A Start of the Discussion Of What Needs To Change In This Industry

Am I the only one that feels that lately we have had to settle? Settle for poor design, poor content, and poor construction in the product lines that were once much more inspired and creative? Lets face it, what was GROUNDBREAKING years ago is commonplace today, and when that happens, adaptation is required. Things that would have been worth hundreds or thousands in 2004 or 2005, may only be worth one tenth of previous value, mainly because the collective expectations have changed. There is also a general understanding that mediocrity sells, and that there is no reason to strive for excellence, because it A) costs more to produce and B) takes more time to make. Well, that’s all fine and dandy until the market responds in kind, something that has already started to ripple through the ocean of the hobby.

Its funny, you look at a card like the Cam Newton Superfractor, a card that will sell higher than any other card this year. Why will a card, whose sole distinguishing factor being the serial number on the back and the gold design on the front, sell higher than an NFL logo autographed 1/1 from a box that costs 400 dollars? Continuity, design, prestige, collector perception – all of those, no doubt about it. Then the question remains, how do you build continuity and brand loyalty in a market that already has too many products that all look exactly alike?

Here are my suggestions.

On Card as the Rule, Not the Exception

Its odd how excited I get when I see a set has on card rookie content. Excitement over hard signed signatures never used to be the case, if not only because Upper Deck put out close to 9 sets in one year with almost 100% hard signed autos. I understand that football doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to obtaining these autographs during the window set forth by the NFLPA. However, with careful planning as displayed by UD in 2009, I have to believe it is possible again.

This year, only one set (pending previews for NT) will have hard signed veteran signatures as a feature. That is completely unacceptable. Five Star not only costs 500 a box, but it is not available during a time when football is still being played. Upper Deck Philadelphia was on card and cost 50 bucks a box. It was one of the best looking low end products ever created. Because Upper Deck set expectations so high with the rest of their calendar, it didn’t sell as well as it would today.

If card companies want to build loyalty to a brand, they will need to start with high execution on high expectations. Topps has made strides getting hard signed rookie signatures in collector favorites like Chrome and Finest, and look what happened to boxes – prices skyrocketed. If they had offered hard signed veteran autographs as well, prices would have doubled. Football autographs cost more than I could ever imagine, but it’s a long term investment in a brand. Think of what would have happened if there were hard signed veteran base cards to accompany the rookie autos in Topps Chrome. It would have been a bloodbath. Boxes would be even more unattainable than they are now.

Raise Redemption Expectations

Hard signed autographs should be where every product starts. If the end includes some stickers and redemptions out of necessity, that is understandable. Collectors only hate redemptions because they are never done in a timely manner or filled appropriately. I have no problem with redemptions as long as I feel comfortable with the end result of what may happen. Redemptions are rarely anything other than the player being flaky with their responsibilities to sign the cards. What benefit do they see? They make millions per year, there is no reason to sign the cards for the 30K payday.

So, if the expectations are set appropriately, there is no reason for people to be scared. I want to be able to choose replacements from the pool, do it in a timeframe that isn’t frustrating, and have the ability to get comparable value for an unfulfilled card. Book value means nothing, and it never will as long as there is a free worldwide marketplace used by almost every collector. Investments in customer service dedicated to helping these kinds of issues will be paid back tenfold. Companies need to update websites with top of the line functionality. Not only will it allow for more risks to be taken on hard signed cards, but it will add value to their products. If I know I am never going to get SCREWED in my redemptions, I will have much more willingness to participate.

Strengthen Defenses Against Counterfeits

There is a unique dichotomy that exists in this hobby between two groups when it comes to fakes (both autos and patches). First there is the scared. Don’t get me wrong here, we should be scared. There is every reason to be scared – especially due to the ever growing need to include ridiculous patches in every parallel of a card. How are we supposed to tell real from fake when there are logo patches in cards numbered to 50. These people (myself included), don’t buy the cards we used to, out of fear of getting scammed out of our hard earned money. That’s a terrible thing, especially for building brand awareness and loyalty. Panini has offered confirmation services on patches for years, but that is only AFTER you have purchased the card. Its not helpful.

The second group of people are the uneducated. Because the uneducated people don’t know there are fakes out there, they are unable to avoid the scams. Not only do the manufacturers not participate in education, but the hobby trade publications do not participate. Their reasoning is that collectors will become part of the first group, but that is exactly where they should be.

The solution is one that will not only be expensive but it will take effort on both the collector side and the manufacturer side. We already know that eBay will not stand against the bad apples because they will lose a lot of money in auction fees. So, there needs to be a quick opinion option for the collectors prior to buying any card. The manufacturers will also need a reference point, which is where the online patch database will need to come into play. Either that, or the content of the patch in the card needs to be printed ON THE CARD itself like it was for some of the cards from 2011 Plates and Patches.

In terms of fake auto cards, we see that PSA and JSA have authenticated them in the past. The counterfeits are so real looking that even the authenticators don’t suspect anything is amiss. Once one of them is graded as real, all of them are now real based on precedence. This quick opinion option is another solution, but the money spent to launch it will result in more loyalty.

Commitment to Top Design in EVERY Card

I don’t know any other industry that rewards poor looking products more than the card industry. In the automotive industry, ugly cars don’t sell, because they don’t widely appeal to everyone. I know you cant please everyone, but its easy to try to please the biggest portion of the market. When you look at a set like Contenders, its an obvious downgrade from the design last year. I think MOST would agree on that. Not only that, but with Absolute, the design is better than it was previously, but its not as good as it COULD HAVE BEEN.

Each product that is released on the calendar needs to have design as focus. The products where more time was spent in development seem to sell better. I say “seem” over “do” because who actually knows what goes into each. There have to be ones where less time is spent, and I think I could guess which ones those are. Commitment to design excellence would no doubt HELP the brand loyalty and success, especially if the people designing the products were given more direction from the people that matter – US.

The solution is more involvement from the collector base prior to the production of the cards. If I were in the shoes of a product designer, there are a few groups of people I would ALWAYS approach for feedback: Sellers of my product as well as buyers of my product. Focus groups of sellers/collectors who would volunteer their time could be INVALUABLE feedback on the product lines of the future release calendar. Give people a chance to weigh in.

From my communications with Panini on twitter, as well as the emails I get daily of their inability to take any feedback on their site, it seems as though they don’t care what anyone thinks. I have to believe that Topps and Upper Deck are very similar, just because of sheer number of people that fire off their thoughts at them. Therefore, its essential to get feedback in a constructive way, by selecting carefully who you solicit. We saw in Chicago that just taking any joe collector off the street leads to questions that focus on subjects that DON’T MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE to the general population.

Heighten Awareness With a Dedicated Online Presence

If there is one thing that Panini has done better than anyone, its being visible to a ton of people. Topps is starting to catch up, but they are miles behind. I think, with the growing presence of online personas, a dedicated person specific to interactions with people online needs to be on the payroll at every manufacturer. Not only on twitter, but on Message boards, facebook, everywhere. Especially message boards, as they are becoming the new local shop for gathering of collectors. They need to be the face of the company in a way like has kind of been done at Panini.

Im not talking about the adver-breaks of products and pimping non-stop with stuff that is obviously below par, but someone specifically dedicated to working with people to promote awareness and education. If I had someone that I could go to as a normal collector, I would definitely be more willing to buy products from said company. The reason being, if I had a problem, I would have someone to go to.

Build Content Around What Works

People hate scrub autos and they hate scrub jersey cards, in fact, I think they have to hate jersey cards all together if pricing is any indication. I know that scrub autographs are in place to negate the cost of star players in many products, but then it becomes a question if they are even really necessary if the product is built correctly.

Does every box need jersey cards and autographs if these cards are really that worthless? Do we need 35 rookies at the premiere each year when 75% will be out of the league in less than 5 years. If you look at structure and content, Chrome has more value in its parallels than it does in the per box autograph. That is crazy talk in today’s world, but maybe it’s a good thing.

Upper Deck had it right with the Shadow Box cards, and they had it more correct when they started looking to create content that isn’t game used or signed. You just need ideas. I asked a representative about content creation in Chicago with a very simple question – How many times do you guys actually just try to think of new ways to build content? Do you ever just sit around a conference table and figure it out? His answer? “We used to, but we don’t anymore.” Perfect.

Panini has been on my shit list for watering down every element of the box break. Its awful. 4 hits – 2 autos and 2 jerseys – 90-100 bucks. Its like clockwork for almost every product. Topps isn’t much better, but they have more success because design and theme is much better. Who says you need to charge that much if you just take the approach to go after DEMAND through lowering SUPPLY. Autographs should be tougher to pull, and that is why Topps’ SP Rookie Autos that ran through the first products were much more valuable. There weren’t as many of them, so more people wanted them.


Are these the only way to improve on products?

No, these ways are the tip of the iceberg, but it is really hard to be happy that they are seemingly ignored. If companies are going to weather ANOTHER recession that is on its way, things are going to need to change. Not only will they need to change, they will need to change drastically. What works now will not work forever, and that’s saying that it actually does work now. Apple is where it is because they adjusted things ahead of the market’s need. I think the most successful companies will figure this out and we will start to see exactly what they mean when they say groundbreaking improvements. Ill tell you this – ITS NOT VIDEO CARDS.

13 thoughts on “A Start of the Discussion Of What Needs To Change In This Industry

  1. I absolutely love and agree with your insight. A few interesting ideas ive thought of that could be incorporated would be thumbprint with an auto over top and game used material to a specific team. Also they should do a hero and villain type set. And die cut cards where jersey swatches actually look like they are on the player. Things like shoelaces gloves or even hair could be cool. I wonder what a lock of polamalus hair might go for!

  2. Just a few of my observations 1)No expiration dates on redemptions. After we saw UD’s business practices, I don’t trust any of the companies. I envision execs handing out Chris Johnson rookie autos out like candy at halloween to their friends and family.
    2)Limit the production. I think this is a big reason we see 35 rookies at the premiere. Greed from the companies. But in the end if their products are collecting dust in warehouses they lose too. I loved 2011 Topps Inception, but it’d have to be like 40 bucks for me to break it b/c Bilal Powell is in every box.
    3)Only release high end veteran dependent products every 2-3 years. I hate Panini just like Gellman, but if you watch breaks of 08 Prime Cuts it’s awesome. Topps Sterling baseball is by far the shitties break year in and year out. SO much more to type, but I gotta go to class now.

  3. I don’t disagree with what you’re saying; however, it’s up to us (the collectors) to make it happen. As long as collectors continue to buy the products and companies continue to hit their targeted profit margins nothing will change.

    It seems to me that people in general (not just in the card world) have forgotten how businesses work. In truth, all any business cares about is making its stock holders and board members happy. The only way to force something to change is to talk with your wallet. All to often I see someone complaining about how expensive this-or-that has gotten and how quality has gone down hill: all the while reaching for their wallet.

    A lot of us think to ourselves “I’ll show Panini, I’ll just buy the few singles I really like off of eBay instead of boxes”. This doesn’t really help the situation. Those few great looking Panini cards are in high demand (because there are so few). That in turn drives high eBay prices. As a result of high sales of the hot rookies and veterans more people buy boxes hoping to land that big hit to sell to you and I on eBay. In the end, a lot of product is still being purchased and opened.

  4. If Topps Inception was a $40 per box/pack item, it’d be a great product.

    That being said, Bilal Powell in every pack is rough. With as much wax as I’ve busted this year, you’d think I was a Powell Supercollector. Oy Vey…

  5. This is the first year I have not purchased any Donruss/Panini products and it has been great. With Topps, I know exactly what I’m getting. In the past, every time I thought I was going to pull something nice from a Panini product, I got three all-white jersey cards and a scrub rookie auto for $90 – $100, at least. My wallet is much happier and I have more money left to spend on singles I’d much rather have.

  6. Great blog post. I believe the card manufacturers are ready to listen to good ideas. I believe they realize total hobby sales should be ten times what they are today. As far as number of collectors, this hobby is a one tenth of what it once was. Growth potential of this hobby is more than getting us back to where we were twenty years ago.

    We have to win back old collectors and cultivate new ones. Improved design and content is a very logical step. Product box value must also improve. Supply/demand relationships affect value. If we don’t want to decrease supply, we must increase the number of collectors. Advertisement, promotions and field representatives (good card shops) to educate and encourage new collectors should be a bigger part of the manufacturers budget.

    We must retain the collectors we have today and systematically work to bring in new customers. All manufacturers (including Topps) need to put more creative effort toward these goals.

  7. I like guys that bitch AND offer solutions. You do both well.
    This is a good post despite the lack of creative derogatory names prevalent in your old old posts (ie; asshats).
    My biggest beef is with the cost of a pack of cards. I may sound like the “good old days” guy here, but I miss a pack of cards that costs $1 and has 10-20 cards in it. opening a pack of cards is a bit of a thrill for me. The dollar store has packs for a buck… 5 damn cards. No thrill. I don’t care as much about big hits as I do about spending $5 bucks for 7 or 8 cards. That kind of limits a set collector building a set through the joy of pack opening.
    Lastly, the short print phenomenon has really pissed me off. I still can’t finish a 2007 Turkey Red set because of the damn sp’s. I bought a ton of boxes of that stuff too!
    One more thing, Topps, your website is a piece of steaming crap.
    One mans opinion.

  8. Gellman,

    I would start by taking exception to your assertion that “hard-signed autographs should be where every product starts”. That attitude is symptomatic of the fact that the hobby today is all about collecting autographs and memorabilia on cards, along with low-numbered parallels, rather than the cards themselves, to the extent that plain, old-fashioned cards have become an afterthought (which is why there is so much crappy card design).

    To me, a product should start with a well-designed card. Period. That is the only thing which factors into whether or not I collect a product. I don’t care about autos/memorabilia/parallels, etc., all I want is a card that is pleasing to the eye.

    Next, I want low-end box prices that I can afford, i.e. $30-40 per box, instead of $60-80, for low-end products. Take all the junk out of these products, stay focused on producing high-quality base cards, and hitting a lower box price becomes easily doable. With most low-end products these days, box prices are so high, that it’s usually cheaper to build the set using EBay than by buying and opening boxes. These days, low-end box prices are so high that I don’t even by boxes of products I like because they are too expensive.

    Manufacturers need to remember that there is a lot of competition for collector $$$, not just among current releases, but also from everything that has been released in the past. These days, new product releases are so dire that they probably get less than 10% of my hobby spending. And I’m not the only person who feels that way…

  9. I dont disagree that design is the end all and be all of where products start, but its intangible and subjective. Autograph content is a jumping off point – mainly because of the planning that is necessary. Its a cop out in my mind to start with labels in mind – it shifts the whole identity and value of a product. That was more my point.

  10. I don’t disagree with you in that hard-signed autos are almost always better than stickers, but the bigger issue is that most product released these days are stuffed with autographs nobody wants, just to meet some predetermined “hit” ratio. A “hit” isn’t much of a “hit” if you can’t even give it away on Ebay.

    Manufacturers need to do a better job of filling products with content collectors actually want, as opposed to filling them with mindless junk. I’d much rather pay $30-40 a box for a product with 0-1 high-quality “hits”, rather than than $60-80 for a box with 4-5 “hits” which are actually junk.

  11. One of your best posts ever. You really nailed it on a number of fronts.
    I would add that the companies and publications spend too much effort on hyping rookies and big rare pulls, and not enough on making a whole quality product. Every set has to contain 60% rookies, even if it’s a retro or veteran themed set that celebrates the past, not the future. And almost every ad or sample picture of a given product is just the hits that you’ll probably never pull. Even the lower end products forget to show the base cards sometimes. It’s frustrating and it repeats year after year. For years I’ve been waiting for another football set to collect besides flagship Topps and the occasional Score set, but nothing else is appealing or as easy to put together…

  12. Great post and some very insightful comments. If I put myself in the shoes of someone who works at Topps or Upper Deck, I think they probably agree with most of what everyone is saying.

    Here’s the problem: Our words and our wallets say two different things.

    On Card Autos: Logistical nightmare. It’s got to be a lot more expensive than sticker autos. Not twice as expensive–I’m thinking more like 5-10x more expensive. Shipping costs and damage to cards are probably the main drivers. It’s got to be hard to do while still keeping box prices low.

    Design: This is a tough one because it’s so subjective. Not to mention that each company is putting out 10-20 releases a year. Why are they doing so many releases? Because we’ll buy a box with a rookie auto /299 but we’ll bitch if it’s /2999. So, they make 10 different products with autos /299 and guess what? We (collectors) are happy! Don’t forget that we’ll also complain if the design looks too similar to last year, so whether this year’s design is awesome or terrible, it will still be replaced next year.

    Online Presence: Ok, fairly easy and cheap to implement. I do think it helps with awareness and brand loyalty.

    Content: Hate to say it, but we are suckers for hits. Let’s be honest, most of us busting wax (including me) are basically playing the lottery. I know I’ll get hate from the few set collectors out there but it’s true. Just look at Ebay prices for complete sets to see how much value the market places on them. So the card companies have incentive to put 2 crap jersey cards in a box along with 2 rookie autos of guys who are bagging groceries 2 weeks after camp ends and call it “4 HITS PER BOX!!!!!!” Then they tease us with some card pornography of ridiculous patch autos of Tom Brady and Aaron Rogers and we eat it up.

    Panini seems to be exploiting all these weaknesses of the customer with their 2011 products. Their lazy design, repetitive format in every product, and “4 hits per box” mentality makes me believe they see themselves as the smartest guys in the room laughing all the way to the bank. They read blogs like this and laugh as they look over their sales figures and realize that on-card autos, design, set structure, etc don’t make all that much difference in how a product will sell.

    Having said all that, I think there might be hope. Topps Chrome seems to be proving that there is a hunger in the market for great design, parallel structure (the chase aspect), and that we’re okay with only 1 hit per box.

    Although there are always obstacles to continuous improvement, I think in the long run the market will pick winners and losers based on what we buy.

    In the long run, I think the people who drive the hobby by expressing their opinions will reward the companies who do it right and punish those who insult our intelligence with poor quality.

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