As I’m writing this, it’s Sunday and things are slow. At my former place of employment, Sundays were one of our busier days – people tend to have the day off, and wander into the store looking to blow some of their hard earned cash on comics and other sundry bits of pop culture. Here, we’ve yet to build that casual audience. We’re also not on a main drag, which tends to cut down on a lot of the walk-by traffic. I know that this slowness will change in time – the old shop used to be the same way, with Sunday dragging as the seconds sluggishly slid by until I started kicking up dust and making a bit of noise. We’re just a little over a month in at the new place, and we’re still growing.

What stops me from going crazy on these slow days is the fact that we’ve done exceedingly well in our first month. When we took our projections to the money people, we got a lot of side eye from bankers who (I’m assuming) thought these numbers were a bit off for the launch of a comic shop just a little off the beaten path. Turns out, they were right: we had underestimated how well we would launch significantly, and are now staring at some pretty great looking numbers. We also had enough cash flow and product that this underestimation didn’t wreck our stock right out of the gate, which was pretty nice. All in all – things have been good. Of course, that’s not to say there weren’t quite a few hiccups that occurred. There were, and there continue to be. This is what we’ll be exploring in this installment of The Retailers View – a bit about some of the hard stuff, some of the lessons learned, and about the uh… “joys” of launching your store right as two of the biggest companies in comics publishing run head on into events.

The Retailer's View

GRAND

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First off: grand opening. In the days before our grand opening, we opened the store for limited hours to iron out some of the kinks – and boy, there were some kinks. The biggest was probably the fact that Diamond (the wonderful comics distributor) took it upon themselves to promise delivery of a Point Of Sale system that hadn’t even been shipped by the time we had been promised it would arrive at our shop. Another sizeable kink took the form of ethernet wiring that the contractor decided didn’t need termination points, so we had a bunch of opened ended chunks of wire strung through our shop, without the means to… I don’t know, connect them to anything? Which was also fun. These two problems cemented two valuable lessons for me: never trust an outside body to follow through on their promises, and always, always, always assume that a contractor will cut a corner unless you’ve written specific language preventing them from doing so into their contracts. Going forward, these two lessons helped prevent a mountain of potential problems from occurring, which was paramount to launching as well as we did.

VarEd
One of our store’s branding images, by Dylan Todd.

Part of the reason our Grand Opening went over so well was the fact that we hit the pavement hard in terms of getting our name out there. Our resources were relatively small, having what was effectively a budget of pocket change for marketing. To that end, I worked several existing connections to make a go of things. I’d already had a nice working relationship with one of the local television affiliates, so we arranged for an appearance the day before our big grand opening. We took to Twitter and spread the word, and ended up on two local podcasts – one specializing in various bits of media, and another focusing on local happenings – and “appeared” on the local CBC Radio One afternoon program “Radioactive”. We set up a store signing of the book The Outside Circle that featured art from a very talented acquaintance of mine, and that really amped up some of the sound we were making – especially given the quality of the story and talent involved. (By the way, if you see a copy of The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings, you should get it. It was the #1 selling graphic novel on Amazon in Canada, and it’s really great plug plug plug.) One of my friends also helped set up a table of David’s Tea in the shop, complete with workers, and at the end of the day, told us that we had the best showings they’d been to all year, which was cool to hear. Oh, and we launched on Free Comic Book Day because… seriously, what other day is going to have this much publicity for the industry as a whole?

So, the day itself ended up going incredibly well. There was a small line of people waiting out front before we opened, there was a constant stream of people all day long, I got to see a lot of people I hadn’t seen in several months, and quite a few new faces. I also got some awesome surprise kicks from my family.

Sweet Kicks
Sweet kicks from the fam-jam.

At the end of the day, we decided that we’d all head out and eat and drink in celebration, but we only got as far as the “eating” before we felt so tired we called it a night. The next day, we manned the store as heaps on the ground. The cool tiles felt nice on our faces. So there was that.

ORDERLY

Beyond dealing with “opening” and “helping customers”, we spent a large chunk of our time getting all of our ducks in order for various distributors. Obviously we had Diamond set up long before our official opening but a store doesn’t quite run on Diamond alone. Or at the very least, it really shouldn’t. The longest set up had to be with Wizard’s of the Coast, which is still a bit of an ongoing process. Not only did they require the most hoop-jumping (take pictures of our product on your shelves before we send you any product, being my favourite), but they set those hoops up in tiers. The business’ Magic: The Gathering guy is the point man on all of that, so I’m not entirely up on the name of where we are now, but we just got ourselves bumped up from “being open” through to “Level 2”, which finally lets us order product from them, and sanction pre-releases with prize support. Not bad for a month’s worth of work, but it was a lot of work just to give someone our money. Even though I know why the hoops are there (one third “no randos getting retail pricing, one third customer appreciation, and one third incentivizing) I still think it’s silly to have a retailer go through so much just to be able to purchase things directly from you.

Variant Edition Store Front

That said, the bulk of these processes have been smooth enough – it just takes a bit of effort and a lot of patience (see the lesson regarding outside bodies and follow through) and suddenly, you’re golden. The real trick has come with figuring out our opening orders for comic series.

After working eight years in the industry, I’ve honed a system for ordering comics. The problem, of course, is that system requires some kind of ordering history and pre-built audience to function – so once more, I find myself flailing around like I did in my earlier days as the manager of the old shop – though that flailing has an air of learned confidence to it. What certainly hasn’t helped is the fact that when I was able to finally start placing orders, DC was entering Convergence (which I could have almost skipped ordering entirely… almost) and Marvel was a hair away from launching into Secret Wars. Now, on the plus side, having two of the industry’s biggest publishers on the cusp of relaunching their lines when you open your business can work in your favour – as you’re looking for new customers, they are literally serving up a platter of new number ones and jumping on points. On the downside, you’re making blind guesses based off a clientele you don’t entirely know, and completely new products. It’s a hard bit of business to guess on, and we’re still settling into what our numbers will be (only to see things blow up again when Marvel goes into their All New, All Different switch later this year), but we at least know enough that we haven’t blown our budget on things that just aren’t going to sell.

For those interested, the clientele seems to be a bit everywhere when it comes to single issues, with Secret Wars sitting comfortably at the top of the heap, due to Marvel absolutely nailing their Free Comic Book Day offerings, and the rest is a grab bag of independent publications and corporate comics. The real draw – beyond the perpetual (and quite different) churn of Magic: The Gathering cards – seems to be graphic novels, which in hindsight, is perfectly reasonable. Our goal with the shop has been to seek out and cater to new readers and build an audience using the diverse medium to hook in as many people as possible. Having hit this note, we find that a lot of people are discovering the medium through graphic novels, craving a complete experience as their gateway rather than parts of a whole. As a result, we’ve switched our ordering practices slightly to accommodate for this switch, so we’ll see how that goes in the coming months. Maybe we get an influx of people who just want single issues or superhero stories. Maybe this trend continues and pushes us into a completely different market than the old shop I worked at. It’s really hard to say, but I’m more than happy to find out.

Variant Edition High Fives
All three owners celebrating after the grand opening. That’s me in the back, my wife Danica to the right, and our business partner Brendan Capel to the left.

AND THE REST

There are so many other things I could talk about in regards to the first month, but I don’t think I’d be able to do everything justice and still keep your attention. I mean, I honestly believe that most of you have checked out by this point, preferring my columns where I spit fire at folks or burn through a bit of the mechanics of how comics retail in general – so in interest of not losing you lonely brave souls here at the end, I’m going to work through the rest as a series of bullet points.

  • Right after we had our grand opening, we started running a store podcast called Yegs and Bacon, which serves as a super awkward look at the week’s comics and recent pop culture news in a loose “morning show” format. Yes, trying to claim that a podcast can be a “morning show” is inherently ridiculous. No, we don’t really care. It’s a nice, fun thing that has let our customers into our lives a little, and folks seem to be responding to that quite a bit.
  • Whether you’re an old shop or a new shop, people are always looking to offload their old collections on you. More often than not, when you bring up the fact that you work at or own a comic shop in the wild, someone around you will tell you about how many comics they used to buy and proceed to ask if you’re interested in buying them. It’s gotten to the point where I’m shocked if this doesn’t happen at least once when I’m out and about. For the record, we are taking comics, but we’re not paying much for them. As I said above, we’re a shop that’s aimed towards new readers, so our back issues are filled with relatively inexpensive product. Even the comics that are supposedly “worth money” are going for relatively cheap because collectors eventually quit collecting, whether it’s because they’ve completed their quest, run out of money, moved, got married, had kids, bought a house, or “bought a farm” – whereas readers are everlasting – and there’s nothing that will chase off a reader faster than a $100 comic that they can read online for $2. You want to make sure you’re around years and years from now? Stop wheeling and dealing with the insular crowd, and start sharing the medium with others. That’s my advice, anyway. Again, we’ll see how this business model works, but for now, we seem to be doing pretty great.
  • We are very new, and our marketing budget continues to be relatively small, so we’ve been utilizing the hell out of social media. Facebook and Twitter tend to be where we’ve found the most traction, but to be fair, I think it’s also because I’ve already developed the habits of posting on both. Anyway, both of those do this thing where you can see how well certain tweets do with audience engagement. Some parts of it even let you compare your stats with that of others, which is surely going to lead me down the path to madness one day. For now though? It lets me know that we’re doing a pretty good job of engaging our audience with our style of posting. After all, you can post a million times a day, but if you’re not engaging your audience, it really means nothing. So we’re quite pleased with all that.
  • Our website is slowly coming together. The site was meant to have a fairly comprehensive online store, but that hit quite a snag when we couldn’t get out point of sale system working in time to really push things before grand opening – so we’re still putting some pieces together on that front. That said, we’ve placed subscriptions to series up on our site for people to peruse and add to their files, and more than a few have taken advantage of this. We have a request to build in a part where you can adjust your file online, but that has to wait until we have the bonus money to pay someone to code that to our liking. No sense in me building a clunky program that breaks or using a second party platform when there’s still a working system in place – better to wait and do things right when the opportunity arises.
  • Speaking of our website, you know what people like? Communication. Specifically, through your site. Having a blog has honestly brought more eyes to our business than anything else – plus it helps out with content for our social media feeds. The only trick? Keeping the blog updated. I can point to almost every other store in this city, and find the dead husk of a blog attached to their site. If I look outside the city, I can find a few shops that use their blog and online presence to talk shit about the things that they are selling which… is dumb. To say the least. I’ve never been able to grasp why someone would use their store’s online presence to bury creators or projects. Anyway, it should go without saying, but if you’ve committed to an online presence in any capacity, keep it moving, and keep it positive – at least in reference to the products that you’re selling. There’s more I could say about that, but that’s another column for another day.
  • Oh, and about our sign? So. The landlord had approved our sign (as required by our lease), and then once we got it processed and paid for, he came back to us and asked if we could do a metal sign instead, to match the signage already on the building. We eventually came to an agreement that we would use the sign we already had made for the first few months until we could get a metal sign done up to our liking ($$$$), but in order to avoid having weird holes in the front of the building when the metal sign finally came in, we just hung our sign on the inside of the shop. Not ideal, but it works… for now.
  • And finally, if starting up the store wasn’t enough, the wife and I moved out of our apartment at the end of the month, and in with her parents. The idea is to save a few dollars while we look for a new place for later in the year. So far, things are working out, and we’re glad we did it because – while the store looks like it would support us while paying our full rent, getting our saving rebuilt is one of our primary concerns. The only trick was, it added a heap of extra stress to this whole process.

And on that note, I’m going to wrap things up. You’ve been through enough, and I have roughly ten ideas for other columns that I should probably get to work on. One of them involves a new start up company that’s doomed to failure. Another is going to dig in deep into mass launches and what it means for retailers and fans alike. Something new and crazy is happening in this industry every week, and so you’ll be seeing a lot from me, now that the dust has settled a little more.

Until next time.

[Brandon Schatz is an owner of Variant Edition in Edmonton, Alberta and has spent the past nine years working behind the comic book counter. In his spare time, he writes about the comics and culture. You can find him on twitter @soupytoasterson and at his website, Submetropolitan. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat.]

3 COMMENTS

  1. Great column. It is really interesting to hear a clearly worded description of what it’s like to open a shop: I like hearing the nuts and bolts aspect of it. Like the internet connections, late shipping, etc. Best of luck!

  2. Great stuff, Brandon. As a hopeful, future comic retailer, your posts have been an inspiration. Keep up the good work, and congratulations!

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