Saturday, May 28, 2005

Store Visits and Other Stuff...

Well, here we are again. Miss me? I missed you.

I visited another of the region's comic book stores today. I finally got to Richmond Comix, and it was certainly worth the effort. I have to admit, I wasn't sure what to expect, but in the end I was pretty impressed. Richmond Comix is a really good comic book store.

I had visited their website, which is actually a FINE site. It lists information about the store, but more than that, there is a level of interactivity that is rare. Not only was there a forums/blog section of the site, but subscribers could actually update their pull lists directly from the site. Now THAT is customer service. In addition, the pictures of the store are the right kinds of pictures -- picture of the interior, not of the outside of the place which does nothing to help convey what it is all about. If I have one criticism about the pictures they have on the site it is that they don't have any people in them. It is ALL about the inventory. A bit of personality in the pictures would go a long way toward conveying what the store is all about.

Anyway, back to the visit. From downtown Richmond to Richmond Comix, it is about a 30 minute drive. Midlothian, VA is WAY out to the west of the city. After the first 10 minutes of driving, it was apparent to me that while I was looking forward to learning what I could from my visit, I would not have to consider Richmond Comix to be a competitor once I open my store somewhere in Richmond proper. It is just too far out to be drawing from the same customer base.

Which is a good thing because the Big Monkey that I have envisioned in my head is actually very similar to the Richmond Comix experience.

When you walk in, the all ages books are immediately and prominently displayed on your right. This is a critical and important decision on the part of the proprietor. I have long believed (as does Devon over at Seven Hells that if the comic book industry is going to survive, you HAVE to keep refreshing your customer base. Kids must be given the product they need to get hooked, and stores must be laid out in such a way as to convince parents that they can bring their kids in the first place. The placement of the Marvel Age, scooby Doo, Classics Illustrated, etc. books at the front so that they are the first thing a customer sees is a good way to help this process along.

Graphic novels and the like take up the middle section of the right wall with the new issues in the back on the right wall. Recent issues take up the majority of the left wall while Manga were in a display at the front. Down the middles of the store, when I was there, there were Pokemon and Hero Clix tournaments going on. Sweet. During the week, I gather, the long boxes with the back issues are placed upon the tables that are used for the tournaments on the weekends.

To top it all off, there were cases near the cash register that had singles of Hero Clix, Pokemon, and the like for sale, and tucked off to the left of the register were the role playing and hobby gaming supplies.

Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to talk to the proprietor because Wyatt, my son, had actually fallen asleep on the drive over and I was carrying his barely conscious body around the store for the majority of the time I was there. Also, because of this, I was only able to stay in the store for about 10 minutes, but it had a nice feel to it.

On another note, I swung by Velocity Comics this past week and had a delightful conversation with Patrick, the co-owner of the place. He is a real down-to-Earth guy that I very much enjoyed talkig with. I encourage those of you in the are that have not visited him and Velocity Comics to do so.

Psychologically, this has been an up and down kind of week for me. I must admit that I have had some doubts this week about getting Big Monkey up and running. I never doubted my desire to do this, nor my ABILITY to do this, but I was constantly dealing with the question of, "does Richmond actually NEED another comic book store?" After all, there are three (at least) in the city as well as four or more in the suburbs. That's a lot. But on the flip side, the suburban stores are REALLY in the burbs -- they don't pull from the same client base (theoretically).

But in the end, this is something that I am committed to doing. And I think the next phase in this process will be in locating a prime location. The area around VCU and the West End have got stores. Other parts of the city...not so much. Location will be critical to the success of the store.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

I'm BACK...Sort Of

Sorry for not writing anything for the past eight days. The reason for my absence is that this past Thursday my computer hard drive FRIED. I mean it just died. I lost everything.

All of my thought and plans for the store -- gone.

E-mail addresses of friends and family -- gone.

Sentimental stuff -- gone.

I'm not exactly sure what happened, but suffice it to say that it has been a rough week or so. We are going to try and hire a company to help us retrieve the data, but...well, we'll see.

Anyway, let this be a lesson to you, ALWAYS back up your data. I never did that. I had never had a hard drive crash, so I figured I was imune. Silly human.

Anyway, I'll get back into the groove of things on Thursday (I'd post tomorrow, but it is the season finale of LOST, so I'll be a little busy trying to figure out the island's secrets).

Thank you all for your patience. Talk to you soon.

peace.

Monday, May 16, 2005

I See Comic Stores!

Okay, so here I am, a few days after my last post, and I am proud to report that I have started visiting the other comic stores in the area.

I was able to visit three different Richmond-area comic stores over the past few days. Each store offered a VERY different take on the comic book store experience, and it was a very enlightening experience.

The first store I visited was definitely the best of the three. Velocity Comics on Grace Street down by VCU is a solid comic book store. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of the place to show you (like I do for the other two stores) but please don’t hold that against me or my "review" of the store! First and foremost, the staff of the store was extremely friendly and willing to engage in conversation. In addition, they didn’t seem to mind that my 2-year-old, Zane, wanted to jog around the store a bit. This kind of engagement with the customer goes a LONG way in my book.

New releases are posted along the wall immediately to your left as you came in, while the older issues were in a separate, farther back section of the store. As far as the layout and decor of the store went, it was a bit bare bones, but not in a bad sort of way. As the store’s proprietor told me, their prime audience is VCU students and faculty. Hence they didn’t feel the need to carry product or lay out the store in a way that was geared toward a younger or less hardcore audience. The upside of this philosophy was the nice focus on independent books.

The store also offers a 10% discount on EVERYTHING in the store to subscribers...which is a pretty sweet deal. From a business perspective, I’d love to talk with Patrick Godfrey, the store’s proprietor, about how this impacts the bottom line (other than the obvious loss of 10% of your profits). I’ve been leaning toward the idea of offering 10% store credit as opposed to the discount (especially since as a startup every nickel is sacred). If you are in direct competition with another store, then it may be necessary to offer a discount to pull customers away from the other store, but my belief is that if you can create a store that is a true destination shop and the center of a customer community, then you attract the kind of clientele that doesn’t care about 5% or 10% off. They will keep coming back because they are loyal to the store and the people who run it and they have an emotional stake in seeing the place survive.

On the whole, this is a great little store that I’m happy is right around the corner from my house and that will definitely be getting a new subscriber starting this week.

The second store I visited was Dave’s Comics, a store that has been around for quite a while. Interestingly, Dave’s was almost the exact opposite of Velocity Comics. This store carried comics, but the back issues were in long boxes stacked three and four high and the new issues were tucked into the back corner. The only way you could get to them was to walk through the somewhat labyrinthine racks of toys that just dominates the shop. And they are toys that mostly have to do with comics, but there is a lot of stuff that has absolutely NOTHING to do with comic books. My son, Wyatt, was particularly drawn to a display of glass eggs in the front and a miniature air hockey game about midway back in the store.

Furthermore, there was little inviting about the store for the comic book consumer. Because the comics were tucked in the back, those that were interested in them were forced to kind of scurry to the back to acquire their books. And the walkways were so thin that there was no way to stand around and talk with other customers or the proprietor without being in someone’s way. In other words, the store didn’t put a very high priority on creating a customer community – something that Velocity does just by being a more open store with places for people to talk and debate the finer points of Marvel vs DC vs indy (and having employees that seem to WANT to talk about these things helps as well).

My final stop for the week was Nostalgia Plus.


This store was somewhere in between Velocity and Dave’s in terms of appeal. It most certainly is a comic book store, and one that carries a bunch of back issues that can easily be browsed through. Without going into great detail (because I HAVE droned on quite a bit today) there was absolutely nothing wrong with the store --- it had a lot of comics and the toys and other ancillary stuff they carried was almost ALL comic related. But that being said, there wasn’t anything about it that spoke to me. Not being negative, it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Okay, I’m outta here. I’ll be checking out some other stores this week, and I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

So What Exactly Should Big Monkey Sell?

Okay, here are my initial thoughts on what the store is gong to have. Please feel free to tell me where you think I should make edits and the like.

Store Name: Big Monkey Comics

Focus of the Store: The store will focus most heavily on selling comics books and those games and related products that support the theme of comic books. These products will include (in no particular order):
  • Significant portion of the top 150 comics
  • Indy comics as they pique my interest or are demanded by my clientele
  • Manga (I have to admit I know very little about the genre, but – as I understand it – it can be purchased and sit on a shelf for a while before going stale, so it seems like a safe bet to make at least a small investment in this area)
  • Back Issues (I’ve got about 4,500 of my own that will form the core back issue stock. I doubt I will buy back issues from customers unless they are rare finds and the like.)
  • Graphic Novels and Trade Paperbacks
  • Magazines
    ∙ Wizard
    ∙ Star Wars Insider
    ∙ Previews
    ∙ Etc.
  • Games
    ∙ Hero Clix
    ∙ Star Wars Minis
    ∙ D&D Miniatures
    ∙ Pirates
    ∙ VS Cards
    ∙ Teen Titans Go! Cards
    ∙ City of Heroes Cards
    ∙ Magic The Gathering Cards
    ∙ Yu-Gi-Oh Cards
    ∙ D&D
    ∙ Hero System Accessories
    ∙ Dice & Dice Bags
  • Statues, maquettes, busts, replica swords and phasers, and other decorations
  • T-shirts
  • Action Figures
  • Posters
  • Comic book storage
    ∙ Bags
    ∙ Boards
    ∙ Boxes
  • Vending machines (If I do a gaming section then I think it would make some sense to put food and drink in the store)
  • A gallery space that would allow for the sale of full-sized and framed comic book art, whether it is page layouts and the like or stand alone, original art. (THIS is something that I envision as helping to broaden the appeal of the store and the products being sold. Have you noticed that when you frame something, you force a viewer to immediately invest a bit more attention in the item? It may invariably still be dismissed by the observer, but for a brief second, you have them and you are forcing them to review the work rather than simply pass it by. I’ll talk more about this in later installments.)
  • Gaming tables (The square footage and layout of the space will dictate exactly how many and in what configuration – permanent or folding tables, a prominent placement or more tucked in the back.)
  • A Donkey Kong video games (You HAD to see that coming.)

And now for something completely different.... I will be visiting the first of the existing Richmond stores tomorrow. My first stop will be Velocity Comics on Grace Street down by VCU. I’ll provide you with my thoughts on Friday, but don’t expect any flames (unless there is something REALLY wrong with the store and the way they treat their customers). I am committed to keeping everything I write for this blog, if not positive, at least civilized.

I can’t wait to check it out!

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Time to Put Up Or Shut Up

Wow, what a week it has been.

In short, my life has now officially changed and there is no going back to the way it once was. As of May 6, I am no longer employed. For the first time since my senior year in high school, I don’t have a job – even in college I worked for 4 years in the mail room.

In addition, I am now officially, and from this point forward, a Richmonder. My wife threw a wonderful surprise party for me on Friday. More than a dozen adults, and easily as many kids between 2 and 8. These are my new neighbors. These are people that I have met but hardly know. And yet, they all came to my new home to welcome me to the city and wish me well on my future endeavors, whatever they may be. It was shocking and extremely fulfilling. It was also not something that I could EVER have envisioned happening in my former home of Arlington, Virginia. Yes, my dear friends and other would have come to such a party, and I would have loved it. But this was different. These were, for all intents and purposes, strangers – parents of the kids my friends play with. In Arlington, the pace of life is just too fast, the schedules just too packed, the idea of going out of your way to welcome a new neighbor to the block too foreign.

In just a few short hours, I realized that I have found that place I have long looked for. An open and inviting kind of town. A place that has a slower pace of life and yet still has an appreciation for the diverse and quirky. I’ve found a place that invites you to compare what was to what can be. I’ve found a place I WANT to call home. A place that I want to know inside and out. A place that I want to be part of.

But you know what, it’s a damn good thing that I do feel that way because if I didn’t...well, I’d be in a heap of trouble. Quit my job, move my family, chase a dream in a place that turns out to be lousy? Oh, I’d be paying a very steep price for THAT miscalculation.

And that is something that I don’t need to deal with just now as I am beginning to realize how truly difficult this quest of mine is going to be.

Monday, May 02, 2005

P.O.S.

Well, I think I am closing in quickly on my point-of-sale (POS) system. While there are several pieces of retail software on the market right now, they aren’t very customizable, and they can be pretty expensive. Considering I am sure that I am going to end up wanting to modify how I track my customers’ (and particularly subscribers) purchasing patterns, I wasn’t too sold on the fact that the search parameters for historical data was (for the most part) pretty limited.

Enter a dear friend of mine who is a database guru and who actually ENJOYS the process of creating these things. Well, after a few discussions, he has began the process of putting the system together. He has also been helping me put together the hardware (scanner gun, cash drawer, etc.) that I will need, and doing so at a price that, I think, is going to end up being considerably cheaper than buying a system off the shelf.

Strangely enough, do you know what one of the bigger stumbling blocks I’ve run into has been? Getting the scanner gun to read the entire bar code on a comic book. Apparently comic books have an extra couple of digits in their bar code to represent the issue name and number. This is confusing our poor gun right now. Donn (my friend and IT department) has been exchanging e-mails with the company and they seem confident that they can work this out, but still. It SEEMS pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Oh well, at this point I’m not terribly worried. If this particular brand of scanner gun doesn’t work out, we can always get another. Just the fact that these kind of concrete steps are being taken has given my spirits a lift.

Another thing that is helping my mood is the fact that my current employer (for whom I will be working for just another few days) gave me a bonus today that was both unexpected and extremely appreciated. With this money, I can suddenly make those initial investments that I had been a bit reluctant to make at this time — even though I knew they would have to be made at some point — hence the sudden movement on the POS system. I think I may just have to name the store’s computer system in honor of my former employers.