Welcome to Store Tour, ROBOT 6’s weekly exploration of comics shops, and the people who run them. Each Sunday we feature a different store, and also get to know the person behind the register.
This week’s store is Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff, located at 2980 Treat Blvd., in Concord, California. We spoke with owner Joe Field.
ROBOT 6: What's the secret origin of your store?
Joe Field: I worked in radio for KJOY-AM in Stockton, California. There I did a campaign to have Stockton recognized as the "birthplace of the Fantastic Four" for Marvel's 25th anniversary in 1986. Stan Lee came to town, saw the job I did with the PR campaign and, months later, called me to help him promote his wife Joan's first novel.
From that, I was approached by a group of retailers getting ready to produce a new convention in Oakland. That show became WonderCon, and I became one of its owners in its third year. In that role, I looked around and saw the comics market was very inviting and exciting while radio was going through some massively depressing changes. After nearly two years of researching different possible jobs in comics, I opted to quit my radio job in early 1988. Flying Colors opened on Oct. 3, 1988.
The secret part of our success is that, back then, my wife and our three young daughters were my marketing research team. I knew attracting guys to a comic shop was a bees-to-honey kind of thing. What I wanted to have was a store that's attractive and welcoming to everyone. My wife and daughters helped me hone the vision of the store we wanted. That put us way ahead of the curve in terms of appealing to a much wider audience than just die-hard fans.
Why did you decide to get into comics retailing?
When I could tell that radio was going sour, I started to look in a lot of different directions. I interviewed at advertising agencies in San Francisco. But since I wasn't ready to accept an entry-level position, that was a non-starter. I interviewed for outside-sales positions with Marvel and DC, but I had no comics experience other than being a fan, so that was a dead end. I interviewed to be the marketing director for Bud Plant Distribution (before he sold to Diamond Comic Distributors), but again, no experience in comics.
So, given all those roadblocks, I thought about where I wanted to live most and what kind of a life I wanted to provide for my family. So I decided to open a shop less than ten miles from where I grew up.
Do you have a philosophy or strategy to retailing? Has it evolved from when you first started?
The tricky thing about comics retail is that the game seems to change about every six months or so. Our store motto from the start was "the one comics shop for the whole family." With that identity, it defines a lot of the choices we've made. When we first opened, new comic books were about 50 percent of our business with back issues being another 20 percent. The other 30 percent is where we made our identity, by bringing in very civilian-friendly merchandise. Book product in 1988 was a very small part of our business.
Flash forward to 2015, new-comic sales are about 50 percent of what we do, with 30 percent being books (graphic novels, trade paperbacks), and that 20 percent of "other cool stuff" changes all the time. Comics and graphic novels are our specialty. The other lines are frosting on the delicious comics cake.
Tell me about the layout of your store. How did you work it out?
I worked with a store designer when we remodeled many years ago. In the course of that, I tried to "go to school" on what he knew about store design. One of the basic concepts that I've hung onto from that experience is the necessity to have "people space" and "product space." That means a store that is too cluttered loses sales because shoppers are less comfortable.
As the business of comics has changed over the years, so has the design of our store. Comic book retailers are in a fairly unique spot in that we have greatly varying amounts of product coming in week to week. It's a challenge to make it all work every week, but we've done it well for so long it now seems like second nature.
What is your customer base like? How has it changed over time?
Funny thing is, as the demographics of comic fans has changed over the years, I feel like it's more a case of the market catching up to the work that me and other progressive retailers have been doing for many years. Our store is suburban, still family-friendly, and ultimately our goal is to make it a great experience for everyone who comes in.
How do you reach out to new customers? How do you advertise?
One of the benefits to the splintering of media has been the ability of advertisers to reach micro-markets through online advertising like Google and Facebook. We have an active email list that is our core constituents, then we add to that with social-media advertising.
How do you feel your online presence supports or supplements your store?
I am a bit of a dinosaur in retailing in that I don't really care to sell online. My goal is to take care of the people who shop with me in-store week in and week out. Our online presence, through our website, and Facebook page, and augmented by our Twitter presence, is used to serve as a way to continue creating community among all those who shop here.
Do you have events or any kind of programming, such as signings?
We do an average of two events per month, and all of them are comics-centric. Events help build that community that's so important to the vitality of a comics shop these days. We've had massively huge events, like our 2013 event with Stan Lee where we helped co-sponsor a special event before a San Francisco Giants baseball game after he did a signing at Flying Colors. But we also do fun events like our Hulk Smash Brownie Day when my wife Libby makes huge batches of her nearly world-famous creme de menthe brownies.
The short answer is, we like what we do, we like to make it fun and engaging ... and we love our Flying Colors faithful.
Does your store attend conventions?
I've never been a convention dealer for a few big reasons. First, there's no way to approximate the in-store Flying Colors experience in a convention setting. Second, when I attend conventions, I'm using the time there to work behind the scenes in getting things done for future Flying Colors events, plus industry-wide events like Free Comic Book Day and ComicsPRO's Local Comic Shop Day.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the comics industry today that particularly impacts your store?
When I got into this business, there were a relative handful of publishers doing comic books every month, and there was very little comics-related book product or related merchandise, for that matter. Now, there are dozens upon dozens of publishers all vying for orders and attention, along with literally thousands of companies selling comics related merchandise. So my biggest challenge is curating what we choose to stock.
With so many other sales channels developing for sales of comics and related "cool stuff," I think the biggest challenge retailers face is keeping the attention of all of our publishers on our comic shop specialty market. We're always going to the established market, so it's much more difficult to show the dramatic gains that publishers long for. Other sales channels, relatively new and still developing, might show double-digit growth to the specialty market's single-digit growth, but the fact is, we're in the longest period of sustained health in the comics specialty market. That's what I hope to keep working on in the months and years ahead.
And what is the industry's biggest asset that is helping you be successful?
The fact that comics are being embraced in so many ways in so many different markets. When people ask me if these blockbuster movies help my business, my answer is that any time one of my suppliers wants to make a $200 million ad for what I sell, I'm OK with that.
That is a slightly flippant answer, of course, because in many ways there's a definite disconnect between people who are active readers and those who are passive movie attendees. Still, we do see some uptick in sales from some of these movie and TV properties, so that's a good thing.
With all of the people that come through your store, I imagine you must have some great stories. What is the funniest or most memorable moment you've seen in your store?
Classic story: Many years ago, on a Saturday morning, a man ran into the shop, went straight for the front counter and asked "Do you exchange saxophones?" We must have been stunned because he repeated it even louder and more frantic than the first time. "Do you exchange saxophones?!?!" I calmly explained that we are a comic book store and that we do not have saxophones here. He looked at me, then looked up on the wall to our back issues, looked quickly around the store. I could see the color leaving his face in embarrassment as he ran out of the store in 6/8 time.
Anything coming up at Flying Colors that is a good excuse for someone to stop by?
We have events here regularly. We always invite people to be in touch with us on social media with Facebook and Twitter because that's where we'll talk about what's coming up. We have some cool plans for events in 2016, so please stay tuned!
Did you know May 7, 2016, will be the 15th annual Free Comic Book Day? As the founder of that event, I couldn't be more proud to see it become the comic world's largest event, to see what other comic retailers and Diamond do to make it special every year. It's always huge here, where FCBD stands for Flying Colors Biggest Day.
More than that, though, we do try to make Flying Colors a place that's full of energy and excitement whenever anyone chooses to be here.
If you’d like to see your store featured here on Robot 6, email us.