By Brian Hibbs
It’s not very often that I get mail from other retailers, but this piece came a few weeks ago and it asks some questions that maybe several people are asking in the face of the Direct Market’s current problems.
“I know that you are busy and so I will get to the point. I am trying to change the buying culture at my shop in West Texas. We are the first shop in my hometown in 20 years. Due to that, we are very much behind the rest of the country in regards to indie books and selling anything that is not from the Big 2.
I have constantly tried promoting small press books and graphic novels because I know that they’re best for the overall health of the industry and it is a more sustainable model for the customer and retailer. But it is just hard to get people to buy a book simply for entertainment and story’s sake as opposed to the speculative collector mindset.
Obviously, we are in a very different market than your shops, but if you had any ideas on how to grow into that culture, I would highly appreciate it.
The HIVE Comics
So, let me talk broadly about some of this first. First and foremost, it’s pretty difficult to “change” a customer – but it’s reasonably easy to “influence” them. By this I mean you probably aren’t going to turn your Marvel Zombie into a Fantagraphics Fanatic, but you can certainly broaden one’s tastes.
Second, there are no “quick fixes” here: changing your store’s culture is a slow, long process that has to happen naturally. If you are looking at this thinking “I’ve got a year to change everything, or I am out of business”, then you might be in some trouble. I generally think it takes 5 years or more to transition from one state to another.
Your customers are the sum of their experiences, of the accretions of knowledge and joy acquired over the decades – even if they were open and interested, they’re probably not capable of changing on a dime. Especially if, as you posit, they’ve not ever been exposed to a “wider” comic store. Their knowledge, their experiences are coming from conventions, and the internet, neither of which tend to be bastions of the joys of reading for pleasure. It will take you a while to “rewire” their perceptions of what comics are, or could be, and that can take as long as their original programming!
Patience be your watchword: Slow and steady, that’s how you win this race.
So, what can you do? Let’s start outside, and work our way in.
Literally, go outside your store, and look at it from the outside. Try to look at your store with the eyes of an outsider. Invite a friend, or significant other, or even a relative who can shoot straight with you. How does your store look to them? Are you covered in superhero posters and imagery? There can be some, of course: even the “artsiest” store is going to sell a significant amount of superhero material, but what is the “vibe” you’re giving off to the general public? Is your store open feeling, and inviting, and bright and well-lit and clean from the outside looking in? Does it say “Women & Children are welcome here”?
Comic stores are, largely, destination stores – but there’s a lot one can do to spruce them up and make them more appealing to a casual buyer.
Apply that same critical eye to the inside of your store. How are things racked? What messages are your stocking and displaying choices communicating?
For example: if you want more kids in your store (and you should: kids comics & authors like Dav Pilkey, Raina Telegemier and Lincoln Peirce are utter goldmines out in the “real” world – see next [?] month’s BookScan report – and Direct Market stores trying to leverage this segment are generally doing very well), then do you have a Kids Rack? Is it clean and focused? Is it visible from the door of the store? Is it suited for smaller customers? Have you gotten down on your knees and paid attention to what it looks like to them? (No, honestly!)
Do at least a little reading about customer psychology and merchandising. Back when I was a young retailer, Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy” was the gold standard for understanding things like how customers are generally “blind” in the first 10-15 feet of the store, that most will cut to the right, that aisles should be wide enough to not “butt brush” and so on. It’s why, at my store, the first rack you encounter is the Kids Rack, and the first rack on the right is a “muggle friendly” section like “Biographies and Non-Fiction”.
I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but I’ve always found that you don’t want to put the best-sellers towards the front of your store: put them to the back so people have to travel through all of the other amazing products you have in stock. The people looking for Batman or looking for this week’s New Comics will not have a problem finding them, even if you put it in the “worst” corner of the store.
Similar to the outside look, cast a critical eye on your interior signage and postering. Are your walls and displays sending the message that you want them to send about the broadness of your stock and appeal? Are you inviting to families? Will they want to linger?
If you have space that is dedicated to gaming, how does this look to the uninitiated? Are your gamers quiet, neat and respectful?
Ultimately, the environment you build, especially in the stuff you take for granted (or as “wallpaper”) has a tremendous (but subtle) amount of impact on how both current and new customers act and react.
If you think your physical environment is about as good as it can be, the next place to look is to your staff. Staff are the Ambassadors of the medium, and you want folks who are enthusiastic and passionate and who are eager to share their good fortune about being surrounded by so many amazing comics. You don’t want people who aren’t engaging with customers, or who focus only on their own friends or their own desires.
You have to empower your staff to make decisions that strengthen your business model. Here’s an example: if a staff member believes in a work, give them carte blanche to offer that work as full returnable to the customer. Sure, put some rational caveats on it (exchange only, not cash back, must come back in same condition it went out in), but I don’t think there’s a single stronger “closer” in making a sale than “We’re so sure you’ll like it, we’re willing to take it back if you don’t”. Obviously, this has to be work you actually stand behind, but in thirty years of business I suspect the number of copies that have come back to me can be counted on both hands.
(And the best part? It gives you a second chance to make a sale by having a conversation about what didn’t work for the customer, and trying to find them something closer aligned to their interests)
The operative skill is to be able to communicate your passions. You want to have a “logline,” a single sentence clearly communicating the high concept of a series (Ex: “A preacher, his hitwoman ex-girlfriend, and a drunken Irish Vampire cross America looking for God, to make him answer for the state of the earth”) for all of the books you have as your “go to” examples of great comics. You want to be able to succinctly communicate why you love something, and be able to quickly infect others with this same love and passion.
The best times are when the entire staff agrees on a work. This doesn’t necessarily happen all that often, but man is it nice when everyone is pushing in the same direction, and you’re handselling those five copies of “Saga” in a single day…
Speaking of that, here’s another piece of low-hanging fruit: do you have a “Staff Picks” section? You always want to draw as much of a line between the 4 people who work at the store, and the comics they adore. A well-designed SP section (with handwritten signs explaining the WHY?) can do a lot of heavy lifting when you are not able to make that connection yourself.
And speaking of that: is your staff diverse? Not just in terms of race, but also of gender and experience and knowledge and presentations. While “curation” is de facto gatekeeping, it is also important not to “gatekeep” in the sense of blocking access, or standing in the way of making sure every customer feels safe and respected and valued. And maybe the most important question is if new customers can feel important. Sometimes the knowledge and love and passion that we feel can feel “exclusive” to a genuine newbie. Always look for opportunities to expand your audience in ways that make them feel comfortable.
At the end of the day, I see our jobs as telekinetically setting people’s brains on fire with our passion. And if you do it right, you can sway significant chunks of your audience. But, like any other muscle, it takes time to tone and develop.
But have reasonable expectations as to who you can ignite! Especially for established customers with ingrained habits. Those folks are like meteors: you can’t completely change their path, but you might be able to deflect it a few degrees. And over time, that can add up and be significant.
You also want to look at what “unintentional” messages you might be sending. For example, do you mark-up recent books? It is harder to foster a reader-forward climate if you are tacitly supporting the short-term speculator market in customer’s eye-line. There are valid reasons to occasionally markup recent releases, but consider doing it in the national marketplace rather than directly in your own backyard. Or, for another example, there can be a fine line between selling collecting supplies and promoting “the collector mentality”. If you’re a store where everything is already bagged and boarded on the shelf (good lord, why give away that labor and cost-of-supplies?!?!) you’re likely to find it harder to foster an environment of readers.
Do you have rules in place to limit the impact of speculation? For example: one-per-customer rules. It’s your store, you certainly don’t have to let people pick through every copy on the shelf to find the “perfect” one. And you absolutely can, if you think they’re making it harder for you to enact the culture you’re trying to build, “fire” customers if you need to. I mean, always try to re-educate folks, but some people are simply toxic for your environment; and it is yours.
You can also use customers to leverage other customers. Consider something similar to a book club. Or think about maybe having something like “post three reviews on social media for a reward”; anything where customers are also encouraged to share and spread their passions. The more your store becomes a community hub the easier it is to grow your community.
Oh, and as you’re trying to change that culture, don’t do it by being negative about the existing culture! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying the “collecting” of comics, or really being into superheroes, and in almost any comic shop culture there should be a place, in moderation, for those things!
Your customers will react and shift as you react and shift how and what you promote, but it certainly doesn’t come overnight; you have to train your customers to be able to trust you. And this stems, more than anything, from being trustworthy. If you promote dodgy material, or things outside of their tastes (A Batman reader is less likely to be able to accept, say, Archie), you’ll have a hard time spreading your tastes, but if you are thoughtful in your recommendations, build slowly from one success to another, and carefully curate your recommendations to the specific customer, you can build that bridge. Then another. And another.
And that’s “the secret”, if there is one: be incremental, be steady. Be worthy of the trust of your customers. Use levers to move people, and then the whole world after that, you know? You change your climate book by book, sale by sale, and recommendation by recommendation. It is curation. It is hard work.
You can do it.
Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.