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 Up Up & Away!, located at 5885 Pfeiffer Road in the Blue Ash suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. We spoke with owner Kendall Swafford.
ROBOT 6: What's the secret origin of your store?
Kendall Swafford: My original store I purchased from my friend and mentor, Paul Mullins of Comic Book World. Paul has two other Kentucky locations but wanted to pull out of Southern Ohio. When that happened in 2006, a new name was necessary. Up Up & Away! is a small nod to my late brother, who died when we were teenagers; he was a huge Superman fan. So that store’s location was predetermined. With this second location, we looked for over four years for the right spot. The entire northeast section of the Cincinnati market was vastly underserved, despite the population density and average household income indicating support for a store in the area. The space we found was recently vacated, with expressway access just a few hundred feet away. The previous tenant’s lease required them to gut the space, returning it to the empty shell they started with. I managed to put a stop to that nonsense, which left me with a beautiful space to redevelop.
Why did you decide to get into comics retailing?
I began (at the ripe old age of 12) working for my aforementioned friend Paul Mullins: I was that kid that just refused to go home, so he finally put me to work -- shoveling snow during the blizzard of ’78, as I recall. I guess he figured if I could handle that, I might be worth keeping around. As an adult I spent a good number of years in corporate America with the Coca-Cola Company, which proved to be invaluable experience later in my career. Being able to learn merchandising and marketing from the company that virtually invented modern-day merchandising and marketing gave me a skill set I still use to this day. After leaving Coca-Cola, I spent about 15 years in the music industry, booking local and regional talent at a company I bought in 1996. Being self-employed, albeit in a completely different industry, gave me the skills I needed to eventually succeed at comic book retailing. As far was the "Why?," I can blame George Reeves and Adam West for introducing my brother and I to superheroes, thanks to weekday reruns of Batman and Adventures of Superman after school. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, I’ve been as fascinated with the business of comic books as much as the comic books themselves. I absolutely love retail, and making the shopping experience special for every customer is something we really strive to do.
Do you have a philosophy or strategy to retailing? Has it evolved from when you first started?
Less is more. So many comic shops are filled to the brim with … so much stuff. The brain has to be allowed to "breathe." Too many stores try to cram too much into the space they have. We want the shopping experience to be so much more than that. I was a freelance graphic designer at one time, and designing a store is very similar to designing an ad; the white space is necessary to get us to pay focus on the message. Leaving “white space” in a retail space can be difficult because we’re paying for every square inch! But for us, I try to keep the store focused on what we do best, and that means saying "no" when a product line isn’t a good fit for us.
Tell me about the layout of your store. How did you work it out?
The layout of this location (we have two) was partly determined by the previous occupants of the space; it’s a former showroom for a home builder. It’s a large space (over 7,500 square feet), and broken up into several areas, or "neighborhoods," as we refer to them, at least internally. The two spaces closest to the front of the store are reserved for a large space for kids (complete with chalk wall and LEGO build table), POP! figures from Funko and then a large LEGO department. Opposite the front counter is reserved for impulse items and displays featuring books that appeal to young female readers, as we’re located next to an all-girl Catholic high school. A long marbled hallway features our statuary, including an expansive line of Disney statues, as well as the typical superhero fare. That hallway leads us to the ‘crossroads’ of the store; the center of the space. We have a rare book room with restricted access featuring our pricier back issues. Beside being a boon to store security, this room really allows us to showcase some of the gems of our back issue inventory. The Great Hall is next; it’s kind of the center of the entire space. It features this week’s new releases and several character or brand displays, varying in size from small endcaps to a massive Batman department. There’s also over 1,000 square feet devoted to graphic novels and recent releases, supplies, action figures and housewares. Then there’s the gallery devoted to in-store signings and club meetings, a giant back-issue department, office space, back-office space and a few hundred square feet we’re still developing!
What are your current bestsellers? What are your favorites that deserve to sell better at your store?
We’re a huge DC store at our original location, but this location skews more Marvel-heavy. Scott Snyder’s Batman continues to dominate, however. All of the Star Wars books are off the charts, and Brian K. Vaughan’s Paper Girls has really caught fire!
Black Canary by Brenden Fletcher is one of my current favorites that is struggling to find an audience. The book is clearly not aimed at a 50-year-old white guy like myself, but it’s still a great read.
What is your customer base like? How has it changed over time?
Like most successful comic shops in 2016, we’ve moved way beyond the boys’ club of middle-aged white guys. From the beginning, we’ve strived to make our store(s) bright, clean, organized and inclusive of everyone that might enjoy illustrated fiction. Almost a decade ago, one of my customers called my store “very girlfriend-friendly.” The difference between then and now is that the girlfriends (and wives, and sisters) are customers alongside the boys!
Being the city’s only independent LEGO retailer has also brought in an entire segment of the population that wouldn’t otherwise venture into a comic book store, and introducing those customers to comic books has been quite rewarding.
How do you reach out to new customers? And once you reach them, how do you get them to stay?
Direct mail via USPS has been very cost-effective in blanketing a neighborhood, which has been particularly effective in announcing the arrival of our new store. A robust social-media presence is a must in this day and age, and shaking the ole publicity tree via my press contacts has wrought lots of free press. We’ve also partnered with the Cincinnati Museum Center, which is housed in the old Union Terminal train station, which was the inspiration for the Super Friends' Hall of Justice. (It’s a real place, look it up!) We’re handling the retail gift shop for Nathan Sawaya’s "Art of the Brick" exhibit, currently on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center. This partnership allows us to promote Up Up & Away! to tens of thousands of LEGO fans during the exhibit’s six-month run.
Our loyalty program is called a U-Card, and it amounts to an earned merchandise credit for everything in the store but LEGO. We also have an incentive program for LEGO, but it’s administered differently to comply with The LEGO Group and our license agreement with them. These programs, coupled with our point-of-sale systems, give us tremendous insight into our customer’s buying habits.
How do you feel your online presence supports or supplements your store?
Our online presence is simply the best way to broadcast information, whether it be what’s new for the week or whatever event might be taking place in the store. Social media works hand in hand with that strategy. An online store sounds like a good idea, but an online customer is first and foremost a price-conscious customer, and that’s not where a brick-and-mortar’s strengths usually lie. We don’t sell a product that’s unique to us, and that leaves you competing simply on price when selling online. Our stores are so much more than that, I’m happy to keep us focused on making the shopping experience something special for everyone that walks through our door!
Do you have events or any kind of programming, such as signings? How is it coordinating those?
Having the luxury of so much space to play with is a new experience for us. Having signings at our original location requires reconfiguring spaces to accommodate the guest and the increased foot traffic. Free Comic Book Day poses the same challenges. With our newest location, we have a dedicated gallery space just for signings, Skype events, LEGO User Group meetings and more. Prior to owning Up Up & Away!, I spent 15 years in the event business, so the logistics involved in planning events for the store are a part of my skill set. Being a partner in Cincy ComiCon also gives us access to comic creators that might be difficult to wrangle otherwise. Bringing a little bit of that convention experience into our store is something we’ll be doing a lot more of in 2016.
Tell me more about Cincy ComiCon. Does your store attend other conventions?
The only convention the store attends is the convention I co-own, Cincy ComiCon! The Walking Dead co-creator Tony Moore is a friend, and one of my partners in the convention. It’s an old-school, “no celebrities,” comic books and comic art kind of convention. Beyond that, overseeing two stores, with more on the drawing board, keeps me focused on growing the stores, not exhibiting outside of my market. I personally attend quite a few conventions every year; sometimes for buying purposes, sometimes for promoting Cincy ComiCon to exhibitors. And always as a fan; I still love what I do, I have yet to become jaded and feel like I don’t love comic book books or everything about the comic book business!
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the comics industry today that particularly impacts your store?
Late-shipping books. It seems like a small thing, especially in light of Amazon or digital publishing or Diamond’s rather inept stranglehold on the industry. But late-shipping books are the bane of our existence. Those other issues I mentioned are big, potentially game-changing issues, but the war is won in the trenches, as they say, and the most important changes in the industry come on the front lines; the check-out counter. When DC launched the New 52 back in 2011, the single most important part of that publishing strategy was publishing the books not just on time, but on the same Wednesday every month. I’m old enough to remember a time when you knew that Batman was a "Week 2" book, and Detective Comics always shipped in Week 4, for instance. Customers, especially all the new (and lapsed) customers that the New 52 brought in, came to rely heavily on knowing what Wednesday to show up for what book. Once that started to unravel, the wheels began to come off the bus, and lapsed readers … relapsed. Marvel’s super-confusing schedule of shipping the first few issues of a new series twice or thrice monthly simply drives people crazy, and constant relaunches are driving people even crazier! It might sound like fanboy rage, but it’s not. I see the direct effect of these decisions at the cash register every single week, and how that customer feels about the products he or she just purchased, and their experience while in my stores making that purchase, is all that matters. Fix these issues, and the bigger issues have a way of becoming much, much smaller.
And what is the industry's biggest asset that is helping you be successful?
The sheer diversity that we currently enjoy in publishing. While the tail is busy wagging the dog at Marvel (and DC to a lesser extent), creator-owned comics have really come into their own, to an extent I haven’t witnessed since the late '70s and early '80s, a time when Cerebus and ElfQuest ruled independent publishing. And that’s not to say that Marvel and DC aren’t doing good work, we’re just enjoying an embarrassment of riches right now, creatively speaking. As long as that continues, we can weather nearly any storm.
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?
For years we’ve held a costume contest every Halloween. And while I have zero interest in cosplay, I try to play along every Halloween. And since I have the ability to mimic Homer Simpson (and I mean, could give Dan Castellaneta a run for his money) I shaved my head and had myself airbrushed yellow, from new comic Wednesday through the weekend! (Much to my wife’s dismay, I stayed in character the entire time). From that point on, the customers really tried to up their game every year, and that’s been a lot of fun.
We’ve also had a surprising number of bridal party photo shoots in the store, which is fun to help facilitate.
Anything coming up at Up Up & Away! that is a good excuse for someone to stop by?
One (well, two) of the coolest things in the store are the 9’ tall comic book covers created entirely out of LEGO. We’ll be starting on a third one this Summer. Part of the fun of shopping here is getting to see these murals in progress. It's a lot of fun to watch, as we never reveal what we’re working on, making customers guess what cover is next! Beyond that, Mondays With Michael, our children storytime hour will be debuting soon, as will our monthly LEGO build-offs!
If you’d like to see your store featured here on Robot 6, email us.