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Dearth of a Salesman By John Byrne
There are some retailers in the comicbook marketplace who could learn a lot from used car salesmen.
Ever buy a used car? Or, for that matter, a new car? If you have, you've probably noticed that the salesmen are all trained for one thing: to sell you a car.
Now, that might sound redundant and obvious, but it points up something that is missing in many comic shops around the Nation -- the simple notion that the job is to sell product. "Sell" being an active verb.
Car salesmen are not self-appointed critics. If I walk onto a Ford dealership lot looking to buy a Mustang, the salesmen will fall all over themselves to sell me a Mustang. If I suddenly decide I'd rather have an SUV, they'll do the same for that car. Ditto used car salesmen. If they see me on the lot looking at a car, they will not come over and tell me how much they, personally, hate that particular car, or that older models of the car were superior, or that they heard this rumor about the guy who designed the car...
Right about now, I can hear some of you thinking "That's a different marketplace, John." (People who are instructing me in the error of my ways always call me by my given name.) "Comics are not cars."
And, you know, they are right. Comics are not cars. They're not rhubarb, either -- but the funny thing is, if I walk into my local green grocer and ask where the rhubarb is, I won't get a lecture on how rhubarb is awful and how anyone who would want to eat rhubarb would have to be an idiot, and how I should by a can of Spam instead. What I'll get is directions on where to find the rhubarb.
Or the hammer, if I happen to be in a hardware store. The clerk won't tell me a screwdriver is better than a hammer.
Still not close enough to comics?
How about this: When was the last time you walked into the local Hell Plaza Octoplex to buy a movie ticket and had the individual at the cash register look upon you with contempt, scoff at your choice, tell you something scandalous about the star, or the director, or the studio head, and basically treat you like a particularly low grade moron because you want to see a movie s/he thinks is dross?
In my travels across the country for Conventions and store appearances, I have visited many wonderful comic shops. I have seen places that were bright, clean, staffed with attentive personnel who understood the most basic principle of retailing: the customer is always right.
Because -- and here comes another blindingly obvious statement -- a store (any store) is in business to sell product.
'Round the corner from my house is a little shop that sells exercise equipment and other health related goods, like vitamins and heating pads and whatnot They also sell the latest magnetic therapy gadgets. Now, magnetic therapy is a total crock. Honest. Science Says You're Wrong if you think there is anything remotely beneficial about strapping magnets to your body. Remember when your elementary school teacher showed you how magnets would pick up paperclips and the pocket clips on pens, and how they would make iron filings form interesting patterns on a sheet of paper? Remember how you were also shown that a magnet had no measurable effect on, say, an apple? Or a piece of wood? Or you? Amazing the number of people who seem not to remember that.
Anyway, I was buying a treadmill about a year ago, and I picked up a display version of a "magnetic insole" that was lying on the counter next to the cash register. I was just curious enough to want to see if maybe the manufactures had done something that might cause my hand to tingle, or some other manifestation of the magnet "working."
"Interested in a pair of those?" asked the shop manager.
"Should I be?" I asked, trying not to sound like the Amazing Randi on his way to debunk another charlatan.
The guy launched into a short dissertation on the wonders of magnetic therapy -- sounding very much like he had memorized it right off the box. Needless to say, at no point did he offer the prevailing counter view. At no point did he suggest that a product for sale in his shop was in any way not worth buying.
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A lot of things have served to sabotage the comicbook industry in the last decade, greed chief amongst them. Yet, for all the greed manifest by the companies, the "creators," the retailers, the "fans" -- there is that one odd place where some kind of dark energy antigravity seems to be at work. Where, for instance, a potential customer can ask for a product and be told the store does not stock that product because it "doesn't sell."
Think about that.
Imagine a car salesman telling a guy who wants a Mustang that there are no Mustangs on the lot because they can't sell them.
Telling a customer he can't have what he wants to buy because no one wants to buy it.
Does that make sense? Anywhere in the real world?
Yet there are comic shops all over this country where that scenario is repeated on a daily basis.
Because, in those shops (and let us pause to say a small prayer of Thanks to whatever gods may be that those are not all the shops, or we'd all have had to get real jobs long ago!) it has been completely forgotten that the customer is always right.
And, walking in close tandem, hands clasped with the former, the job of a shop is to sell product.
We can all agree the Industry is in a sorry state, yes? And we can all agree that chasing away customers is probably not the best way to help it get any better. (Helping it get better may not be an option, but this is like the old joke about giving chicken soup to a dead guy -- it couldn't hurt!)
So there's my Big Advice to all the managers and clerks who need it (and again, not ALL of them, thank Whosis!): give the customer what s/he wants, not what you think s/he should want.
The customer is always right. Even when s/he's wrong.
Addendum: Nothing in the above is meant to suggest a comic shop should stock copies of every item out there in the marketplace, just in case someone wanders in off the street looking for an obscure title. But the Good Shops I have visited demonstrate a willingness to go the extra mile, to order books for people who want them, even if it's only a single copy, or even if it means ordering more than one and being stuck with a copy or two no one wants. Why? Because doing so creates a happy customer, and that's a customer who will come back, a customer who will tell his friends what a Good Shops this is.
Back to the car analogy: When I first moved to Connecticut I needed to rent a car for a few days, so I went round the corner to Hertz and got a Volvo station wagon. I found it handled well and was a very comfortable car so, since I needed to buy a car after a couple of years in Brooklyn, I toddled on down to the Volvo dealership and told them what I wanted. They did not have the combination of color, interior, options etc. I was looking for, so they said they would order one for me. Which they did.
Let me say that again: They did not have the precise combination of elements I wanted anywhere in the country, so they imported the car from France! No extra charge.
Result: extremely satisfied customer. When I needed another car to replace the first (it got totaled when it was hit by a teenager driving his father's car without insurance...) I went back to the same dealership. And, again, I got excellent, attentive service. Again, I was a happy customer.
And anyone who thinks doing everything humanly possible to keep the customers happy is not part of the job -- well, they shouldn't be in retail, should they?
John Byrne is one of the industry's most noted creators. In almost three decades, he has completed work on hundreds of books, including most of the "Big Two's" major titles. His previous achievements include classic runs on X-MEN, CAPTAIN AMERICA, AVENGERS, WEST COAST AVENGERS, SUPERMAN, THE SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK, and an expansive five-year run on FANTASTIC FOUR. Byrne's latest creator-owned monthly series, LAB RATS, debuted April 2002 from DC Comics. His next project is a Superman comic, to be written by comedy legend John Cleese.