Sharpening the Sword is a regular column by retailer John Riley of Grasshopper's Comics, a 1300 square foot comic and games store in Williston Park, New York.  This week, Riley talks about coping with competition:


It's a very busy time for me at the moment.  We're still working on final details of a major renovation in which we had to almost gut the store to lay down a new floor, business has been busy, and we're spending a lot of time gearing up for GTS in a few weeks.  But on top of just being very busy, over the past few weeks we've had a number of close customers fall ill, one had his parent's home burn to the ground, and we actually had one of our long-time customers die.  So we've been riding something of an emotional rollercoaster here as well.  As a result I just didn't have much poise left and took it as something of a shock when I learned that a new competitor had entered our area.


I have to be honest and say that my first reaction was simply, "Why?"  There are around 1.5 million people in our county, so I just couldn't understand why someone would open up between me and my closest major competitor, less than a mile away from either of us.  When we first opened up sixteen years ago we were extremely worried about other stores entering our area.  It seemed that stores were opening and closing almost weekly.  But for years now I've grown quietly confident that if someone did manage to open a store in our area (where due to high overhead it requires a very significant investment) that they would most likely open in an area that wasn't currently being served very well.  The few remaining stores in our county are all very well established so I just assumed nobody would go up against them.


My brain instantly began to run through the business scenario of a new store owner seeking to compete with well established businesses with decades of experience, large inventories, and tons of good will behind them.   The inventory investment would have to be massive, I imagined.  Or perhaps they were planning on just doing heavy discounting.  I ran through a number of scenarios that someone would conceive of to potentially threaten us.   But after letting my imagination run wild for a while, I realized that we should just really find out what this new store was like and get it over with.


So we took the short trip and checked out the store, which while nice, really didn't have much product to speak of, and what they did have didn't really seem to compete with us.  The people seemed nice but the store was very empty, and I have to admit that I was very relieved.  But as I started to relax I also started to see things a bit differently.


My initial reaction was pretty typical, I think.  Something along the lines of, "Oh, come on! Don't I have enough to deal with?!"  We've worked very hard to continually reinvent our store over the years, and it seemed like here I was being presented with yet another problem as soon as I felt I had fixed quite a few.  But pretty soon I started taking responsibility for the situation. After all, I had opened in between three stores that I felt were "marginal at best."  They're all gone now, but I don't think that has as much to do with us as it did with their own management.


Ultimately, I realized that this new store had as much right to be here as I did.  Would I rather not have the competition? Sure.  But if anything, their presence is going to be a good reminder that it's my responsibility to make sure that my store is as good as it possibly can be.  And since I'm constantly finding things that I can improve, that looks like it's going to be a lifetime task.  In a weird way, they've provided me with some great motivation to keep improving things.  Maybe they lit a fire under me that I needed.  I don't run as much demo gaming as I should.  And I've held off bringing in a few game displays for a bit too long.  So these are all things that I'm going to make sure get done soon.


At the moment, 2008 looks like it could be a pretty solid year for our industry.  Although the general economy is a bit shaky, we've got some good strong releases coming this year both on the comic and gaming fronts.  And this year's seemingly endless string of comic/fantasy-related movies should put everyone in the frame of mind to come in and visit our shops. 


Sometimes the external challenges we're faced with seem to be overwhelming and out of our control.  Things like MMORPG's, Internet discounters, iPods, DVDs, paintball, and a million other things compete for our customer's entertainment dollars.  And we have no control over that.  So we have to concentrate on controlling the things that we do have power over: our own stores, our attitudes, and our customer service.  This week I got a great reminder of that.  And really, that's what this column is supposed to be all about.


Next week I'm going to do something I haven't done in this column in two years.  I'm going to ask for a little audience participation.  Stay tuned, this could get interesting.


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