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My name is Mike Sterling, and I sell comic books for a living.

Since my place of employment is a comic shop, I don't often go to other stores to do my funnybook shopping. First, the last thing I want to do on my day off is be in another comic shop, and second, our store satisfies most of my comic needs as it is, so I really don't need to go elsewhere.

However, there was a time, a few years back, when there were far more comic book retail outlets in our general area and I was more inclined to go visit them. One such store, no longer in business, was about forty-five minutes away, and it had a reasonable back issue selection. At the time, my own vast comic archives weren't as impressive as they are currently, so I decided to make the trek to do a little shopping there, and maybe fill some holes in the collection.

The store's posted hours for that day were 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM. I arrived there just prior to 11, so I sat in the car and waited for them to open.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Since I had already made the drive, I wasn't really anxious to call the trip a wash and head back. Instead, I poked around in the local music store to kill some time. By the time I returned to the comic shop, at about noon, it had finally opened up.

I did a little shopping, found a few things I'd been looking for, and was ready to cash out.

Note: I was ready to cash out.

The clerk, however, wasn't ready to let me cash out. You see, there was an arcade game in the store, which, I know from my own retail experience, is a great way to grab a bunch of spare quarters customers would otherwise keep in their pockets. However, it also a great way to distract those unburdened with a work ethic from their employment duties.

So, yes, I had to wait until the clerk was done playing his game before I could pay for my items.

(And, yes, I know I should have just dropped the items on the counter and left, but a couple of the items I was waiting to purchase were fairly rare, and, well, you know how comic book collectors are.)

So, right off the bat, here are two of the things you can do as a comic book retailer (or as a retailer in general) to keep your customers happy:

OPEN ON TIME: If you have posted hours (and if you don't, why not), stick to them. Like I said above, the only reason I stuck around and waited for the shop to open was because I didn't want to have been on the road for most of an hour for nothing. However, other customers, either local or just passing through town, may be less inclined to wait, meaning lost sales.

Now, I'm not completely unreasonable. Stuff happens...maybe the clerk was caught in traffic, or there was an emergency at home, or who knows what else. Sometimes there's a one-time problem that just can't be avoided, and opening the store suddenly becomes less of a priority. However, I can tell you that, in the case of this particular shop, this was a fairly common problem.

DON'T MAKE THE CUSTOMER WAIT TO PAY: If the customer is waiting because you're overwhelmed with other customers, or you're stuck on the phone, or you're dealing with some kind of immediate problem, and nobody 's free to get to the register, that's one thing. If there's an honest-to-goodness good reason why you can't get to the register right away, most customers will understand. However, making them wait because you're in the middle of a video game, or playing a hand of Magic: The Gathering, or flirting with the cute goth girl -- none of those really count as good reasons, now do they? Okay, maybe the flir...no, no, no, I didn't say that.

Before I go any further, let me state that it's not as if our store is any paragon of retail perfection. We have our problems, things occasionally go awry, and there's always room for improvement. At least we're aware of the problems and attempt to fix them.

Some other issues I've noticed in my visits to other shops:

CLEAN UP ONCE IN A WHILE: It's a cliche, I know. Every article ever written about making comic shops presentable includes the words "sweep," "dust," and "vacuum," and I suppose I won't be any different. I will add that if you have posters in your front window, and they're all colored various shades of blue, and they weren't blue when you first taped them up...it's probably time to change them out for some new ones.

ORGANIZE: A little bit of organization goes a long way to making your customers happy. If your customer asks you for a back issue, and you have to spend twenty minutes searching through unmarked boxes before finally finding it, you might want to reconsider your filing system.

To use our store as an example, the new comics are on one wall, organized alphabetically. The back issues are located in two places: we have three tables of back issues on the floor, with two tables organized alphabetically (I'll get to the third table in a moment). Against another wall, behind the glass counters, and several metal shelves filled with back issue boxes, organized by publisher (Marvel or DC), or by type (Disney and other all age comics, for example), and so on.

Bookshelves are organized by genre (which, yes, means a big ol' superhero rack, but spaces for "drama" and "crime" and "science fiction" as well). You don't have to go that far, but some kind of organizational method will help both the customer and you quickly track things down.

Lots of signs and labels will help your customers get around, particularly if you do something odd with your organization. For example, the third table I mentioned before is used to keep recent back issues of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and X-Men together. I organized it like this since, to use Superman as an example, half the Superman books would be alphabetized under "A" (for Action and Adventure) and the others would be under "S" (for Superman, natch). This way, all the Superman issues are within easy reach of each other. That doesn't keep people from sometimes initially looking for Action under "A" at first, but having a big, easy-to-read sign that says "SUPERMAN" helps direct people in the proper direction.

LEAVE SOME SPACE FOR THE CUSTOMER: I realize that if you have a smaller store, it's very easy for things to become cramped for space right quickly. However, no customer wants to feel like he or she is wandering through some kind of labyrinth just to shop. Keep those aisles clear, as best you can. If your customer has to step over boxes or books or (according to a story I just heard recently) sleeping bags to reach merchandise, then you've got some work to do.

KEEP THE MERCHANDISE NICE: I've seen stores where the new comics were literally crammed into metal or wooden racks, crunched and bent, with overflow spilling out onto the floor. That's no exaggeration...if I were a jerk, I could tell you which stores and where. Honestly, as a peddler of funnybooks myself, I really can't fathom why any store would treat their merchandise in this fashion.

BE INFORMED: If you work in a comic book store, you should have at least a vague awareness of comics, creators, publishers, and so on. You may not have to know, for example, in which issue of X-Men Iceman turned from the "snowy" Iceman to the more "icy" Iceman, but you should at least know that Superman is published by DC Comics and Spider-Man is published by Marvel Comics. Yes, I've been to stores where the clerks didn't even know that. Useful reference guides, like the Overstreet Price Guide and Krause's Standard Catalog of Comic Books, can help you answer questions that have got you stumped. Or, if you have an internet connection, Google is your friend.


Posters: Personally, I try to avoid hanging up posters with oversexualized or overly violent content. With Chaos Comics defunct, this is less of a problem, but there are still plenty of publishers who think nothing of sending along promo posters with a nearly-nude woman bent over, exposing her ample assets. And there are plenty of stores who think nothing of hanging said poster up, usually right next to the register. Well, given that there's a good portion of the general public that believes "comic book store" is right below "whorehouse" on the respectability scale, I don't think I should encourage that belief by hanging up posters that may offend Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Smith of Anytown, USA. Of course, this all depends on your local community...we seem to get more than our fair share of church marms, for some reason, so we gotta be a little more sensitive with our displays.

Music: "Not distracting" would be your best bet. "Not filled with vulgarity" would be next on the list. "Too loud to hear anything the customer is saying to you" is not a good idea.

Clothes: I'm not going to be a fashion fascist here...you don't need to wear a suit and tie or anything. A t-shirt is fine. Just make it a clean t-shirt, for heaven's sake. And make sure there's no unfortunate language (bad) or pictures of genitalia (worse) emblazoned upon it.

WATCH YOUR MOUTH, SAILOR: This ain't the docks, pal. This is a retail establishment, so don't work the room blue, as it were. Also, it's a good idea to not loudly bad-mouth comics or creators in the store. You don't want to scare off the customer from buying the comic you're slagging. However, if someone's asking you your honest opinion on a comic you don't happen to like, you can find a nice way to say so, can't you?

A comic book store is a business, first and foremost. It's not a clubhouse for you and your buddies, it's not a place to store your personal collection and sometimes sell a comic on the side...it's a business, and if you respect it as such, your customers will as well.

But, honestly, vacuum once in a while. What, would it kill you?

If you have any comments, questions, complaints, or even if you just want to say "hello," please feel free to e-mail me at cbg (at) progressiveruin.com. It'd be swell to hear from you!

-- Mike Sterling

The ADD Blog by Alan David Doane. Trouble with Comics Reviews of comics and graphic novels. Commentary about the artform and industry of comics. Get back to the main page.

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