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Store Planning Seminar


Posted: August 23, 2005 05:40 AM

This is a long series of notes from a seminar at the San Diego Comic Book Expo presented by Ron Hon of Comic Carnival and Hal Stewart, the store designer.  This is an excellent summary of the process by which Ron used Hal's services to design Comic Carnival #5. (We did the site location work for this store). It was a real beauty and did very well.

Hal Stewart & Ron Hon on Store Planning (from the 1990 San Diego Comic Book Expo)

Ron Hon of Comic Carnival (Indianapolis, IN) and Hal Stewart (an Indiana-based store planning consultant) presented a seminar at the 1990 San Diego Comic Book Expo on integrating store planning into the store opening process. Comic Carnival in 1990 was a five store comics company located in the Indianapolis area, and had just opened their fifth store.

Ron Hon had heard Ken White's presentation at San Diego two years earlier and had bought and read his book on store planning. After a short while Rom quickly realized that being his own store planner wasn't a good idea, and talked with Ken White about working with them. Ken was busy with other projects, so Ron went to the Indianapolis Yellow Pages to find planners and architects who worked with store design. Ron and Hal feel that any community of 500,000+ population should have several businesses that work in this area. It's also good to remember that a store planner can work on projects at some distance from their office.

Ron telephoned eight local companies who did store planning and explained the business he was in and what his needs were - with the result that three companies didn't want to do business with him. Ron interviewed all five of the remaining companies at one of his newer stores. All of them brought thick portfolios showing their work. Ron decided that three of the planners were far too expensive - their fees would have been on the order of $400/ square foot of store, which just didn't make sense for someone who wants to sell merchandise and build the local version of the Taj Mahal.

Of the two remaining companies, Hal's enthusiasm and willingness to learn about the comics business got him the job. Before chosing Hal Steward, Ron went to Anderson, Indiana to look at a specialty store that Hal had designed named "Flat-Head Cat". 

Ron emphasizes that if you are going to use a store planner you must expect to put in considerable time (which means money) in checking out all the potential planners and their work. Portfolios and photographs are useful in making the first cut, but when you're ready to choose a working partner nothing beats seeing their actual work in person. Ron also says that "you should ask lots of questions".

Typical questions should be:

* Who actually will do the work on my project? Will it be the principal(s) or junior staff?

* How many people will work on my project? Too many people means that communication between you and the design team will probably suffer.

* How many stores have you personally done?

* What's the designers planning, design and merchandising philosophy? What is your own image as a retailer? Who do I sell to?

* What type and size stores has the designer done similar to yours?

* What's important to the designer? An over-emphasis on aesthetics, technology and design for design's sake is a negative sign for you as a retailer.

Hal Stewart adds that you should make sure that your needs and the store planner's needs are the same. As Hal says, "I don't want to see one of my stores in a design magazine with an award and read that it went into receivership a year later!" He also says, "A good store provides the stage for the show - it's not the show!"

When you are interviewing store planners, you must be prepared to bring confidential data to the meeting -including sales figures, financial ratios, the impulse rating of your major merchandise lines, known security problems, etc. A store planner is a professional and needs to know these things in order to do a good job for you.

When discussing the store planner's fees, avoid compensation which is based on a pure hourly rate or on a percentage of the project cost. Press hard for (at least) a figure which the total project is not to exceed. When you are first planning your project, you can get an approximation of your total project by calculating the return on investment you want.

For example, (simplifying considerably) if your new store will generate mature sales of $ 300,000 with an annual gross profit of $ 30,000 and you want a payback of three years, the maximum project budget would be $ 90,000, including the store planner's fees. (Mel's note: 2003 prices are higher - bear in mind!)

When you begin working with the store planner, start at the front door with your design and work toward the back of the store. Don't accept what the developer did, whether you are the first tenant or the tenth. Feel free to get things changed before you move in as part of your lease negotiation process.

Hal Stewart stresses "Don't give up your walls readily...walls can carry 1.5-2.0 times as much merchandise as the equivalent floor space." Don't accept a existing poorly-located storeroom door or bathroom door which creates merchandising and display problems. Better that your staff have a little difficulty in getting in getting to the bathroom than you have a permanent problem in creating displays.

In the Comic Carnival project, the developer relocated the store's front door and provided a $ 17,000 lighting allowance since the existing lights were not appropriate to what Ron and Hal wanted to do with the space.(Mel's Note: Short of installing arc search-lights, there's no such thing as too much lighting in a specialty comics store!)

In another project the existing HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air-Conditioning) system was shared by two unfinished retail bays. Hal suggested to the developer that this be sealed off and allocated to his client's store, which the developer did. (A solid tenant now is worth two someday...) The result was that $ 5,000 which had been budgeted for HVAC became available for other purposes.

When you are planning, don't plan for the exception. If you do something special for a sale two weeks out of the year, that doesn't justify scrapping a design that works very well for the other 50 weeks.

Figure on changing or refurbishing your fixtures every five to seven years. The best fixtures "fade away" and promote the merchandise - they don't overshadow the merchandise.

Hal says, "impulse buying and security are contradictory. If they can't touch, see or feel it they won't buy it!" His advice on merchandising is to mass similar merchandise together - don't fragment it in little pockets around your store.

Boutiqueing is an excellent way to focus your customer's attention on products that you want to promote now, and remember that because a product is in a boutique area you aren't prevented from also stocking it in one or more alternate locations as well. Keep your displays small as a rule, but make them visually strong.

Retailers should use slat wall sparingly to create vignettes for maximum impact. Putting up slat wall for the entire store is unnecessary and wasteful of money. Keep counter-top displays to a minimum. They lack visual effectiveness and don't present the appearance of mass. Hal used plexiglass racks with a lip that hang from walls for display, which keeps the product from being dominated by the fixture.

One principle which comics retailers often violate is the use of the space immediately below the ceiling. First, Hal believes that you should avoid ceilings higher than 10', as there is no effective way to use the additional wall space for merchandise display. Hanging posters or t-shirts along the ceiling line defeats the primary purpose of a comics store - selling comics merchandise. Having merchandise at the ceiling line will draw the customers eye up and away from comics products "down here".

Lighting is very important to successful merchandising. There are many, many ways to light a store. In general Hal prefers 2'x2' fluorescent panels combined with track lighting. Hal believes that the 2'x2' panels are less distracting than the more conventional 2'x4' panels, while the track lights let you focus customer attention on specific areas of the store.

In general Hal recommends that you have 35-40 foot-candles of illumination on your merchandise generally, with twice that (70-80 foot-candles) on displays. Wall areas should have twice that level of illumination (140-160 foot-candles)! In the new Comic Carnival store Hal uses lots of red, which he says ties into the most common comics color.

The use of neon inside the store is another illumination and marketing technique which Hal feels is severely under-utilized in comics stores. Neon cuts right through visual cues and clutter to grab a customers attention. You can utilize special parabolic lens for lights over registers so that store staff get plenty of light to work in but customers aren't distracted from merchandise. Plexiglass mirrors located throughout the store at the ceiling line appear as part of the store decor to honest customers, but habitual or professional thieves will recognize them as effective, low-cost anti-theft devices.

Comics retailers are still trying to solve the problem of how to most effectively display back issue comics when space is at a premium, which is particularly the case in higher-volume higher-rent locations. (We'll be discussing how other retailers deal with this in a later issue of The Comics Spectator). What Ron and Hal came up with for their more expensive back issues was a custom-built plexiglass container with a locked lid. A wide slot runs from front to back, allowing customers to thumb through the contents freely, but the bagged & boarded books can't be removed from the box without the top being unlocked by store staff. The display unit is immediately adjacent to the central register location.

If you have a wide store space, you can locate the register area in the center of the store. If you have a long, narrow space it is better to locate it on one side.

(Editor) This was a good presentation and well worth the time of anyone who attended it. Learning something about the interplay between client and consultant was particularly interesting. Mel had dinner with Hal Stewart at the Expo and had a very pleasant evening discussing the comics business, space planning and practice management. For those of you considering hiring a store planner, Carol Kalish made a comment about the process of designing Comic Carnival's store #5 (by the way, we did the site work for the store) which is worth considering: "One of the things which I was particularly impressed by was how he (Hal) educated Ron about what he was doing with the design and why..."

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