Comic Store In Your Future: What I've Learned In 7 Years As A Comic Store Owner

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

We just celebrated our 7th anniversary. Seven years might not sound impressive to some, but when most businesses fail within two years, seven that is something to be proud of. Owning a business can be very tough. If it was easy, almost everyone would be doing it.

To celebrate, we had a big event and a sale on Saturday. We managed to set a record for sales that day. Afterwards, I talked about what went right and what didn't. Thankfully, the day went, overall, very well. Some good ideas were tossed out and we will use them come our next sale event. Record sales may sound impressive, but as I tried to explain to one of my employees about net profit and gross profit, it is easy to discount things heavily. We sold Magic the Gathering Ixalan boosters for $84.99. That isn't much of an increase over our cost. We did figure out a better way to sell and promote our mystery boxes for our next sale, though.

That pretty much sums up the store. Trial and error. Learning. Growing.

Experience is very important. Even after seven years, I know the store will need to keep evolving. Seven years ago, experience was something I lacked. I knew comics, but I didn't have the business sense that I have now. That education was a very costly education, but one that stuck with me.

In the Star Trek movie Wrath of Khan, Khan has the "superior intellect" when facing off against Kirk and his crew, though Kirk and his crew's experience win out against him.

What all have I learned over the years?

It is far better to sell out than to over-order.

I learned a lot about human nature, too. Oftentimes what someone says and actually does are two different things. When I first opened, I didn't understand why other stores wouldn't do special orders for people. Then, I learned that most new people would just stick a store with a special order and never come back for it. As the saying goes, talk is cheap.

The customer is not always right. We once had a Magic Draft and threw in free packs, not charging for prize support, and some players wanted more prizes as long as it was still free to them. People staying afterwards and trying to talk me into giving more packs away was always a pain. Basically, it shows me that some people don't care how much money we lose, as long as they're benefiting from it.

Not everyone is going to be happy. No matter what, when dealing with a large group of people, some are not going to get what they want. And some will hate just for the sake of it.

One way of doing things doesn't always apply to every situation. I used to bend over backwards for everyone when I first opened. Then, I noticed the more I said no and the more practice I had doing so, I ran the business the better. A lot of the time, going above and beyond for a customer wasn't appreciated. For instance, if I did a discount for a customer once, they often expected it every time. And once I said I couldn't do it anymore, all those previous things I did for the person were forgotten, and I was suddenly scum for saying no.

Everyone is different. My right and wrong is my right and wrong. Just because I wouldn't do something to another person, there are plenty of people that would. People all have different upbringings and ways they do things.

Ignore people when needed. Some people are just rude. Some people like to say things like "Online competition will crush the brick and mortar comic stores." Those same people often ignore it when online businesses go under.

Don't get too cocky. Just when everything seems to be going great, it can turn on a dime. Days after I typed that last sentence, I found out that I will be short on staff at the worst time this year. I am unable to be in two places at once, so I am now scrambling to get new people and train them.

There is only so much a comic store can do to sell product. I learned that publishers have to make their comics in demand. When Marvel's drop in sales starting happening, I wondered what we were doing wrong. Big name titles such as Spider-Man and Avengers dropped and kept dropping. I never thought they would drop back into single-digit sales.

Then, I went from feeling bad about only selling one copy each of Valiant titles to Valiant sales in store growing, and now being just a few copies away from overtaking Marvel titles. Over the years, Valiant has slowly increased in sales here, while Marvel has been bleeding out readership.

Comic stores are like movie theaters. People will come if what they want is available. If low-demand material is being put out, less people will be coming in. It doesn't matter how great the customer service is or how clean the place is — there has to be demand. Titles such as Green Team, Mockingbird, Mosiac, Nighthawk, Slapstick, and Solo weren't canceled because comic stores didn't try to sell them. There simply wasn't demand for those titles with the creative teams they had.

Now, the upcoming Star Wars movie in December is going to be a hit and make a ton of money. It is a big deal. The comics industry needs to put out content that draws customers in. Right now, DC's Metal is a great draw. Marvel's one-shot Legacy, while no Rebirth, is getting people interested in Marvel again. Hopefully, things will pick up for Marvel and this month will be the start of the publisher's return to greatness. However, the low sales of last week's Marvel's lenticular covers make that look like a tall order now.

Do the right thing. It may sting a bit (or a lot), but in the long run, it will always be the best thing to do. The expensive DC Deluxe Killer Croc action figures from years ago sat on the shelf for months then finally sold. Sadly, the buyers all came back. Killer Croc's arm had broken on all of them in the same spot. It hurt to refund everyone, but it wasn't their fault it was so cheaply made.

Don't let people guilt you for trying to make money. This one is important. A store is a business. A business is supposed to make money. My time working here is worth getting paid for. All the people saying they deserve a discount, or saying they should be able to game for free, are people wanting to take advantage of others. I bet they all work to make money — none of them would take a pay cut or work for others for free. Why should store owners?

Beware of offering free gaming. One Dungeons & Dragons group got so used to hanging out and playing for free that everyone in the group just stopped getting their pull boxes. Didn't cancel them, just left them be. They went from being freeloaders to actually costing the store money. I simply told the group they needed to spend three bucks to play for three hours. The next week, they didn't even show up. The three bucks was to try to get them into a new habit, instead of hanging out for free, taking up space, and using utilities. Their leaving did not affect sales.

HeroClix used to be free. Had 20 people playing. People were impressed by how many players where playing in the store. But other than maybe buying a soda or water, no one spent a dime. I had a group of them tell me they didn't have any money, but that same group would go out for pizza and beer afterwards. My store was the place to hang out at, and then go out and spend money somewhere else. I explained to them that the HeroClix gaming was not working out.

I finally hosted HeroClix games that cost money and got less players, but players that were willing to spend money. This Sunday we had 10 HeroClix players. They each bought their own booster to play. That is over $120 in sales, which is a lot better than the $10 in water and soda sold to the previous group. And some HeroClix boosters were actually bought by some of the players after they were done gaming. Their mentality was to spend money — that's a lot better for business.

Then there's Magic. When I first started Magic here, it was free to play. There were a lot of crazy things that happened as a result, and not crazy in a good way. Having it no longer be free was a big improvement — though it brought out, as I called them, prize sharks. These were people that were just playing for the prizes and prizes only. They weren't playing for fun, but hoping to win a mat or card that was worth money to flip online. If these players didn't win in the first round, they would just drop out, since they couldn't win the top prize. Other stores have called these type of people prize pigs, or worse.

Die-hard Magic players have been taught by their follow die-hards to spend the least amount possible at a store and buy offline for as cheap as possible. Play for as cheap as possible, and take a store for all they can. These type of players drive off the casual players. The casual players are the ones just looking for entertainment — and those are the ones we want, since they're not afraid to spend money. So we do our best to get them in. The aim of gaming here is for it to be a fun and social event.

Online reviews don't matter as much as you'd think. I have had people that hadn't even set foot in the store leave reviews about it. Both good and bad. Online, anyone can say anything. People actually spending money in store is far more important. The landlord never asks or cares how many "likes" on Facebook we have. They just want money, along with all the other people that want money from a business. The two stores in the area that closed this year both had flawless five-star reviews on Facebook.

And social media, while a good tool to promote the store, still doesn't come close to being as useful and cheap as actual word of mouth or face time with customers. Actually, talking face to face is the best. Any questions are quickly taken care of and new people get a sense of what I am about. They can size me up and see if they want to deal with me. Our high sales for Saturday were largely due to me talking to people and explaining the event to them in the weeks before the sale took place. The first 35 people in line get a free trade or hardcover. Score! That day was not just a simple 20 percent off.

Don't be afraid to try. One of my sayings is "We can try it once; if it doesn't work, we just won't try it again." Many things that worked are things I almost didn't go through with. There have been strikeouts here at the store. Manga books were dead here. First product line I cut. "Rod Deals", I thought sounded lame and too different from what people expect from a sale. I almost killed our first Rod Deals due to lack of faith in my idea. But now, Rod Deals are a major hit and bring in a lot of sales. The uniqueness is part of the reason people like it. Thankfully, I didn't chicken out on that.

Haters are going to hate no matter what we do. Focus on the customers that actually appreciate what we do. We have great customers — people who volunteered to help us move out and back in when we remodeled. Some even asked if we needed help to set up for our sale on Saturday. Those are some pretty cool people right there. Taking care of the people that take care of you is something I know is very important. Often it seems like focusing on the negatives is human nature at times, but I try to remember all the good people we deal with. They truly make having the store worth it.

As a business owner, do not procrastinate. Be on top of things. Putting off things when running a business can really come back to haunt you. The storefront next door was empty months ago. I didn't want to remodel until this month as originally planned. But when the storefront opened up, I knew it would be much easier and less expensive if we could use it to store material from the store during remodeling. That storefront now has a new renter in it, which would have made it impossible to use it as a storage space this month. We saved some money and got the remodeling done quicker.

Be ready for change. Customers change. Some will stop being customers through no fault of our own. They may simply move away. Employees change. Sometimes the employees themselves change. Business models change. Trends change. Lots of changes. You need to be able to adapt and go with the flow.

Never stop learning. I try to keep up with comic news a lot. What is coming out in the future? What characters and creators our customers are interested in? Knowledge is power.

And knowing is half the battle. The other half is selling.

About Rich Johnston

Head writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world. Living in London, father of two. Political cartoonist.

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