Customer Loyalty

Because there are so few comic book stores around, there has been little study of what gets a customer to shop at one comic book store over another, and what might get them to change. So, about a month ago I posted questions here on Sequart and asked folks to give me their answers as to what persuades them to shop at one comic book store over another. While I only had about a dozen people reply, they were from a good cross-section of the country, and I was lucky enough to have one woman respond too. Some of the answers I received I had expected, and a few were surprising. I know I learned from the experience and I hope that you also learn something new in reading this column. Thank you to those of you who sent your answers back!

My first question dealt with what people usually buy when going to the comic book store. As expected, most people shop for comics. A couple of people said that they look at other items like toys or games, but usually do not buy them. Rose from Pittsburgh, PA., said she also looks for the occasional plush and tshirt. Some people said they pick up an occasional graphic novel, and Dan from Wichita, KS., buys mainly graphic novels and the occasional game at the comic book store where he shops. Because I write columns on retailing I get lots of e-mail from folks who are considering opening comic book stores of their own. They often wonder what to carry. This is proof that the main thing people seem to look for in a comic book store is comics: Many people said one thing that might get them to check out another store would be if another store had a better selection of comics. So, it looks like quantity and variety of comic books is really essential for a comic book store. Sure, some people will pick up other items, and if other stores in the area don’t carry something you think you could sell well, like tshirts or board games or even skateboards, you might want to pick up a line or two, but the focus of a comic book store should be comic books.

The next question was if people used store subscription services or picked up books off of the shelves when they visited. I was pretty surprised to find that only one of the respondents was currently using a store subscription service. Tonio in New York was the only person who was using a publisher’s (DC Comics) subscription service and that was only for one title. A couple of people said they had used a pull service in the past but were not using one now. Josh in Boise, ID., was the only person using an in-store subscription service, and he also pulls books off the shelf. At my comic book store we seem to sell almost 50 percent of any major title to subscribers and the other 50 percent to shoppers who pull off of the shelves (This does not always apply, especially on mini-series, new series, and indie comics). Some respondents said they experienced problems with the store’s accuracy of holding the right comics, another said that due to budget issues he couldn’t always pick up everything that was on-hold so when he moved he didn’t start up a new subscription with the new store because he felt like a “jerk” for not getting everything right away. One person said she intends on starting a list at the store she’s shopping at, but has not done so yet, partly because she also enjoys browsing and is still figuring out what she likes.

More and more services are popping up and offering people digital comics that they can download from the Internet at a deep discount off of cover price. The people who answered my survey said that they would rather buy paper books than digital ones. Phil, who lives in Milwaukee, WI., and who shops at my store, had an answer that summed up what just about everyone said, “While the thought of saving money is definitely enticing, there’s just something about flipping through the pages of a comic that’s so – for lack of a better word — pure. It’s just so right.” Several people said they use a computer all day at work so they want to read actual print when they are not at work. Only one person indicated that he buys paper comics specifically to collect them. There were a few people who seemed open to the idea of buying digital comics. Two reasons people considered purchasing digital comics were space and money savings. But by and large, the people who answered my survey seem to enjoy reading paper comics and plan on buying paper comics in the future, even if they do get some digital ones on occasion. So, it looks like most comic book customers are staying loyal to the original print-on-paper format for now.

I asked a few questions that were fairly similar to determine what the main reasons were for a person to shop at a specific store over another. One asked what made the shopper initially choose the store they are going to, another asked what might get them to shop at another store and the third asked what they would want in a new store if their current one closed down for good. By and large location was the number one answer. People like to shop at stores that are not too far out of their way. One person likes that her shop is close to where she does other shopping, another guy said the store he shops at is the only one within 30 miles of his house. It seems that people want to shop at a place that is conveniently located, either close to their home, work or other shopping areas they frequently visit in their home town. When we were getting ready to open our store, Mel Thompson told us that most of our business would come from within 10 miles of the store. While this is true, we do pull a good number of customers from further out, some because they work nearby and others because there isn’t a store (or a store they want to shop at) in the area where they live.

People sometimes poke fun at places like Starbucks because there are so many of them. But Starbucks is successful, and part of it might be because there are so many – there is one close to home, work, and the grocery store. You do not have to go too far out of your way to find one, so you get your coffee there. Just about everyone has heard of Starbucks and knows what they sell there. Not a lot of people buy comic books. Hard to believe, I know, but it is true. And I think that part of that is because comic book stores are not like Starbucks – there is not one everywhere you look. Some comic book retailers get worried if a store opens in their area, but maybe that’s what we all need – more comic book stores. If the Starbucks principle applies to other retail type businesses, then the more there are, and the more convenient they become, the more they become part of society and the more people will stop in and spend money there. When I was a kid and comics were readily sold off of racks in local convenient stores, most kids would pick up a comic book or two at least once in a while. Once comics became less available, people stopped reading them. Only true fans seem to be willing to go out of their way to get comic books. It makes me wonder why many comic book professionals say that there can’t be a successful comic book store chain. (But that’s a discussion for another day.)

Those people who are lucky enough to have a couple of comic book shops in their area said that customer service and store appearance were big reasons for why they picked one store over another. A couple had mentioned that price might get them to shop somewhere else, but those same people said that it would have to be a substantial cash savings or a much better store. Rose from PA., said, “I prefer bright, well-lit, not dusty, without guys staring at me like ‘OMG, it’s a girl!’” Jason from Nacogdoches, TX., said the things he notices at a comic book store are, “store appearance [and] staff appearance. [Because] this indicates to me the care and quality put into the store.” Jason does not even shop at a comic book store these days, because he does not feel comfortable at the one in his area. Phil from WI., drives a little bit out of his way to shop at Neptune Comics because “…you and Craig have always been friendly, and your place is *well-lit*. I can’t tell you how many times it seemed like [the other comic shop in town] was some dingy place simply because of the lighting. Yeah, they had more space than you did, but your store was always more inviting. Plus, I didn’t have to worry about a bunch of kids being noisy in there, playing Xbox.” Tonio from NY., said, “I usually take notice of the selection they have in stock and how well organized the books are.” Fox from Redmond, WA., said that he likes his local comic book store because, “they say hello to me by name, which means a lot.” Josh from ID., said his current store is, “nice and clean, great selection, but the owner could be more friendly.”

These answers were basically what I had thought, that people prefer to shop at a store that is clean, organized and inviting with a friendly and helpful staff. This is what we try to bring our customers every day at my store, and it is what helps bring us some customers who do not live close by. I would recommend to anyone who is going to open a comic book store that they add lighting – stores can ALWAYS use more lighting. It is also important to choose paint and fixtures that help the store look bright, clean and inviting. Then, once you are open, ALWAYS say hello to everyone who comes in, and to learn the names of those who frequent your store. Making people feel comfortable is a key component of getting them to come back again and again.

To further prove my point about what is important to comic book customers, I asked, “If your favorite comic book store closed down and you had to find a new one, what would be your criteria for choosing a new store to visit regularly?” Again, all of them said convenience of location, the appearance and selection of the store, and the quality of the staff was important to them. Fox from WA., said that, “Distance, friendliness of the staff, the quality of the store, and the supply (I get a few odd ball titles), and over all good vibe I get from the store,” were important to him. Tonio from NY., said, “Basically, I would need a new store to be well organized and have enough of the books that I would want to read in stock that I would go back their regularly.” Rose from PA., said that she would, “want to find someplace where I felt comfortable and valued as a customer. I’d like an employee/owner who is helpful and friendly but not patronizing, who might be able to recommend a title based upon what I already read. Good stock and selection would be good, as would shelves that aren’t too high.” Phil from WI., said, “The people working the store have to be friendly, and the store has to give the appearance of being clean and kept in-order,” for him to shop there.

One question I asked that I did not bring up is if people brought others into their favorite local comic book stores. Since this column is long, and I think that this question alone could make a good column, you will have to stay tuned because in a future column I will discuss what people said to this question.

Overall, I was surprised that more people did not use in-store subscription services, mainly because a good percentage of my customers do. On the other hand, when people have a bad experience with one, or a budget that is not always consistent, I completely understand why they would not use this type of service. I was not surprised that customers stay loyal to stores that are nice to them and have what they are looking for, but was a bit surprised at just how important location was to people. Thanks again to those of you who took the time to answer my little survey! I appreciate your time and your honesty and I hope that your answers help others who own comic stores and who are planning to open comic book stores.

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One year after our first wedding anniversary, to the day, my husband and I picked up the keys to a 1000 square foot store front in a strip mall in suburban Waukesha, WI. Two weeks later that spot would become Neptune Comics, our very own comic book store. I grew up in Slinger, WI, the child of entrepreneurial parents who owned their own dog breading and boarding kennel. The first in my family to graduate from college, I earned a BA from St. Norbert College. Prior to becoming a comic book retailer I was a stock broker, and then gave up that stress to own my own house cleaning business. Comic books were a small blip on my radar before I considered opening a store -- I did not have a collection stashed somewhere. But jumping into comic book retailing has been a great crash course in the ups and downs of the comic book industry. Being a woman and a comic fan, rather than a collector, I have no doubt that my opinions won’t always be that of the majority.

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