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 Forbidden Planet, located at 74 Bull St., in Birmingham, England. We spoke with store manager Nicki Root.
ROBOT 6: What's the secret origin of your store?
Nicki Root: Forbidden Planet opened its first store 1978, the legendary Denmark Street in London. Since then, we’ve expanded from two London sites to nine stores around the U.K., plus a huge mail-order service via our website, and a considerable social media presence.
In Birmingham, the current megastore location opened in April 2015, and is our third new site in the city. We’d been keen to move to a bigger site for some time, and when we came to view the potential new location, we saw the basement and realized we had a TARDIS -- a small shop front, but a colossal 5,000 square feet inside. This makes our Birmingham megastore the second-largest shop of its kind in the country, after our megastore in London, and that’s only fitting for England's second city. Each time our Birmingham store has moved, it’s gotten bigger and better, and we’re really proud of this one!
Why did you decide to get into comics retailing?
I was brought up surrounded by books, and joining Forbidden Planet gave me the ideal opportunity to express my interests professionally. I enjoy escapism, discovering and immersing myself other worlds, and Forbidden Planet is the perfect place to talk about those discoveries with people who would appreciate them. I feel lucky to be in an environment that allows me to be surrounded by what I consider to be beautiful, ingenious, funny and entertaining stories like those my parents encouraged me to enjoy.
Do you have a philosophy or strategy to retailing? Has it evolved from when you first started?
Our philosophy is pretty simple : Everyone is welcome at Forbidden Planet. Whether you’re a lifelong geek or you’re trying new things, whether you’re a fan of a particular film or show or comic or you’re looking for something different to read or watch, we would love you to come and see us. And we’re always trying to be better at what we do. We're coming up to our 40th anniversary as a company pretty soon, so we must be doing something right!
Tell me about the layout of your store. How did you work it out?
Our Birmingham megastore occupies two floors -- a ground floor and an epic basement. The ground floor features our main glass cabinet, which shows off our high-end items (for example, our Hot Toys product range) and all the things that people will love to see as they come in. The ground floor offers our ranges of toys, all our collectible merchandise from our favorite films and TV shows, and all of our clothing. Downstairs in our basement, we offer a huge range of comics, graphic novels, books and games. We also designed the layout of the basement to make sure we have the best space for the bigger ranges, as well as giving us a dedicated space for signings, readings and gaming events such as Magic: The Gathering. It was ambitious, but it's working really well!
What are your current bestsellers?
At the moment, everything is Star Wars, but the bestsellers obviously shift as trends in popular culture come and go. Doctor Who is very popular, as are Marvel and DC superheroes. We also sell a lot of gaming merchandise for the newest titles, like Fallout and Assassin’s Creed. There are always fan favorites that have a solid following and never go out of style – Star Trek, for example, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which have a strong and ongoing fan base.
We’re also experiencing huge sales in Funko Pop! vinyls; they’ve been a colossal hit and people buy them by the basket-load and tweet us @forbiddenplanet with their collections. Who could have guessed that they’d be so huge! As well as toys, we have a books section that offers not only a huge range of science fiction and fantasy titles, but also art books and glossy hardcovers. And we sell a great deal of our own variant cover comics, including signed art card editions drawn for us by some of our favorite artists, and giclees of our favorite artwork. Our comics favorites include Deadpool, Harley Quinn and Batman, and our bestselling graphic novel to date is Mark Millar’s Civil War, a "must have" for any enthusiast.
What is your customer base like? How has it changed over time?
At the beginning, Forbidden Planet was a small and cult comics retailer. It steadily built a fandom of its own and hosted events with some of the best names in the business – Anthony Daniels signed with us in the very earliest days of Star Wars!
Since the opening of the first megastore in London in 2003, we’ve seen our customer base hugely expand, on the crest of the upsurge in street geek cool. It’s okay to be a geek, now, you can go into a comic store and talk about the great things that you find. You can celebrate film releases of your favorite characters and go into the store to find out where they really came from. Perhaps most significantly, we’ve seen a massive increase in the amount of women in the store, which is fantastic, and also we’ve found that more and more young people are coming to see us. As their hobbies, things like anime and cosplay, move more into the mainstream, they can come to us and find everything they need from Attack on Titan and other great titles.
Our customer base is amazing, built up of a diverse range of people that enjoy the experience of being in store and sharing their immense knowledge of the items we sell. We continue to learn a lot from our customers and have had some excellent recommendations that we then share with others and make lifelong friends along the way.
How do you reach out to new customers? How do you advertise? And how do you keep them coming back?
The Forbidden Planet brand is recognized worldwide; it’s become synonymous with the best in geek culture. People make a point of coming to see us, not only in London but in all our stores. They come to see us for the experience of visiting, as well as to browse and buy. We have a discount offer for students, but otherwise we try and keep our pricing policy both fair and competitive so that, when people come and see us, they want to come back!
Aside from the sheer recognizability of the FP rocket, we have a powerful social media presence and very strong ties to all our suppliers – which keeps our range of stock visible and different, and also allows us to create our own licensed product. In the case of books and comics, ties to the artists, authors and publishers mean that we host over 100 events a year with the best names in every industry – and that’s a lot of publicity!
When we launched the website, the idea was to have access to your very own Forbidden Planet, with all its stock, right there on your desktop or smartphone – so that you can browse our products and have them delivered to your home. When it was launched, it had a tagline of "the Megastore bought to your door," and we’ve stayed with that thought. It also tells our customers about our events – upcoming signings, and the regular gaming events that take place in the smaller stores.
We also have a very lively and busy social media stream that enables us to talk about our products (obviously) but also to be there for our customers and to help them and speak to them – and to listen to what they have to say to us. Our Twitter stream is managed personally from Head Office, and makes a point of being human and accessible and not burying people under marketing spam.
What kind of events and programming do you do? How is it coordinating those?
Our events are coordinated, across all stores, from our Head Office in London. As a group, we’ve hosted events with comics writers and artists, with authors, and with actors, directors and personalities from film, television and comics. We’ve hosted events with Christopher Lee, Gerard Way, Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, Terry Gilliam, Dave Gibbons, Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey and Jamie McKelvie, to name but a few, and we’re also keen to support new talent – debut authors and comics creators often come to us first and we make sure that their events have the same publicity and support.
In Birmingham, we’ve had a number of comic, book and pop-culture signings, and they’re always a lot of fun. All of us, customers and staff alike, have had some amazing experiences meeting our heroes. More than anything, our aim is to make sure that all of the fans of any guest have their chance to meet their hero – and, depending on the time and the size of the crowd, that can be quite a change! More than anything, we like to make sure that everyone, guest included goes away happy. On many occasions, we’ve had fantastic experiences where our guests have stayed longer to see their fans, and have sharing tales of the comic or book industry, have really ‘gone the extra mile’ for their fans – and that makes us realize what a great industry this is to work within.
Does your store attend conventions?
We attend multiple conventions all over the country, and covering every type of product and merchandise. At book and comic cons, we go to see our friends and guests, the people who come in and sign and draw for us – and it keeps those friendships strong. At bigger cons, like MCM, we go to trade and to make sure that we’re a part of the activity. We tend to find that, at all types of cons, people expect us to be there – and we don’t want to let them down.
Attending conventions also helps us broadcast our message and reach people who may not otherwise have met the Forbidden Planet rocket.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the comics industry today that particularly impacts your store?
The real challenge out there is the sheer volume of products that are available to us. We've been able to expand so many of our departments but sometimes you've got to make hard choices about what you can and can't keep in stock -- even in a big store like this space is not infinite.
And what is the industry's biggest asset that is helping you be successful?
We're very much in a golden age of pop culture, because the people who understand and love the material are the ones making it. Those people who were fans as kids now create the films, the TV series, the comics, the toys, the games and the books that they'd always hoped for.
We think the reaction to Star Wars: The Force Awakens shows what can happen when a creative mind really "gets it." The breadth and variety of what's out there makes us smile pretty much every day.
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?
Our most recent memorable moment? As you can imagine, there have been many, but, in Birmingham, it has to be meeting Mark Millar. Mark's enthusiasm and joy were infectious and they made for an amazing day for all of us. And that’s hard to beat!
If you’d like to see your store featured here on Robot 6, email us.