We’ll continue our Q&A sessions with sports card shop owners with Lee Goldinger, owner of SwamiLee’s Sportscards in Mt. Laurel, NJ, outside Philadelphia.
How did you come up with the name Swamilee?
People often ask me what is a Swamilee? In the mid 1990s, I produced S.L.A.M., The Starting Lineup Advisory Magazine. I had more than 500 subscribers and the magazine was available at all the conventions. My signature column was, SwamiLee Sees All. In it, I predicted how good (or bad) the new release figures would be. I pulled no punches and it was a very popular column. It started out as a pun, but people would see me at the shows and they would call me The Swami.
We stopped publishing around 2001 or so. I would see people years later and they would still call me Swami. So when we decided to open, I just had to do it. We proudly display old issues of S.L.A.M. at our store!
How and why did you decide to open a store and how long have you been open?
We opened in January of 2014. My father is retired and was looking for something to do. We ran a card shop back in the early 1990s and I have a pretty extensive inventory.
I was looking to give him something to do to occupy himself and came up with the idea of opening up a shop again. He works there a majority of the time as I have a full-time job. I work two days a week and do the buying of the merchandise and such.
He loves to be around people so it’s a win-win as I get to be around cards a few days a week and he gets to be around people.
Tell us about some of the challenges you have in running a store.
It’s tough for a few reasons. As we all know, the card market is not what it once was. Back in the 1990s, there was a card shop on every corner and everybody did well. Today, shops are few and far between yet the customer base is tough to acquire. Trying to compete with the Internet is impossible, though our pricing is very competitive (which means our margins are slim) and we offer many things you can’t get on eBay or from a giant online seller. Things include free supplies when you open your boxes in the store, a fun, family environment where all are welcome no matter the age, and we share our knowledge. We do not push customers to boxes that don’t fit their needs. If you are a set collector, we are not recommending Dynasty (certainly not at $300 per pack). If you are a hit collector, we don’t recommend Topps Series 1.
Another challenge is knowing what to buy. I pre-order 3-6 months in advance. Nobody knows what is going to be hot that far in advance. I have always liked to offer just about everything so it’s tough figuring out how much of each product I need. Sometimes it’s pricey to buy back and I don’t like to raise prices if I can avoid it. With Topps 2 Jumbo in 2014, once I sold out my initial order, I was done. I could not see someone paying me $115 a box and my margin was so slim, it wasn’t worth sitting on it.
One thing that drives me crazy is this. I talked to a guy on Facebook who lives about 15 minutes from the shop. He is a card collector. He saw the Bernie Parent McFarlane figure and asked me about the price. Even though he lives 15 minutes away, he has not been to my shop yet. It boggles my mind how a card collector wouldn’t drive 15 minutes if for no other reason, curiosity. We are doing everything we can to draw customers and have done so from much further distances than 15 minutes. Yet he hasn’t made the drive yet.
What has been the best (or most interesting) purchase you have made since you have opened the store?
We don’t do as much buying as I would like. Way too many lots of 1988 Donruss and such come in the door. I will buy anything if the price is right, but I would prefer to see some high quality items come my way.
One of the things I enjoyed most was someone brought in a 5000 count box of 1978 & 1980 Topps baseball including stars and rookies. This was my era! I loved rummaging through it and seeing all the cards from my youth. It wasn’t an exciting purchase to the average person, but I loved it!
A guy brought in some Richie Ashburn Kenner Starting Lineup figures which were Clover exclusive and he had the original ads from Clover with them from the mid 1990’s. As a former Starting Lineup dealer, I enjoyed seeing that.
I purchased a Phillies’ banner that used to hang in Veterans Stadium. There isn’t much that is cooler than that. Not a replica, it really hung at the stadium.
Any interesting or humorous moments you have encountered since you opened the store?
A young kid comes into our store. Very nice and well-mannered. My father talks to him and he becomes a regular customer. He came in at least 1-2 times per week for a few months (but) he stopped coming in recently. Why? Because his father was a high-ranking member of one of our local sports teams and lost his job. We assume they relocated when he found a job with another organization.
Every year there is an NFL rookie that seems to show up in every pack. And it’s usually a guy who has no NFL future. This year, it’s Tajh Boyd. The jokes started flying around the shop and the next thing I know, my good customers started coming in and handing me Tajh Boyd cards for no apparent reason. If Tajh Boyd ever goes to Canton (aside from his vacation), oh they’ll regret it!
One thing that seems to haunt me is some of my customers believe they can only get good cards out of packs when my father picks the packs for them. I’ll see postings on Facebook and Twitter about another nice hit that my father picked out for them. Meanwhile, when I pick the packs, they claim their luck is not so good. I don’t agree as I believe I have the magic touch! I mean, I picked out the boxes from my supplier for heaven’s sake, so I can’t be a complete failure!
I‘ve read some of your posts about your promotions. Tell us about how you come up with them and the impact they have on your store.
When I decided to open the shop, I had a plan. I had a variety of promotions I wanted to do and knew those promotions would determine my success or failure. Our biggest one is called SwamiLee’s Sunday Extravaganza and we run it once a month. My wife serves breakfast and lunch. It’s from10 am to 2 pm all day (at no charge to the customers). My parents are there just being social, and I run the festivities.
Pack Wars is huge, especially with the kids. We play $1-$2 packs, not the expensive stuff and it’s more for fun than anything else. It’s a family friendly game. Sometimes the whole group decides the winner if I have trouble doing so since we do not use the (price guide) book in my store. We also have a free box break at each event and I give away more than $100 in store credit.
We have Stump the Swami trivia contests where people try to stump me by naming baseball players from the 1980s that I have never heard of. It doesn’t happen often!
We give discounts and just have a fun, family friendly environment. The “players” whose ego usually is larger than their collections are not our target audience. We want people out for a good time that love sports, no matter the age or budget and it’s been wildly successful for us. It’s our biggest day of the month by far and our customers come back time and again once they’ve attended the event. We have people who drive from as far away as New York (about 2 ½ hours) just to hang out with us. This event is why I opened up a shop. It’s a great time for all, including myself and my family.
Tell us a little more about your family and how they assist or support you in this business.
I opened the store so my father, who is retired, would have something to do. We are a very tight-knit family. My wife is a saint who supports every crazy idea I have ever had and comes to have lunch with me on Wednesdays (she works down the road) and then stops in after work to have dinner with me.
On Sundays (my other working day) she usually comes with me just so we can spend time together. She is all in on this idea even though we pretty much work 7 days a week between our jobs and the shop. Even my sister stops in to help sometimes during our Extravaganzas.
My father and I work together on Wednesdays so there is coverage out front while I work in the back on inventory and such. We now spend a lot more time together than we did before, which is nice. I am very blessed to have such a wonderful and supportive family. Without them, not only would I not have a card shop, I would not be the person that I am today. Without the right support system, you have nothing in my opinion.
Tell us about how you utilize social media to help your business.
We have a Twitter account which I post to at least a few days a week. Sometimes I’m advertising the store for new products and events, other times I’m just talking baseball mainly but sometimes other sports. We also have a Facebook page which I use to let everyone know what’s going on at the shop. I sometimes post big pulls and talk about cards in general. My customers use it to contact me with questions ranging from when products are due to advice on how to sell on eBay.
We also use Craigslist for advertising the store. It’s free so anything we get from it is a plus.
I enjoy social media in general as I am quite opinionated about sports and love to share my views. We also have YouTube videos about our store including specific items we have for sale and a grand tour is available. I believe it shows people who our shop is worth driving to, even if you are a somewhat far distance away.
What are some of your short and long-term goals?
We want to be open as long as people enjoy coming out to our store and we enjoy the environment. One of the things I would like is to have some former players come in to do more than just sign autographs. I want them to hang out and shoot the bull with the customers. I realize Mike Trout is not going to do it, but I’m confident if Rawly Eastwick was to stop by for a couple of hours and talk about his time in the big leagues, he’d have a captive audience.
Instead of just a line moving people in and out, I would love a social gathering atmosphere with free autographs, food, and all together great time! We are hoping this can happen sooner than later. It’s just a matter of finding some former players who would enjoy this as much as we would.
I would also like to get more involved in buying. Right now, we really haven’t bought as much as I thought we would. We are probably going to do an advertising campaign locally letting everyone know we are aggressively looking to buy sometime in the near future.
I would like to build up the business and find more collectors of Starting Lineup figures, McFarlane figures, bobbleheads and die-cast. We carry a wide variety and I would like to get more involved with these products, but need more collectors in order to make the larger investment.
Any final thoughts?
It’s a very competitive market out there. The internet is killing everyone. I believe the only way to succeed is to treat people the right way and to enjoy what you are doing. I love when people come in and a 45 minute sports conversation gets going. And it’s even better if multiple people join in. You can’t get that anywhere else unless you are in a bar or stadium, and sometimes those conversations can take a bad turn.
Enjoy your cards. Collect whatever you want whether it’s Topps Dynasty or Opening Day. There is no right or wrong way to collect sports cards. If you aren’t having fun, you are doing something wrong. And if you are doing something wrong remember, SwamiLee Sees All…
We’d like to thank Lee for taking time to chat with us. If you’re a store owner who would like to participate in a Q&A with me, drop me a note at the email address below.