A Great Advantage

Competitive Advantage. It means pretty much what it sounds like, either offering the same benefits as one's competitors at a lower cost or offering better benefits than the competition. One of the first questions anyone gets asked when putting together financing for a new business venture is what sets this idea apart, why it is better than the competition.

This is sparked by Matt Fraction's column about great comic shops over at Comics Should Be Good (and the resulting list/conversation at The Engine). The question that gets raised is obvious: What makes a comic shop great? To which I am of course required to answer: Define great. Great to shop in, spend time in, find that one comic that you can't get anywhere else, or by great do we mean all of these things, plus one critical element that usually gets ignored -- the ability to stay open.

For a shop to stay open it needs one of two things: no competition or a competitive advantage. We opened in an area with more comic shops per capita than most areas but without what I would call a great comic shop. So, before we opened I made several trips to as many area bookstores and comic shops as I could find in an effort to see what they did well and what we might be able to do better. It's not that I have any desire to compete with or beat out MOST of those places. It was a matter of figuring out how MacGuffin could fit into the local market. What would our unique selling points be?

Taking cues from several great shops across the country (most notably The Isotope, Comic Relief and Rocketship) as well as the dearth of non-superhero comics carried by shops in the area we felt that the best chance for MacGuffin to be great was to be a book store specializing in comics. We set ourselves up in competition with two different markets, the specialty comic stores that sold primarily singles and the graphic novel sections in Barnes & Noble and Borders which sold a decent but limited selection of trade paperbacks and graphic novels. By attacking both markets we would be forced to build a store with advantages over each. Unfortunately, we've haven't been entirely successful.

It is fairly easy to offer benefits that the other comic shops in the area don't. The most important and easiest to achieve was offering more variety of product. We carry nearly every comic any other shop in the area does plus much more. To the best of my knowledge we're the only store in a 50 mile radius with New Tales of Old Palomar, Firestorm, Project: Romantic, Absolute Boyfriend, Local and Good-Bye, Chunky Rice on our shelves. None of these titles crack our best sellers list, but they sell enough to justify their shelf space and that is all that is really necessary for us to maintain selection as an advantage over both comic shops and bookstores.

Just carrying more than the other guys may be an advantage, but the shopping experience is just as important. To that end, we set out to design a store that was comfortable for new comic readers as well as lifelong fans. I recently heard out layout described as "wasting a lot of space." That may be, but you'd be surprised how many people like to be able to shop for comics without squeezing past a table of longboxes (or Heroclix). And then there's the number of bored spouses who have stumbled on something interesting while relaxing on our couch or wandering around waiting for their significant other to finish browsing. Toss in a friendly, knowledgeable staff and you're halfway home.

On the other side, though, we can't yet compete with the big boxes when it comes to manga. We've been expanding our selection since the day we opened but they've got a huge head start there and it can be difficult (though nowhere near impossible) to pull manga fans into a comic shop. Nor do we have some of the variant covers or statues or memorabilia that some direct market shops carry. On top of that, we haven't developed a local marketing advantage that has translated into concrete sales (it's entirely possible that there are more people outside the state of Virginia that know of us than there are inside it). We have willingly forfeited some advantages and simply missed the boat on others but making a comic shop great is a constant process. MacGuffin isn't there yet (we still haven't put together a successful creator signing), but we're working on it. Hopefully we'll see inspired individuals take the time to figure out what will make their shop great and discover a competitive advantage that will help them thrive.

Of course, then comes the difficult part: communicating that advantage to potential customers.


Blogger Brit said...

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2:24 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

I don't know why I enjoy hearing the comic retailer's point of view as much as I do, but it is always interesting to me. I think largely because most comic shop owners and employees are also fans of the product they sell, perhaps to a more intimate degree than any other specialty retail category.

You may be right about more people outside Virginia knowing about you than residents of the state. I myself live in Texas and am very fortunate to get to shop at the wonderful Austin Books.

My fiancee's parents live in northern Virginia, and we'll be up there for the holidays. If Newport News was closer to the DC area, I'd absolutely find the time to make the trip and check your store out. I think it sounds great and I really wish you success with it.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Sam Hobart said...

Although I've never been there, I've heard great things about Austin Books.

I sometimes think we should have opened in a different area (Hampton Roads has a large population but it's very spread out). Part of the idea, though, was to prove that this sort of shop can work anywhere, not just in New York, Chicago or San Francisco.

6:12 PM  

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