Top Ten Ways to Improve The Comic Book Retail Experience

A column article, Top Ten by: Nick Hanover, Danny Djeljosevic

Last weekend, comic book retailers on the Internet got up in arms over Dark Horse Comics' move to day-and-date releases for their digital comics -- not just because they were doing it, but because the press release seemed to imply that the digital comics would be cheaper than their print counterparts. So a bunch of retailers proclaimed that they were going to boycott Dark Horse Comics and the usual comic book industry Nostradamus-ing ensued until Dark Horse's Mike Richardson clarified the issue the following Monday.

Here's the thing, though -- digital isn't going away. It didn't for any of the other entertainment industries, so why would it for comics? Comic book shops needn't be afraid of digital. Instead, they should be working to make their stores essential for fans, readers and regular folk and do things that ComiXology and Graphicly can't.

We have some ideas, of course...



10. Go Local


How It Would Work:

Nick: Retailers play a vital role in getting indie and small press titles in the hands of consumers. So what better way to showcase that than by featuring creators from the local community through displays of their work or even entire local sections?


Why It Would Work:

Danny: People love buying local, and knowing who your local creators are (not to mention stocking their comics) will certainly help your store when these comickers are sending their friends and fans to your shop to buy their stuff. And, hey, y'never know -- Brian Michael Bendis might be from your town. You help them out, and they'll help you out.

Nick: Emphasizing local works also helps break down the perceived barriers between fans and creators, which in turn can help those fans remember the human element when buying their comics. Working with those creators can also enable retailers to take a bigger part in the process of trying to make a successful comic, which could lead to publicity opportunities in local media or even thank yous in releases.



9. Diversify Your Merchandise


How It Would Work:

Danny: People can buy pretty much all their comics digitally now, but you know what they can't download? A T-shirt. A coffee table book. An action figure. Japanese mystery box toys. Hell, Pocky. All nerds love Pocky. The point is that retailers may benefit from carrying things comic book store customers might want that aren't comic books, but fit their lifestyles.

Why It Would Work:

Nick: Geek Culture isn't about just one medium. Comic book fans are as likely to be into, say, Ron Swanson shirts as they are the next issue of Action Comics. But here's the thing: comic fans probably have geeky friends who aren't into comics, friends that they may drag into comic shops every so often. You may have a tough time selling those friends on comics, but selling them on a shirt featuring their favorite Ron Swanson quote? Well, now we're talking. Or maybe that friend has a geeky interest in weird Japanese movies. Or Einstein figures with real karate chop action. The possibilities are endless.

Danny: The more diverse your stock is, the more diverse (and larger) your clientele will be. Stock some anime. Carry kids' comics and get 'em started while they're young. My favorite shops offer merchandise beyond the new issue of X-Vengers but still manages to make comics the focus, creating a more welcome atmosphere for people who haven't become resigned to the weekly smell of old paper and recirculated Gordita farts.



8. Comic Book Feng Shui


How It Would Work:

Nick: Comics are a visual medium by design, yet most comic book shops put almost no effort into creating a visually dynamic experience for customers. Often poorly lit and claustrophobically laid out, comic shops should emphasize the fun of the medium, with creative displays and store layouts.

Why It Would Work:

Danny: Any store -- I don't care what it sells -- should be welcoming to the average person off the street. The people who regularly go to comic shops will keep coming no matter what the place looks like so long as it has their weekly fix. You got them, now focus on getting people to actually want to enter your store. I've been in "adult emporiums" that have a better ambiance than some comic shops, and I'm not nearly as ashamed to be caught in a comic shop.

Nick: Retailers would be wise to take a look at any modern clothing outlet, like Urban Outfitters or American Apparel, and notice how attention grabbing their store aesthetics, layouts and displays are. I don't even shop at those places but damn if I can't stop myself from looking at them and fighting off curiosity every time I'm near one. Better record stores, like Easy Street in Seattle or Waterloo in Austin, also offer good examples of what to do, with displays that are rotated frequently and lots of wide open space. Don't look just within the comics industry because if you're trying to lure in new customers, you need to examine the outlets that get their attention elsewhere. Above all, make your shop fun and exciting, do whatever it takes to make customers think of it as an experience.



7. Signings/Appearances


How It Would Work:

Danny: Convince a comic book creator (or two) to show up at your shop to promote their work and sign stuff for your customers/their fans. Suddenly, your shop is no longer full of mutants; it is full of people.

Why It Would Work:

Nick: It's like having a mini-comic convention IN YOUR STORE. More signings and appearances by creators can only help draw attention to your store and they also give you an added incentive to sell off stock. Reaching out to publishers to encourage them to send creators your way can also function as a way of enticing them to send you exclusive swag and promotional material. The publishers are happy because you're selling more of their books as a result of the signings, the creators are happy because they're possibly lining up some some commissions or selling other works of theirs, and you're happy because you're selling more stuff period.

Danny: Everyone in the comics industry has to grind and hustle. Retailers and creators might as well team up to scratch one another's backs. Erm, figuratively, of course.

Nick: Or literally. I've heard Brian Clevinger gives a mean massage.



6. Community Events


How It Would Work:

Nick: Building off the idea that your shop should be an experience, one of the best ways to create that is through interesting community events. Giveaways, game nights, karaoke -- anything you can do to get people to not just come to your shop but talk about it and hop in frequently can go a long way towards encouraging non-traditional customers to seek you out.

Why It Would Work:

Danny: The more reasons you give people go to into your shop, the more likely people are to buy stuff (and would want to buy stuff!). A weekly/monthly movie night? Get a nerdcore rapper to play your shop? Some kind of geeky Lego sculpting contest? D&D night? The possibilities are endless. You just need to be creative and get a feel for what your customers might be into.

Nick: True, this might require some experimentation and there may be some events that don't work. But customers will pick up on the extra effort you're putting into enriching their buying experience, which will in turn build loyalty. It's also something that digital can't really provide, at least not until the Matrix becomes real.



5. A Staff Picks Section


How It Would Work:

Danny: There should be a prominent section of the store that allows employees to showcase a book that they want to promote to help influence customer purchasing decisions. Even Blockbuster has these.

Why It Would Work:

Nick: Computers still suck at recommendations. I mean, right now, I'm listening to the Human League and an artificial intelligence that I will not name is recommending that I try the Crystal Method. Digital and retail don't have to compete but they should emphasize their differences and the adaptability of a real human being with real knowledge and experience will always beat AI when it comes to recommendations for pop culture. Having a staff section also goes a long way towards familiarizing the customers with the people who work at the store, which is of vital importance when you're in a medium where people are sometimes buying multiple $3.99 issues a week. That's a lot of money to potentially be throwing around and you can bet customers feel more comfortable spending it at a store where everyone knows each other's names.

Danny: Plus, people always want to know what's good, but many people just don't know what to look for or how to find it. Having a section showing off a handful of good books is the least a shop can do to get people reading comic books -- especially ones they may not seek out on their own.



4. Comic Book Club


How It Would Work:

Nick: Everyone knows about book clubs and how they've been a huge success for traditional publishers. So why not copy that over for comic books and set it up through your store? You could advertise the reading list in your location, offer up discounts to comic book club members on the books selected for the club and even make some kind of sticker to put on the selections.

Why It Would Work:

Danny: As an extension of the "staff picks" section, you could even have a monthly meeting where club members come into the shop and discuss the book of the month. If there's one thing comic book fans love, it's yakking about stuff they love and/or hate.

Nick: The club could also help new readers get into comics by providing them a handy list of great works to ease them in (or challenge them) and allow them to meet up with others who can help them explore the medium. If the club is meeting in your store, then it's even likelier that they'll pick up new recommendations from you since they're there anyway.



3. An Online Presence


How It Would Work:

Danny: Maintaining active Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as a website are necessary for anyone who wants to do anything ever, including comic shops. Use the magic of the Internet to tell customers and potential customers about promotions and deals, converse and connect with your clientele and get word out that your shop is awesome.

Why It Would Work:

Nick: It should be pretty clear by now that the internet isn't just an effective way of reaching people, but that it's more or less a necessity in our current culture. The key here, then, is not to simply utilize the internet, but to find a way to maximize your presence on it. This could mean anything from the obvious stuff like promotions and deals and everyday interaction to less obvious things like, say, hosting your own podcast, or doing videos about what's in the store this week, or recruiting cats to pose with your comics or pretty much anything you can think of. The best part is that most of this kind of promotion is free, other than paying for equipment and hosting and such.

Danny: Best of all, it puts a face and a personality on your shop, letting people know who you are and (hopefully) making them like you enough to want to give money to your store. Unless you're Larry's Comics, in which case you'll probably have to stop reading this, I think someone just said your name three times.

Nick: Ooh, burn.



2. Quit with the Price Gouging


How It Would Work:

Nick: Easy. Stop jacking up prices for buzzed-about comics the day they come out.

Why It Would Work:

Danny: No one who isn't already in a mental hospital would pay $20 for a mass-produced copy of the relaunch of Action Comics, and a casual reader just wandering into the shop will just be scared off by prices like that. I know '90s nostalgia is in full-swing, but a return to the speculator market is the last thing comics need. Save that shit for eBay, bro.

Nick: Worse is when stores, like one I visited on Black Friday, put their New 52 "variants" and first editions right up front, making them the first thing customers saw when they walked in. I can't even begin to tell you how many new customers I overheard getting confused about why the titles were so expensive. "But it says Batwoman is $3.99 on the cover? Why are they charging $20 for it?" It was especially sad when a family would walk in the kids would inevitably wander over there and their parents would promptly freak out over the cost.

Everyone understands that as a business you need to make a buck, but alienating new or casual readers with insane prices is bad business, period. Sure, you may get one obsessive fan who will gladly pick up every single first edition or variant you've got, but in the mean time, shoving those prices in the faces of those who don't understand the difference is going to cause you to lose out on far more new customers.



1. Better Customer Service


How It Should Work:

Danny: You go into a comic shop you've never been to before. The guy (or girl!) behind the counter greets you with a smile, asks if you need any help, and proceeds to assist you, helping you find what you're looking and/or offering recommendations. He or she then rings you up without any judgment and you leave, feeling pretty decent and intending to actually come back -- and not just because it's the only shop in town.

Also, the sidewalks are made of candy and instead of air, you breathe chocolate.

How It Works All Too Often:

Nick: You go into a comic shop you've never been to before. Your eyes take some time adjusting to the dim lighting. There's a stale smell in the air that you can't quite place. You walk over to the counter and make the mistake of trying to get the cashier's attention. He does his best to ignore you, but sighs loudly to let you know he's given up and finally gives you the barest amount of attention. You ask if they have any more copies of Animal Man #1. He laughs mockingly before pointing at the wall behind him, where there's a graded copy of Animal Man #1, 9.9, for $200. You scurry out the door and never return to any comic shop, period, again.

Danny: And, if you're a girl, you have his full attention, but not in the way any person would ever want.


Why It Shouldn't Work This Way:

Nick: The public perception of comic book stores isn't just bad, it's a full on fiasco. Which would be depressing enough if it weren't for the fact that so many comic book stores seem to go out of their way to prove this perception correct. It's to the point where a general "What Do You Look For In A Comic Book Store?" thread on the comic books subreddit swiftly turned into an epic public airing of everyone's terrible experiences with comic book retailers. This absolutely has to change. While it's easy to blame things like piracy and digital comics for a lack of business, many retailers need to realize that they're their own worst enemies. Looking down on new customers, ogling female visitors and just generally being unpleasant in every possible way are all things that need to be removed from the retailer tool kit. And because of how bad the public perception of comic book stores is, it's important that retailers and their staff go overboard when it comes to winning over customers.

Danny: This part is so basic and essential that it can't not be #1 on our list. You can kind of excuse a cramped shop if the service is awesome, but employees without the basic social skills needed to deal with customers day-in-day-out will kill any shop, I don't care how awesome it seems. Then again, I've found that the most awesome shops tend to boast pretty good service, too.

Nick: Funny how that works.


When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.

Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery.

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