Big Bang Comics), and Wayne Winsett (Time Warp Comics), as well as Diamond Comics Distributors VP Chris Powell.

When asked of industry trends that instill hope, the panel cited the breadth of content offered, the diversity of customers they see in their shops, and comics' mainstream acceptance after decades on the fringe. Winsett noted with a mixture of pride and astonishment that he (and some of his peers) are now at a point where retirement is actually an option. From the distributor's viewpoint, Powell commended the new store owners he deals with for their professionalism. "They treat their shops as businesses rather than hobbies," he said, which wasn't the case during the speculator craze of the 90s.

At the same time, the panel lamented the challenges of converting pop culture fans into comic book readers, e.g., getting that Game of Thrones viewer to pick up a comic. Similarly, despite its rewards, the panelists all noted how much work it takes to keep a store running. Allen, for example, is part of a husband-and-wife retail team, and she and her spouse balance their retail duties with full-time jobs. Hendrick noted that he now works approximately 60 hours per week at his store, which is a significant amount less than times past.

In terms of practical advice, the panel noted how each comic shop is a reflection of its owner. For example, Hendrick said that he is not a fan of gaming and doesn't carry those products in his shop. Even before finding a location for a new store, then, aspiring comics retailers would do well to decide exactly what kind of store they wish to open first.

In terms of "where," Powell touted Diamond's mapping program, which provides demographic information and assists in finding suitable locations. Field pointed to ComicsPRO's mentoring program as another resource in figuring out where to start.

During the Q&A portion, one aspiring retailer told the panel that he plans to open a shop in a very rural area with a population of only 800 people. Allen advised the individual that community outreach would be critical to building an audience, citing partnerships with schools as one potential avenue. Powell offered alternatives to opening a standalone storefront, suggesting that perhaps the gentleman could rent space in a bookstore.

The panel next turned its attention to a would-be retailer who asked about striking a balance between "the regulars," particularly those subscribers with pull lists, and new customers. Allen quoted the "80/20 Rule," which holds that 80% of a shop's business will derive from the former group, with normal foot traffic making up the rest. As such, stores should have an "attraction" of some sort, for example, hosting events or stocking items slightly removed from the main comic book world, such as video games.

The final question came from a gentleman who asked whether it is feasible to be a silent or absentee owner, that is, putting up the money for a store but leaving its day-to-day operations to others. The panel reiterated the notion that a store is a reflection of its owner and stated that delegating to others runs the risk of diluting the owner's vision. This prompted a discussion of the hiring of staff. Allen's store utilizes a formal application process, complete with interviews and an employee handbook, and in-store cameras allow her and her husband to monitor the staff when they are not present. The other panelists described a much more informal process to hiring employees, but they all agreed that stellar employees tend to move on sooner rather than later.

As the session drew to a close, Field called upon his panelists, each of whom has been in the comic book retail industry for decades and has thousands of customer interactions to draw from, to share a strange or amusing anecdote. Hendrick laughed and said, "None that I can tell!" Plush said Field was putting him on the spot and punted the question, while Winsett said, "They're all unusual, so no one stands out." Allen was most game, offering a story about her employees finding a pair of women's underwear at the store. This reporter, who worked at a comic shop for over a decade, is positive the panelists had far more stories to tell.