Where Have You Gone, Card Shop?

A few months ago, I made a quick Saturday trip to my local card shop (LCS) Duane’s to pick up a few oddball-sized sheets for some cards I’d recently purchased. I overheard Duane mention that the next day was the last one that the shop would be open. He’d had to declare bankruptcy.

It was very sad to me, and not just because I lost my local shop. I’m fortunate enough to live in an area of the country where the hobby is alive and well. It isn’t as convenient, but I can drive an extra half hour to another shop. What was sad to me was that a man in his 70s that had been a shop owner for decades, had to declare bankruptcy.

Then, I was recently thinking about my hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia. It’s like many other towns in that during the late 80s and 90s, there were multiple card shops. Some of them overlapped and it seemed there was enough business for multiple shops to exist, even in a town of less than 30,000 people. The town has seen significant growth in the last 25 years. How many shops are there now? None.

It’s another story for another day, but the area has become a hobby wasteland.  Not only are shops impossible to find, so are card shows.  It’s not like Morgantown is completely in the middle of nowhere.  It’s an hour south of Pittsburgh, which can be a shorter commute than actually getting from one side of Pittsburgh to the other side.

All of this made me think more deeply.  Why is it that card shops are fewer and further between, or even non-existent these days?  I can come up with a number of reason, some in shop owners’ control and others out of their control.

A sports card shop is a retail business.  Unless you’ve had your head under a rock you know of the struggle of brick-and-mortars like Sears/Kmart, Toys R Us and others.  Amazon is to many of those stores as eBay and other online card markets are to the LCS.

This isn’t saying card shops can’t be successful.  There are still a handful of card shops in the Fort Worth/Dallas area.    There are plenty of successful card shops throughout the country.  However, this isn’t the 1980s and 1990s anymore.  You can’t just “open it and they will come.”

Indy's card shop
Indy Card Exchange

A major problem that long-time shop owners had was an inability to adapt.  Online buying and selling has both pros and cons for the collector and the shop owner.  It’s driven down prices for a lot of cards and shop owners don’t adapt.  It’s not all about prices.  Card shop owners need to figure out things that work well and bring in some money.

For example, things changed at the Indy Card Exchange once the current owner purchased the shop a handful of years ago.  Some changes that I recall and believe helped were lowering prices and moving through old junk wax, adding dime boxes to the store, and also having boxes of lower priced ($1-5) in the store.  Not every person that walks into your shop is going to spend $50 or $100, but most can afford to spend $10.  Many shops only want to display higher priced items and forget about the low and mid-tiers.  A higher conversion rate is good for business.

Another thing that the shop does and many others don’t is price cards to sell.  How many times have you walked into a shop and the cards were ridiculously priced?  Then, they were in there every time you went back in?  I just don’t understand the museum pricing mentality of many card shop owners.  In the stop that recently closed, this was a thing.

There were multiple sellers and they had some quarter boxes and “XX% off” boxes, which is good in theory.  However, those quarter boxes were cards that should be in dime boxes.  Also, a 75% off box is useless if it’s off book value of a card you priced 15 years ago and the guy never played a down in the NFL.

card shop

It probably feels like I’m piling on a lot of shop owners and you know what, maybe I am.  Many of the problems shop owners have are self-inflicted wounds. A common trait among many card shop owners is a lack of personality and/or customer service.  To be honest, “common” is an understatement.  I think that the overwhelming majority are like this.

RELATED LINK: What Can Buying a Baseball Card Teach a Florist About Customer Service ?

Going back to the Indy Card Exchange, Andy took the time to get to know people.  There was no telling what you’d hear from his conversations with collectors.  He also made an effort to take time with kids.  I guess I’m just an Andy fan…other than when he wanted to talk about Notre Dame.

The team at Indy Card Exchange also helps promote the hobby as a whole, not just if it’s going to serve their bottom line.  They set up at a local show.  They will let you know when shows are happening.  There are so many that aren’t in touch with their local collecting community.  A healthy hobby in your area is good for your card shop business, if you’re running it correctly.  Heck, Andy has even works with a new card shop, Bruno’s Shoebox, which is less than 30 minutes away from his.  If I remember correctly, they even have some sort of TV show coming up.  I can’t wait to see that.

card shop

I’ve mentioned four issues that I believe hurt many a card shop.  They have all been self-inflicted issues.  Not everything is a shop owner’s fault, however.  The one thing that Duane mentioned being a problem for him was card shops being forced to buy too much product.  I cannot speak to the validity of this on a whole, or in his case, but I felt it worth mentioning.  I’m pretty active on Twitter and see a lot of collectors talking about things they can’t or won’t buy.  Some collectors are only interested in two or three sets a year.  However, shops ARE basically forced to buy crappy product if they want to get the better product.  Many card shop owners are able to find a way to get around this.  Perhaps on this one, it goes back to my first point.  Maybe Duane was just unable, or unwilling, to adapt.

There is so much product out there.  Does anyone want to figure out the percentage gain in 2018 baseball sets compared to 1988 sets?  Not only that, I believe that the consensus is that there are less collectors these days.  More products and less collectors can certainly hurt stability.

The way collectors collect has changed.  I’m not deep diving into the ways the internet has changed the hobby.  It’s pretty much common sense.  Something it’s done is change how people collect.  If you’re truly a player or team super collector, you may not even find it desirable to open product at all.

As a collector for more than 30 years, the death of the base card is something that bothers me.  The evolution of this hobby has come to the point where 98% of cards pulled from packs are worthless.  When 99% of the cards were “base” cards, people collected sets, teams and other ways.  The base cards were what they wanted and needed for their collection.  A card shop today doesn’t make any money on base.   Most don’t even have them if a collector wants them.  The card companies, prospectors, flippers and others have killed base cards and made them worthless.

The difficulties faced by card shops are in the dozens and I can’t go through them all.  I leave you with one that can’t be controlled by shops, and can be a recipe for disaster.  There are places all over this country that don’t have a local team.  Or, they may have one, but poor on-field performance for years has killed hobby interest.  How many die-hard Miami Marlins or Detroit Lions fans exist?

Something that I truly believe helps the Indy Card Exchange is the proximity to other cities with pro sports franchises.  You can be to Cincinnati in less than two hours and Chicago in three hours.  There is a large collector base in Indianapolis for the teams from those cities.  St. Louis is four hours away and there are plenty of Cardinals fans in Indianapolis.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  What are problems you’ve found at any card shop that has or could contribute to failure.  Are there a lot of card shops in your area, and how does that compare to years past?

If you shop online and haven’t signed up and used ebates yet, you’re missing out.  I also use it on eBay to get money back from purchases there.  Between referrals and cash back, I’ve gotten over $215 in a little more than a year.  FREE CARDS!

25 comments

  1. Spot on dude. The most recent example: A new store near me in Connecticut wanted $190 for a box of Heritage…I get the retail store markup but cmon man…

    1. I’m not going to hold a grudge against those that want to pay that. It’s a free market.

      You said it perfectly, though…..c’mon man….!

  2. I live abroad but when I do go home, the LCS I had frequented before moving seems to have a good footprint down of what to do right. I go, have a good time and don’t even buy new product.

    1. Thanks for commenting. To me, that’s how it should be. I could have done the same at Indy Card Exchange, but I still always spent at least a few bucks lol

  3. Really good post. You hit on a number of things that making it more difficult for the LCS to stay open.
    Pricing things to move is the big thing in my book. A card is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it, so why out price yourself out of a sale?
    Dime boxes are another one. Maybe I’m a kid at heart, or an adult on a kid’s budget, but I love the dime boxes. Think how many kids walk in to a store with only a few bucks and get a pack of Bowman because of the Ohtani crazy. An alternative would be for them to pull up a chair at the dime box and find some cards to their liking. Creating young customers should be the #1 priority if an LCS wants to have a business in the future. Looks like Indy Card Exchange does a nice job of that.

    1. Thanks for commenting about the dime boxes. There are still enough player and team collectors, and set builders, that would go through them. I know they aren’t big ticket items, but how long does it take to turn over a lot of those big ticket items? Dime boxes aren’t sexy and they take up a lot of room, but there’s really a place for them. Plus, they can just move dead inventory. In my fantasies I win Powerball and open a card shop. Dime boxes are a huge part of my business model.

  4. Good post. I know it’s not the same for all, but adapting to current times surely did many in. I’ve also been to a lot of shops that just aren’t a very enticing experience – grumpy owners, overpriced cards (as you mention), etc. I see a lot of posts about card shops being a cool place to hang out, but just haven’t had the luxury of experiencing something like that.

    1. No doubt those shops are few and far between. I obviously mentioned Indy Card Exchange multiple times and it is the epitome of that. We have four shops in the area, and only one (SMP) has what I would consider the hang out atmosphere. However, it’s one of the smaller shops I’ve been to and since I’m a bigger guy, it’s a little uncomfortable for me. Maybe as the prior generation retires and new owners come in, some will understand this. Time will tell. The service and atmosphere can make consumers happier with paying the higher prices that shop owners are forced to charge due to overhead.

  5. Set collectors have to be the focus of card companies….they are going to get the companies through the difficult times. The card companies are going to have to pay the piper soon with all the inserts making base cards worthless.

    1. Agree and disagree. I don’t think that set collectors should be the focus of card companies. How people collect has changed and I believe that set collectors are a very small percentage of collectors. I do believe that they need to do a better job than they are doing, though. I interact with Robby on Twitter and he is a set collector. He often gripes that there are no longer good sets without SPs. He’s absolutely right. With all the product released yearly, they SHOULD do a better job of coming up with a set or two that caters to that market.

  6. Lcs also buy at release price. And when it doesnt move he is stuck with it. In the meanwhile 1 or 2 years later same boxes are half the price online.

    1. Very true, but part of business is liquidating bad product at as high of a price as possible. Why not sell it at cost, or maybe even slightly lower, in the season it’s from instead of holding onto it for two, three or more years? It’s dead money that you can’t put into your shop to buy something newer and better. Just my two cents.

  7. Great job on this post. I feel unwilling to adapt with change is spot on. Some shops feel like their stuck in the 80’s. One example is PSA set registry collectors have lots of momentum yet many shops where I live have little to no PSA cards available.

  8. It is a common problem that plagues almost every profession. Having a skill or knowledge base doesn’t make you a good business person. Running a shop requires passion and knowledge, but also finance, marketing, and supply chain acumen. The most vibrant shops seem to have an owner that knows how to run a business and also has a passion for the hobby.

  9. As a new brick and mortar store owner, what really has affected me is that the distributors dont allocate you enough product. For example, this year Heritage/Bowman/Gypsy Queen I couldn’t even get a box until almost a month after release and product was put up to over 190-225.00 a box. Do you think it’s fair for a new shop that’s already on a tight budget to be paying that while these distributors play favorites to the online breakers? You can’t tell me that’s fair.

    Here is another example: the new archives that are coming out soon, I ordered 40 of them. How many do you think I will be getting? Exactly 0. Per an email and another confirmation email I’m allocated 0 product for something my customer base would like. However, let’s watch all these breakers get cases upon cases, yet others can’t even get 1 or 2 for our customers.

    My money is the same as theirs, both green and have dead presidents.

    1. Wow…I honestly had no idea! If you’d be interested in writing a blog post about this, let me know. I feel that it would interest a lot of readers, especially ones that DO have an LCS.

  10. Base cards aren’t worthless, however the perception that they are allows me to turn other’s trash into significant monthly profit. Set collectors are alive and well……

    IMO unwillingness to adapt and learn is the biggest LCS killer.

  11. I agree that one of the biggest factors is not updating pricing on older cards and competitively pricing boxes and packs. Doing those 2 things will help tremendously in my opinion. I also agree that the mentality of the shop owner and collector has changed to be “hit” driven. People only want the next big hit and don’t care about parallel’s or base for that matter and a part of the comes from the card makers themselves. Look at sets like Archives Signature Series or Clearly Authentic in baseball, one autograph card per box, that drives the “hit” mentality and feeds into it. People don’t break boxes for fun anymore, it is all to flip the hits and make a couple bucks. I see a lot of collectors that get mad when their “hit” is crappy and not a superstar player, which also doesn’t help the mentality.

    A good card shop in my opinion has a combination of good prices and a good combo of both autos/memorabilia cards and singles/parallel’s because something I just want to buy some cool inserts or find a unique card of my favorite player. Plus, the owner needs to have good customer service. They need to interact with their customers and get to know them and their collecting habits. I have been to some really shops and some really shops when it comes to customer service and I will always go back to the shops that made me feel comfortable and provided good customer service. I also think having an online store (even on eBay) is key for the modern shop owner because a lot of people will buy boxes online instead of going to the LCS.

    And finally, I think another problem would be store hours. I know these owners have a life and some might have other jobs, but I don’t got to my LCS very often because it is difficult when the store closes at 6pm, I get off at 5pm and have to drive 30 minutes to get there, doesn’t leave much time to enjoy the experience and browse through cards. Plus, being closed on Monday is a killer because when I have a Monday off work I can’t go to my LCS and browse and that always seems to be the day card shops are closed. I think running a successful card shop is possible, you just really have to commit to making it the best.

    1. Great comments, thank you! I hadn’t even thought about the hours or days closed thing. You’re absolutely right, though. The one that just closed was open seven days a week, and I’m sure I took for granted that I could go there any day that I wanted.

  12. Excellent article and spot on in many respects. One lack is the impact the internet, especially eBay, had on the hobby during the 90s. It leveled the playing field where the collector had the same leverage as the dealer when it came to buying. It surely cut into the dealers’ profit margins in a business where pennies are sometimes counted in sales rather than dollars. That had to be a huge factor in the demise of the LCS.

  13. TM is correct. I recently opened a small brick and mortar store and I too have been affected by allocation. We were only allocated 2 boxes of 2018 Bowman this year.

    Allocation is based on how much product you buy from the distributor. But if you aren’t allocated any product when you first start, how are you supposed to get your numbers up? I was told by a sales rep of mine that you have to buy 80k-100k worth of baseball product throughout the year just to get a case of topps chrome hobby. Crazy!

    Then we are forced to pay the premium prices after release so we have some product to offer to customers

    1. I asked another newer shop owner that was running into this if he’d like to write something concerning this issue and I’d post it. He said he did, but I never heard back after that. If that’s something you’d be interested in, let me know!

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