'Adjust to What’s Hot'
Posted by Jim McLauchlin on November 16, 2020 @ 4:03 pm CT
Regan Clem makes a claim about his start in retail that’s tough to beat.
"My path was a lot different than everyone else’s," he says. "I started when I was 11 years old."
Sure enough, in 1988, Clem was a comic book fanatic, and his brother Reggie was into sports cards. His parents:
“They were crazy!” Clem says. “Crazy enough to loan us some money to start our store.”
The first store was very different in itself: The family got a commercial license and converted the front of their house into a store in Antwerp, Ohio, before eventually moving to a permanent location downtown.
Clem and family eventually moved the store 25 miles to Ft. Wayne, Indiana in 1992, where it became the first Summit Sports, Comics, and Games (that wasn’t also a house). A second location in Lansing, Michigan, was added in 2001.
Regan Clem likes to remain very much behind the scenes for the stores, but that certainly doesn’t mean that he hasn’t observed and learned a lot since he was 11 years old…
Adjust to What’s Hot
"This is the main thing we’ve learned over the years," Clem says. "I thought last year was going to be the end for Funko Pop!s. And I thought the year before was going to be the end. But they’re still going. And it doesn’t matter what it is. It might be Pokémon cards, Beanie Babies, whatever. If you’re just a comic shop, you’re too limited. You have to be comics and ‘what’s hot.’"
And remember, "hot" reaches well beyond a core audience.
"We’re a shop that moms and grandmas come to, too," Clem says. "We’re welcoming to everyone, and part of being professional is not just being well-lit, being clean—and we are—but adjusting the product lines to reflect what people want in the here and now. If it’s anywhere close to what we do at our core—comics, sports, games—and it’s ‘what’s hot,’ we lean into that heavily."
Don’t Do Conventions
And Clem leans in on his own turf, pretty much exclusively.
"We don’t do conventions," he says. "We did shows in the late ’80s, early ’90s, but I was a kid back then. We can make more money on a Saturday in our stores than we ever could at any conventions."
Clem also thinks that the store is the most effective front line, industry-wide.
"I’ve always thought that publishers waste a lot of their money through conventions that could be better spent in promotions through the stores," he says. "I think what we’re seeing in the COVID times is that sales are up, but there are no conventions. So I don’t know if conventions have been as effective a marketing tool for publishers as they might think."
There’s what’s hot now, and what used to be hot. And in some cases, "used to be" is hot again. The biggest trend line at Summit is that "collections are booming," Clem says.
"Pretty much any comic collection that comes in, I give them an offer, and we’re starting to buy sports cards like that again, too. It’s vibrant. Just like back issues are doing well, old sports cards are doing well."
Clem thinks the nostalgia wave is accelerated by our current situation.
"One of the things with the pandemic is… I think it made us want to go back to our childhoods. I started watching ’80s wrestling again!," he says. "Whether it’s sports cards, comic books… we just went back to a place where life was more innocent or worry-free."
"I’m telling my brother, ‘Do more of this. Buy collections.’ There are people willing to buy this stuff, and if it doesn’t sell right away, there so many avenues to get your money out of it these days that you’ll get your money back eventually."
It’s a good money-maker at Summit. And fun!
"The good thing is that my brother likes doing it and I like doing it," Clem says. "So… we’re doing more of it."
C’mon, Be a Face!
Clem is an enigma, and when he really looks in the mirror, he admits… maybe it’s not the best idea.
"My customers don’t even know me," he laughs. "I’m like the Wizard of Oz, pulling levers behind a curtain, and that’s all," he says. "And that can make it difficult in transitions. If the manager moves on, it’s odd, because we’ve lost a face of the store, and I’m not that guy."
Clem puts his emphasis on being a motivator and being a leader for his team, but behind the scenes.
"We’ve weathered any transitions we’ve had okay, but maybe it would have been easier if I was a guy who could step in. But the customers, they don’t know me."
Years ago, Clem admits he made a big mistake.
"In the early 2000s, I got caught up in the craze of, ‘Back issues suck, I want to be a book store,’ and… we stopped doing back issues, trying to focus solely on graphic novels."
"I lost a lot of revenue," Clem admits. "I took an arrogant approach toward the comic industry, and paid the price."
Summit has a renewed and heavy emphasis on back issues again.
"It’s a very good revenue stream for us again," he says. "But it probably would be even better if we hadn’t ditched it. That’s the biggest product mistake I made. You’ve got to love your back issues."
Keep an Eye on Management
Clem sees a problem in running the stores by not being in the stores.
"My brother is my business partner and he runs the Ft. Wayne store, while a friend of ours runs the Lansing store," he says. "But I think in the past, we’ve erred in letting some of our managers have a little too much freedom, and they can go rogue."
Clem thinks his only solution is constant fine-tuning.
"I don’t like to micro-manage, and there’s always the balance of giving people freedom so they feel responsibility and take ownership," he says. "But still, you have to make sure they’re doing what you want them to do. It’s a constant wrestling match I go through in my own head."
"We wouldn’t be where we are without our team. We call them ‘the team,’ not employees or workers. Especially with me being behind the scenes, the team makes it possible. That’s the key. The right people make it all happen. They need all the kudos I can give them, especially if they read this."
"Something we just realized, that we should have realized years before… you need to hire a salesperson for the floor, and a detail person for the inventory. People aren’t just the same. We finally figured that out, that you need a mix, and you need to help them coexist."
"The sports card market is really, really booming right now. "But it’s impossible to get the product! We are having the worst time getting new sports card product in. It’s booming."
"We just spent $5500 on a Michael Jordan collection last week. There’s an autographed card in there that’s not certified, so we’ll send it in and see how it comes back. There’s a rookie card. Old collection. We considered it worth the risk, but I think we’ll do fine on it."
"I actually love collecting, the back-issue aspect! That’s why I don’t know why I bought into ditching them back in the day! I guess I wanted to be the hip guy. I don’t buy into that any more. I buy into growing my store."
"Back issues are my favorite part of the job again, I’ll spend about a day a week, 8-10 hours, going through back issues and pricing them out. It’s my favorite part of the job. It’s like I get to go out and play. Again, I don’t know why I ditched it. I took away one of the things that really gives me joy."
"One thing I’ve come to appreciate is that there is no one size fits all. I mean, Brian Hibbs runs a different store than I run, and Mile High is a different store from both of us. Phil Boyle, Joe Field and I… I think we’re very similar in the way we approach our stores, but we have our differences as well. And then you have the people who are just doing shows. As I’ve aged, I’ve come around to thinking, ‘This is great.’ Anyone can do comics in their own way, and you don’t have to say, ‘Oh, your model is a bad model; mine’s the best.’ Find what works for you, and it’s great. That’s part of the health of the industry. Different strokes."
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