20% Ahead of Last Year in Sales Even with Shutdowns
Posted by Jim McLauchlin on December 15, 2020 @ 3:09 pm CT
Alan Hochman went from being a childhood collector to a weekend dealer to 31 flavors and a lot of experience.
Hochman started collecting comics at age 9, and did his first comic show at age 11, sharing a table with a friend. He continued the show trade about once a month all the way through age 17, and also kept busy with school and more.
"I also had a high school job at a Baskin-Robbins," Hochman says. "I started when I was 15. Going into my senior year of high school, the owner of that particular Baskin-Robbins had a stroke. So me and one other guy took over running that business for the year. We were doing all the purchasing, we hired people, we fired people, everything."
It was a lot of work, but great experience. And more!
"I was working 30 hours a week and making $10 an hour in 1984 money," he says. "And my average for a comic show was $500-$1000, so… yeah, I was killing it in high school!"
Hochman put comics—and ice cream—aside for college, where he earned degrees as a double major in English and Communications, with a minor in Psychology. He went to work for a major market research firm with clients such as NBC, Chrysler, and Keebler, before his old life called him back.
"A friend of the family came to me and said he was starting a concession chain within Sears stores," Hochman says. "The card shop, the key counter, the perfume shop within a department store are often people running a business within the department store, and you pay a cut of those sales to the store."
The friend wanted to do comics and sports cards within Sears stores, and Hochman opened seven such stores circa 1991-92. After a while, Hochman decided he wanted to go into business for himself.
Hochman opened Pastimes Comics & Games in 1992, and today, has a prosperous business in Niles, IL, in metro Chicago. Along the way, he’s learned a lot...
Hochman has a secret.
The right hires have allowed Hochman to expand his footprint well beyond his single store.
"I’ve done premier organized play for just about every company. We are one of the largest organizers of events for Magic in the country. We’ve run large-level events in 13 states. We do PAX, we go Gen Con, and I couldn’t have done any of this without having hired the right people," he says.
VISIT THE OUTSIDE WORLD (FREQUENTLY!)
Those 13 states… allow Hochman to see how the other half lives, and it pays off for him.
"When I was organizing play, I would travel all over the Midwest to the East coast," he says. "And I’d always visit stores wherever I was. I’ve easily visited 125 to 150 stores in this category."
Hochman views his looks into other stores as a "test kitchen" experience. Only he doesn’t have to cook, or clean up.
"I have a very, very firm belief in constantly visiting other stores and learning from other stores’ owners and employees," he says. "You could see something the store is doing fantastically that you can adopt. Or maybe they’re doing something horribly, horribly wrong. Either way, it’s a learning experience."
Hochman believes personal outreach should include more than just stores, too.
"Going to things like GAMA, Toy Fair, Diamond’s conferences… I’ve found that even if you have the expense of travel to these events or stores, you’ll make it back in knowledge," he says. "And if you don’t learn at least one thing, you just weren’t paying attention."
Owning and operating a business is tough. Hochman looks to make the most of even bad breaks.
"We are always being thrown lemons in this industry," He says. "Since I’ve been open, we’ve dealt with 9-11 and what happened to the world there, the 2008-2009 economy and what happened at that time, and now this pandemic. So we’ve been through three things that will make the history books while owning a business and dealing with all of that."
In the here-and-now, Hochman has converted his floor space.
"We had seating for 128 players in our store for gaming," he says. "We’ve taken out all those tables for now, and I’ve brought in all new displays and a ton of new merchandise and we are about 20% ahead of last year in sales, and that’s even with having been closed for about two months."
Hochman’s experience with lemons into lemonade dates to those Sears stores, and Superman #75.
"Naturally, the phones were ringing off the hook," he remembers. "The store managers were calling because they couldn’t get enough copies; my boss was angry because we only ordered, like, 75 copies per store, and as it turned out, we needed, like, 1000. So I told our stores, ‘Every one of these people who call, take their name, address, and phone number, and tell them we’ll get in touch with them, hopefully about a copy of this comic for them later.’"
Hochman created a customer list at almost no cost.
"These people were interested in something we were selling, and yes, something specific," he says. "But we made a mailing list out of it; thousands of people. That absolutely got us business and kept our business. Just picking up the phone and saying, ‘No, sorry, click’ all day doesn’t make sense."
FIRE WHEN YOU NEED TO
The flip side of hiring well is…well, you know. And Hochman admits he is his own worst enemy.
"Once I bring people on, I get this thing like I should either be able to fix them when something goes wrong or it’s my fault, and therefore, why should I fire them?" he says. "It’s my fault that I haven’t been able to fix it."
Hochman’s pattern goes a long way back as well.
"I remember the first person I had to fire. It was back at Sears, we were standing there in the security office, and they guy was caught stealing. Even standing there I still wanted somehow to believe he was innocent," he remembers. "My much older and wiser colleague there said, ‘Alan, you’ve got a good heart. But this is a lesson.’"
It’s a lesson that leaves scars.
"There have been times where that’s been extremely, extremely costly to me, both financially and emotionally," Hochman says. "I’ve been able to find great talent, but I’ve held on to some people too long. I do not fire people often enough."
Like so many people, Hochman was late to the game on web sales. Again, he knows he has no one to blame but himself.
"We did not really start doing online sales until 2009, and it was a specific decision, which is why it’s a bad decision," he says. "We were running events all over the country, and working with other stores. Our deal was if they would help us promote these larger events, we would help them promote their own stores locally. And part of that was that I made the decision that we would not go hardcore into selling online because we would be a competitor to them."
At the end of the day, the game publishers wanted Pastimes to be selling more online, and Hochman doesn’t think the goodwill tradeoff he received for staying non-competitive with other stores was worth it.
Today, Pastimes does a very robust online business. But Hochman knows it could have been more.
"I look at companies like Star City Games and Channel Fireball and others and I can go, ‘these guys didn’t let anything stop them,’" he says. "But we created our own roadblock."
Being a jack of all trades can make you a master of none.
"Accountants, lawyers, HR consultants, get them," Hochman says. "Make sure you get people you can rely on. No, they’re not cheap, but they can save you a lot of money in the long run."
The concept is "comparative advantage." If you can make a dollar an hour selling, maximize those hours by paying someone else 50 cents to do your bookkeeping. Hochman buys in to the concept.
"You can’t take your eye off the ball of making money," he says. "And you have to make time to do everything else. This is how you have the time to go visit other stores."
"You have to look for opportunities outside your own four walls. We started Gamer Mats, and it’s become very successful for us. And that came from observing events, going to tournaments and so on. It was something outside our four walls, and it’s been great for us."
"Creating relationships in the industry is important and by that, I largely mean the publishers, the people who run conventions; more than just retailers. You have to get out of the scope of just your own store. Creating those relationships expands your horizons, and I now work with those publishers in a lot of different ways. I was on the GAMA Board last year. I’ve been to about 20 GAMAs, and I wanted to be part of something that was important to me. Now I’m the old guy. Maybe somebody new can take advantage of my experience."
"Staying connected with people in the industry… I feel like we think of all our stores as competitive. But even if you are competitive, it doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly. I have a great relationship with a bunch of stores in the Chicago area, we’ve run crossover events, and it all makes life better."
"We, as an industry, can be pretty negative about our customers. I think that’s a bit problematic. I look at it and go... these are the people who come in and feed our families. Especially in the madness of the last nine months or so. These are the people who keep us going."
"People who want to get into this as a business have to look at this as a business. If you say, ‘I want to get into this because I love comics,’ great, you can be a customer of mine. Once you’re in business, it you don’t treat it like a business, you are actually damaging the store owners around you who are trying to run this as a business because you’re taking some of their customers and not doing a good job."
Click Gallery below for full-size store pics!
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