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 Tribe Comics & Games, located at 3005 S. Lamar Blvd., Suite D113, in Austin, Texas. We spoke with co-owner Eric Burke. Sales clerk Daniel Potter also joined us.
ROBOT 6: What's the secret origin of your store?
Eric Burke: All the owners (my wife Joansandy Wong, my best friend Roy Carter and myself) all worked for Dragon's Lair here in Austin. I was the general manager of the company, he oversaw our Austin location and she was our buyer. We had been trying to buy the place for years and there were various setbacks. Finally the owner decided that he would rather franchise instead. None of us were keen on the idea of paying our old boss to continue to be our boss so we struck out on our own. South Austin, at the time, was really devoid of comic/game stores. So we spent a year getting everything together and finally opened on Oct. 31/Nov. 1, 2008.
We floated several name ideas. Roy wanted something more fantasy-themed; I was always stuck on Tribe. When we were in our 20s, our friends all had delusions of forming a movie production company. The name was going to be Tribe Productions. Here we were 10 years later and all our friends were helping us, so it seemed natural. Plus it captured the way we feel about things. A longer version of that story is on our blog.
Why did you decide to get into comics retailing?
Honestly, I was on academic probation from UT Austin. A person I knew at Dragon's Lair recommended me for a job there. At the time that was the only way you would even get an interview. I thought, "Why not." I would do this until my probation was over, then go back to school. I have always read comics; retail was what I did the entire time I was in school and was a customer. Seemed a natural fit. Eventually I was promoted to manager and then helped the company open its second location, then third and fouth. By that time I was promoted to general manager and I brought Roy in to be manager of our flagship store. By the time we left, I had 10 years front- and back-office experience, and I found I really liked selling products I loved.
Do you have a philosophy or strategy to retailing? Has it evolved from when you first started?
I have a firm belief that what we are selling is a community and not a product. They can get their comics and games cheaper elsewhere. I always tell people we are like Cheers, just with comics and not beer. In that vein we are always honest with our customers. If they ask you if you like something and you don't, tell them why. I find that if you tell them when you think something is bad they will take you at your word and try something if you think it is good. It has not really changed much from when I started, other than I am more likely to give out free stuff to get them hooked.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the comics industry today that particularly impacts your store?
The slump in DC Comics sales. Other than Batman most of our DC Comics have dropped 30 percent to 80 percent; they used to be our highest-selling comic company. I also think that DC is hiding further sales loss with their monthly order as much as you want variants. On a similar front, I think the raise in variant covers is not good, overall, for the health of the industry.
What is the industry's biggest asset that is helping you be successful?
Sad as I am to say it, the move to frequently relaunching to new #1s, even if nothing really changes. It is making it to where newer readers feel more comfortable about jumping on board. Other than that, the success of everything comics on movies and TV is driving interest and sales in a big way.
Tell me about the layout of your store. How did you work it out?
When we moved into our bigger space, that was my responsibility and my biggest priority. One of our employees, Daniel Potter, and I spent quite a bit of time over a graph paper with little cutouts of fixtures trying to find the best design. It is something you never think about when you go into a store, but is very important to the shopping experience. We wanted there to be good browsing room, so we have a standard three-foot distance between fixtures. We also have a big open table space and knew we wanted fixtures between that area and our most-shopped areas to give some small noise barriers. The last challenge was making sure all the areas that need more space got it while still maintaining an obvious layout for customers to follow.
What are your current bestsellers? What are your favorites that deserve to sell better at your store?
Star Wars in all variety, Saga both trades and issues, Batman. Those are our top five. Selling well but deserves better: Lazarus from Image, Empire from BOOM!, Rat Queens from Image.
What is your customer base like? How has it changed over time?
It used to be mostly men 18 to 45. Now, though, it is a really good mix of ages and sex. Over one-third are female customers.
How do you reach out to new customers? How do you advertise?
Still mostly word of mouth, and our new location is in a very well-traveled shopping strip. We hardly ever advertise and offer no discounts or loyalty program. Yelp and Google reviews have been very helpful in driving people to our store.
How do you feel your online presence supports or supplements your store?
Does your store attend conventions? Does it benefit from them?
We attended Wizard World Austin the first two years it was here, but after that they priced us out on tables. It helped get new customers and move some old product.
Do you have events or any kind of programming, such as signings? How is it coordinating those?
We have daily gaming events. Rarely have signing because they are expensive. Coordinating has not been a proble, but we have not tried anything big.
Daniel Potter: We don't do big events, not only because they're expensive, but we'd rather spend our time building relationships with (rather than just selling to) our customers week after week. Most folk don't just come in, buy, and leave. Conversations happen; we see kids grow up; life stuff. Secondly, we like to support local talent by giving them exposure in the store. We have an entire wall featuring artwork, and a couple of endcaps full of comics by local creators.
If you’d like to see your store featured here on Robot 6, email us.