On Business: A FCBD Story

By | Monday, May 05, 2014 1 comment
This past weekend, of course, included Free Comic Book Day. I stopped by a shop I had visited once before, thinking it would be a relatively quick trip because it's a terrible shop and who in the right mind would go there? Turned out that I was wrong. Not about it being a terrible shop (it exemplified it even moreso) but in that it would be a quick trip.

I'd visited this shop once before. It was very small, and extraordinarily crowded. Many of the hardcovers and trade paperbacks were almost impossible to get to because they were simply stacked from the floor. If you wanted something towards the bottom, it'd take ten minutes to move the other books out of the way to get to it. It looks like there may have been some organization once upon a time, but I couldn't see how that might be a continued policy to the current day. I think there used to be a Marvel section and DC section, but those lines got very blurred. The undergrounds area (mostly Crumb) included Red 5's Atomic Robo and IDW's artist editions. Even the rack of new books didn't make sense and included some magazines that were at least five years old. The couple of windows at the front of the store are largely blocked by signage, and not all of the flourescent lights through the rest of the store work. The only reason I could really see for using the store was if you couldn't get to the next nearest one 10-15 miles further south.

(The photo is the actual store. No sign actually giving the shop name, and you can't even tell what they carry from across the parking lot -- you have almost no hope figuring out what it is from the street.)

I was actually curious to see how this shop would handle the free comics because I couldn't figure out where he would even display a single issue. But the FCBD site said he was participating, so I went.

He actually had most of the FCBD offerings, which I found very surprising. He placed them in short boxes in the very back of the store, apparently moving some of the short boxes he usually had there into some off-site (or at least out of sight) storage. And while that notion does make sense from the standpoint of getting your potential customers to walk past everything you have for sale in order to get to the free stuff, it was literally a one-person-wide corridor to get back there, and there was only really enough room for two, maybe three, people to peruse the free comics. So there was a huge bottleneck as people went through all the offerings (he was allowing people to select up to ten issues each) and another bottleneck as people were trying to walk back to or back from that area of the store.

The checkout line then strecthed from his counter at the front to nearly all the way back to where the corridor for the free comics started. So there was literlly a line of people that went from the register to the very back of the store, with a weird jumble somewhere in the middle where the two lines overlapped. The checkout line was long because the owner was doing all the work by himself. He would look at what books you had, then pull out his calculator to figure out what he was actually going to charge you (there were a variety of sales on most of his inventory), then he'd write that down on a sheet of paper, then figure out the tax on that, then plug that into his register, then he'd bag all of your books, give a minute-long pitch on how he can do custom orders, before finally taking your payment.

Oh, and he stopped everything to pick up the phone every time it rang and answers questions (mostly shop hours). It rang about every third or fourth customer.

Why he bothered getting someone else in to help, I don't know, because the other guy wasn't really doing very much.

I spent a solid hour in the shop, 45 minutes of which was me standing in line. I saw more than a few people who put books down and just walk out of the store. I was sorely tempted myself.

I know several of the people in line were in the store for the first time, having heard about FCBD day from somewhere else. I can't imagine that gave them a good impression.

What I can't figure out is what this guy's business savvy is like. Despite the dirty appearance (did I mention that many of the statue and toy boxes have very visible layers of dust on them?), lousy lighting, piss-poor organization, cramped quarters, and entirely absent/obscured marketing, he's directing customers to the back of his store for the free comics, he had a significant sale on most of his purchasable stock, he made a point of interacting with each customer and noting the shop's other offerings... For almost every thing he was doing horribly, horribly wrong, he was actually getting a number of things right. Was he just stumbling onto good ideas randomly without having a clue what he's really doing? Does he feel appearances are irrelevant as long as you provide a full range of stock and solid customer service? (He was attending to each customer personally, if not effeciently relative to the long line of people.) Did he just get a tip sheet of dos and don'ts, and he's following exactly and only those bullet points?

I kind of want to go back to ask him about his business plan.

Except I'm afraid I might get lost in there and trapped under a pile of collapsed DC Essentials.
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Matt K said...

So, this is actually fascinating because I have encountered much the same situation at Carol & John's, which I regard as an awesome shop.

Caveats: I'm not sure I've ever been there on Saturday, so they may do it differently then. And I didn't actually go on Friday night either, this year, so perhaps something changed. But, based on their blog post, it sounded at any rate like they were expecting the same situation as years past, i.e., a long, long, long line (45 minutes, nothing!) gradually snaking through a narrow bottleneck.

Frankly, until now I've basically just taken this for granted. Yet now that you mention it, it does seem like: couldn't this be improved? At least a little. (For what it's worth they do manage better wrt purchases, with multiple people at work ringing up customers, and the line there is much shorter even with their crazy numbers.)

Great post… thanks for taking one for the team. :-)