Jennifer Haines is both a teacher, and a learner.
The Dragon has prospered while Haines has both taught and learned. The store now has six employees, and did $890,000 (Canadian) in sales in 2015. The Dragon won the Will Eisner Spirit of Retailing Award in 2012, and Haines has become a highly respected member of the retail community—she just became a Board member of ComicsPRO.
In 17 years in retail, Haines has focused on family, with a teaching angle. And she’s learned a lot.
Focus on Kids...and the Parents Will Come.
And Haines is heavily involved in bringing comics to children through education. “We sponsor the Joe Shuster Comics for Kids award, we do work with schools, we do workshops at book fairs, anything we can,” she says. “It’s all geared to appeal to kids, and the whole family.”
Make your Customers the Staff
Haines says they’ve cultivated a community of game players “who feel a part of the place, and they become our unofficial sales staff. They are so good with helping new players, and that increases our gaming business.”
It may look like empty floor space, but Haines thinks the game space is crucial. “Sometimes my husband says, ‘Can’t we please put product in this spot?’ but my answer is always ‘No! It’s the gaming tables. They have to stay. The gamers always have to feel welcome.’”
Make the Move
“We get that mall-spillover traffic from other businesses, floods of people walking right past the store every day that we wouldn’t get otherwise,” Haines notes. “And a lot of them will stop in, usually just as a window-shopping event. They might not buy today, but they’ll get an idea of what they might be interested in for next time.”
Haines thinks her visibility is absolutely crucial. “I think a lot of comic or game stores don’t emphasize visibility, because they think they’re a niche market, and people will find them,” she says. “But our big goal is to attract everyone. And now, people like the Avengers or might have heard of new, cool board games and they want to check it out. So they see us, and we can set them up with what they might be looking for.”
Don't Get Pegged to the Date
Haines almost fell into a fatal trap on Day One.
“When I opened the store, I got fixated on opening in September, when the students came back to university,” she says. “It became the driving force in renting my first space. And it was way too big. I should have waited for a space that was the right size for me at the time.”
Within just a few months, Haines had to break her lease. She downgraded from a 2000 square-foot space to 800 square feet. “That was much better for what I was at the time,” she says.
The eventual mall move led to a 1500 square-foot space, and an expansion into 1800 square feet. “But it took years for me to grow to where we needed that,” she says. “That was the key initial error.”
Make Sure Your Year One Business Plan Is Year One
Growing your clientele takes time. And Haines’ initial business plan used numbers from an existing comic store, not a square-one startup. That made for some rough sledding as well.
“In this business, customers are fiercely loyal,” she says. “That’s great, but it makes it tough for a startup, because you can’t quote-unquote ‘steal’ customers from another store. They have to decide on their own that they’re through with the other place. We did get very, very lucky in that the competing business in town folded up due to reasons of their own about three years after we started. But for the first couple years, I was operating off of a plan that really didn’t account for, ‘Well, where am I going to cultivate my customers?’”
Beware Product Line Expansion
A few years ago, The Dragon went heavily into statues. “And…I guess I really wasn’t thinking about it,” Haines laughs. “I only had a couple of customers who were interested in statues, and it wasn’t like there were people asking for more. I didn’t follow demand. I tried to create a market where there wasn’t one. I did a ‘Well, if I build it, they’ll come’ kind of thing, and there just wasn’t a demand for it.”
Haines is still moving 8-year-old statues on a buy one, get one half off plan. “So now I try to follow demand, see where trends are truly developing, and examine my sales data very closely,” she says.
AND WHAT ELSE?
“The business is a constantly shifting battle for the right balance, When DC’s New 52 came out, we were caught unaware, and we did not have enough product. So when Marvel Now launched, we bought lots and lots…and I gave away so many of those books on Free Comic Book Day. I was scared I was going to be caught short again like I was on New 52, so I made a risky decision and ordered what turned out to be too many. I’m a lot more conservative when it comes to ordering now, especially when it’s a new thing coming out. I can’t listen to other stores saying, ‘Oh, this is going to be a huge book,’ I have to listen to my customer base, and look at sales history of similar titles.”
“As we’ve gotten bigger, we’ve attracted some negative comments. When you’re the new store in town, you’re the underdog, and everybody loves you. And when we started, there was no Facebook, Twitter, and so on. But now that we’re a bigger, more established business, it seems like there are people out there who want to…take me down? I work really, really hard to make sure my customers get the best prices and the best service, so it’s really painful to me when we get negative feedback on Facebook or Twitter. But I have to remember that there are some people out there who…that’s just what they like to do. And for everyone who leaves feedback like that, there 50 people or more who tell me to my face how great a job we do here. So it’s difficult, but I occasionally have to remind myself not to focus on the haters. I never expected it.”
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