Editor’s Blog: Let’s Cancel the Redemption Card Dance

I keep reading comments online about collectors still waiting a year, two years, three years and longer for card companies to fulfill the autographs they’ve promised on ‘winning’ redemption cards.  Tom Petty was right.  When it comes to collecting modern trading cards, the waiting is the hardest part.

It shouldn’t have to be and it’s nothing new, really.  The remarkable part is that it’s just as much of an issue now—maybe more so—than it was a few years ago.

There are some complex issues, of course.  Topps, for example, can’t physically force Willie Mays to sign the 25 autographs he may have agreed to do.  They can’t follow 50 2011 Bowman auto redemption Harperdifferent players around and force them to sit down and finish the box of 500 the player owes them.  The card companies can’t meet the release dates if they wait for every autograph to arrive when there are more than two dozen products to produce to keep the leagues and Panini redemption cardscollectors happy.

So they go on faith that the signer will come through eventually.  Many times they do.  Sometimes they don’t.  A persuasive agent can help.  Not all agents give a hoot.  Often it’s the big name athletes who can’t be bothered.  Sometimes it’s an average player but either way the collector is left with an empty mailbox.

However, it seems like there’s too much ‘hoping’, too many promises that are being broken and too many unfair substitutions being made.  Some collectors say they’re placed on hold for an hour or more when trying to resolve an issue.  Despite admissions of guilt at industry gatherings, it doesn’t seem to get any better. Maybe the problem is being addressed.  They all claim to be constantly working at it but enough time has passed that a solution that’s more palatable should have been uncovered long ago.

“Redemptions suck,” said Adam Martin of Dave & Adam’s Card World awhile ago.  Collectors would agree with that straightforward assessment.

Since sports card boxes have become glorified scratch-off lottery tickets in many cases, it seems like a fair comparison.  How would this play out in that business?   A customer buys a $2 scratcher at a gas station.  He scratches off three of the same symbols, which according to the lottery advertising campaign, means he’s won $250.  He goes back to the store to turn in his ticket in exchange for the cash and the conversation goes like this:

Customer:  “Yes, I have a winning ticket.  Can I have my $250?”

Clerk:  “No, I’m sorry.  We have to wait until the government prints more hundred dollar bills.”

Customer: “Well…how long will that be?”

Clerk:  “I don’t know.  It might be a month.  Maybe two.  Could be longer.  But what I can give you right now is this really nice, crisp $50 bill.”

How long would it take for protests to start forming outside the lottery office and TV news crews to show up?

It’s pretty clear some companies have lost customers over the whole redemption issue.  Shop owners who sell the packs aren’t happy either.  It reflects poorly on them, especially when the ‘winner’ is a new collector or an inexperienced one who doesn’t know how long this nonsense has been going on and can’t believe the card company doesn’t behave like an actual business that takes customer service seriously.

As Rich Klein wrote less than 24 hours ago, if you’re not making customer service your top redemption cardspriority right now, you’re screwed.   There are too many forums.  Too many websites.  Too many bloggers.  You Tube.  Facebook.  Twitter.  There’s nowhere to hide anymore…and too many customers to lose in a very short time frame who won’t come back.  They don’t want excuses.  They want their stuff.

So how do you fix it?  First of all, redemption cards should have a definitive and respected drop dead date.  Either you deliver the card in six months or you turn over an item that’s unquestionably worth more and you do it quickly and with a smile.  Make those records public.  It seems like collectors simply demand autographs so I don’t know that simply putting fewer signatures in packs would work.

How about if the unfulfilled redemption is exchanged for an autographed picture?  Can’t get the Hall of Famer to sign his card?  That means the collector gets an autographed photo of a Hall of Famer—that one or someone else.  Those photos are everywhere.  They’re often cheap in bulk, at least for living players or borderline guys.  Yes, it’s going to cost more money, but the expenditure will be worth it in public relations.   The redemption was for an everyday player?  You get a signed photo of an active or retired major leaguer.

Card companies know how to do ‘buy backs’.  Maybe it’s time to have some nice vintage cards in reserve.  I’m sure there are a dozen or more dealers who would be glad to offer companies a nice discount on, say, $50,000 worth of Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, Jim Brown, Roger Staubach or other stars.  I have a hard time believing too many collectors would be upset with that trade.  Heck, it might increase business.

Maybe more redemption cards featuring vintage programs and scorecards, original photographs or game used balls.  Create various levels of memorabilia and I can’t picture the average cost being any more than what they’re paying for autographs now.  I doubt collectors would mind paying the postage on larger items.

Surely, the margins can’t be that tight and if the player whose autographs you didn’t get never comes through, I should hope the card company isn’t out what they agreed to pay him.  Contracts are contracts, after all, aren’t they?

Maybe it’s time to ‘out’ the players who take more than a year to sign.  So that player gets mad and won’t sign anymore.  So what.  Who needs him?  If he doesn’t need easy money and doesn’t care about his fans, I sure don’t.

Companies that develop a track record for fewest redemption cards—or better yet, none—are going to get a huge leg up here if this continues.   I see them advertise that fact and I have to be honest.  If I were someone who bought dozens of boxes per year, it would be a factor in my buying decisions.

Can you sell the redemption and not worry about it?  I suppose.  But if you’re a true collector, don’t you want the autograph?

Collectors, though, sort of created this monster when they began demanding autographed cards.  The hobby jumped the shark years ago.  Somehow, many products have no “value” if they don’t have autographs in them.  Maybe Panini had the right idea with National Treasures Baseball.  The relic cards of long ago Hall of Famers were a smash hit and as much as I hate seeing history cut up, there should be a way to avoid that and still produce some sought after exclusive relics.

Maybe none of the above has any merit whatsoever but to someone on the outside, what happens in the hobby has to seem completely outrageous.  Too much bait and switch or bait and wait is a recipe for long-term corporate disaster.