Rating & Reviewing Comic Shops: CBD Secret Shopping

Anthony forwarded a link to me today for BlogTO and their Best Comic Shops In Toronto. It’s a nice snapshot of comic shops, listing one to nine, but absolutely no criteria are defined for what put these shops on the list and in the order provided. It’s hard to put any worth into a “best of” list if you don’t know what they’re basing it on. And that got me thinking: what criteria would fit rating and reviewing a comic shop?

After the Joe Shuster Awards last weekend in Montreal I had a chance to speak with Rob Haines, Shuster retailer liaison and force behind the Harry Kremer Retailer Award, about retailing and Canadian comic shops. He said there were about 300 comic shops currently in Canada, and each one represents our hobby to everyone that walks in the door. That conversation and the list discussed above made me want to develop a secret shopper program here at Comic Book Daily.

Since clearly defined criteria are a must I turned first to The Joe Shuster Awards and their clearly defined list. These are expanded upon at the site so I suggest everyone go there and give it a full on read, then come back.

  1. Support of a wide variety of innovative material
  2. Overall appeal of the store
  3. Knowledge
  4. Community activity
  5. Adherence to standard ethical business practices

So, now that you’ve read the defined criteria, which work well for a retailing award for best of, let’s see what we can change or focus for our ratings. Let’s look at the store from the outside in, as a customer would from their initial and subsequent visits. The customer approaches the store: is it clearly defined, inviting, open for reasonable shopping hours? Once inside, how does the store appear? Can the customer locate what they’re looking for? Is the customer greeted by the staff? Can the staff point the customer to the various products? Can the staff provide recommendations? Is there a breadth of material available? If the shop focuses on one area of comics, do they have the knowledge and product in that specialty? Can requested products be ordered? Are there any membership or rewards programs? Is the purchasing process efficient? Would the customer return?

Let’s define our criteria in a handy list.

  1. Appeal of the store
  2. Customer service and knowledge
  3. Shopping experience

A breakdown of the three criteria items above. At this point they should have equal weight in an overall rating, with a store of 1 to 5 assigned to each for a possible total score of 15.

Appeal of the store. The overall look of the store, inside and out. Clean, bright, organized, inviting.

Customer service and knowledge. Friendly, helpful, interested and knowledgeable staff. Services offered in store such as subscription service, discount cards, events such as signings.

Shopping experience. Well laid out store with easy to find items. Depth and breadth of product. Not every store can specialize in all areas of comics so if the store is mainstream comics, graphic novels, manga, small press or anything in between that area of expertise is well represented.

This is the tip of the iceberg and much debate will rage before we proceed. Diamond, the comics distributor, has a secret shopper program and I’m looking into their criteria to see what we can borrow. I’m posting this in the hopes the vox populi will weigh in via the comments section and let us know what they want to see from a comic shop.

Scott VanderPloeg
Scott VanderPloeg

Scott works in I.T. but lives to eat and read. His other ramblings can be found at AE Index and eBabble. Art collection at Comic Art Fans.

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Anthony Falcone
11 years ago

I would also add that the secret shopping will not be done by us. We at CBD have preconceived notions and strong opinions about a lot of the shops and would not want already established judgements to cloud this noble effort.

Leigh Hart
11 years ago

I would love to do this, once with a male customer and again with a female. Some stores the service would be no different, but others would be two totally different experiences.

11 years ago

I’m probably gonna get some backlash for this comment and I do realize I’m generalizing here but in this case, my generalization is based on my direct observations and conversations I’ve had with the owners.

Most store owners in TO seem bitter to me… or at best disgruntled. However, I don’t blame them cause I probably would be too. Some are better than others but these people as a group are not happy campers. Please note I’m not suggesting they are bad people (or good) but many are under stress.

I suspect it has something to do with the state of the union. The market is filled to the brim with products and competition but not enough demand to absorb it all. Their future prospects don’t look bright and what options do people who’ve been in the biz for so long have other than to ride it out. Rent is expensive but they could use more space to properly represent the slew of products out there so it ends up being a balancing act. Most are getting rid of their back issue inventory to make room for the products that sell which means completionist like me are finding it more difficult to fill gaps in my runs. As well, I refuse to pay more than a $1 for a 80s filler book so why should they support people like me. Many stores are small and/or packed with products which work against the overall experience but necessary to snag a sale. Most stores represent mainly new books augmented by related merchandise so their knowledge is limited to current stuff. They don’t troll through eBay like I do so many are out of touch with reality when it comes to back issues, having to heavily rely on the “guide”. I count only 3-4 stores that I would consider busy on a Wed. The rest are surprisingly empty. Location is a big factor but also the ones that are busy try hard to maintain relationships with their customers. I counted 6-7 stores that shut their door since 2009 which pretty much sums it up.

Is there hope for the retail market? Emotionally I’d like to say yes, but logically I’m not convinced. Despite being the biggest city in Canada, it could simply be that Toronto can’t support so many stores.

So, with my rambling as a back drop, I want to high light 2 stores who I feel have gotten a bum deal due to factors outside of their control. Comics and More on the Danforth and Excalibur Comics on Bloor near Royal York are not the best stores based on Scotts criteria, but they work hard and get top marks from me for making an effort. They don’t have the best selection or the best knowledge but they keep their stores organized and are doing their best. I encourage everyone to pop in if you’re in the area and pick up a few books from them. Just for the record, these guys aren’t my buddies or anything but I respect people who care and I believe that effort should be rewarded. Much better than basement guy who responds to all my attempts to start a conversation with snarky sarcasm and expects his customers to decipher a cryptic ordering system and move 50lb boxes to get at the back issues. Unreal.

I still like the Beguiling as well. I love seeing all the art on their walls and I love their selection of rare hard to find indy books downstairs. I wish I was rich so I could buy more of their books… which could happy this weekend once my six lucky numbers rolls in. Come on big money… daddy needs a new iPhone!

11 years ago

I cannot wait to see the results! Review Big B first! I’ll even let you take things out of the shrink wrap!