Sunday, June 22, 2003

Look, Listen, Learn

 This column was originally published in Comics & Games Retailing magazine #137, June 2003.

Look, Listen, Learn
The Intangible Art of Retailing

I’m sure there are a number of comic book retailers who secretly still long to be comic book artists or writers. Many of us got into this business to avoid more mundane professional pursuits, some after the realization that being a cartoonist is a lot more difficult than just slapping ink on paper.

We may have started out with written business plans, sketchy as some of them may have been, but the hope wasn’t necessarily that we’d make tons of money. Rather, it was that we’d make enough for a decent living while also enjoying a preferred lifestyle, dealing in products for which we already have a great deal of enthusiasm, if not outright fanaticism. Being a comic specialty retailer is partly an art, even as it is a business.

The Art of Listening

So much more can be learned by listening rather than talking. By listening to our customers and our staff members, we can get a feel for parts of business that may need our attention. When Flying Colors first opened, I thought I knew a lot about comics. This was particularly true when it came to independent comics. I came into this business as a na├»ve and unapologetic superhero fan. I was in for a rude awakening to be asked a thousand different questions about comic-related topics that were outside the range of my radar. 

By taking note of all customer requests and relying on the suggestions of my staff, I learned about areas of the business and art-form of comics of which I was previously unaware.  I knew I had to stock my store with more than just one flavor, so I listened and learned…and then read and enjoyed…and then sold!

Another valuable way to listen and learn is to go where other comic industry professionals gather. That means attending major conventions, the occasional distributor or publisher sponsored trade event, or going on-line to forums such as the Comic Book Industry Alliance. Listening leads to growth---first in knowledge, then in sales.

Financial Management

I have always watched expenses like a hawk because it’s essential for me to know my cash position at all times. Until I was certain I had a long-term handle on business income and expenses, I refused to ask for terms from my suppliers. This was my awkward way of making sure I never outspent what funds were currently reasonable. By regularly tracking income and expenses, and having a dependable history of both, retailers can stay on track, growing steadily while alleviating risk. 

Risk-Taking

Now here’s a tough segue--- talking about sound financial management, then advocating taking risks. There are times when your gut tells you to simply roll the dice. It can be as simple as taking a stronger inventory position on a new product or it can be a bigger step like investing thousands in a an advertising program, moving your store to a new and better location or opening additional stores. Taking risks is a fundamental element in keeping a business vital and growing. Keep in mind that it’s consistently sound financial management that allows for the occasional calculated risk. 

Time Management

The “art” of managing one’s time is the area that makes the biggest difference to small business retailers. In my previous career, I sold radio advertising. We were allotted a certain number of commercial minutes to sell per hour. If we didn’t sell the time, it would expire as unsold inventory, essentially a wasted opportunity. Nothing is as useless as unsold time! That was a valuable lesson to learn. Getting the most out of each day is critical to the small business owner. In the comics’ biz, there are so many distractions.  It’s truly an art to avoid the things that conspire to drain us of our valuable time.

Be Your Own Worst Critic

I always enjoy getting comments from customers and friends about how good my store looks. Behind every compliment, though, as a retailer who spends as much time in my store as I do anywhere else, I constantly try to look at my store with an objective eye. I can see the holes. I can see the product that’s looking a bit stale on the shelves. I can see whether everyone on staff is doing all they can to keep customers happy, while keeping the store looking good and functioning properly. 

Each week, I take time to walk around the store and make notes of what needs to change. I prioritize what changes need to happen by how important they are to generating sales and making the store experience more enjoyable for customers. Granted, some of the changes may come slower than I’d like, but that’s also a result of being my own worst critic.

Openness to Change

After 15 years as a comic book retailer, the comfort zone I’ve found cuts both ways. On the plus side, with everything I’ve experienced as a retailer, I’ve learned that most of what I thought were pressing concerns now seem relatively ephemeral. On the downside, however, I’ve found my comfort zone, as all my current systems seem to be working well. So why bother to change? Because being a small business owner is all about adapting to change. Personal and business growth comes from openness to change and willingness to continually look, listen and learn. 

 

(Joe Field can be found most days at Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff, 2980 Treat Blvd., Concord CA 94518. E-mail is joe@FlyingColorsComics.com.)