Thursday, January 9, 2014

Card Shop Shenanigans - Is Customer Service Dead?

I like to think of myself as an optimist, generally speaking.  I like to think that Midwesterners are a bit nicer to each other than other parts of the country.  So when I hear cynical views repeatedly on twitter I take them with a grain of salt and just remind myself that we try to look on the bright side of things. But yesterday I had a somewhat unpleasant experience with a local card shop.  You may have heard me vent about it.  You also may have seen the unexpected backlash when I voiced my concerns.  It really caught me by surprise and got me fired up enough to knock the dust off my blogging keyboard and get to it, so here we go!

I've been in the minority most of the time when it comes to standing up for the local card shop.  Today there is more competition than ever before against your LCS.  The gap in pricing continues to widen, as the market continues to flood with more and more product and LCS display cases get fuller and fuller, as they refuse to adapt to market value.  Regardless, I have remained a loyal customer and usually don't mind paying a little extra for something, knowing it hasn't been opened/searched.  Am I his biggest customer? Not by a long shot.  Have I spent thousands over time? Definitely.  So I didn't think it was a big deal when I called yesterday to find out the scoop on Panini Prizm jumbos.    

Here is how it went down. "Hey [cardshop owner], did you get the new Prizm basketball jumbo packs in yet?" "Yes we did!" "Cool, how much are they per pack?" "We don't give out prices over the phone."  "Oh." "Nope, but come down and we'll set up you with some." "Alright then....thanks."

Was I being unreasonable?  Some of you thought so.  Some of the responses I got were something along the lines of "Would you call Target ahead for wax pricing?" and "Customer service does not mean catering to your every whim."  First of all, no I wouldn't call Target because blasters and loosies are generally the same price for every product for the last 5 years, and also I'm not driving 30 miles or making a special trip to Target just for cards.  Nor does Target close at 6:00 PM, like the card shop across town does.  Second, how does asking the price on ONE product equate to having every whim catered to?  I don't expect special treatment, but a little common courtesy before I race across town to beat closing time to buy 3 packs of jumbos would be appreciated.

 Now I know some customers can be a royal pain in the ass.  Shop owners have to deal with a constant barrage of looky-lou's and people trying to sell 90's collections, or people calling to ask if they have the 16 commons they are looking for to fill their 87 Topps set. I also understand that the profit margin for card shops is razor thin and with the explosion of online group break sites, the pie is getting split up more and more. I may not be coming in to rip cases of Flawless, but aren't my hundreds/thousands of dollars still worth fighting for? 

Any successful small business operator will tell you the key to success is building relationships and customer loyalty.   If you can't beat the prices of the big boys how else will you survive?  Oh yeah, I forgot.  Many of you aren't.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Breaking Bad


A Case Breaking Cautionary Tale


Baseball is America's past time, or so the old saying goes.  Whether or not that remains true today with the rise of football is questionable.  What's not in question is that gambling has become America's obsession.  In an economy that could be described as unstable at best, the American Gaming Association estimates that $2.88 billion was gambled in Nevada sportsbooks in 2011.  The FBI estimates that $2.5 billion is wagered illegally during March Madness alone each year.  It should come as no surprise that in the current hit driven market of sports cards, gambling is steadily taking a stronghold on the hobby.  

If you're not familiar with the term "group breaks", you soon will be.  Organized box and case breaks have taken the hobby by storm.  Do a Google search for box breaks and you'll see at least a dozen sites offering group breaks of some sort.  The concept is simple.  Rather than absorbing the cost of an entire case of cards that the average collector could never afford, individual team or hit slots are offered at a far lower price.  This gives customers the chance at landing an entire case worth of one team, or the chance to land a legendary hit from an upper tier product at a fraction of the cost.  I was able to land the 2012 National Treasures Lou Gehrig booklet card you see above (#3/4) for a mere $50 in a randomized case hit break.  A case of this product by itself would cost around $1350.  

So you might be thinking, hey this is a win/win for everyone right?  Not necessarily.  Anyone that has ever known a serious gambler knows that for every jackpot story you hear about, there are 5 stories of epic failure that never get told.  And don't kid yourself folks, this is gambling.   You're not going to hear from the guy that got stuck with a Chipper Jones jersey or a Jimmy Rollins plain white jersey booklet numbered to 99.  Out of our entire case there was probably only about 5 cards out of 32 that will be a guaranteed profit.  Those are actually good odds compared to what you will face in many other breaks.  Products like Panini Contenders can easily burn you on an entire case with no autos for a particular team.  I paid just under $50 for a random team in a recent Contenders football break and was assigned the Bears, which netted me one Shea McLellin auto worth about $5.  I'm not telling you this to receive pity, I just want you to see this for what it is: a huge risk.  Many of you will never pull a card like the Gehrig, and you might want to consider that a blessing.  I realize that sounds ludicrous, but let me explain with a mildly cautionary tale:

About 10 years ago in the early stages of the Texas Hold 'Em poker renaissance, I routinely spent several nights a week at a nearby casino playing $4/$8 Hold Em.  I was single and it was a fun hobby that I loved studying and trying to read people.  I brought in my hundred bucks, went straight to the poker room, and either left when it was gone or went home with an extra hundred or so.  Then one seemingly ordinary weeknight, I was playing and got dealt pocket Queens and flopped 4 of a kind, with an Ace on the board.  To make a long story short, another guy had a full house (Aces full of Queens) and we hit the bad beat jackpot, with $20,000 going to him for losing and $10,000 to me for winning.  It was a rush that is hard to explain if you've never experienced it, but it was so empowering I found myself suddenly taking risks that I never would before.  I started dabbling in slot machines, even though I knew better and the odds were horrendous.  I wanted that chance to hit another jackpot, the quick rush.  Having the 10 grand in the bank gave me a false sense of security and soon I was withdrawing my daily max at the ATM.  One night I was up nearly $500 and somehow ended up giving it all back.  That was the longest drive home I've ever had and I realized at that point that I had a problem with addiction and had to get it together.  I was lucky, I caught myself before things got any worse and found better ways to spend my time(and money).  As we all know, there are countless tales of other people who weren't so fortunate and have lost everything.

This might seem like an extreme example but the truth is, addiction can happen just as easily in cards as it can in a casino.  If you find yourself buying more and more slots to chase that next "big hit", please take a step back for a day or two.  Make yourself look at your paypal/bank statement. If you have difficulty distinguishing which charges go with which breaks, then you probably need to scale it back.  Try a diversion like set building.  It can be so rewarding, and it will remind you why you got into card collecting in the first place.  The case breaks will still be there when you're ready again.

The chances of me pulling another Gehrig level card in my lifetime are slim, which is why I'm going to take some time off from breaking.  Not permanently, but long enough to really enjoy this "jackpot".  As Kenny Rogers said, you've gotta know when to fold em.  A booklet card seems like an obvious fold to me.  






Monday, February 25, 2013

Topps Flagship Losing its Luster?





The end of February is one of the most underrated times of the year.  It marks the approaching death of winter, my least favorite of all seasons(move to Iowa and you'll understand why).  It also means the beginning of March Madness, the greatest spectacle in all of sports.  And lest we forget of course, it means spring training has arrived and baseball card season is getting in full swing.  By the end of February you can count on Topps Series 1 having a stronghold on the market, as collectors clamoring for new product have gorged themselves on inserts galore and wrapper redemptions.  But are we seeing a shift in collector demand?

This year has a different feel to it.  Topps does a fantastic job of promoting its products and using social media to routinely whip collectors into a mouth frothing frenzy over new releases.  There was plenty of hype surrounding Series 1 once again this year, and I'm sure sales will still be good numbers but I have to wonder if we will see a considerable drop off from years past.  The price of hobby boxes are sinking faster than a dribbler inducing pitch from Tim Hudson.  What is causing this precipitous drop in price?  Inferior product?  I don't think so; in fact I believe it's just the opposite.

The 2013 Topps flagship product is one of the nicest looking sets I've seen in years.  The design is clean and eye catching, and the photography pops.  The '72 minis blend in perfectly.  The code card program isn't as ravenously addictive as years past, but still solid and I think it's important that the codes don't start to become a crutch for all base sets.  I would go so far to say that the inserts in this set, specifically "The Greats" are a home run.  If I didn't know any better I would think I'm holding a base card from Five Star.  The cards look and feel that good.


So why is demand fading faster than in years past?  Normally we don't see these type of price declines until Series 2, when other products like Bowman and Allen & Ginter are soaking up collector's wallets.  I think it's a combination of factors.  The increasing number of products released throughout the year, an unstable economy, and consistently high fuel prices have all combined to reduce the average collector's disposable income for cards.  If you had to cut back on card spending, what is the first place you would trim the fat?  I think the answer for a lot of us is base cards.   Especially when factory sets are so plentiful and inexpensive by year's end, it's more convenient and cost efficient to snatch up a sealed set for a Christmas gift, and store it away in the closet for the next decade.

The current hit driven market has not only pushed away the younger collectors, but it has created a murky gray area of products (opening day, triple play) that don't seem to hold much appeal to any one demographic.  Will Topps base soon fall into this category?  That remains to be seen.  Now if you don't mind, I need to go back to clearing out space for 2013 Heritage.


Sidenote:  If you like Heritage, and you like bingo then you need to get over to Crackin Wax right now to sign up for one of the remaining slots for BoBuBingo!



       

Friday, May 11, 2012

Game Changed? Topps Announces Stunning 2012 Archives Additions

It occurred to me after returning home from dinner that I had promised a new blog post today, for the first time in nearly a year. This wouldn't be much of an issue, if I hadn't just downed 2 teaspoons of codeine cough syrup(yes for a cold). Let the race against the clock begin! If I begin to ramble incoherently at great lengths, well never mind you're probably used to it. What inspired me to end my long yet unintentional hiatus? An announcement from Topps about some HUGE news regarding 2012 Archives.

 We've heard this song and dance before:
"Game changing announcement forthcoming! Card collecting will never be the same!"
Only to find out, the game hasn't changed and it's just a slightly different dressed up version of what we've already seen. So when Topps started tweeting from the rooftops today, people immediately scoffed and the jokes started flowing. It was an almost embarrassing display as Topps seemed to be begging for RT's just to stir up interest on 2012 Archives. Some members of the blogosphere(including myself) have been pretty interested in this set to see if it can become what Lineage wasn't, and I settled in to grab a peek.

Things started harmlessly enough, with a multi auto booklet card we have come to expect in most high end Topps products. Very cool addition for sure, but hardly groundbreaking. Then, an 86 themed Darvish auto RC. Now people are beginning to buzz and interest is gaining. Still nothing mind blowing, but that all changed with the introduction of this boxtopper:
Nothing says 1984 like....The Karate Kid! The safe choice here would have been Ralph Macchio and people already began moaning as soon as word got out it was a Karate Kid based insert. I love the choice to go with Martin Kove, the dishonorable sensei we all loved to hate, who commanded that legendary phrase, "sweep the leg". Not only that, but there are also autos from Billy Zabak, who of course played Johnny, the sweeper of legs.

It was at this moment that I got the feeling we were witnessing something special developing. What followed was a blitzkrieg of announcements the likes of which I have never seen for a single product. From the multitude of "Fan Favorite" autographs(too many to list) to uncut card sheets, to Cal Ripken hand print oversized cards, it seems this product will blow away our expectations we had for Lineage, and go way beyond that. There will also be 100 signed player card contracts inserted as case toppers, Frank Robinson signed buy-backs, and numerous framed 1983 themed minis.

What makes some of these extras so great isn't so much the star power(though that helps) but the incredible thoughtfulness that went into each detail. 9 Jose Oquendo autos might seem excessive until you realize it's to commemorate his infamous game where he played all 9 positions! Darvish's 86 design was also no coincidence, as that was the year he was born. You can tell the folks at Topps have been listening to fans, and it's about time for us complainers to put our collective money where our mouths are. Changing the game requires emptying some from our pockets.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Diamond Collectibles to partner with GTS Distribution

In the past 12 months there have been what some would call radical changes in distribution policies among some of the major card companies. We are beginning to see a domino effect from these changes starting with the litigation between Blowout Cards and Upper Deck, and now what appears to be the buyout of a major distributor. In a release to their customers earlier today, Diamond Collectibles stated:

"As I am sure you are aware, there have been many changes in manufacturer policies over the last few months. After much thought on how these policies and changes will affect all of us, I have made a heartfelt decision. Taking into account the best interests of you our loyal customers and my dedicated employees we will be partnering with a larger distributor. This will allow us to offer you all the lines you need to be successful and in a most timely manner. Combined with the dedication, innovation and service we have always tried to offer we will now have the tools to support you to the fullest extent.

Therefore, effective 8am EST, Monday August 15th, 2011 GTS Distribution will be taking over Diamond Collectibles Wholesale operations."

This would appear to be the latest casualty from stricter distribution policies from notably Upper Deck and Panini, in an effort to increase revenue for brick and mortar hobby stores. With so many shops running online only stores now, you can see the crippling effect this has all the way up the chain. I can't fault companies for attempting to strengthen relations with hobby stores, but at what cost and to what extreme? At some point hobby shop owners have to embrace change or risk being left behind. To assume that customers are going to stop searching online for the best deals just because you tell them to is both naive and arrogant.

Sadly, this is probably not the last statement like this we will read. Distributors are working on thin profit margins as it is. There is an old saying about not biting the hand that feeds you. Card companies may want to watch more carefully who they sink their teeth into.

Monday, August 8, 2011

My first trip to the NSCC: Everything I expected and more

Cardboard overload. That was the best way I could describe my thought process 2 hours into my first time at the NSCC. Never before had I seen so much vintage product in one place. Cards so rare and expensive I had only read about them in magazines were suddenly laying before me in glass cases like a cardboard museum. The market may be down compared to the glory days of old but it was still a breathtaking sight to behold. The charm of remake sets like Allen & Ginter suddenly take on a whole new meaning when you see an original set from 1888 for sale(unfortunately with glue stains on all the backs). There is still big money in sports memorabilia and with that allure comes scam artists looking to take advantage, as evidenced by the dealer bust on Thursday morning!

I had hoped to make it into town in time for the sneak peek Wednesday night, but that plan derailed when Megabus arrived 90 minutes late to shuttle me in from Iowa. I don't want to say it was the worst trip I've ever taken, but listening to a girl belt out UB40 songs over her headphones in a semi-conscious incoherent slur was not my idea of a good time. Thankfully once I got to Chicago everything started to fall into place.

Day 1 - Thursday

I arrive around noon and am in awe of the vastness of the room. I start with the first aisle I see and notice alot of booths with nothing priced, only high dollar items being showcased to bring in auction interest. A number of dealers are specializing in my biggest weakness, vintage wax. A staple from my childhood collecting days, shelves full of early 80's wax boxes in chronological order feel like I've stepped into a time warp. I couldn't resist and bought a rack pack of 1983 Donruss and 2 regular packs of 84 Donruss(San Diego Chicken!). Part of me longs for the simpler times of collecting before insertmania took hold but the hobby evolves, and I can enjoy aspects of both eras.

I wanted to make sure I touched base with some of the fellow twitterverse/blog people on the first day, since the FCB meetup was Thursday night. I could see at the rate I was moving I would be lucky to get halfway through the room so I skipped ahead to the Cardboard Connection radio booth, and met Rob, Doug and Russ. Their contribution to the hobby is grossly underrated and still unknown to many collectors. After chatting for a bit, it was closing time and we headed over to the FCB meet-up. It was nice to match names with faces, although it's a bit awkward at first making introductions such as, "hi, I'm waxtopia, are you stalegum?" Chris with FCB loosened things up by giving away some great prizes, and I walked away with a Leaf football printing plate and a box of 2011 Donruss Elite. Nearly everyone won something and I think we all had a pretty good time. Bummed a ride back to my hotel and eagerly anticipated my 2nd and final day at the show. It would not disappoint.

Day 2 - Friday

I was more prepared for what I wanted to accomplish on day 2. I had a collection of around 50 cards I wanted to try listing on COMC and headed there first. It was my first time listing with them, and they are definitely customer service oriented. They do things the right way and the stats on their rapidly growing site traffic was impressive.

I missed out on most of the redemption packs on day 1 and wanted to see what all the fuss was about so I headed over to Dave and Adams and bought 5 packs of 2011 SP Authentic Hockey, which got me a voucher for one redemption pack. Not expecting much, I headed over to the Cardboard Connection booth to bust my packs. To my great surprise I opened the redemption first only to find this gem:


I was literally shaking as I flashed it around to everyone nearby. As almost an afterthought, I started opening my packs of SP Auth and nearly soiled myself after finding this in pack #4:


At this point I was looking for a lotto machine. This is the sort of crazy mayhem I expected at the National, and it delivered. I also bought some cheap hockey blasters and found a great Iowa Hawkeye pennant from 1957. Overall the trip was a blast and I can't wait til it's back in Chicago.

If you have never been to the NSCC, I have to say it's something every collector should experience. I know I'll be back.



Friday, April 15, 2011

Upper Deck Evolution or Darwinism at it's Worst?



After a 15 year hiatus from the hobby, my first box of cards I busted was a hobby box of 2009 Upper Deck Football I got for my birthday. I loved everything about it. Great player selection, hard to find SP rookies, and 3 fun hits.(Mendenhall auto!) I liked it so much in fact, I decided to pursue collecting the entire base set.(Still need several SP rookies) And at about $3-$4/pack, 20 cards felt like a bargain.

Sadly, none of those things can be said about 2011 Upper Deck Football. The checklist has been greatly reduced (50 base cards, 200 star rookies) due to a lack of an NFL license. Only draft picks and retirees will be found here. This immediately changes the collectibility factor for set builders. The product has also gone from 20 cards/pack to 6 cards, and only 1 guaranteed hit per box now. While there is no official MSRP, I found it at my LCS going for $5/pack.

All of the above factors are enough to possibly deter buyers, but that's not the worst part. Anyone who has been paying attention in the collecting world for the last couple weeks has seen all the hype about the war between Upper Deck and Panini to make the "world's first video card". Well UD has technically won the battle, but it looks to be a hollow victory.

Upper Deck has named it's video card creation "Evolution" and has been centering most of the hype of 2011 Football around this new insert. After watching a box break of this on Beckett's web site however, I am underwhelmed. The first problem created is that the video card isn't found in normal packs, it is treated like a box topper, only at the bottom of the box. If you think that is a deterrent, tell that to the LCS guy in my neighborhood who looked under all the packs and then returned it to the counter to sell single packs. He also informed me that they are treating the Evolution cards as box toppers and customers won't get a chance at them. Is this what Upper Deck had in mind for their new "Diamond Dealers" program? The most embarrassing thing came at the end of the break though, when they opened the card and the battery was completely dead. Once they finally got it charged up with a mini-usb cable (not included), we saw a mostly forgettable highlight montage of DeSean Jackson.

I am all for industry innovation but the execution has to be better than this. If the cards were autographed(like the ones Panini promises are coming), then they would be sure to hold at least some value for years to come. Sadly, this product has rushed written all over it and you have to wonder if this was a race against the clock to beat Panini to the punch.

The one redeeming quality of this release is the photography is still top notch. Some of the retiree's cards are in black & white, and the dramatic result is a success. Unfortunately that is not enough to overcome a weak checklist combined with less hits and increased prices.($100/box at my LCS) The ultimate question here is, with those prices and such few hits, who is most likely to buy this product? My guess is not very many.