Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk is a new weekly column by Kendall Swafford of Up Up Away! in Cincinnati, Ohio.  This week, Kendall Swafford talks about the Apple stores and attention to detail.

While everyone wants to talk about the Apple iPad, and what it means to the comic book industry, I’m choosing to wait a few weeks to jump any further into the fray.  And when I say “choosing,” I really mean I’m waiting for the 3G model I ordered to arrive.  Until then, I get to watch all the people I’ve converted into Apple fans gleefully put their iPads through their paces.  Oh, the irony.

This week and next I want to talk about Apple’s retail stores, why I think they succeed in their mission, and what lessons can be applied to our stores.  Even though Apple has become a far more diversified company that it was a decade ago, they still have a singular focus; a great customer experience.  The Apple Store in Cincinnati functions exactly like the one in Memphis, Minneapolis, or Miami.  And without fail, everything in the store, every time I visit, is how it should be.

If you’re like me, you’re probably a store whore.  Any store I walk into, whether alone or with my family, I’m checking out the fixtures, the displays, the lighting, the flooring and the music.  Hollister stores aren’t built to appeal to a 44-year-old white guy, but to his 15-year-old clothing-obsessed teenage daughter.  But I’m always asking myself “who is this store built for?”  “Are they hitting their targeted audience?”  “Is their approach helping them sell more of whatever?”  A store like Walgreens is largely utilitarian in their approach, with little thought given to store layout, customer comfort, or ambiance.  And maybe a general store masquerading as a pharmacy thinks they don’t have to worry about the customer experience.  I refuse to shop at Wal-Mart (or is it Walmart now?) no matter what, but I gladly spend my money at Target.  They’re both giant corporations, and I have no personal ties to either store, so what’s the difference?  A great customer experience.  Target stores are clean, bright, and inviting.  And organized.  If I may digress a moment; one comment I get over and over from new customers visiting my store is how well-organized it is.  And while I truly appreciate the compliment, part of me wants to tell them, “If simply being organized is remarkable, then we as an industry need to aim higher!”  You don’t walk into Target and make that same exclamation.  Why?  Because it’s Target, you expect them to have a store that’s well-organized.  It shouldn’t be remarkable to see a well-organized comic book store, it should be the norm.

With Apple stores, less is more.  Clean, uncluttered, simple.  Most comic book stores I visit are... very full.  And then some.  I realize we’re all aware of our cost per square foot, and we want to make every square inch count, but most comic stores have too much stuff.  Maybe we’re afraid we’ll miss a sale, or we over-ordered (again) or we’re slow in marking down merchandise that’s been around too long, but whatever the reason, too many stores try to cram too much stuff into every nook and cranny of their stores, and it’s overwhelming.  Once humans reach that level of visual over-stimulation, our brains only see a sea of stuff.  I was lucky in my earlier work career.  My first real job that wasn’t selling comic books was in the merchandising department for the local Coca-Cola bottler.  If there’s a company that knows a thing or two about selling, it’s Coca-Cola.  How to merchandise a product properly, why it’s done the way it is, the psychology behind shopping behavior, how we shop.  I’ve been able to apply those lessons to my own store, and I’m still refining, still revisiting.  Always changing.  Did you know Apple stores have the highest sales per square foot than any retail store in America, and by a wide margin? In second place is Tiffany’s.  Pricey items sold in a very small footprint.  How does Apple do it?  Focus on a relatively small number of products.  Attention to even the smallest of details.  And a superior customer experience.

I constantly hear others preach “diversify!” as if comics are going away tomorrow, and we’ve got to sell this and that and the other thing if we’re to survive.  And the this, that and other things sometimes have little or nothing to do with our core competencies.  I don’t mean to suggest we could or should only sell one kind of thing, I just think that in an effort to insulate oneself from the perils of comic book retailing, that some stores stray too far from where they started.  And if you feel good about that decision and are successful at it, then I say hooray for you.  I see too many retailers, both big and small, comic and non-comic, lose themselves looking for the next opportunity they don’t want to miss out on.  “Jack of all trades, master of none.”  In my store, we carry comic books, both new and old, graphic novels, both hardcover and soft, statues and prop replicas, but only those that have a direct comic book connection.  None of us can carry everything, so I stay focused on comic book-derived merchandise, not pop-culture merchandise.  Am I leaving money on the table by focusing in this way?  Maybe.  But I don’t carry videogames or toaster ovens or lawnmowers either.  If I could carry a line of Marvel Comics toaster ovens or TVs, then I probably would if the margins are there.  But Avatar t-shirts?  Let Hot Topic have ‘em.  I’m not talking about splitting hairs, I’m talking about focus.  Iron Man helmets?  Heck yeah!  Freddy Krueger masks?  Not my focus.  As game stores go, we’re far from a full-line game store.  Magic: The Gathering, D&D and Games Workshop.  A small handful of kid/family friendly card games and board games, and that’s about it.  Focus.  We carry more GW products than anyone in my market, and that works for us.  Same with Magic.  I wanted to be a huge Warhammer store, and we’ve done that, in part by eliminating underperforming product categories and focusing on our core competencies.  Rather than stocking every trading card game that comes along, I’d rather increase my budget for Magic, a proven product line that continues to grow.  I figure, if I’m gonna carry it, I’m gonna carry the hell out of it!  Focus.

When traveling, visiting other comic stores is one of my requirements.  I’ve traveled to surrounding cities for the sole purpose of visiting other comic stores in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.  Attention to detail is almost non-existent in the stores I’ve visited.  Where a product is placed on the shelf and in the store matters.  How these products are presented is fundamental.  I know of one store that looks like you picked it up, shook it real hard, and then set it down and opened the doors.  Everything, everywhere, with absolutely no rhyme or reason to anything.  The store literally looks like it exploded!  And I’m sure most of you are thinking “he’s clearly never been in my store.”  And you’re probably right!  Odds are if you’re reading this, you clearly care about this business, and your place in it.  You’re probably one of the retailers that are fighting the good fight, and give your customers a great shopping experience.  And I don’t write any of these words thinking that I’m the only one getting it right, or that my store is perfect.  Trust me, it’s not.  When I look at my store, I see every little thing I’m unhappy with, and every improvement I’ve not yet made.  I spend a fair amount of time looking at every comic book store website I can find, searching for other comic retailers that make me wish my store was as cool as theirs, and what clever ideas can I absorb from the stores I find.  And I’ve found solutions to problems I’ve had in someone else’s store.  Sharing ideas with, and stealing ideas from, other retailers at events like the upcoming Diamond Retailer Summit or last month’s ComicsPRO meeting is my favorite part of any industry function, because I’m always learning something.

Next week, I’ll wrap up attention to detail and then talk about what (I think) makes a great customer experience.  Until then, think about what makes your store a better choice than the other guy.  If a comic store opened across the street, what is it about your store would keep ‘em coming back?

To be continued...

The opinions expressed in this column are solely  those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of