Joe Ferrara owns and operates Atlantis Fantasyworld in Santa Cruz, California.  He has been very successful in building up a female clientele at his store.  In this extensive interview, he talks about his proven methods of selling to female consumers, and in the process gives some great tips on selling to anyone.  The interview also focuses on the product mix to attract female customers, including issues of display, how he handles manga, and how he sells adult merchandise.  Finally, we cover Ferrara's experience with marketing his store, including TV ads, and how he uses his windows to market his store.  


How would you describe the setting of your store?  Santa Cruz is a coastal community.  The entire county only has a quarter of a million people.  The city itself is only 50,000 and the makeup of Santa Cruz is a combination of a University with a student population, a tourist population, because of the boardwalk, and a retirement community


We are located one block off the main drag, so we don't have to keep ridiculous hours and stay open to 11 o'clock at night.  But I do have two competitors within one mile of me, so even though we are in a smaller community, people can get in a car and in two minutes they can go to either of the other stores, so we have to be focused on giving great service.



You have been successful in attracting female customers. Give us a crash course in the basics.   The basic thing is not separating females out from your general base of customers.  The ground rules are, 'What is the best way to attract customers in general -- and I think that is kind of overlooked.  When it's more attractive to women, it stands to reason that it's more attractive to guys too.  From there we start looking at the specifics, that's just a general approach to retailing.  Then we look more specifically at our product lines and our clientele.


We started out tracing demographics--we have a way to do that with our register. Most registers come equipped with buttons that allow you to associate a sale to a particular sales person on your staff.  We use those four keys to trace the demographics.  When we are making a sale we push one of those four buttons so that we can tell if it's an adult male or female or a juvenile male or female who made that purchase.  That's how when we started out we found out what our percentages were.  Before you can start to make things better you have to know who you are dealing with. 


So we started with a general approach to treat everybody alike and then we found out who we had shopping here, and then we had discussions to see if we could affect that demographic in any way. 


Having intelligent women behind the counter who can give good customer service is important.  Now that doesn't mean that you can't have an all-male staff that can do this too, but sometimes, a mother or a grandmother, or a girlfriend that walks in the door, she will feel more comfortable approaching a woman behind the counter.  If there are all guys back there, she might feel intimidated, depending on the ambience of everything.  So having staff that will treat everyone the same whether the customer is a mom or a pop or a kid is essential part of marketing to women correctly.


Did the information you got from your demographic survey influence your ordering?  The first thing we thought about was how to bring up the percentage of women in terms of product.  So we said, what other kinds of products could we have in here that women would be interested in?  We brought in a line of ceramic fairies, collectible figurines and a line of licensed snow globes.  We had to have some discrimination in this area so we decided if it was fantasy-related or licensed then it would fit in our product mix.  We didn't want to go outside the box too far; we wanted to stay within our theme.  


Bringing in the stuff we did had a positive effect.  I am looking now at first quarter and it shows that the average sale for a male in the second quarter was $20 and the average sale for a female was $17.  There used to be a much great disparity between these numbers, but the gap is closing.  For the entire year so far the average sale to a woman is within 2 bucks of the sale to a man. The average sale to young males was $10.49 while the average sale to a little girl was $10.89.


What type of ambience do you try to create in your store? The ambience is extremely important.  If people walk into a shop and there's loud rock music or rap music playing -- if that's the image you want to portray that's fine -- if that's the niche you want to occupy, that's fine.  But if you are looking to broaden your demographic, you are going to have to be aware that that's not an environment that's conducive to browsing, for most people at least.  Some people in this industry want to look at their operations as bookstores, others want to be 'counterculture' shops with provocative stuff -- you have to define yourself, what you want your identity to be -- in our case, we don't refer to ourselves as a 'comic shop' we call ourselves a 'themed entertainment store.' And we want to present a cross section of merchandise so that we are appealing to a lot more people than just the core comic audience.


So the ambience is extremely important.  All the senses that we can engage we do.  How the store is organized, how presentable it is are very important.  If a woman comes in with her boy friend and takes one look at the place and says, 'I'll wait for you outside,' you've got a basic problem there.  So the ambience is important, not just how it looks, but also how it sounds.  Is there taped music; is there a TV, is there anything at all?   The ambience of a store has a lot to say in how comfortable women will be.  If a mother or a girlfriend comes into make a purchase, you have a chance to make a better sale if they find the place comfortable.  If they feel like they just want to get out as quickly as possible, they will grab the first thing they see and there will be no opportunity for add-on sales or things of that sort, so that really is an important aspect.


Another important aspect of all this is to make sure that the staff members have enough product knowledge so that when women come in you can help them.  Out of the 25% of our customer base that is female, I would say that 22% are buying for themselves and 3% would be women who are buying gifts for others.  Dealing with that 3% is tricky because they usually assume that we know the person they are buying for -- otherwise they wouldn't be in our store to buy a gift for them.  If you know your customers and can suggest the right things then the women who are buying for their boyfriend or husband or child will buy more, and if you can be helpful and provide this kind of personalized customer service they will be back.


One of the key things to remember is that when women buy things in other retail channels they are used to liberal return policies -- which they get in any other business they walk into -- so you have modify the typically restrictive return policies that reign in our industry.  So having an understanding of this and indicating that if what you are selling to her can be returned if it doesn't work out can make a difference.


I really think one of the most important things is employee training.    We just hired a new female employee.  She has had two weeks of training and she is just now starting to work the register, because we take so much time to make sure that we train people in etiquette and how to treat customers, how to answer questions, and give directions, where things are, how to do gift certificates, how to work all the software.   All these things have to be done before you have an effective salesperson.


I think that all these factors together explain why we have been successful in attracting female customers.  I tell you that we sell more copies of Strangers in Paradise every month than we do of Batman and Superman.  More than we do of X-Men.  I can punch that Strangers in Paradise number in every month and not have a problem.

What are some of the best-selling titles to female customers in your store?  Absolutely, the top is Strangers in Paradise.  In fact there is only one title that has more subscribers and that is Hero Bear and the Kid.  Hero Bear is my number one selling title in the store, it appeals to everybody, women, kids, and men.  It's building an audience.  It's the next Bone, or Peanuts, or something like that.  Kabuki by David Mack is a very strong title with the female audience. 


The manga titles are also strong with women -- InuYasha is a really great title to bring in women readers, and Ranma too.  Also Blue Monday -- in the Vertigo area the Books of Magic titles, and Zero Girl by Sam Keith is also excellent.  My wife is not someone who likes violent comics, but she loves the new Elektra that Marvel is putting out.  Brian Michael Bendis has really hooked her.  That really surprised me cause we can't go to a movie that has any blood or violence in it.  The Rising Stars and Midnight Nation, the J. Michael Stracynski titles, those are very strong with women readers. Also some of the titles from Crossgen, Crux, also Meridian--my strongest selling title from Crossgen.

In general the Crossgen titles appeal to women.  Also there's a wonderful book from Dark Horse, A Tale of One Bad Rat, that is very successful.  Also Pedro and Me from Judd Winnick is excellent.  These are titles for more mature women -- Tale of One Bad Rat, Pedro & Me, we rack them with Strangers in Paradise in our 'Slice of Life' section. 


Another title we do well with is Linda Medley's Castle Waiting, which has an appeal for the young kids.  When customers have read all the Bone titles, we recommend Akiko and Castle Waiting, both of those are really strong.  A perfect title for young girls is Leave it To Chance--there are two graphic novels currently out from Image Comics.   They are going to do some new stuff in an oversize format like the Tintins -- all you have to say to a woman is that this is a story about a girl whose father is a wizard and doesn't think that he can pass on his position to his daughter, so she has to prove that she is worthy to become a wizard.  That's the kind of storyline that will intrigue a young mother because it shows the female as a strong character who can overcome the odds and prejudices.  Leave it to Chance is a perfect book.


Also Diamond offers the Little Lulus in collection of three hardcovers, so we have broken up the sets and sold the books individually for around $40 to make them more affordable. Little Lulu is a great title for people of all ages. DC owns the property, but they don't know what to do with it.  We've been trying to convince them otherwise, but so far unsuccessfully. 


Tell us about your experience with shojo anime and manga titles.  How do they work for you?  They sell very steadily, but the shojo manga is not something that we targeted to bring in young girls; in fact, we just expanded that category as it grew, but it does work very well. Currently we are putting together a list for our local library.  We have a meeting in September and they are pleading with us for help, because they have no clue what is age appropriate in this area.  They ordered an anime title randomly and I think they got one with oral sex in the first five minutes.  We are working with a local girls anime/manga club at the high school to put something together that would be appropriate for the library. 


Right now we are doing better with the manga than the anime, because the video places in town are renting and selling lots of anime, so we are focusing more on manga, but it's definitely a category that is growing for us and it has helped us make inroads and get more young girls and women to come in to the store.  There is great entry-level stuff for girls--Inu Yasha, the Ranma 1/2, the Shadow Lady.  We keep all those graphic novels in stock at all times.


How do you display your manga titles?  The way we organize the store, everything is by genre.  It's the same approach as a bookstore.  We have signage clearly marking the various parts of the store.  We have all our humor stuff in one area, all our superhero titles in another area, we have all of our Vertigo stuff in another area, and we have one whole rack of Japanese comics.  If you go there you are going to see Akira mixed in with all the other stuff, but what we will do is take age appropriate titles like the Cardcaptors, the Sailor Moon, things of that sort and we will double rack them on the family rack that is at the front of the store.  So you don't necessarily want the kids to be exposed to Sanctuary or Lone Wolf and Cub just because they want to find Sailor Moon.  We have the Cardcaptors, the Sailor Moon, and the Dragonball Z on the same rack with Archies, Batman Adventures, Bone, Meridian, Simpsons, etc.  If a kid comes in and has read all the Bone titles, then they have other choices, Akiko, Castle Waiting, Hero Bear are racked right next to it. 


We spend a lot of time when product comes into the store for the first time, deciding which rack is appropriate for it.  The way we have racked the store, the family friendly stuff, the humor stuff, the highly recognizable Batman and Superman stuff, that stuff is near the front of the store, and as you proceed into the store then you move into the superhero area, then you move into the back of the store where you have your more sophisticated stuff like the Vertigo, the independents.  


The theory is that people who want Cerebus are going to find it no matter where you put it, but the average person walking in the door, you want to give them something that will appeal to them.  Consequently when you walk in the door to the right is a spinning rack of greeting cards -- a device that has attracted a number of women who were just walking by, and had no intention of coming in, but the stopped and saw the cards -- we have cards that no one else in town carries with elves and fairies and fantasy themes.  That's just a foot away from the family rack and we have a spinner with Asterisk and Tintin on the left.  Plus some Little Lulu, Calvin & Hobbes, those are the things that we put near the front of the store and I think that makes women feel comfortable when they walk it because they see things that recognize.   They are not walking into a big Spawn display, the first thing in the door. 


They call it the 'wow' factor -- when the customer walks in the door -- what kind of 'wow' factor are you sending out?  You really have to be aware of the products that women will see when they step into your store.  Is it going to set them at ease or are they going to be uncomfortable and want to get out.


Obviously you feel having a kid's section is part of making women feel comfortable in the store.  Well I think that's just good business anyway, but another key factor is that we are not crowded, that there is plenty of room.  Our store is open and airy.  We actually have a woman with twins and she can come in with her stroller and there is no problem for her to negotiate the space in my store.  People in wheelchairs can negotiate the space in my store.  You want to have a place that is inviting, not threatening. Just while we were talking three middle-aged women came into the store and asked me for directions.  The fact that they felt comfortable doing that speaks volumes about what we have been able to do here.


Do you carry adult material?  We do.  We keep it to a minimum, though I carry the NBM stuff, the graphic novels, and I carry some of the Eros titles.  We don't have it shut off in a separate room, but we do have an area in the back of the store that is clearly delineated.  We have never had a complaint because of the way we display the stuff.  Anything with an overly suggestive cover is not in the front row.  We actually probably carry more adult material than the average store does, but we are able to merchandise it in a way that doesn't call attention to it -- and we haven't had a problem with it.


Do you have special training for your employees in dealing with adult material?  It is clearly marked on the racks -- we have signs that clearly say '18 Years or Older -- This Section' on three of the racks.   Not only do we do special training, we are very vigilant about that, in fact.  We are very insistent that anyone who looks even close to 18 has to prove their age, and we spend time teaching employees how to be fair courteous and firm when asking for an ID.  The only complaint I have had from a parent in 25 years is one woman who complained, not about the T&A comics, but about one called 'What if Your Dad Was Gay?'


What kind of advertising and marketing do you do for your store?  At this point it's pretty minimal.  We don't do any institutional advertising unless it's around a specific event or a product.  We don't do regular monthly advertising of any kind.  We do in-store flyers, things of that sort.  After 25 years we are well known in the community and I found that generic advertising doesn't work.  We are getting ready to put together a television ad campaign to the Silicon Valley to help put a capper to our 25th year anniversary celebration.  That will involve a little girl in the commercial. 


When I first opened in this new location, nine years ago, one of the things we did to re-establish in our new location was a series of TV commercials where we showed a woman waiting on a woman, and the narration over the commercial was a female voice.  So everything we did with that outreach was with females to give the store a different kind of identification than you necessarily would.  We weren't going after just the collector; our whole goal was to go after the consumer in general--give the idea that this was a family store.  We thought that going after the collector meant that we would be subject to the whims of fads, and we wanted something that was going to give us that regular cash flow and regular clientele, so our approach was a family approach rather than a collector approach.  That's why we used women in those commercials. 


Will you run the TV ads on cable?  What shows will you target?  I will run those this time on cable, because what I did the previous times that I used TV, I went on the Fox affiliate, figuring that Fox had most of the shows that would appeal to my clientele, number one, and number two, Fox was more oriented toward family viewing.  But this time around I want to use cable, because I want to hit a wider demographic.


The entertainment that we are offering now is extremely mainstream.  It used to be that you had to come to a store like ours if you wanted cool stuff, but there's no counterculture anymore.  When South Park hit, every store in the mall had South Park T-shirts, even if the people there had no idea what South Park was all about.  People don't have to come to us anymore to get this type of merchandise--it is mainstream stuff.  Where we used to be able to be a little arrogant and say, 'If they want the stuff, they have to come to us,' that formula doesn't work anymore.  What we have to do now is to realize that we are a very small part of a very large entertainment pie, and people have choices, and they can probably get the stuff we are selling cheaper online or someplace like Hot Topic, places like that -- so we have to give them a reason to buy it from us. 


The message we have to get out is not only do we have great stuff, but we have a great staff, we have great ambience.  We have to give them a reason that they will choose us as a place where they are going to buy things, or spend some time with us.  That's my hope with this next round of TV commercials--that we will appeal to the wider demographic that is now looking for this stuff as part of their mainstream entertainment, rather than just a few people that are out of the mainstream who are looking for this stuff because they're really cool and in the know.  That's our philosophy approaching our 25th anniversary celebration.  We are featuring a different publisher every month and having an event around that publisher.  People who attend the events can register to win a free trip to the Bahamas.   Our hope is that newcomers will return to register again and again, and be exposed to lots of different products and presentations. 


Our approach is to shoot out a wider net and get a greater range of people through the door, because we are not going to get any more money out of the people we already have coming in, they're spending what they can. We've got to get more people coming in than just our core customers.


Are you going to target specific shows like Star Trek or Zena with your TV campaign?  Yes and no. Usually when you sit down with the cable people you have a budget, and they tell you that if you place that same 30 second spot in a show that's on prime time, it's going to soak up a lot of your budget.  So I may want to try to place one in the new Star Trek show that is coming on in the fall, but that may be expensive.  It's cheaper in late night placements, so there's a rotation involved, you get to pick some of the spots and they fill in on other.  In some cases they give you two or three alternatives, blocks of different channels, and then they decide the placements.


Do you use window displays to attract female customers?  We are in Santa Cruz, where signage is restricted.  We can't use as much of our exterior window as we would like because of the ordinances here in town, we can only use 20-25% of the space.  We've had to be creative with what shows up inside the store.  We don't have a window box that we can change like many stores, but we do have lots of windows. 


In one room we have put in glass display cases that light up at night.  In one case we have a lot of the snow globes that I was referring to earlier.  They run the gamut from classic things like Blondie and Lulu to Toy Story, Universal Monsters, Dr. Seuss, and Rudolph.  I invested in two glass display cases, which were a grand each, but they are identical.  In the other one, I've put some Jerry Garcia and Beatles memorabilia. 


The other day a woman and her young son came in, I thought they were going to buy some Pokemon cards, but they bought $500 worth of Beatles memorabilia for the father.  They said they had been planning to buy these for months.  Some items don't turn that fast, but when they do they make your day, and even when they don't, they create interest in your store.  We never would have made that sale if we hadn't had that kind of product in the store, and if we hadn't displayed it so people walking by on the sidewalk would notice it.  When you get into those high ticket items, it's going to be birthdays and mostly fourth quarter, this is not stuff that's going to sell year round, but tourists come and they see Peanuts globe or something for the Three Stooges and you get a sale. 


This goes along with my theory about seeing through windows.  Some stores have window boxes full of crap and superhero posters obscuring the view so you have no idea what's going on in the store, what the inside is really like.   I've got another lighted case in the front window where I have the flower fairies.  We are right around the corner from a movie theater so I have come by the store many times at night and seen people standing on the sidewalk, just looking in a the different figures.  You hope that that will mean that they will come back for a later sale.



Our success with women customers is based on the fact that we don't treat them any differently than anybody else, but we are sensitive to the fact that women have different needs than men do in some areas,  We don't use the word customers -- we have staff and we have visitors, and anyone who walks in the door gets treated like a visitor to your home.  Everything grows from there.  You can have all the other stuff, the location, the products and such, but if you don't treat people right it won't work.   You can go to a restaurant and get great food, but if you are treated like a second-class citizen, are you going back there -- hell no.  I think that is why we have been successful -- we treat everyone with respect.