So you’ve found a perfect location for your store, you’ve got inventory, and you’ve tested out selling at small one day conventions. Now you need to hire staff (or not), develop some store policy, and implement the customer service model that you want to drive sales and create return customers.

I’ll only lightly touch upon HR here, because Scott and I will return to this topic in a few months when we talk about costs, but I would want to give you a few things to think about. First, you need to familiarize yourself with whatever labour laws exist in your province or state. Most places have laws that govern minimum wage, number of hours that can be worked (before and after overtime kicks in), vacation time, sick days, maternity leave, and safety regulations. At this time I would stress the importance of knowing and understanding these laws. I talked with a number of store owners or staff that are innocently unaware of these regulations, but that can cause major trouble down the road. It is better to prepared.

But let’s say that you’ve hired some great staff, paid them a good wage, and ensure that their hours and work conditions meet any legislative requirements in your country. Next is developing store policies and a customer service model.

Your store polices should cover a wide range of situations that commonly occur in a retail environment. For example, what is your police on returns? Do customers need a receipt? Does the return need to occur within 14 days? Is it exchange only? And so on and so forth. You will need to develop polices that work for you, but you don’t want to get too far away from industry standard. For example most retail places allow unopened returns between 14-30 days. So if you made your policy 24 hours that would set you apart from other stores in a potentially negative way.

Other policies that you’ll want to consider are things like the employee dress code. Do you have a specific shirt or garment that you want them to wear? Do you want them to wear name tags? Are you okay with shorts, tank tops, etc. All of these choices contribute toward your brand and how you want the customer to perceive your shop.

Which brings us to the larger topic of customer service. This is an aspect of the comic book retail industry that hasn’t really matured as much as Scott and I would have liked. It has a long way to go. I think that this is partly due to the fact that stores sell a product that customers want, and therefore will purchase no matter how poor the service is. There are many stores that have awful service, but they do incredibly well because they are in large cities that have the demographics that work in their favour, or they are from smaller municipalities where they are the only game in town. Either way, customers keep coming back because they need their Batman book, and not because they get a great customer experience.

The problem with this mentality is that you only get customers that are already fans of your product, but you are not creating new customers and fans. Comic books aren’t competing with other comics books anymore; they are competing with video games, movies, and television for the entertainment dollar. Without bringing in new customers the existing pool of comic book fans will dry up and the industry will be hard hit.

While there are some exceptions, in general most customers are looking for a few, but key, elements in a retail setting.

  1. Clean and tidy store.
  2. Friendly staff.
  3. Knowledgeable staff.
  4. Manufacturer’s suggested retail price on items.

That is pretty much it. It you can deliver on these 4 items you would please 90% of the customers that walked through your door. So let’s start with having a clean and tidy store. Sigh. This is where a big chunk of stores fail. They are messy, overflowing with product, have a layer of dust on unsold items, or have unwashed or vacuumed floors. In a lot of cases I actually think that the size of the store is the culprit. You may want to carry a wide variety of product, which is great, but it should fit cleanly on your shelves and fixtures. If your product isn’t falling all over the place you will have an easier time keeping your store clean.

A clean store is more inviting and makes it easier to see product, which means it makes it easier to sell product. I know that some shops have their shelves rammed with product because they want customers to do some digging and discover the treasures within their shop. I’ve talked with some store owners that liken their model to that of a used bookstore: full of the unknown. This model would work pretty well for you if you didn’t carry new product, but customers don’t want to search through nooks and crannies for new comics. Furthermore, even used bookstores tend to organize their wares by genre or author name, so it isn’t a total higglety-pigglety jumble. If your store has a unique system that is fine, as long as your staff can easily find items.

Which brings us to having friendly and knowledgeable staff. Customers should be greeted with a hello within 30 seconds of entering into a store. The customer should know that someone is there who can help them if they need anything. Staff should be pleasant, refrain from cursing, and should be free from odour and sarcasm. I mention the last two because there is still a general perception of comic book store employees that they will look and act like a character from the Simpsons. On a personal level you or your employees might not like a product or title that you sell. That is fine, but that might be a customers favourite title so they probably shouldn’t be told they are stupid and that their tastes are trash. You are allowed to have opinions, but you don’t need to belittle your customers. They don’t come to a store to feel insulted.

Finally, the price of items need to be in line with what the manufacturer set as the sale price. If a comic book says $4 on the cover it needs to be sold for $4. This causes a unique problem for Canadian store because of the (current) exchange rate. You need to let your customers know that they will need to pay more because of the exchange. Customers don’t mind once they have the information, but they don’t like discovering it on their receipt.

You don’t need to create this amazing customer experience every time. That is, you store doesn’t need to go beyond expectations every time a customer visits. In fact, there is a good deal of research that shows going beyond expectations only moderately raises the level of customer retention. What is a far more effect method of customer retention is how well you meet their expectations and how quickly and easily you deal with any problems that your customer may have. For the latter you will need to empower your employees to be able to deal with issues that arise. Maybe a customer missed the return policy by a day? Are you going to have the employee take the return (fixing the problem for the customer) or are you going to make the customer come back later when the owner is working (pushed solving the problem back to the customer)? You need to fix customer issues quickly with as few steps for the customer as possible.

None of this means that you can’t make your store unique or have our own specific brand, but you need to address the basic expectations of the retail sector. Next time, Scott and I are going to talk about the types of things you can do to separate yourself from the competition and make your store the special snowflake that it is.