Vibrant comic books line the shelves of Mission: Comics and Art, proving that the niche industry of graphic novels is still alive and thriving. For Leef Smith, FiveStars customer and owner of the popular comic book store, this comes to no surprise. “The growth of geek culture has started the comic books revival,” he says proudly.
But, business was not always smooth for the first time small business owner. When Mission: Comics and Art first opened in 2010, Leef quickly ran into problems faced by every early entrepreneur. “There was never enough money, there was never enough time, and I didn’t have any partners, so a lot of it was just me working on the store myself,” he says.
Despite these obstacles, Leef wanted to take a step back from his career in computer programming and pursue his real passion – creating a space that bridged community between local artists and comic book enthusiasts. With the support of his friends and family, Leef stayed optimistic during his struggles.
“I got great feedback from people in the neighborhood saying how much they appreciated the space and store,” he says.
With limited budget, Leef first publicized his store by targeting his existing network, mainly through Facebook. He hoped that news would spread organically by word-of-mouth. But when he heard of how a comics store in Santa Cruz was successfully using a customer loyalty service to retain customers, he decided to give FiveStars a shot.
“FiveStars was actually one of the early things I put my money into. I was hesitant, but it made me feel that it was an additive that gave people a reason to come back… then my customers told me it made a difference and I knew it was working,” he says
Because Leef depends heavily on repeat customers, the decision to sign with a loyalty service came naturally. Many of his customers come on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to pick up the latest comics or even pre-order their favorites a month in advance. He wanted to reward them in a way that was not just a flat discount.
“For every 20 points, I will give a free comic. Some people will save it for a rainy day and just feel like it’s a great thing to have. Others are very calculating, trying to get to the next level. I have this older guy in his late 60s, and every time he gets that free book, it’s like Christmas. The net is sort of flat where it’s not a huge discount, but it’s gaining a lot of goodwill from the customers,” he says.
For Leef, developing these personal relationships is crucial for his business, which is centered on the local community. Mission: Comics and Art regularly hosts events such as monthly showcases by local artists, comic book readings, and meetings with comic book creators. This month’s exhibit features the artwork of a queer biker club, complete with a destroyed urinal and feminist comic strips, that customers can appreciate while browsing through the store.
“It gives people a good excuse to go to a comic store when they might not have otherwise. This was part of the whole initial idea. Comics have a lot of nostalgia so people want to capture that experience and see others who share in their passion. These are things you wouldn’t be able to do on the Internet because you don’t have the face-to-face contact,” he says.
As Leef moves forward, he’s excited about moving his business to a more prominent spot on Mission Street this fall. “I want to step up my outreach and communication with my customers, so that when [the move] happens I don’t lose business. I want to have an open line of communication,” he says.
Leef recently implemented the FiveStars Autopilot feature, because he believes the product improves customer retention at his new location. “I had one customer who started shopping here tell me, ‘FiveStars really put me over the edge to shopping at your store regularly.’ She went out of her way to mention that FiveStars was a part of that. That was really neat,” he says.
For new business owners, Leef gives this final piece of advice: “Don’t be afraid of what you’re giving away and pay attention to what you’re getting back in a loyalty program. Small business owners don’t want to give discounts because it’s a loss in their revenues, but it definitely holds out over time. For me, people are already pretty loyal to their comic book store, but having that extra hook to keep them coming back is great,” he says.