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Friday, Dec 1, 2023

Punching in

Walk into Blastoff Comics and the walls are lined with comic books, including vintage editions of Mad magazine, the Avengers and Spider-Man. Nothing unusual there. Just another comic book store, right? Not by a mile. The small shop in the NoHo Arts District is actually on the front lines of retail. Call it a reverse business model for the Internet age. Blastoff Comics is one of a growing number of companies launching first as an online-only retailer before going brick-and-mortar. The company began as a website in late 2011, selling new and vintage copies of hard-to-find or out-of-print comics, and the success of the website spurred co-owners Jud Meyers and Scott Tipton to open the 1,000-square-foot shop in November. Meyers said the move was a logical step after the business model was proven online. “The Internet is our air troops,” Meyers said. “And the store is our ground troops. You have to have a full arsenal to do well these days.” The idea of expanding an online business to a physical location is picking up speed with business owners, according to retail experts. Kristen Walker, an assistant professor of marketing at Cal State University, Northridge, says companies are increasingly turning the tables on the close-the-doors and go-online model that has upended retailing in the past decade. She points to Piperlime, the San Francisco-based Gap Inc. spin-off, founded in 2006 as an online-only retailer. In September, it opened its first store in New York City. “We’re starting to see a lot of online retailers move into physical stores,” Walker said. “For retailers who have an online base of customers, it’s really multi-channel retailing. It’s giving people another place to find your product.” Rethinking strategy Meyers, 42, got his start in the business at age 12, when he worked in Northridge at what was then an outpost of Los Angeles store Golden Apple Comics. He co-founded Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks in 2003, which eventually expanded, buying the Northridge Golden Apple location and renaming it Earth-2 in 2009. “So I bought my first place of employment,” Meyers recalled. “Just this last week, I finally sold my shares of that company.” As he approached his 40th birthday in 2010, Meyers said he was looking for a new venture. He talked it over with Tipton, a comic book writer known for his contributions to the “Star Trek” series and his comics history blog, “Comics 101.” Together, they decided to back out of the Earth-2 style of comics retailing, which treats publications as a way to entice customers to buy items with higher profit margins, such as collectibles and pins. “It’s a very pop culture, very Hot Topic kind of model. The fact of the matter is that you can’t sustain yourself on $2.99 publications,” he said. “So the other stores have to sell lots of stuff, merchandise – T-shirts, action figures – to make money. But I turned 40 and that just wasn’t my thing anymore. So we did the opposite.” The company’s online sales include some of the rarest items it offers, from 1960s editions of the Fantastic Four series to 1930s crime detective comics. The sale of just one or two rare editions can bring in tens of thousands of dollars, Meyers said. In the store, most prices are lower and the publication dates more recent, with new releases selling for just a few dollars and not-too-distant back editions averaging $10 to $12 per issue. The narrow store serves as a display for the pair’s vast collection, with the walls lined with hard-to-find editions of Pep Comics, Watchmen and Captain America. Recent publications line one wall, and graphic novels fill racks down the center. It’s the mix of old and new that Meyers says makes the store a destination for avid collectors, in addition to the casual reader. “There are lots of people who will see our items online first, or only, but others will come here to the store because I’m the guy who can get him anything,” Meyers said. “We’re a destination. (Customers) come to me because I’m their hunter-gatherer. They come to me because I’m their personal shopper.” Anthony Gonzales of Eagle Rock said he decided to make the trek past several other comic book stores to find some issues missing from his collection. “I found them by searching online, when I happened to be searching for back issues,” he said. “And online, you can find a lot, but you also want to see the issues in person. Sometimes when someone says mint condition online, it doesn’t really mean mint condition.” More than niche The sentiment of Gonzales is typical of the kind of shoppers who may first go online and then buy at a shop. It’s the opposite of the well-known dynamic plaguing large electronics retailers, who witness shoppers trying out large screen TVs and other devices at their stores only to buy online. Cal State’s Walker notes that most of the stores she’s seen make the transition are in apparel, because fit and feel can’t be replicated in photos. Still, she said vintage products, no matter the type, especially do well in brick-and-mortar. “What immediately comes to my mind are music stores like Amoeba Music and Fingerprints in Long Beach,” she said. “Those are a couple of stores people are more likely to travel to, but still rather local. You’re not going to have people coming from Wisconsin. That’s where the online comes in.” Blast Off has been doing very well in its first few months in business, with both destination visitors and those who just wander in, said Meyers. Tipton noted that while both the online and the retail store are thriving, the pair are still trying to figure out ways to have them work in tandem with each other. “Now that we have the brick-and-mortar store, we may start to feature books in the store that run along with the theme of that month on the website,” Tipton said. “We’re kind of discovering ways to make the store and the website work together.” For both men, the store gives them a space to display their wares in a way that isn’t possible online, and to interact with customers in a more personal way. “Jud and I are trying to create the type of store we’ve always wanted to go to,” said Tipton. “And this store really captures the feel and intent of the online site.”

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