Six Tips for Aspiring Comic Retailers

I had an email exchange from a reader of this blog who’s thinking of opening a comic store, and conversing with him reminded me of several things:

1. Don’t rely too much on listening to those who agree with or support you. Find some hard data instead of just going on hope. People who already have an idea set in their head — such as wanting to open a comic store — may just want someone to agree with them when they ask for advice. Sometimes people are truly seeking honest reactions, but it may just be about wanting validation. When I was asked, “Why didn’t you open a comic store?” (as I’d mentioned on this site I’d thought about previously), I think he expected an answer like “It’s a great idea but not right for me”, not “It’s a horrible business and I don’t think anyone should do it.” I said the latter, and that meant that everything else I said to this person wasn’t what he wanted to hear.

(Why I think that: The market is in too much flux, with traditional direct market comic shops being squeezed from all sides. You can’t easily compete with digital on one side and Barnes & Noble/Amazon on the other. The retailer has too little control over his own future, between dependence on an aging fanbase, a monopoly distributor for core product, and publishers who have yet to adopt some modern business practices. Hard work doesn’t allow for success unless you’re very lucky, and I didn’t want to invest money based on that gamble. I wanted a business where I had a better chance of controlling my own destiny through my own efforts.)

2. Speaking of data, the kind of information you need to write the kind of business plan that will convince other people (like banks) to give you money is not easily available for a reason. That’s really what this guy was hoping I could give him, since he hadn’t been able to find it on his own. You may want to talk to a consultant, which will cost you money. If you’re serious, spend it, because:

3. Free consulting is worth what you pay for it. I pointed this guy to ComicsPRO’s mentoring program, but he wasn’t willing to pay $80 to talk to people who were already running shops. He thought he was getting what he needed for free (although he was also complaining that everyone was telling him not to do it). Similarly, he wasn’t willing or able to work in a store for minimum wage in order to see first-hand what the business was really like. That’s the best thing you can do with any business, trying it out in an apprenticeship or by doing grunt work. That’s how you’ll see the day-to-day struggles and be sure you can cope with them.

4. Don’t depend on appearances. This guy saw 19 shops in his metropolitan area that seemed to be successful, with particular emphasis on a nearby guy who was doing fine with a shop opened three years ago. But he didn’t know any of their owners/managers well enough to find out if that was truly the case or ask them difficult questions. Maybe they were pulling payroll out of capital. Maybe they were using the traditional comic shop dodge of paying workers in trade instead of treating them as real, legal employees on a formal payroll (with the associated tax and other responsibilities). Maybe they are doing fine, but startup costs were more than expected. It’s hard to know.

5. Speaking of which, that many shops in one area suggest to me that the area is over-served, unless he had some genius idea to bring in new customers. His idea to supplement new comic sales (because every store nowadays needs to be comics plus something, often collections or games) was to sell back issues, because no stores in his immediate area did that. My response: “Maybe there’s a reason for that.” Back issues take up a lot of space and rarely sell well these days, what with ebay making it cheaper and easier to acquire them without having to dig through boxes. Having lots of successful competitors isn’t a good thing.

6. Which leads to: people rely too much on their own experience. This guy had been selling on ebay and at local flea markets, so that’s the part of the industry he was familiar with. If his
business there was going well, then sure, work on expanding and growing that, perhaps into a permanent location. I know someone who successfully did that over the past year. Maybe his area is an excellent choice for that kind of effort, I don’t know. And his optimism and determination and belief that he was going to do this would be what he needs to pull through the tough times.

It was a useful conversation, and I wish him the best. I’m not optimistic, but I don’t have to be. He does, and he is. Good luck, guy.

Update: I heard back from my correspondent, who would like you to know that he thinks this post was unbalanced, which yes, reflects our different perspectives. And I admit, I was exaggerating a bit to make the point strongly that the comic industry is a very tough business. However, I need to correct the following facts:

1. The ComicsPRO mentor program is, according to the information they gave him, simply access to their retailer message boards. If that’s so, I was misled into thinking it involved more hands-on interaction.

2. Not everyone he’s talked to told him not to do it — he’s gotten plenty of positive support elsewhere.

3. The 19 shops in his area are spread out over a 100-mile area. I was mistaken in thinking that was more consolidated. And some of them do carry back issues.

4. He doesn’t sell at flea markets, but at small local shows. I apologize for this — I was going on memory of one of our emails and misstated.

I’m not sure this changes our fundamental disagreement on whether or not comic retailing is a field to enter at this point, but I did want to set the record straight.


9 Responses to “Six Tips for Aspiring Comic Retailers”

  1. JeffG Says:

    My local guy in Toronto, steps away from the subway station is closing down next month. He’s just not able to justify losing money month after month. As far as back issues, he had a whole bunch in inventory costing him money, and a number of ‘regular’ customers with their pull lists that wouldn’t come in for months on end leaving him on the hook while they did so. Apparently the trading cards and the pokemons are just not enough to subsidize this either. And although he was always trying to give his regulars a decent discount, it would be easy to find free shipping and better deals from Amazon on TPBs and the like, not to mention selection.

    It wasn’t always the best organized, the handwritten pull lists and the orders being placed by his brother (dunno if there’s another family shop in the area as well) but by and large it was pretty good, and he’d backorder anything that got missed or sold out. Anyway, he’s going to try to keep something small going on the side with strictly pre-ordered (and prepaid!) from Previews each month, and then having a set time/place to distribute to his customers. I’ll stick with him for the time being and supplement anything missed at another shop close to work, having already made my ordering spreadsheet and submitted from September Previews.

    I had always wondered how he made out with that small store and if he made any money at it – I guess in the end not so much. I have to admit, if the digital stuff really gets its act together then an iPad and not having dozens of long boxes of comics I’ll never read again but can’t quite get organized enough to sell/give away is starting to sound really appealing.

  2. Arthur Says:

    Thanks for this, Johanna. I always wanted to run my comics shop, but couldn’t due to time and money. But whenever I get a chance to own my place, I won’t forget what I’ve read here.

  3. SKleefeld Says:

    Running a comic shop has always struck me as a terrible business. Even before I started trying to study the actual business side of things, it always looked like an insane amount of work for minimal returns. And that was well before the current recession and/or competition from digital and/or big box venues. In the current climate and for the foreseeable future, I can’t imagine a scenario where the number of comic shops doesn’t decline.

    Best of luck to the dude who you talked to but, frankly, it sounds like he’s charging into a mine field with his eyes shut tight.

  4. Johanna Says:

    Well, Jeff, discounting may have been his issue. Much as I want one as a customer, they don’t make a lot of sense from a retailer perspective. They let a lot of money walk out the door, and if you’re buying customers that way, they’re often the type that will jump elsewhere quickly for a better deal.

    But I hate to see any shop fail, because often, a good percentage of the customers just walk away. It’s not like all the business goes to another shop in the area (if there even is another shop in the area), so there’s a net loss to the industry.

    Arthur, I’m glad you found it helpful. I was aiming to write it in such a way, and such that my admiration for my correspondent’s determination came through.

    SK, it does take that kind of “never mind the obstacles, I’m going to make this work!” attitude to get a business going, though. And there are lots of people still doing this out of love.

  5. Suzene Says:

    Ever since I my stint working comics retail, I’ve been wondering why any shop would willingly adhere to the typical pull-list system of ordering the merchandise specifically for a customer with no up-front charge, then hoping and praying they decide to pick it up in a timely manner. It just seemed like way too much of a gamble. The extent to which customers would abuse that service was amazing, and rivaled only by how accustomed the owners were to accommodating it. The shop I worked for regularly had hundreds of dollars worth of stock languishing in the pull bins for weeks at a time, and one of our competitors would occasionally bemoan having over a thousand dollars worth of books waiting on individual customers. There were even customers who would outright tell the boss that they were going to spend that month’s comic budget on some other hobby and expect the shop to continue to hold their books for them (and keep ordering the new ones in the meantime, of course) and the boss would agree to it. I get that no shop wants to lose customers by seeming too hardnose, but there are just some customers that you can’t afford to keep. If more shops would take credit card numbers along with pull subscriptions a la rental places, I’d imagine there would be fewer people signing up for subs, but also way fewer instances of shop owners having to take it in the shorts because their customers don’t know how to budget for their entertainment.

  6. Comics A.M. | The comics Internet in two minutes | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    [...] | Johanna Draper Carlson offers advice for aspiring comics retailers. [Comics Worth Reading] Detective Comics [...]

  7. blake Says:

    I’ve been running a comic shop since February. I have certain advantages. 1. I own my building(no rent or mortgage) 2.I bought an existing shop. 3. i went into it with a plan 4. It’s not my only source of income, do to a decent trust fund that my wife gets. I mention these things, because I seem to be doing okay. I’ve diversified, because I had the money too, into miniature gaming, magic, RPG’s and a sci-fi bookstore. I’m doing three times what my predecessor did in volume and it’s taken alot of work. August was the first month I spent less than I took in, and it felt great. But when I went into business, I had to learn about various licenses, taxes and fees that I wasn’t initially prepared for. It’s really important that anybody who goes into any kind of business DO YOUR RESEARCH!
    If we didn’t have the substantial amount of money from my wife’s inheritance,
    we would not have made it. It is a tough business, and we’re doing well now, but if you’re going to succeed in a comic/gaming shop… be prepared to live off of nothing and have a back-up income for the first year. Maybe the second as well. And if you think it’s a great way to get rich… get out now. Go try opening a convenience store instead.
    I’m doing the comic/gaming shop because I love it. I’m succeeding because I understand it’s a business.

  8. Joe Field Says:

    Point of clarification:
    The ComicsPRO Mentoring Program is more than simply gaining access to our message boards. Our mentoring forum is a dedicated message board where retailing hopefuls and new retailers can ask questions of experienced comic specialty retailers.

    The ComicsPRO Mentoring program currently has about 50 people either in the research stage of opening a comic specialty shop or in the first year of running a shop, as well as more than a dozen mentoring retailers willing to lend their time and experience to help open new stores.

    The $80 price is a terrific value— IF the “pre-retailer” is engaged and willing to ask questions. Our mentors post in response to questions, rather than bring up random topics.

    Proud to say that the ComicsPRO Mentoring program has helped get a good number of retailers more prepared to open and run their new businesses with eyes wide open, willing to work hard to make their stores unique and profitable.

    Hope this helps—

    Joe Field
    ComicsPRO President
    (and owner of Flying Colors Comics, Concord CA)

  9. Johanna Says:

    Thanks, Joe. I appreciate you answering that point in detail.

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