The battle between trading card manufacturers, athletes and retail shops over delayed release dates remains a major bone of contention. All three sides appeared on a panel at an industry event in Las Vegas Tuesday, hashing out their ongoing struggles to keep customers—and each other—happy.
The major sticking point in tardy product launches continues to be autographed cards. The card companies say some current and former athletes aren’t all that concerned with returning their signed cards in a timely fashion. The wait for those signed cards is usually why the companies say they have to delay products because sending them out with a large number of IOU redemption cards disappoints collectors more than the wait. An alternative is to utilize an inventory of autographs written on clear stickers that are placed on cards, but those are less popular with collectors.
Manufacturers say they have little recourse when it comes to dealing with players who are slow, but it’s clear they’re getting tired of having to fend off angry shop owners and collectors who don’t want to hear about their problems and are isolating problematic signers.
“There are athletes who are extremely tough,” said Panini America Vice President of Operations Martin Welling, who joined the company late last year. “We keep data. We have a list of athletes who are difficult. When they disappoint us, we measure that. We’re looking at isolating those individuals and not inviting them to sign for us again.”
MLB Players Association representative Adam Kaplan said the trading card category is important to the Players Association but while he can encourage players to meet deadlines, he can’t force them.
“Some are engaged with it and understand but some couldn’t care less. Some guys are so meticulous. They understand. The guys that don’t are delaying the product. There are things we can do to make it better but there’s ultimately going to be a player who isn’t going to return the autographs.”
Kaplan said most players are unware of the impact of the delays they sometimes cause. “They’re pretty removed from the process,” he said. “They just hear from their agent as to what money is involved for them to sign and the number of cards.”
Kaplan said some agents encourage their clients to be prompt, but others don’t make it a priority.
However, the resulting delays often push product launches back weeks—sometimes months—leaving card shops with egg on their face after they had promised customers they’d be available. That’s something that isn’t acceptable according to many major retailers and shop owners who were blunt in their criticism of the card companies for holding products back and not being more aggressive in letting them know the reason behind the delays or when the products will finally hit shops.
“Redemptions suck,” said Adam Martin of Dave & Adam’s Card World, one of the hobby’s largest online retailers. “Sometimes it’s not good enough to tell customers (a product) has been delayed at the manufacturer level. I would think manufacturers could find a way to embed the sticker into the card that would make the on-card fanactics happy.”
Edmonton retail shop owner Wayne Wagner called the delays “a lack of professionalism”. He said collectors of lower level products may not mind stickers, but anyone making a larger investment in a box doesn’t want to see stickers or redemptions and it’s up to the card companies to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“Tell me another industry that misses release dates so often.” he said. “Can you imagine delaying the release of something like the Xbox 360? How about a new car? ‘Sure you can buy one. We’ll deliver your steering wheel in six months’.”
“We’ve been a shrinking industry,” said Martin. “Anything we do that’s negative results in losing more customers. A kid was waiting and it didn’t come out so he bought the video game instead. He’s now a lost customer and we can’t afford to lose more customers.”
Shop owners often schedule special events around popular card products. Some understand the reason for the occasional delay, but don’t feel they’re being kept in the loop.
“Once they identify there’s going to be a slip, manufacturers should let stores know so we can adjust our promotion schedule and let customers know of impending delay,” said shop owner Larry Chrisco. “There’s also a financial issue here. Direct accounts credit cards getting charged before release dates missed. We’re getting billed for charges long before the product arrives.”
“We don’t have the option to walk away from a delayed product,” said Wagner. “ Customers can do that. Where’s our recourse when these release dates are missed? We should be able to go to the distributors or manufacturers and say ‘yes we ordered this for a March release. We’re now in June. I don’t want this product’.”
The card companies say they’re working on the problem and promised to be better at communicating. They’re also hoping to shame the pro sports leagues into helping them meet their commitments.
“The thing we’ve done recently is sharing the missed release dates with the leagues,” said Welling. “One of our messages is that in order for us to pay you, we need to be successful. We need to keep our promises to our customers.”
For his part, Welling promised Panini would try to do better. “There’s nothing more distressing. We do everything that we can to avoid those dates moving.
Distributors too, are affected by the product delays. “When releases back up toward the end of the year, we have issues,” said Lloyd Kee of GTS Distribution. “That’s when our gaming products are doing well. Our store owners get backed up. As a distributor we get squeezed.”
Welling said Panini will try to acquire autographs and finish new products during an eight-week time frame, which usually works—unless multiple players decide not to return their cards by the date the company asks them to in which case the cycle continues.
“It’s never going to be easy. It’s a juggling act. We’re trying to do the right thing.”