It’s had an enormous impact on the hobby, but eBay and dealer websites haven't completely killed off the big sports card show. That’s good news…as long as you know what you’re doing.
The National Sports Collectors Convention is still going strong and bigger shows still pop up at least a couple of times per year in most larger metropolitan areas. Many long-standing clubs still hold monthly shows at smaller venues. Fewer dealers are making a five-figure profit on a three-day weekend, but if you want to connect with the public and move some inventory, doing a major show is a must.
Collectors who once attended several large shows per year might now only get to a couple—maybe just one. It’s easy, then, to be overwhelmed when you walk in the door and are greeted with dozens or hundreds of booths. Those who’ve never been to a big show—kids and adults-- sometimes get that glazed look in their eyes, wondering how they’re going to see everything, where to start and why they didn’t figure out a way to make a personal fortune before that day so they take advantage of the rare sports cards and memorabilia on display in one place.
Consider this your guide to big shows. Like the NCAA tournament, it’s survive and advance from one table to the next.
Start with a list of goals. Maybe you have an entire weekend. Maybe you only have a couple of hours. Either way, you’ll need to decide just what it is you want to accomplish. Buy singles to complete sets? Sell some things you’ve brought or consign them to an auction? Get some cards graded? Get an autograph from a show guest? All of the above…and then some? Before you head out, decide what’s most important. Write those goals out and stick the list in your wallet. Every hour or so, make sure you’re on task. It sounds a little geeky, but time is our biggest enemy these days. There just isn’t enough of it.
Be organized. Make sure your want list is up to date. Make sure you bring plenty of cash in a variety of denominations. Bring a rolling suitcase, briefcase or duffel bag if you plan to buy a lot of cards or large items. Bring a pen. You’ll have a place to store your stuff—maybe some snacks—and whatever lists you have.
Be comfortable. Many show sites are large convention centers with little or no carpeting. Wear good tennis shoes or walking shoes. Check your coat at the door or leave it in the car. You’ll be bending at the waist a lot, so if you’re not in the best shape, stretch our your hamstrings and calves before you go. Seriously.
Consider selling before buying. If you’re in need of cash, decide what you want to get for the items you’re selling and get that stuff off your hands first. You won’t have to lug it around and you’ll be ready to buy. You’ll find out quickly if you’ve got realistic expectations. Don’t forget: the dealer needs to make a profit.
Come early. If you’re bargain hunting, your best bet might be to get to the show as early as possible. Not all of the best deals or undiscovered treasure will be gone by Sunday afternoon, but some of it will be. Dealers will be cruising the room doing the same thing. They won’t get everything.
Pack those want lists. If you’ve come with want lists of vintage sports cards or modern issues, the show is the most efficient way to fill them. Bring your list to a friendly, fair dealer who offers you a chair and a great inventory and sit down for the long haul. Even if you have to pay close to book value, or even above for some cards, it’s worth it. You’ll go away having a sense of accomplishment and you can probably complete sets in a matter of hours or even minutes. Chances are the dealer will treat you right if you’re committed to him. He’ll also treat you right the next time because he’ll remember you as a good customer.
Don’t be afraid to haggle. Most dealers will expect an offer rather than a straight sale. Be polite, not pushy. If he’s not in the mood to deal, let it go. Some dealers price their inventory to sell and won’t budge. Be realistic. Don’t offer $3 for a card that’s $10. Pick out a bunch of cards or other items and then ask for a deal. A dealer will more than likely give you a break if you’re spending more money and taking a lot of inventory off his hands.
Don’t expect to trade. You can ask—and sometimes the answer will be yes, especially at smaller shows—but for the most part most dealers aren’t inclined to trade with you. They’re there to make money and unless you can offer them a can’t miss item they can re-sell at a rate that favors them—trading is best left to the online message boards or local card shops who have trade nights.
Don’t be afraid to ask. Sometimes the best stuff—and the best deals—are in the binders and boxes the dealer didn’t have room for on his table. Most people won’t ask to see them.
Take business cards. If you ask for a dealer’s business card because you think you might want to do business with him after the show, write a note on the back to remind yourself what the conversation was about. If you don’t, and you don’t look at the card within a couple of days, you’ll have forgotten. Trust us on this one.
Buy something just because. Stick to your plan. Fill your want list. But buy at least one piece of memorabilia that you just think is cool. Preferably something that’s cheap, but quite possibly one-of-a-kind. Chances are if you don’t you’ll never see it again and it’ll probably be something that you’ll appreciate more than anything else you bought that day. Just don’t be too impulsive (see below).
Try not to impulse buy. If you’re not absolutely sure it’s something you need or want, but just feel compelled to buy it for some reason, walk away for a few minutes. Take a breath. Grab a drink. Sit down. Buy something else. Look at your ‘to do list’ and look in your wallet. Then make the call on the earlier item. You might still say ‘yes’, but at least you’ve given it some thought.
Avoid the curmudgeons. No matter how much you want the card he’s selling, if a dealer can’t say hello to you or act like a civil human being, don’t buy anything from him. It’s supposed to be a fun day. If he’s not having fun, he doesn’t deserve your business, even if it’s his full-time job. Watch how he treats kids. That will tell you all you need to know.
Save the bigger dealers for last. Why? They take credit cards. You want to carry a significant amount of cash to the show, but you don’t want to walk around like Thurston Howell III. When the cash supply runs low, you can reach for the plastic. In fact, ask as many dealers as you can if they take credit cards and take advantage of the option. With the cash back programs offered these days, if you’re responsible enough to pay your bill in full each month, you can actually get a discount above and beyond what the dealer gives you!
Take notes. In a large convention hall, you’ll see items you like, but don’t buy, then often discover the price is higher as you go along. Now try to remember where the deal was. Unless you write down table numbers of interest and what you saw there, you’ll waste time backtracking and searching until every dealer’s table looks the same.
Take freebies. If they’re giving away free collecting magazines, auction catalogs or free supply samples, take them. You need something to read if you’re going back to a hotel and you might learn something.
Take a break. It’s tempting to walk around the show and not stop for lunch or a soft drink. You’ll get so into things that you might forget you bought the same card two hours ago. Sit down, go through what you’ve bought and make sure it’s not sliding around in whatever case or box you’re keeping it in. You can also use this time to grade yourself on how your ‘to do’ list is coming along.
Take a look. Focus on your goals, but don’t be afraid to lose yourself in some old publication or at a really impressive display for a few minutes. Some dealers have a museum-like inventory. Consider your admission fee part of the cost to see some rare sports memorabilia, even if you can’t afford it. Soak up the history. It’s why you collect in the first place.
Don’t overpay for autographs. You can buy a lot of really cool stuff for $200 that doesn’t have some Sharpie scrawl on it. Unless the Babe has come to life, I’m not buying any autograph at that level. Decreasing demand is the only way to restore some sanity to the autograph trade. You’ll probably find the $20 guys are a lot more fun to be around anyway. They might even talk to you.
Get something unique signed. If you do buy autographs, take something up that’s not run of the mill unless your only goal is to have a boring collection. A program from a milestone game. A game-used bat. Something that’s a conversation piece. We know someone who has a copy of the Dowd Report signed by Pete Rose. Like him or not, that’s a little piece of history.
Buy some cards and give them to kids. Wax packs. A 1970s star card. It doesn’t matter. Spend $5 or $10 and make a couple of kids happy who are walking around without much money. Their reaction will be worth it.