WETHERSFIELD — Comics gets top billing at Scott Wool and George Fietziewicz's business, Omni Comics and Cards, but Wool laughs when he's asked how much of the sales are comic books these days.
"Negligible. Two percent or so," he says, laughing some more. "Ridiculous."
Wool borrowed money from his credit card company to become partners with Fietziewicz 22 years ago, when Omni Comics and Cards went from one location to two.
The original Bristol store, which opened in 1987, is still open. After about 10 years, Wool moved the Glastonbury store to a Wethersfield strip mall.
Wool, 48, has had to adjust to changing tastes repeatedly over his career.
"We're a very trendy business," Wool said. Think back to when Pokemon was hot in the 1990s. That year was huge for Omni Comics and Cards. But consumer tastes can turn on a dime, and Wool was stuck with too many Silly Bandz when that fad cooled.
About a dozen years ago, he started selling sports memorabilia, and now about 70 percent of the stores' revenue comes from that category.
While you might think that a small store couldn't compete with Dick's or Modells on price, Wool said, "because I buy closeouts, I'm cheaper than anybody."
For instance, he's still selling UConn dual championship T-shirts. The first day after the women's victory they cost about $22, but now he sells them for $11.99 in the store or $14.99 online. (Free shipping means you build your shipping and handling costs into the price, naturally).
"I sold one in the store today," he said.
About four years ago, walk-in traffic to Omni's two stores fell off dramatically. It was about half as much as it had been before the recession. So the owners ramped up their selling on eBay, where they'd had a presence since 2000.
Now, selling online is 75 percent of total revenue, and just south of $1 million a year.
In 2013, total sales grew more than 20 percent compared with 2012, and online sales doubled. "We hired two people, which was great," Wool said. The business has seven employees, two part time.
But managing that rapid growth, especially the logistics of all that shipping around Christmas, was a strain.
"Last year almost killed me," Wool said, as the staff was sending out more than 700 packages a day, with an average value of $15. "Orders were coming in faster than we could print the shipping labels. It was ridiculous. If I wasn't sleeping, I was here. I was sleeping five hours a day."
While 2013 was the biggest year Omni has ever had, the profits are much thinner than before the Internet brought the ability to compare prices with a click or two. Wool said sports cards are the lowest margin, because there's a race to the bottom among sellers. The best margin is selling older collectibles, particularly putting together thematic sets that require some expertise.
A couple of years ago, Omni started selling older Lego sets and used Legos. He buys them at a dollar a pound, and sometimes the sellers complain it goes for more on eBay.
"Used Legos? How much work is it?" he called out to his partner Fietziewicz.
"Too much," his partner replied wearily.
Why is it so much work? Well, for one, you have to put together the kit to know that it's complete. But it has worked out well. Wool said The Arc, a nonprofit agency that serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is part of the solution. He said he gives Arc money, and they give five autistic adults Legos to sort by color.
Because Omni Comics and Cards is such a high volume eBay seller, it could have to start collecting sales tax if the Marketplace Fairness bill becomes law. The bill, which would require online sellers with $1 million or more in online sales to collect sales tax even in states where they don't have a physical presence, passed the U.S. Senate last year, 69-27, with the support of both of Connecticut's senators, but has not been brought up for a vote in the House.
EBay recently paid for Wool and 40 other small retailers to travel to Washington to lobby against the bill.
"It was an education for me as a small-business owner. First of all, I could not believe how young all the staffers were! These guys work hard, long hours for minimal pay."
Wool said he didn't know much about the proposal until eBay recruited him to lobby, but said, "the more I learned about it, the more of a nightmare it is."
He said there's supposedly software that would automatically determine which sales tax rate and exemptions apply for each customer, but he said, "Nobody's seen it work." A further complication is that some businesses sell through multiple platforms — for instance, a proprietary website such as eBay and Amazon.
Wool said he understands the pressures adding up for collecting sales tax online — Wal-Mart, Amazon, Macy's and other national retailers are doing it and don't want to be at a disadvantage against eBay sellers, for one. Also, he said, "states are losing more and more [tax] money every day."
But Wool said there needs to be a major simplification of sales taxes for it to work. He said he likes the idea of a 5 percent sales tax everywhere.
"I think everybody knows there's going to be a revenue solution," he said.
Even as Wool spends more energy on selling online, he's introducing new ideas for brick and mortar customers. Three months ago, he started "Case Break" nights, where 15 or 16 people come, pay $50, and get all the trading cards for the members of two NFL teams, as well as lasagna or pizza.
"The problem with sports cards, they're very expensive. You can't get a decent box for less than $100," he said. This way, people can get a nice selection and a fun night out, maybe with their kids, too.
Wool won't say that he likes selling in person more than selling online, but you can see how much he thrives on the contact when Safet Velic of Wethersfield comes in with his two daughters and buys $18.07 worth of World Cup stickers. Velic, a Bosnian immigrant, barely speaks English, but Wool tries to chat him up about soccer, who he's rooting for, and the progress of the sports facilities in Brazil.
"I used to know everybody's name that walked in," Wool says. About 90 percent of his in-person sales is repeat business, he said, as well as 20 percent of online sales.
His partner, who's 67, is about to retire, but Wool has a hard time seeing himself going as long in the business.
"I'm working 16 hour days," he said, except he doesn't work Sundays. "As I get older, I find adapting to change is harder. Change is coming quicker and quicker."
Omni Comics and Cards is open seven days a week at 681 Silas Deane Highway, Wethersfield, and 854 Farmington Ave. Bristol. 860 571-0138Copyright © 2015, CT Now