We check back in on a sports card store built two years ago from the ground up in a small southern Illinois town.
In the fall of 2006, it was just an unloved 100 year-old building, tucked into the corner of a town square in Marion, Illinois, located about two hours southeast of St. Louis. A couple of friends who were also collectors decided, against the odds, to turn the place into a sports card and memorabilia shop.
They did the work themselves. Sixteen hour days for weeks–sandwiched around their ‘regular’ jobs.
The place would not be your normal strip mall shop. Hardwood floors. Glass display cases full of new and old cards. Every new unopened box from every manufacturer. One of the nicest retail outlets of any kind in a city of just 17,000.
In part one, we followed Fox Sports Cards as it was being born. Then, just after the store opened around Christmas time that year, we took you inside the store’s opening week as they finally saw the vision become reality. Then, last January we found the store alive and well when we did a Q&A with owner Dan Fox.
Unemployment is up, though, as the store turns two years old. The economy is hurting. Some shops are closing. Success is no longer a given in any business, let alone one that depends on disposable income.
Yet we found the shop is still a magnet for collectors, some of whom drive an hour or more just to buy their hobby boxes or attend the popular Saturday night ‘trade night’. Charity and community-minded, the store has earned its respect.
With a hefty six-figure investment over his head, Fox and friends have plenty of motivation to continue working hard to make it go. In part IV of the series, we exchange some Q&A once again to find out if they still have the same enthusiasm and why shops across the country are begging for help from the card companies.
The store is still going after two-plus years and even though you’re still in debt, do you feel like it’s been a success?
DF: Oh yes! I consider our store to be a tremendous success. Collectors in our area had no place to go before we opened, now, they have a home. There were NO Trade Nights, no autograph signings, no way for collectors to meet each other, and help each other finish sets. There was no place around here helping kids get started in this great hobby. No place hosting Baseball Card Clubhouse events for the Cub Scouts around here. Basically, we had no hobby support at all, and that has definitely changed. The bar has been raised in our small community. If you think you are going to sell sports cards and not be a good store, think again. Our competition has become better because of us opening, collectors have choices now, which they didn’t before. Stores open at regular hours, instead of when the owners feel like it. it has all been great for the collectors in our area. The way we measure our store’s success is by how much better the hobby is for collectors and because of that we have been a raging success.
Has the store followed the vision you had when the store was just an empty, run-down building?
DF: Yes…and then some. I knew we could do this, I just had no idea of how many collectors there really are out there that love this hobby. The store has become more of my customer’s vision than I ever anticipated. They bring ideas to me and set the agenda. We really have become a community, a family, if you will, of collectors. Most of the time, it is hard to tell where the customer begins and the owner ends and visa versa. They make themselves at home in our store. If they pull an autograph and I’m busy waiting on someone else, they don’t hesitate to walk behind the counter and grab a penny sleeve and toploader for themselves. They know where everything is and how everything works here.
Did you stop to celebrate the 2nd anniversary?
DF: We scheduled a Trade Night for that weekend, and we had contacted the MLB, and MLBPA, the NFL, the NFLPA, the NBA, NHL, Topps, Upper Deck, and Donruss to get some promotional items to use as giveaways and contest prizes. Except for Donruss, they all came through with some great items. We then used the items as prizes for various contests we did on that Trade Night. From book bags, and boxes of cards, to memorabilia and tickets to an NFL game (great tickets too!), we gave it all away. We also had the winners pose with their prizes for pictures we sent back to the supplier of each gift, so that they could also see the joy their donation brought to genuine collectors. The leagues and manufacturers LOVE the transparency. They know their gifts were responsibly handled, and enjoyed. We simply have it on the Trade Night closest to Christmas and make it our customer appreciation/Christmas/anniversary celebration. This again, represents the type of thing that collectors in this area never had happen to them until we arrived and it’s great to be able to provide this type service for them.
Are you in good financial shape to continue to do what you’re doing and maybe increase the bottom line?
DF: Yes. Oh, I am sure that maybe on some level that we could possibly be doing somewhat better financially, but we feel very blessed to be doing this well. To have opened a card store two years ago and to be flourishing, is a testament to how badly our community needed this, honestly. Most card store owners I’ve gotten to know can’t believe how well we have done in a business they have seen become much less than it was a few years ago. They all thought we’d be closed by now.
What’s your immediate outlook with the economy hurting many businesses that essentially rely on disposable income?
DF: We only know one way to run this store; with an eye to growing our community of collectors, building this hobby back up and reestablishing just how great it is to collect sports cards. I believe we will have to expand our store in the next year or two simply to be able to accommodate all the growth we are experiencing in our collector base. Our store is barely able to hold all of the customers who come to our twice monthly Trade Nights. On any given Trade Night we will have 50 or more collectors gathering in the store for 3-4 hours of fun, and that never ceases to amaze me. None of these people really knew each other two years ago but now we are one big family, looking out for each other, celebrating each other’s birthdays (some in the store on Trade Nights). It humbles me to think of how cool Trade Nights have become.
What was the most rewarding part of the business in year two?
DF: Knowing that we brought all these people together and help them help each other finish sets, trade cards and enjoy this hobby together. It is very rewarding to watch how these collectors have picked up the responsibility for Trade Nights themselves. We have customers who buy boxes and autographed singles to give out to the kids in our store to help encourage their collecting. I have customers who will donate hundreds of cards to other collectors who might be struggling financially to finish a set. The whole thing is so rewarding, I just can’t do it justice.
What’s been the most frustrating part?
DF: Watching the manufacturers turn basically a blind eye to disreputable dealers "dumping" card products on the internet at or below dealer cost. Many of these online places sell cases to collectors that are devoid of case hits. No one is there to advocate for the end user. The pricing may seem better to the customer, but when they find out the boxes have been adulterated or messed with in some way, the lower price doesn’t seem so great.
The big three manufacturers need to address this issue. They need to address wholesalers who have eBay accounts where they sell directly to the end user at or below what a dealer can buy the product for themselves. It gives the perception that not only are the brick and mortars ripping off their customers, but that the pricing on boxes and cases of cards is this very fluid thing, which it shouldn’t be. It devalues the aftermarket price of the cards within those same products. The other element is the lack of "hits" coming out of those boxes. A customer simply needs to come to one Trade Night at our store, watch the hits that come out of the boxes in our little small town store, and they’ll realize, the only place they want to purchase cards from is a store that orders direct from Topps and Upper Deck and Donruss. Almost all of the big, online resellers do not order direct. They buy their boxes and cases from stores and wholesalers. The people in this hobby deserve better than a crap-shoot when they buy a box of cards, plain and simple.
What else are the card companies doing wrong?
DF: In some instances, I think the production levels on some of these products has gotten too high in terms of the number of cases produced. This leads to dumping and to a downward pressure on pricing, which gives the customer the perception that the product is inferior. I think the manufacturers need to redouble their efforts to support the brick & mortars so that the collectors are not left with being served by online resellers and "big-box" resellers like Wal Mart & Target as their only options to get cards.
What are the card companies doing right?
DF: They are providing us with many tools to help grow the hobby from free Turn Back The Clock cards to give away to Upper Deck’s 20th anniversary cards to giveaway with purchases. They are slowly moving to an online redemption, customer service-based model that helps with faster turnarounds on customer issues. They really want to listen to what we need and work toward providing it. These are all good trends.
You carry modern and vintage cards, supplies and other souvenirs. What sold best overall in year two and what specific products were the most successful?
DF: Modern wax is by far our biggest seller. I think people like many of the innovations that have occurred in card design over the last decade or so. The most successful products run the gamut. Allen & Ginter Baseball, Goudey Baseball, Triple Threads Baseball, SP Authentic Football, Exquisite Football and Exquisite Basketball, UD Black Basketball, Gridiron Gear Football are all up there as great sellers and products.
You’re in a small town. After two years, most collectors within an hour’s drive know you’re there. How can you grow your customer base from here?
DF: You build this hobby from the ground up, meaning that you start by getting more and more youngsters involved with card collecting. Young kids may not have much money, but they need to be guided into this hobby to help ensure long term growth of the customer base instead of being satisfied with maintaining exisiting customers only. Kids not only bring a large element of fun to collecting, but many will bring a dad back into collecting too. We host Boy Scout meetings where we teach young scouts about the fun of collecting cards (supported well by the MLBPA by the way)and not only do the majority of those youngsters become long-term customers, many of their dads restart collecting. That is what is so great about collecting as a hobby, you can come spend 3-4 hours with your kids, doing something that you all have fun doing for less than the cost of taking them to the movies. I always tell parents who are apprehensive about attending a Trade Night with their kid, that it is much more fun than taking them to that Disney movie and much better for them than taking them to the Hannah Montana concert.
If someone wants to open a card shop..even if it’s not in a renovated old building..what’s your best advice? What traits are necessary to succeed as a shop owner in 2009?
DF: If you KNOW you can make it work, and it is your dream, then by all means do it! Manage your expenses carefully, network with other store owners who operate the type of stores you would like yours to be similar to, in terms of operational decisions. Listen carefully to what your customers are saying about your store, your competitor’s store, etc. Many of the best things done in our store were customer ideas. We listened, gave them a try, and lo and behold, they worked! I think the traits you need to succeed in this business are nerve, a good pair of ears, and a burning desire to make it work. The old renovated building doesn’t hurt, either!