IT'S IN THE BAG
"You no pay!" he said. There was so much passion in his voice that I leaned back on my heels.
"No, I haven't paid yet. They only just brought it out from the kitchen." I replied.
Confused, he barked at me again. "No! No charge for you!"
"Jin," I said, "I can pay for my fried rice. Business isn't all that bad."
Jin beamed at me with his lilting smile. "No. Business is good for you! I can tell."
"How can you tell that?" I said.
"Bags!" he cried. "Many, many bags! They love your books, they love your store and they love to eat!"
Jin took over the Chinese restaurant a few doors down just about the time we first opened. It had been there for many years, but he had visions of remodeling it for a new type of customer. Vegetarian dishes, cozy patio tables, a comfortable bar area. It took him awhile and must have cost a pretty penny, but he succeeded in making it one heck of an attractive restaurant that serves some of the best Chinese food in the San Fernando Valley. It's always great to have a restaurant or two on your street. It's even better when they're actually high-quality and affordable. â€¨
We share a parking lot with two other stores on our block. At first, there was a great deal of tension. The parking spots weren't clearly marked, so there was confusion and mayhem when his diners and my customers would block each other in. There were more than a few choice words hurled back and forth. I would have to walk over and ask him to find the diner with the blue Toyota so they could let my subscriber pull out. He would barge in on a Wednesday looking for the idiot who parked his SUV on an angle, taking up two spots instead of one. But after a little bit of fresh paint and some good signage, we settled into a respectful neighborly relationship that's lasted for years.
I was so grateful for his restaurant during our first year. He'd already built up a steady clientele who loved the food as well as the inexpensive lunch specials. Folks came from all over the surrounding area for a quick and healthy Chinese meal. And as they were going in or coming out, what did they happen to spot right next door? You guessed it. A brand-new comic-book store!
There were many days when the only customers we saw were diners from his establishment. And even more days where his food saved me from ten hours of starvation. Small retail is a tricky business. When it's just you, a sales floor and a ticking clock, you learn quickly how to go the distance with very little food and almost no need to use the bathroom. But when hunger strikes deep or you simply can't hold it for another second, small retail becomes the dark ages of torture.
I called Jin's place so many times that first year, his servers began phoning me to see if I needed anything. They'd run it over and I'd tip them as if they'd traveled for miles through the frozen tundra to reach me.
There are things that you choose to provide for your customers in a retail store and there are things that are an absolute necessity. You have to have some form of cash register and a way to accept credit cards. You have to have a phone to make and receive sales calls. You have to have business cards to promote yourself. And you have to have shopping bags.
It's truly astonishing how many there are to choose from. If you were to just call a random distributor, you'd be inundated with questions. Plastic or paper? Style? Handles or no handles? Cut-out or hanging? High gloss? High Density? Width? Length? Depth? Grade of thickness? Boxload? Caseload?
You have to think closely about what the product is that you're selling and what kind of bag it can safely be carried in. It's great to have a nice shopping bag for a couple of books to fit into. But what if the customer buys ten? And the customer who buys two comic books needs a different kind of bag than the one who buys forty. Both are important customers and both require some kind of bag that protects their comics until they get home. If the bag is too big, the comics slide around and get bent. If the bag is too small for the customer with the larger purchase, it could break and the books could spill out. And what about the customer who buys those three oversized action figures?
You examine every scenario, measure it all up and then? Well, then you choose whatever's cheapest because you've just started your business and haven't got two dimes to rub together.
Paper's cheaper than plastic. While recyclable, it's also susceptible to the dark, evil Kryptonite all comic-book collectors dread. Water. One drop and your books are ruined forever. What's the point of protecting your paper goods with...paper?
Plastic's much more expensive. It requires oil to manufacture. Oil can be cheap one day and outlandishly expensive the next. You can literally track the price of plastic bags with the current price of gas.
So which direction do you go in? Cheap, with less durability or expensive, with better protection?
Some retailers justify the cost of expensive bags by printing their store information on them and chalking it up to an advertising cost. In a way, we choose to do exactly that. We choose to go with plastic bags and we choose to chalk it up to advertising. But we don't print our store logo and information on them. Confused?
Sometimes, a brand isn't represented by logo alone. Sometimes, a brand isn't represented by location alone. Sometimes, a brand is represented simply by color.
And that's the model we subscribe to. Bright red bags for smaller items and bright blue bags for larger ones. Every six months, we switch it around. Bright blue bags for smaller items and bright red bags for larger ones. Still confused?
Take a stroll around our neighborhood any day of the week. What will you see while you're standing in line at the postal store? What will you see when you order your fries at Carl's Jr.? What will you see when you pick up your coffee at the counter? What will you see swinging up and down the boulevard?
You'll see bright red and blue bags.
It's expensive, it's high maintenance and it is, without a doubt, one of the best investments my business makes. And as one of my subscribers loves to tell me, "they're awesome for picking up dog poop!"
Our bags are fun. We send them out into the city and the spirit of our store is represented wherever our customer's personal journey takes them. People see our bags and know where the journey began. More important, they stare at them with heated curiosity, wondering at what might be living inside.
I marvel at the thought of where our bags might end up. Across the city into communities I've never even visited. Across the country to neighborhoods polar opposite in character to my own, but similar in our shared enthusiasm. Across the ocean to countries I may never set foot in, destined to be of good use not only to the precious jewels inside, but to the mountains of foreign dog poop calling out to be disposed of.
"Business has been very bad for me" Jin said. "My regular customers can't afford to eat out right now. But Wednesdays are good! Saturdays are good! Your bags come through the door over and over. They eat their lunch and read their comic books. Good people! Hungry people!"
What do you know? New Comic Wednesday is also Kung Pao Chicken Wednesday!
It's a blessing for me to know that our store is helping out a neighbor in need. God knows how many times his black bean sauce saved me from certain death. It's rough terrain for us shopkeepers these days. We need to give as much support to one another as we can. Ride each others coattails while we wait for the world to regain some steady footing. If we stand tall for one another and play to each others' strengths, we're sure to make it out alive. Small retailers have allies. Big-box stores have only enemies.
What is our business doing during this difficult time? We're leaving the big-ticket advertising behind and playing the short game. We're practicing whatever guerilla marketing tactics we think will work. We're focusing on the people that come through the doors and not just the products they're buying. Why? Because our customers are riding it out as well. We're biding our time together and doing the best we can with what we've got. We're getting personal. We're getting to know one another better. We're buying and selling with more emotional connection than we ever have before. It's great to grow. It's empowering to expand. But right now, the old rules don't apply. Right now, small is the new big.
Sure, times are tough. Sure, we're all a little nervous. But for us, this is old-fashioned retailing 101. And every dish, every neighbor, every customer and every colorful bag counts.
Jud Meyers is the co-founder and co-proprietor of Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks, California, the 2007 winner of the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award. Visit them online at: http://www.earth2comics.com