It’s been a year since some die-hard sports collectors in southern Illinois took a beat-up old building and turned it into a sparkling new sports card shop. What have they learned? Plenty…but learning to stay true to their ideals is tops on the list. If you’re thinking about taking the plunge yourself, you may want to take notes.
Last winter, we introduced you to Dan Fox, who along with family members and friends, turned an empty 100 year-old building in a southern Illinois town of 17,000 into a full-time sports card shop. In part one of a two part series back in January of 2007, we showed you how the group spent weeks refurbishing floors, installing fixtures and turning the building into the kind of sports memorabilia business they dreamed of visting themselves.
They invested thousands of dollars not knowing if anyone would show up but in part two, they had opened for business and began to see some of that hard work pay off.
One year later, we return to Marion, IL to do some Q&A with owner Dan Fox to find out if the shop has been successful, what these first-time store owners think of the sports memorabilia industry and what they’ve done to try and build a regular clientele in a place where the nearest big league city is nearly two hours away.
After being in business now for a year, what have you learned about
opening a sports card shop?
DF: I knew that I could handle the "business of running a business", having worked in retail for 31 of my 45 years, and having a degree in Business Management. It was really more of a question of could I run a card store business successfully. I had collected since my youth, but had no idea about where to buy wholesale, when to buy direct, how to purchase certain things, etc.
Looking back, I feel being a collector first was a huge benefit to me in terms of running a card store. We run our store to be exactly the type of store I dream of shopping in myself as a collector. That isn’t always easy to execute, but it is easy to visualize.
One of the things the first year in business has taught me is that there are two types of people in the sports card business: 1) those who think cards are a commodity, and selling them is the same as selling anything else, and 2) those who are still collectors themselves, and enjoy every minute of being in this business. I fall very squarely into the second group, and our store reflects that.
How did you build relationships with others in the industry?
DF: Opening a direct relationship with the 3 major manufacturers was as different as the companies themselves. Donruss signed us up almost overnight, we were on their dealer finder within 24 hours. Topps signed us up pretty quickly, it took four months to get added to their dealer locator on their web page. We had heard negatives about Upper Deck’s treatment of dealers, but they could not have been more accommodating. They signed us up very quickly, assigned us a rep, and they contact us the most frequently asking about the market, products, what they could be doing better, etc. They have been an outstanding surprise.
Once we got the store open in December of ’06, we started looking into trade shows we could attend to allow us to meet other card store owners and network with them. We wanted to find out how many others felt like we did, and ran their stores the way we did, or if we were crazy. We went to the Hawaii Trade Conference which was held in Florida last April and met many store owners that were fantastic people but ran their stores in completely different ways.
We also witnessed the ugly side of this business with store owners who last had fun doing this back in the industry’s halcyon days in the early-mid 80s. These people were easy enough to spot. They were burned out, constantly negative about the industry, the card companies, the card products, and even their own customers. We found ourselves wondering why they sold cards at all. My best guess is that many know of no other way to support themselves or their families, and as such, feel almost trapped in this business.
One example of this type of attitude is came when Topps offered the stores free boxes of Triple Threads basketball which was a week or two from hitting the market; they simply asked if we would refrain from selling it, or showing it to any customers until the product “went live”. That night, I checked Ebay listings for Triple Threads Basketball, and found over a dozen listings of the products these stores had been GIVEN just hours before.
We have also found that you never go wrong remembering that you are an dvocate for your customers. We try to treat everyone with respect and kindness; our customers, our vendors, our sales reps, everyone we come into contact with doing business. We manage our store for long term growth and survival, NOT short term profitability. Our customers see and feel that difference. Within our industry, we have had other stores, talk unkindly about our store, us personally, and our positive philosophy. These are almost always the stores that see cards as a commodity, run their business for the short term, and have stores that reflect their own attitudes.
We do listen to all criticism that is directed at us, to see if there might be something we can learn from it. No matter if you have been involved for 20 days or 20 years, we will listen to you and your ideas, and treat you with respect whether we agree or disagree. We know we can learn something from everyone we encounter, even if it might be how not to treat others.
As a shop owner, how do you see the state of the industry?
DF: The state of the industry wasn’t really an issue with me as a collector; I shopped and hunted in complete oblivion to the reality of card stores at that time. As a store owner, I now see how this industry has some major work ahead to return to the glories of past. We look upon the market as a tremendous opportunity for growth and learning. We could sit here and bemoan the fact that not as many kids are collecting today as before, or we could try to help fix that problem. Bringing kids back into this wonderful hobby is on the top of our list of priorities. We take great pride that our store is a place where a 12 year-old boy is treated the same (if not better) than his collector dad. We listen to kids like they were adults, we talk to kids as if they were adults. We treat them like we treat anyone else, and they really notice that.
I have been in many card stores where kids were treated like a speed bump by the store owner trying to get to the dad to purchase large ticket items. Kids are the true life blood of card collecting, if card store owners, or card companies think they can survive with the way the business is being run today, think again.
The industry has contracted mainly because the store owners and card companies have gotten too used to selling one pack to get $100 instead of 100-$1 packs. They have priced kids out of the hobby by building the product infrastructure around this “whale-hunting” mentality. The irony is, whale hunting is now almost completely a thing of the past due to over reliance on too little by too many. Sound familiar? We have no problem with Exquisite or National Treasure products, but there should be boxes at $29.95 retail that include 1 “hit” per box, with packs at 50 cents each. Those are products that we know we could sell until the cows come home.
How did you promote your store?
DF: We decided we would concentrate of just a couple of types of promotion to ensure that we focused on each one well enough to execute it properly. So we decided on three elements to our promotion of the new store; trade nights, advertising, and autograph signings.
Chris Ahart (who works with me at the store)and I were talking during the remodeling process one evening about how kids don’t really have anyone to trade their cards with any more. We conceived of an evening at the card store where collectors of all ages could get together, trade cards to build up their collections, exchange ideas about the hobby, help each other in set building, answer trivia and win prizes, and maybe play some pack wars.
We started out with trivia deciding who won the grand prize (usually a box of the most recent release), but we found that adults were winning much more than kids at the trivia. We now use pack wars to determine 20-30 prize winners each trade night, and card numbers determine the Grand Prize winners (usually two per night). This helps even the playing field between adult and children. What started with between a dozen and two dozen collectors once a month has now grown into 40-60 collectors getting together and having a blast. Many sets have been completed as the collectors in our store have graciously donated or traded way down in book value to help each other finish sets. It’s great to see that.
The success of our trade nights is due solely to the quality of the collectors we have been blessed enough to have as our customers. They not only help each other out with set building, but many times adult collectors bring in boxes of base cards they want us to "give away to kids". They have even gone so far as to bring in 197 food items for our local food pantry on the trade night before Thanksgiving. One of the things we take the most pride in with this store is the community of collectors that have grown from our event and our store in general. They are some of the finest people I know, and their hearts are as big as their collections.
The advertising was a bit more involved. There were the obvious decisions to be made like which medium to use and how to effectively distribute our message. We don’t advertise sales or pricing. We focus on what we feel is our "brand". We want collectors to expect a different kind of experience coming to our store than others they may have visted, and we think they notice that difference. Target and Wal Mart prove every day that passionless people can sell sports cards. Our customers expect us to be as passionate about new releases as they are. They expect that
EVERY new Baseball and Football, and Basketball card release will be in our store on release day…period. They expect that we can show them examples of the soon to be released cards, give them pricing, and explain how many “hits” and subsets there are supposed to be in the product.
The autograph signing we decided to put together was going to involve current St. Louis Cardinal players that also played on the World Series team in 2006. We decided it was better to get two younger guys instead of one older player. We got Chris Duncan and Tyler Johnson (a slugger and a pitcher) to do the signing at the end of the regular season.
We scheduled the signing for Oct. 13th, a Saturday, so that as many kids and parents could make it as possible. Sadly, Chris Duncan got hung up in Chicago, unable to get a flight out, but the Cardinals quickly put in some calls, knowing it was our first autograph signing and got pitcher Brad Thompson to come with almost no notice beforehand. For those in larger metropolitan areas, having sports stars in for autograph sessions may not seem like a big deal, in Southern Illinois, it just hasn’t ever happened that a small store had done this type of thing.
We knew we wanted it to be different for the athletes as we have seen the cattle-like way they are treated in bigger city signings with little to no attention. We received radio, TV, cable and newspaper coverage. We even found our event showing up on Cardinal blogs, which had been an area we had not even considered covering. It was a great success for all involved and we sold estimated 300-400 autographs, and collected more than 170 new email addresses from new customers. The players had a blast, and we intend to do it again in the spring.
What about the day-to-day operations? What issues have you dealt with?
DF: The day to day operations of the card store are very rewarding. I think owning the store enables you to help steer or guide the hobby in directions that you think will make it stronger. We stress collecting more than prospecting in our store. All store owners will admit to having no problems with a grown person spending $1000-$2000 in one visit , opening high-end boxes, groping for the auto/relic card from each product opened. I feel it is much more important to stress collecting. The entire industry has gotten soft because of the "whale" phenomenon.
So much of the product information that is distributed focuses on an issue’s “hit content” instead of by their design, look, packaging, etc. It is easier to just discuss who the pulls are/were and the checklist of “pulls”. Not many discuss print runs, general aesthetics of the cards, how they are packaged, etc.
The card companies, who used to innovate for collectors, now look to innovate for whales, and collectors have seemingly become an afterthought. It is as if the card companies are purposefully grooming a generation of collectors whose first thought upon looking at card purchasing is, “what kind of hits does it have?”. Happily, some of the best sellers in our store this last year have been sets for collectors– products like Upper Deck Masterpieces, Upper Deck Goudey, Topps Chrome, Topps Heritage and Bowman Heritage. We hope this trend continues.
If you had advice for anyone opening a new sports card store, what would it be?
DF: 1. Always run the business and make decisions based on what is right for the collectors frequenting your store. You can not go wrong in striving to be a place where collectors WANT to be.
2. Stay true to your vision of what a store needs to be, what its inventory NEEDS to be.
3. Be prepared to plow all money earned during the first year back into the store’s operation and inventory to maintain the momentum gained during the first year.
4. Give collectors compelling reasons to visit every week. Don’t stagnate as employees or let the inventory stagnate.
5. Community involvement is crucial. Boy Scout groups, Little League teams, collector clubs, trade nights all work to keep us plugged into what is going on within our community.
6. Be open to advice and ideas from EVERYONE!
7. It is incumbent on us to keep interest in the hobby, and to give our customers a reason to not only shop locally, but locally with us.
8. Don’t rest. Keep improving the store, its products, the store environment, etc.
9. Remain a positive voice for the hobby, to customers, other stores, media, and manufacturers.
OK, here’s the $64,000 question. Are you making any money?
DF: In terms of profitability, the store has been very successful. We have grown our business month over month, with every month being better than the previous one. At this time, we are still plowing every nickel right back into the store for fixtures, inventory, upgrades, inventory, and more inventory. If someone out there reading this is considering opening a store, my advice to them would be the same as several card store owners gave to us before opening: be prepared to not take a dime out of the business for the first year or two, to better develop your inventory and product lines.
We are blessed to be able to measure our success by the amount of collectors we bring in to the hobby every month and the amount of loyalty our customers have shown. We are perfectly aware that they can purchase new card products online, sometimes even below our cost. Our mission is to create a store to which they feel enough loyalty that they wouldn’t possibly consider ordering online. We think collectors really want this type of store to succeed and they know we are pricing fairly. Wwe really haven’t seen any customers ordering from online resellers. Even if they periodically do order from an online source with cheaper pricing, our philosophy is that at least they are still spending in the hobby. If you are in our area geographically, and are spending money and time in the hobby, then if we have a good enough store, we will get you in here.
We think collectors know that if hobby stores go out of business, you are left with an environment of NO trade night, NO monthly giveaways, NO knowledgable salespeople, NO hobby support at all, just online resellers and mass merchandisers. Yikes! If people around here would rather spend their money online or with Wal Mart, than we would have to reconsider what kind of store we are putting out there.