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.
As we barrel toward Comic-Con International, it’s time for a stop in San Diego. This week’s store is Villainous Lair, located at 3220 Adams Ave. We spoke with manager Sara Winchester.
ROBOT 6: Tell me about the layout of your store. How did you work that out?
Sara Winchester: We moved into a retail space that was formerly a furniture warehouse: very sunny in the front and rather dull in the back. We designed it so that the comics were the first things you see as you enter a big, bright room. As you move through the store, you pass by our merchandise and kids’ area. Then, if you cross the drawbridge, you’ll enter our game room and game retail space. We wanted to be able to have our comics and games separate, yet unified. Also, our color scheme flows from warm to cool, with clever accent colors that tie schemes together. The colors are designed to make you feel comfortable from the moment you walk in.
What is the secret origin of your store? How did you decide on its name and its location?
It actually all started with our owner, Alison Flynn, who had a long-standing friendship with our other manager Chris Mitchell. She had been coming to the comic shop he worked at since she was a teenager. When I began working there in the 2000s, Chris introduced me to Alison and we became very fast friends. Alison had always wanted to open her own comic store, so when she came into some inheritance we made this a reality. I dropped out of medical school and moved to San Diego with Chris to start Villainous Lair. The name was actually our owner’s idea; we liked the idea of playing around with the bad-guy aspect of comics. She was born in San Diego and wanted to start a shop here so she could be back home, and also because the competition is a lot more spread out than in LA.
Why did you decide to get into comics retailing?
Chris had worked for a comic shop in Los Angeles for nearly 16 years. I worked there for about four years, but I had also had years of retail, food service and customer service. Applying the knowledge I had gained at other jobs definitely helped prepare me to move into a management position when we started our own store.
Do you have a philosophy or strategy to retailing?
Customer service seems to be a dying art, we’ve realized. I have never figured out why. It’s not hard to greet customers, be friendly and help them find what they are seeking. I strive to make sure that customer service is our number one goal. In a bad economy, when you are selling a luxury item, you can’t afford not to have good customer service. Amazon may be cheaper, but it’s the camaraderie between staff and customers that really makes people want to come back to us. To be able to talk to a person and get recommendations is something you just can’t do online.
What are your current bestsellers? What are your favorites that deserve to sell better at your store?
Comics are always a big hit, but nothing holds a candle to Magic: The Gathering. It can basically sell itself, its fan base is so loyal. For me personally, I am always pushing people out of their comic comfort zone by suggesting titles from other publishers they might not be reading. There is a story in our shop for everyone, we just need to find it.
What is your customer base like? How has it changed over time, if at all?
Four years ago, when we started the shop, it was a slow burn. It’s hard to plunk yourself down in the middle of a rather close-knit community and not be the outsider. I heard the bar was even taking bets on how long we would last. But we tried very hard to cement ourselves into this community by participating in street fairs, fundraisers, local charities, etc. That really went a long way to showing people that we were here to stay and that we weren’t just coming to weird up their neighborhood. It’s only changed in that it’s gotten much bigger. Now that we have the bigger location, people come out in droves that might not have shown up before, yet we still have customers that have been coming in since we were just our humble little comic shop.
Do you have a discount or loyalty program?
We do have a loyalty program; we use FiveStars and it has worked out great for us. People love getting their points to put towards something they might not necessarily have ever bought for themselves. The program also makes it easier for us to reach out to our users and give them special discounts and flash sales just for being a part of it.
Our online presence helps us immensely by allowing us to reach out to customers, or even people in other places who care about the same things we do. Hashtags are amazingly useful, because it allows us to reach a target audience in a flash. We use our Facebook, website, Twitter, Tumblr, Vine, and Instagram to promote our events, share fun things, comment on the state of the industry, and share a little bit about ourselves online.
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