Friday, December 1, 2006

Gosh, nothing is more exciting than talking about the population of Bend! But I started the darn topic, and I'm going to finish it.

When I say that some of the stores in downtown Bend are TOO specialized, I'm really talking about simple math. If it takes 8000 customers a year to keep your store alive, and you attract 5% of the population of Deschutes county, you are going to come up 500 customers too short. That is, your store will come up short a couple customers a day -- day after day, week after week, month after month.

There are always exceptions; owners who out-perform the market through dint of efforts or charm, or marketing. But eventually, all business owners want to get away from 60 work weeks, or the need to be super charming, or the efforts to find another ingenious guerrilla marketing scheme. The exceptions just don't prove the rule. (Though, if you look closely at almost any business in Bend that has lasted longer than 8 years, they are almost all exceptional businesses. Average retail doesn't survive in Bend.)

By sheer math, my store should be fine. There are 3500 comic shops in America, so the 150,000 population of Deschutes County ought to be enough to make me at least average in sales. But, even after all these years, I come up about 1/3rd short of that number. (From the day I bought the store, comics alone haven't been enough to carry my store to profitability. I've added 7 other product lines, since, most of which I would term 'sidelines', but all of them together account for almost 50% of my total sales.)


Excluding the possibility that I'm just doing a lousy job, (I see all kinds of shortcomings, which I'm trying to deal with) I've come up with a few reasons.

1.) Isolation. Go 100 miles in any direction and you hit sagebrush or pine. Despite the mass media and the internet, it still takes the locals a couple of extra months to catch onto product that is super hot everywhere else. (Which is better than 20 years ago when the time-lag was more like 6 months to a year.)

In all my years of operation, I've never been visited by a rep from any of the products I sell; the same reps who routinely visit other pop culture stores. It makes sense; they would have drive all the way over the mountains, to visit one measly shop, when in the same time span they could visit dozens of shops along I-5. Which brings me to reason number....

2). No interstate. Highway 97 is much improved from a few years ago. But the route extends from Bigg's Junction, to Madras, to Bend, to Klamath Falls. Compare that to I-5, which extends from Portland, to Salem, to Eugene, to Medford, with shouting distance to Corvallis, etc.

3.) No real 4 year college, and/or military base. Add either of those to Bend, and my demographic base probably doubles.

4.) Demographics. My prime audience is 20 - 35 year old guys, the more educated the better. For a while, a significant percentage of my graphic sales were to the guys who work at the local Sony development group. Young, hip, and urban. Instead, Bend is heavily weighted toward retired and wealthy, or young families, both of which I have a pretty hard time selling to. I've turned almost half my store into an effort to attract the non-core customers, without great success. I have to turn my store into more of a 'general pop culture' store, rather than a specialized 'comic and graphic novel' store.

5.) Synergy. There are no cross currents in Bend, like you might find in Portland. No way to generate excitement in one store, which travels to another store, is amplified and moves back. It is hard to explain, but I suspect that if my customer base is 2% and static, that the bigger the population base the more energetic the interaction and the more likely a new customer will develop.

During the peak of the baseball card boom, I had a store in Sisters and Redmond, a store in the Mt. View mall, and the store downtown. What I discovered was, the smaller the town, the more dependent you are on a small group of customers. I discovered that having two stores in Bend actually made more sense than having all of Redmond to myself.

What all the reasons above mean to me is that there is a glass ceiling to how big my store can become. The same store in Portland for 26 years, run well, would have a chance of taking more than it's average share of the customer base. Here in Bend, even being the only comic shop, I'm limited by the math.

The one saving grace for my store, and for most retail in Bend, is tourism. Which I'd like to talk about tomorrow.

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