Starting a Comic Book Store – Part 2
Once you have your store picked out and you’re satisfied with the location, rent, down payment, and comfortable working with the landlord, now you can begin setting a monthly budget. Your rent will be your largest, consistent item on your budget, and from there you can begin determining your utilities. Most utility companies allow you to create a budget plan so you’re paying the same price each month, allowing you to determine your monthly costs. You can contact the utility company before connecting to determine the estimated monthly costs based on past usage. Cable/internet/phone are all consistent monthly costs. If you’re going to have a TV hooked up in the store, I recommend skipping the expensive cable and instead, signup for Netflix for a fraction of the price. Unless you’re planning on hosting events with where multiple customers need internet access, go with the cheapest internet option available. You should only need it for your POS, your personal phone, and possibly TV. Don’t share your Wi-Fi password with customers who’ll only share it with others and mess with your connection. Buy a cheap phone with an answering machine. Most of your phone calls will be sales calls with an occasional call about your hours or location. You will be charged more for cable/internet/phone for being a business than if you were a residential customer. Call around and shop for the cheapest option between service providers. If you decide to with a security company, you can get quotes at this point as well. You’ll also likely need to pay monthly fees for your POS network and business banking account.
Once you have all of your basic budget set, you can then begin determining discretionary bills, such as the amount you want to spend on marketing, inventory, and employee salary.
Marketing costs can remain extremely low through the proper use of social media and networking. Most people use one form of social media or the other. I received the best response through Facebook. You can introduce your intent to open on other local Facebook pages, such as the city’s page, local chamber of commerce, downtown development authority, and neighboring businesses by contacting them and requesting they post your pre-written post on their page. You can also announce yourself to local Facebook groups that have related topics to your store, such as comic collectors, gamers, and parent groups. Invite all your Facebook friends to like your page and encourage them to share intent to open post on their pages. Instagram and Twitter are also good options to connect with the public; however, fewer customers will visit these pages before Facebook because Facebook keeps track of all of your business information, events, and latest news. As you get your store ready for its opening, post pictures of your work to social media pages, as well as any inventory you get in as you get it. Facebook ads are affordable and effective if you use them properly. You can experiment with ads at a low cost and then spend more as you become more comfortable using them or talk to others who have more knowledge with how to use them effectively.
Even with social media pages, you’ll want to setup a website. You can create a solid website for a relatively affordable price. If you can’t set one up yourself, find someone to set one up for you. A website is often the first place potential customers go to look for more information on your store, and if you don’t have one, fringe customers may look elsewhere. Closed businesses Facebook pages often remain active, but rarely will an owner continue to pay for a website for a business they no longer own.
Consider hanging a banner on the outside of the building letting people know of your store opening. In the store window, post your planned date of opening once you decide on it and also post your Facebook page URL for people to stay up to date with your stores details as the opening nears.
Networking is another excellent, affordable way to market your store. Meet with neighboring businesses prior to opening and introduce yourself. They’re businesses too and any business connection you make is a benefit to you both. You can cross-promote, exchange services, or at minimum, they can be a good word-of-mouth resource for your store. Also, look to network with businesses in the area who share similar customers such as toy stores, bookstores, and gaming centers. Libraries, churches with large kid communities, and community centers are also great networking opportunities.
Invest in business cards that stand out and clearly describes your store and what you sell. A card that says “Pete’s Comics” with the address and phone number isn’t an effective business card. Two-sided cards work best. Use the front for your store name, address, phone number and website (also consider adding your Facebook page URL on it) with a catchy design and the back, detail what you sell. Even if your store’s name is “Pete’s Comics,” that only says that you sell comics. People will want to know if you carry manga, TCGs, board games, collectibles, models, sports cards, etc. Keep the list simple because people rarely read business cards thoroughly; rather they will glance at them for important information, and then put them in their pockets.
Once you have a store location officially set, you should immediately begin your application with distributors as they often take weeks before you can begin ordering through them. Important distributors for the following include:
- Comics, graphic novels, manga, and collectibles – Diamond Comics
- Diamond Comics is the only distributor for comic books. They will be your most important distributor. A few other distributors sell graphic novels, but Diamond Comics will typically have them available first and at the lowest cost. They also offer a wide array of collectibles, including games and TCGs. However, a lot of distributors sell collectibles, games, and TCGs.
- I recommend paying the fee for Tuesday delivery. You don’t want to wait around all day on Wednesday for the UPS driver to deliver your comics while your customers wait for the new releases.
- Games and TCGs – Varies by state, but GTS Distribution and Southern Hobby tend to be used most often.
- Your best prices for games and TCGs will come from one of these distributors. They’re also often good to work with and they will recommend what’s hot and what’s new.
- Games Workshop – Warhammer
- If you plan on selling Warhammer or other Games Workshop products at your store, you’ll need to do so through Games Workshop. They offer models, paint, brushes, books, and accessories.
- Magic the Gathering Sanctioning – Wizards of the Coast
- If you plan on holding MTG events at your store, you should sanction your store through Wizards of the Coast. They are the point of entry for all things MTG and Dungeons and Dragons and they offer support in getting your events up and going. Many players will only play sanctioned events, so your stores sanctioning is important.
- Pokémon Sanctioning – Pokémon
- They’re not as important for your store to be sanctioned as with Wizards of the Coast, but if you have any interest in holding Pokémon release events (big money makers) then you’ll need to be sanctioned through the company.
- Soda – Coke/Pepsi
- If you’re holding events at your store, consider selling soda and energy drinks at your store. Players want something to drink when they’re playing, especially late night events.
You will want to be the main employee to keep costs low at first and as you figure out where you need help if you were to hire an employee. I recommend finding a couple of people close to you who can fill in for you if you are sick and can’t work or have to miss work for any other reasons. Make sure they have the availability to do so and then teach them, at minimum, the POS system, and the pricing of every product. They should be someone you trust to be alone in the store without you watching over them, someone you trust to represent your store as you would, and that they are reliable enough to close down the store when the store closes.
If you need help with menial tasks around the store, such as bagging and boarding, sorting cards, cleaning and organizing the store, you’ll be surprised how many middle school or high school kids are willing to work in exchange for store credit or other incentives. If you offer a kid $10 in store credit, and they use it on products with a 50% margin, you’re really only paying $5/hour without having to pay all the other employee fees.
Utilize volunteers to help gaming events. It’s often an honor for someone to run these events and, if you find a responsible person, they will be a great asset to your store. Event volunteers should always be provided proper incentives. I offer a given amount of store credit per player to incentivize them to bring their friends, spread the word and to run the events in a manner that would want the players to return. You can also offer free packs, promos, drinks and/or other incentives.
Once you are financially able to hire an official employee, pay them well, and treat them well and they will return the favor.
Your First Orders
You’ll want to place your for orders through your distributor based around your expected opening date. Many of the products can be ordered ahead of time, including games, TCGs, collectibles, and many graphic novels. Follow Diamond Comics as well for comics that they’re selling at discounted rates as they look to move out older inventory. Otherwise, hold off on ordering any new comic books until your expected opening. You may want to order a few bigger titles of new comics a week or two before you open to have in stock, but go very easy on these as your customers will likely already have these issues.
Plan your opening around new comic book day, which is on Wednesdays. You don’t necessarily have to open on Wednesday, but you also may want to avoid opening on a Monday or Tuesday and have comics that your customers have likely already picked up.
Your first new comic book order should be a good variety of comics, as you don’t know your customer’s preferences yet. But don’t go overboard on buying comics for that week because you may not have a great turnout that first week, then you’ll be sitting on a lot of inventory. Primarily stick with Marvel, DC, and Image titles early on as well as a few comics for kids. Also, look for notable titles from independent publishers, such as Godzilla, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and video game-based comics. Once you open your store, immediately begin asking customers if they want to create a pull list. While pull lists have their problems (such as customers not picking them up), they do allow you to know what comics to order, as your orders are due weeks prior to their release. It also incentivizes customers to return to pick up their pulls. You can also poll your Facebook followers prior to opening the store of what comics they want in store. But, use this as a tool and don’t go overboard with their responses. I did this prior to opening and loaded up on several series based off of the poll, and many of those series never sold. When purchasing new comics, stick with the following in list of importance:
1. Filling pull lists – Guaranteed sales, so you want to meet their orders to keep them happy
2. Speculators issues – Will sell to speculators and regular customers alike. These issues rarely stay in stock
3. Popular characters issues – New customers will be drawn to the characters they know and these characters sell the best
4. Crossover events – These don’t always fly off the shelf at first, but fans often eventually get caught up into the series and then want to pick up the earlier issues
5. Middle-tier characters and series – These are sometimes hard to sell, but you’ll sometimes find one or two customers who are fans of these characters and series
6. Lesser known titles – These are often even harder to sell than #5, but having a variety of options available for customers shows that you are committed to giving them their full options and it gives customers another option for a series to get into and add to their pull list.
Variant covers are often difficult to gauge when placing your comic book order. Your orders are placed weeks before they arrive and many times you won’t know what the variant covers look like prior to placing them. Variants often retail, at a minimum, $1 more than cover price, while costing you the same for you as the regular issue. Depending on the demand and rarity of the issue, it can be sold for well over cover price. However, you can also be stuck with a lot of unsold variants if you price them too high or if you over-purchased the variant. Your best option, especially at first, is to be conservative when ordering variants. Order a few that appear to be appealing covers and see how they sell. If there’s no order stipulations on a variant, and it’s a popular comic that you were going to purchase several of anyways, you can always order a few variants and a few less of the regular issues and you can decide the day before the release if you want to sell them at cover price or to increase the price. Often times publishers (primarily Marvel) will require you to purchase a specific number of regular issues in order to order one of the variants. In this instance, unless you know that variant is in demand, do not over purchase comics to get a variant cover. It rarely ever pays off in your favor. You should always check eBay a day or two before Wednesday’s new comic book day to see what the variants are going for. If they’re going for at or below cover price, don’t mark up the price. This may turn customers off, but allowing them to purchase a variant at cover price will demonstrate how fair of an owner you are.
Graphic novels you can begin to pick up early as well. Focus on bringing in graphic novels with big named characters and popular series. Batman has always been a great seller. Newer series featuring upcoming TV series or movies sell really well. Image Comics graphic novels sell really well too. Stick with trade paperbacks because customers rarely want the more expensive hardcover. Go easy on buying too many graphic novels before you open. You’ll build your collection over time. Whenever a customer asks me to order them a graphic novel, I will buy two, one for them and one for the bookshelf.
Manga has a smaller following, but many of its fans are passionate. Others are often interested in getting into manga and want to try out new books. I recommend starting off with a few popular series, such as Attack on Titan, Death Note, One Piece, Naruto, Bleach, and/or Fairy Tale. You can often save by ordering the collected sets rather than each individual issue. If you don’t want to invest too heavily in manga, purchase the first few books and the newest books in each series. The first books in each series typically sell more than the rest of the series combined. If there becomes a larger following for these series or others, you can always invest more into them, but start off small at first.
For games, I recommend talking to your distributor’s sales representative about what’s hot, what’s new, and what you should preorder. Get a list and then do research on if they are in fact sellable items or if the sales rep is simply trying to push overstock products. I do recommend carrying standard, popular games such as Munchkin, 7 Wonders, Cards Against Humanity, Settlers of Catan, and Boss Monster, as well as a few games that have popular characters or series attached to them, such as Game of Thornes or The Walking Dead, and a few that have entertaining names, such as Exploding Kittens, or Poop: The Game by Breaking Games (ridiculously named games are eye catching to customers). Other niche games that have a strong following by a small number of fans (because of the cost) are Star Wars: Armada, Star Wars: X-Wing, Warhammer, and Warmachine. You’ll definitely want to stay well stocked with the newest Dungeons & Dragons books, miniatures, and accessories. Dice are always hot sellers. Keep a jar of single six-sided die and 20-sided die at or near your front counter, with dice sets (Chessex are the most popular) available in different colors as well. Your distributor often will have older games available at discounted rates that you can fill your shelves at a low cost. Keep your store well stocked with party games around the holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Fourth of July). Non-frequent customers will be looking for last minute games for their parties or family get-togethers and will want to avoid the busy box stores and want choices that they can’t find at the box stores. I’d recommend promoting discounts on games around these holidays.
If you decide to carry trading card games, you should stay well stocked on the latest booster boxes; especially Magic the Gathering and Pokemon. Magic the Gathering customers will continue to purchase older sets, as well as newer sets. Pokemon customers are either knowledgeable and want the latest set (which is why you want to always stay well stocked on the latest set), or they don’t know the difference between one set or the other and pick their boosters based off the character on the wrapper. You’ll also have a decent number of customers looking to purchase unopened booster boxes, so it’s important to have extras on hand. Call other stores in your area to see what they charge for unopened booster boxes to gauge how you should price them. You margins for unopened boxes typically aren’t great, but you want to meet the demand of customers, and if you charge significantly more than others in the area do, then you’ll lose your customer base. Same thing with booster packs. Box stores selling booster packs, but they typically sell them for around $4.50/pack. You should never charge more than $4.00/pack (which will typically give you around 50% price margin) and even offer discounts, such as three for $10.
Yu-Gi-Oh is another popular TCG. Their fans typically want the newest set, and even then, new sets are often labeled duds well before they’re released and customers won’t buy them. Yu-Gi-Oh releases new sets much more frequently than their competitors do. So if you carry Yu-Gi-Oh, you’ll need to remain in the loop of what’s hot and what’s not.
Star Wars Destiny is the newest game on the market. Their boosters feature a few cards and one die. All Star Wars Destiny boosters have sold out the moment they make into the store. A big reason for that is a lack of production with the first few series. When the second series released, stores were ordering 100 booster boxes and only ever receiving five or six boxes. It’s important to pay attention to production issues with this set. You will want to stay well stocked with it, but if they begin to meet the demand for the boosters, you don’t want to end up with 100 boxes that you can’t pay for and the demand has fallen.
Determine what other games customers in the community are interested in playing. Other sets include Force of Will, Buddyfight, Cardfight, Dragon Ball Super, Final Fantasy, and others. One way you can do this is by visiting the closest TCG stores and see what they carry. You can also submit a survey to your Facebook followers prior to opening to see what they’re in to. However, unless there’s a guaranteed large demand for another set, I recommend waiting to open before ordering any other sets. If a customer asks if you carry another set, tell them that you can order it, carry it if there is a demand for it, and then see if there is interest in holding weekly tournaments before investing too heavily in it. When I first opened, I had a group who asked if I carried one of these sets and said that they would shop at my store more often if I carried it instead of going to a store two towns away. I loaded up on the set, carrying different booster boxes and products. I saw that group maybe once more since that opening week and I sold next to nothing of any of that set. I ultimately ended up giving away many of these cards and donated the rest to local charities just to clear room on the shelf. So don’t always overreact to everything one or two customers say.
If you’re carrying trading card games, you’ll also want to sell products to accompany them. As mentioned earlier, dice sell really well to TCG players. Card sleeves also are a must-have if you’re selling trading card games. Dragon Shields sell the best, with KMC also selling well. You’ll also want to have cheaper options available for sleeves. Have a few playing mats in stock as well.
You want signage that stands out to people passing by, whether by car or on foot. If you’re in a downtown setting, a sign that sticks out from the building, with your name/logo on either side. You don’t want to be hidden in plain sight when you’re paying for a premiere location. If you’re in a strip mall, you’re best bet is to use a large sign that stands out and clearly says that you are a comic book store. If you are in a building by itself, you can use a variety of options; however, a large panel above the front entrance would be best. If you’re hidden from a main street, make sure there’s signage by a main street directing traffic your way.
You also want to utilize your windows properly. Always have a neon ‘Open’ sign that is visible to the street. Have a sign with store hours on the front door. Utilize 50% the rest of your window space for posters and signage of upcoming comic books, TCGs and other items that you carry. Leave about 25% of open window space for window shoppers and allow popular products to be visible. Also, leave space for community fliers. It’s important to scratch other businesses and community groups backs so that you can turn to them to scratch yours when needed.
Determine if you want to have a soft opening; opening for a week or two as you adjust to the store before your formal opening, or if you want to first open your doors with a grand opening. There’s pros and cons to both.
Doing a soft opening allows you to meet the customers and begin to gauge their interests while also making a profit. This works well if you’re still working on setting up your store or building your inventory. You can begin to purchase new comic books, but limit them to only a few until your grand opening. However, if your store is still being set up and you don’t have great inventory, customers who visit the store prior to its grand opening may be disappointed and dismiss your store as being unorganized or have a poor selection of products. First impressions are lasting impressions.
Kicking off with a grand opening prevents the previously mentioned negative perceptions; however, you will need be certain that your store is ready to be viewed by the public. You can always make changes to the store and add inventory, but the store needs to be in the condition that you want your customers to know it as and all the new comics for that week, with all the other products previously mentioned to get started with.
Your grand opening should be a large celebration, inviting the community residents to visit you on that day. Work with your local chamber of commerce to determine a day to hold the grand opening and to conduct a ribbon cutting ceremony. Wednesday’s work well because it’s new comic book day, which coincides well with the opening. Saturday’s are also good because most people have the day off and will be able to attend the opening. Avoid opening on weeks that are typical travel weeks, including any holiday that has a government three-day weekend, as customers are more likely be out of town.
Consider inviting local celebrities, especially comic book related celebrities, to sign autographs at your store that day to increase the demand for customers to visit your store. If you don’t have anyone locally, invite reasonably-likely-to-attend-celebrities (don’t invite Stan Lee or Ben Affleck) to help with your opening. Offer to compensate them for travel, lodging, and/or appearance fees. Second-tier celebrities who are selling their books or up and coming comic book artists/writers are your best options. Also, look at nearby comic cons/expos with celebrities in attendance and consider contacting them. If they’d do it for one nearby event, they’d likely do it for you as well.
Invite local newspapers and radio stations to your grand opening. Continue contacting them until they give you a definitive yes or no. They’re free publicity and reach a large audience. Offer coupons for discounts or free items (such as back issues or a pack of Pokémon cards) to local schools and community groups for that day only. Have discounts and giveaways throughout the day for everyone. Raffle off a couple of big-ticket items and use raffle tickets that require the customer to include their name, number and email address on it in order to enter. Keep the contact information for future email blasts. This is a great way to build your contact list.
Now You’re Ready
Once the dust clears from your grand opening, you’re store is now officially as a part of the community and you’re ready to conduct the daily duties of your business. Your grand opening will be one of the busiest days at your store, but then you’ll notice a drop off for a while. You’ll experience many ups and downs throughout your first few months, but don’t get discouraged. Use slow days to improve your store layout, network, and come up with new ideas to draw customers into your store. Just remember to stay positive and stay active in the community. Being shy and hoping that social media posts and emails or word of mouth is enough to grow your business then you’ll experience even more difficulties growing your business than you expected. Your store will succeed if you are committed to it.
Glossary of Terms
Collection Books – Are often special edition books containing many graphic novels or contain special features not included in a typical graphic novel.
Crossover Events – Large comic book events incorporating several different comic book series to create one large, usually important series.
Graphic Novel – A collection of several comics into one larger book. Trade paperbacks and hardcovers are your typical two options for graphic novels.
Manga – A form of Japanese comic books and graphic novels.
Pull List – A subscription service in which customer signs up and commits to purchase issues in a series and the store ensures they are in stock and set aside for the customer. Payments are typically paid after the customer receives the comic.
Speculators – Customers buying only comics they expect to increase in value as an investment.
Variant Cover – A specially created cover that is sold in addition to the regular cover of an issue. They typically have a theme, special guest artist, or cool alternative to the regular cover. They are also rarer than the regular cover.
Starting a Comic Book Store Part 1