Ed Catto: Comics and Retailing Done Right
My daughter is a college freshman, and she’s going to be working at the popular yoga and athletic apparel retailer Lululemon over her holiday break. It makes all the sense in the world as she’s focused on fitness and is a certified yoga instructor. She told the family a little about her training, and I was struck by some of the very thoughtful and progressive business practices the company embraces in order to make customers feel like they are truly guests. And at the core, they want to hire people who are passionately involved in fitness so that the retailer can best connect and care for their customers’ needs.
And then I thought about that “front line of pop culture,” our nation’s 2,000 comic shops. One of the reasons comic shops are thriving, while other, more established retailers are stumbling (I’m looking at you, Wal-Mart), is because comic shops know how to shift customers out of that “us vs. them” conundrum and into a “we’re all in this together” mindset.
Comic shops can be fun and engaging in ways far beyond those of ordinary retailers. Many times it starts with the people, and like Lululemon in the example above, the best-in-class comic shop retailers also recruit fans and “experts” to not only sell merchandise, but to help the clientele find what they need.
My great friend Greg Price used to tell a story about Seattle’s Zanadu Comics. At one point, they sent him a copy of a comic that they knew he’d like – even after he had moved to New Jersey the year before. That’s dedication. And that goes far beyond an Amazon recommendation, doesn’t it?
My exposure to comic shop retailing started in the 70s. I was a voracious reader, and I loved and collected comics. I made a weekly pilgrimage to the local convenience store (even though we called it a “Food Store” back then). I even studied the on-shelf patterns so I could predict when different comic titles would be on sale.
While I was riding my bike back from one of these weekly pilgrimages, I saw an astounding sight. A man and a woman were moving boxes of comics into a small store. Boxes of comics? A store? At that time, I was vaguely aware that there were some stores dedicated to selling comics. But all those stores were located in mythical, far away lands with names like “New York City” and “Rochester.”
I introduced myself and wanted to dive in a right away. They told me, politely but firmly, that they’d be opening tomorrow and I could return then to peruse and purchase. I had to wait a whole day. I’m sure I muttered something like, “What a rip-off!”
But I returned the next day and many days after that. To me and my little gang of hoodlums friends, this comic shop was more than just a retailer. It was our entry point into a wonderful world full of stories, collectibles and adventures. And we knew even then that the swimming pool of pop culture was so big and wide that we would dive in and never have to come out. That retailer, Kim Draheim, knew it too and as an apostle of Geek Culture, helped foster a love of the industry that continues for all of us to that day.
I’ve caught up with Kim and next week we’ll catch up this early comic shop pioneer and explore the days of the direct retail market from his unique point of view.