Tuesday, June 29, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 119

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 42
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 17
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 13


By the fall of 1997, my son was now a senior in high school and my daughter was in eighth grade. My wife was a “stay at home mom.” I wasn’t really needed at either of my comic book and collectible stores but would occasionally go in to the Worcester store to work on adding our huge inventory to our website. It was our hope that our business would increase by selling comic books all over the world via the Internet. Every employee we had seemed to be already overloaded with work to do each day so the task of listing the comic books fell to me. I spent dozens of hours listing comic books onto the website and I only finished the titles that began with the letters A-G. It was my intention to keep adding comic books as the months went on.

Most of us were either novices or almost useless when it came to computers so we assigned the task of dealing with any email that our website generated to one of our young, computer skilled employees. He seemed to enjoy being our “Internet guy.”

We began to advertise our website in a couple of comic book-related publications and eventually we started to get some orders. It certainly wasn’t the “flood” of orders we were expecting though. Very few orders came from the United States but we did get quite a few from countries like Japan, Brazil, and Finland. The foreign collectors were mostly buying inexpensive and common back issues of “Groo The Wanderer” so our sales still didn’t justify the expense of running our website. I decided to stop listing the run-of-the-mill inexpensive comics and start listing our expensive “display” comics. It would take the same amount of time to list a fifty cent comic as it did to list a $300 comic book and I hoped the website visitors would jump at the opportunity to buy some nice, expensive vintage “Spider-Man” or “Batman” comics. Then our website would have a chance to be profitable. But even after almost all of our most expensive comics were listed, the orders still didn’t come in. Discouraged, I slowed down my efforts to get every comic book we had onto the website.

One day when I happened to go into the store, I checked the store’s incoming email file and noticed that we had an order from a foreign collector for a few old “Warren Magazines” that I had listed. The order had come in almost two weeks ago and, for some reason, our “Internet guy” had not taken the time to process the order. This gave me a chance to explain to this employee what I perceived to be the common thinking of most Internet users. When they send an email they are expecting an almost immediate reply! Internet customers tend to get upset if you take more than twenty-four hours to respond to their email. My employee understood and contacted this potential new customer, apologized for the delay, and let him know that the magazines he wanted were available if he still wanted them. The customer responded and also emailed us a large “want list” of other magazines he was looking to buy. The total sale ended up being over $600. We could have lost this sale if I hadn’t noticed this unanswered email.

Our “Internet guy” pledged to do a better job at keeping up with the email, but with all of his other responsibilities he was stretched to the limit. We soon realized that we didn’t have any other employee as computer-skilled to assign to the task of managing the website. After several more months we determined that we just weren’t doing a decent job of handling our Internet operation. We decided that we’d rather not spend the time necessary to manage the website if we couldn’t be great at it. It would be unfair to our new customers if we weren’t able to provide a fast, reliable service. We eventually removed our product from the website but continued to use the site for advertising and as a source of current information about the events at our stores. We’ve been able to keep up with this because of the effort of several dedicated employees over the years.

My wife, Mal, had been successfully selling rubber stamps and supplies at craft fairs with her friend Dianne. One day in October of 1997, while they were sitting at our kitchen table writing up an order for stamps and supplies, I urged them to consider opening a full-time store. It didn’t take much convincing because they both knew that they had the skills and knowledge to make a full-time store work. Their main concern was that they didn’t want to sign a long-term lease on a store location just in case the store wasn’t profitable. I suggested that they could open their store inside my Fitchburg store. This store had a large “backroom” that we used for storage of extra product and with a little bit of work we could free up some space for Mal and Dianne to set up their new business. This way, they could try having a full-time store without paying any rent.

Dianne’s husband, Ken, had carpentry skills and he did all of the construction work of moving walls and creating an attractive space for the women to arrange their product. Mal and Dianne ordered lots of new product and had it shipped quickly so that they could be open for business soon. They got all of the required permits, business licenses, separate telephone line, and had a sign painted and installed outside to advertise the new “Vineyard Stamp Company.” I supplied an extra cash register I wasn’t using at the store and a few odds and ends that they’d need to get started. Since their store was actually inside of my store, they wouldn’t need to pay for heat or air conditioning. I was already paying for that. There was a separate heater for my “backroom” that wasn’t working so they paid to get it repaired. “The Vineyard Stamp Company” opened for business on November 1st, 1997.

I’m sure some people thought it was strange to have this “store-within-a-store” but it was as close to a risk-free experiment for Mal and Dianne as was possible and I also believed that both of us would benefit from the arrangement. Their business would attract more women to our location and the women would tell their male friends and relatives about our unusual inventory of sports memorabilia, comic books, toys and collectibles. This could eventually increase our store sales. I also believed that many of our customers would be interested, or know someone who’d be interested, in all of the craft products that Mal and Dianne were selling.

With some well-placed and inexpensive advertising they quickly began to build up a steady customer base. They decided to teach classes and charged a nominal fee to cover the cost of the materials that would be used in the class. Sales increased each week and were especially good on the days that Mal or Dianne taught classes on how to create the beautiful hand-made greeting cards. They realized that most of the “students” in the classes would want to purchase the items used during the class so they could duplicate the same cards when they got home. “The Vineyard Stamp Company” became a successful and profitable business very quickly. But what was originally conceived as a fun opportunity for Mal and Dianne to work together and share their passion for “rubber-stamping” with others, now became a real job. They both were now committed to running a real business. One, or both of them, needed to be at the store to be open for business six days a week.

After many years of not working outside of the home, Mal didn’t enjoy this new commitment. She especially hated making the thirty-minute drive in the snow throughout the winter while I stayed, warm and comfortable, at home. Mal also realized that when summer came, she’d have to be at the store alone each day because Dianne spent each summer on Martha’s Vineyard and was going to be unable to help Mal cover the store. So, after seven months of business, Mal and Dianne agreed to close their store.

I made Mal and Dianne an offer to purchase the balance of the leftover inventory because I hoped that we could keep their customers coming in to our store to spend money. Unfortunately, without skilled salespeople willing to demonstrate the craft of card-making, sales on these products plummeted. The male employees of our Fitchburg store just were not interested in these products. We ran a big, half-price sale and sold off quite a bit of the inventory. After a few more months, the employees just packed up what was left into boxes and stored them in our backroom. This inventory would become useful again soon, but not for us.

Next chapter: Big decisions to make about Adam’s college and Cassy’s high school.

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