SCU Go-Live Report: 2015 Topps Definitive Collection

There arent many superlatives left to describe a product of premium quality. I mean, Panini is going as far as calling things Immaculate and Flawless. When I heard Topps calling their last figurative hurrah in the super high end market “Definitive Collection,” I thought they had better live up to the name. Seeing the cards live is a statement for sure. Five Star remains one of my favorite products of all. Same with Exquisite collection pre-2009. They set a precedent. The question is, can Topps do the same with a product that will last 1 year? Definitive Collection is going to try to do just that.

Check out the cards up so far, they pack a punch:

2015 Topps Definitive Collection Jerome Bettis Auto Patch /5

2015 Topps Definitive Collection Emmitt Smith Pro Bowl Auto /10

2015 Definitive Collection Phil Simms Auto Inscription /10

2015 Topps Definitive Collection Marcus Mariota Auto

2015 Topps Definitive Collection JJ Watt Auto

2015 Definitive Collection Russell Wilson / Richard Sherman Dual Auto

The cards themselves look tremendous. The level of detail and checklist quality speaks to the fact that Topps didnt want to go quietly into the good night. When you see how much better most of the set looks than Flawless does, its curious what the fuck Panini is spending all that money on? Melee gems dont cost THAT much.

Dont get me wrong, this is a VERY costly product. Think Dynasty baseball in a normal box format. That expensive. For the most part Topps delivered in ways that no other company has really delivered, well maybe ever. Big names everywhere, great looking cards, HUGE patches, cool inscriptions, framed autographs, the list goes on and on. Its like they actually knew what they were coming up short with Five Star and built it up. Made it better for everyone to finally see what they were missing in a super premium set.

That’s not saying the product doesnt have drawbacks. The colors used for the parallels and the level of saturation is horrendous. It looks awful. Because of the way the cards’ color palate were printed, its almost like they chose pastels, which very much clash with the team colors of the league. Not good.

Similarly, the checklist has its fair share of redemptions, which isnt going to make people happy. When you do a full on card product like this, redemptions are part of the game. However, if the quality is high on the finished product, I know quite a few people that are happy to wait. Hopefully the signers fulfill their promises, because some of these cards are fucking balls to the walls ridiculous.

Im going to close with this. Sets like this make me sad. Sad that we dont get to see the future iterations of the product in football. Instead we are left with a Flawless product that costs 1500 but doesnt deliver unique content, or an Immaculate product that has a lot of nice cards, but at a crazy low seeding rate. We need more products that people open the box and think WOW. This is just nuts. Definitive, down to the intricate patterns embossed on the cards, is the first set to do that in a long time. Its gone in football next year. Topps is out.

Last time I checked, Panini is too busy trotting out products that have yet to measure up. They may own the exclusives, but they arent ever going to reach what both Topps and Upper Deck managed. People bought Exquisite because they LOVED it. People bought Five Star because they LOVED it. I feel like people buy Panini’s stuff because they want to make money, not because they think its a great product. I dont get how such value can be attributed to sets that dont look good, and havent measured up to others in the space in theme or concept. It makes no sense. Definitive brings the checklist strength and design, and I am hoping that people give Topps the sendoff they deserve.

Is this going to pan out well for a product with no future? Im intrigued. I really hope people support a set that looks to be done very very well. I think the industry’s future isnt enormously bright, so maybe people will see that its best to live in the moment. Definitive is definitely a great moment, and a nice way to close out Topps’ run. We still have Diamond and other sets to go, including Supreme, but this is the meat. This is the big dog. It barks like a big dog should.

Simple Ways to Improve a Hobby Shop

Right now, a bunch of hobby industry professionals are in Hawaii talking about the business side of cards. For many, this is a trip to improve their business. Im sure there are many that need those lessons but cant go on an expensive trip. Let me tell you right now, the summit is all about lip service, and lip service helps no one. If you have read the recaps of the panels online, you will see that there isnt much offered there that cant be found online. I mean, you are reading a recap, right?

Dont get me wrong, networking is very important, but with every last person in the industry available on the internet to receive your questions and feedback, its not a big deal to talk to them face to face anymore. If you are personable online, many are more than willing to talk to you. I mean, is the Panini rep going to tell you something different just because you are in front of them? Guess what? The redemption program isnt going to change because you are there asking where your 2013 card is. Plus, if you really want to understand customers or talk to successful shops, there are thousands of potential customers and established retailers on twitter and facebook that can be engaged for feedback for free. No Hawaii trip required.

Moving on.

In my opinion, the population of individuals who visit hobby shops of any sort is dwindling. Not because of anything other than times are changing. The internet has changed the face of many hobbies to the point where they dont function anywhere close to the same as prior. The internet has changed our society, and that’s some toothpaste you cant put back in the tube. So, the question becomes, are hobby shops still necessary to the fabric of the hobby? I think the answer is more complicated than you might expect.

Im not going to get into the ins and outs of why shops should or shouldnt exist, because honestly I dont know enough about the marketplace to understand the true ripple effects of the last hobby shop closing its doors. I want to say that shops continue to be an ambassador to returning customers to the hobby, but im curious if google is more of an ambassador than anyone these days. My gut says yes.

Also, I have to mention that I am lucky. One of the best hobby shops in the country sits mere miles from my house, and I am a bit spoiled by the atmosphere that is on display. Sports Cards Plus recently underwent a large renovation sponsored by Panini, and now looks even nicer than it did before. That being said, a nice look isnt the only thing that keeps customers coming back. The owner, Charlie, takes an enormous amount of pride in the way his shop is run, and he is a student of his customers. Its uncanny.

That being said, there are some major and simple things that a shop can do to improve their position in the hobby world.

Curb Appeal

I get it, not everyone can set up in an upscale shopping mall, and some cant even afford to set up in a run down shopping mall. Margins in the industry are thinner than ever, and with the card companies constantly closing out product to every distributor with a pulse, the margins arent getting bigger. That being said, there are a lot of ways that someone can make their store look nice, even without a nice location. Whether its proper signage, updated window displays, or even just a big window into a clean store, Curb appeal is a huge deal. Its hard to continue to walk into a store that looks like a front for a drug operation. Because shop owners have a lot of control over “random” packs in their store, I have to have a level of trust to buy anything. If the curb appeal looks like a disaster, its hard to want to go inside.

Organization

The first judgement a card customer will make is the organization of your store. If things are strewn about and completely messy, you are not going to look good to a crowd that meticulously keeps their own collection as organized as possible. I get it, maintaining a clean store isnt easy when you are the only staff member, but if you want to grow your business, the inside has to be spotless. Cards need to be in boxes, packs need to be in boxes or bins, and everything needs to be straightened, dusted and kept out of the UV light. If you have a bargain area, make sure it is clearly labeled and separated from your premium stuff. Singles should be on shelves in a way that make sense, and though display cases can be expensive, they need to be a part of your setup. The outside of your shop can be a train wreck due to the area, but the inside needs to be a haven.

Customer Service

If you got into owning a store because you loved cards, you probably made the wrong decision. If you got into owning a store because you loved cards, and you love to serve your customers, its a bit different. Being a customer service rep means putting on a show. You have to be the reason your customers want to continue to buy from you. Chances are, many cities only have one or two shops. That means that competition is dwindling in that respect. What it SURELY doesnt mean is that competition doesnt exist. If you atmosphere sucks, because you are a dick or you dont pay attention to your customer’s needs, you will not get my business again. Ill just stay online. You are a facilitator and a salesperson, so you need to be exactly as available as I need you to be.

At a minimum:

  • Greet every customer who comes in the door
  • Be visible at all times – dont disappear into the back room
  • Ask questions to determine what the purpose of my visit is
  • Make suggestions
  • Engage me in discussion / ask my opinion
  • Show professional empathy and be respectful
  • Dont sit on your computer
  • Get feedback
  • Dont treat me like a kid or a potential criminal

Customer service is an art, and if you are unable to come out of your introverted frame to really be “on” with your customers when they need it, good luck. The internet is not your biggest problem. Obviously, not every customer needs attention constantly, but you wont know the level they need until you talk to them. I cant count the number of times I walk into a store and see no one. No customers, no staff, nothing. Its tough to do everything by yourself, but that isnt always an excuse.

Setup of the Shop

Some shops are setup to be very pack and go. No areas to congregate, large rear of the shop to protect high value goods, and a lot of counters. Some stores are just small because they have to be. My personal preference is to have a display where wax and singles are available for purchase and an area to sit and hang out. The ONLY reason I go to a shop these days is to pass time, and the buying is almost secondary. I might go to buy, but I will buy more if I can stay longer and chill with people.

Have a TV on, have a breaking table, make your shop as much of a destination as possible. If that means sacrificing some storage space, it will be worth it. You would be surprised how much time we spend around the breaking table at my shop. Even when it was a smaller shop, the owner ALWAYS had a table set up with a bunch of chairs. There is nothing more enticing than watching someone break a box. Even if its bad, it wont matter. People want the experience, and they want people to watch. If your shop isnt conducive to that setup, you wont have me coming back.

Why do you think most Cigar shops have such an investment in a lounge area? Its because they want customers to see the product in action. They want their shop to be the place where people hang out. If they hang out, they buy.

Try to find a balance between retail areas and non retail areas, and be conscious that every inch you take up with a shelf, is an area that could be reserved for people to congregate. Its the only TRUE advantage you have over the internet. If your shelf doesnt get constant sales, is it really worth keeping there obstructing the flow of the shop?

Store Hours

I dont get why a shop would be open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm. That makes no sense. Your weekend needs to be different than your customer’s weekend. Most of us have jobs, and we wont stop by when working hours are going on. Opening later in the morning to stay open later at night is a huge plus. I would be shocked if people roll out of bed on a Tuesday to open cards at 9am. Open at 11 and stay open until at least 8.

Similarly, your hours should be longest on Wednesday (product release day) and Friday (Payday). Sundays should be a big day too, and its best to make your shop a football factory during the season. 12-5 hours on Sunday would help a lot. Everyone is out of Church, and Football doesnt really go past that. You have to be available when your customers have free time. Closing on a Tuesday isnt a big deal when you can be open other times instead. No one said owning a business would be easy, and sacrifices have to be made.

Online Presence

Every shop needs a Twitter account. Every shop needs a facebook account. Every shop needs a website. This is non-negotiable. If you dont understand how to do any of this, im not sure how you are reading this post. If you own a store website, it needs to be updated frequently. A blog format is perfectly fine, and very easy to set up. Most community education centers have internet classes, or you can hire someone if you cant figure it out. Remember what I said before? Google is your best friend, and if customers cant see you before they come, its less likely that they will. Invest in your online presence. Make sure you stay up to date on Yelp comments, and other reviews from the crowd.

Twitter and Facebook have become hobby hubs, and having a persona is good. All the big shops have found time to make it work. It can be anything. Responding to card company posts, engaging with people in discussion (positivity only), and being a pillar there will earn you respect. With respect comes attention, and attention is good.

Similarly, doing something as simple as posting pictures of big hits pulled in the store can get you a lot of visibility. Even if customers dont open in the store, ask them to tweet pictures to you when they open at home. Give them a stage to show off their biggest wins. This hobby is one based in Vanity.

I run two websites that have minor followings. I post something for both sites multiple times per day. I also have a job that requires 60-80 hour work weeks. If I can find the time, so can you. My wife and two kids understand its something that is important to me.

Bottom line, if it shows YOU care, it will inspire your customers to continue coming back. You will not be able to compete with internet prices. Sometimes that’s okay. If you provide the right destination for your customers, it wont matter that they can get it cheaper elsewhere. They will want the experience of a fun place that is supportive of their biggest passion. That passion runs both ways, and I guarantee that any investment you make will return 10 fold in that respect. If you can be creative and build from these things, you might be able to make a living selling cards. This is just the BASICS. No one ever becomes rich from doing what is expected of them. To succeed above and beyond, you need to go above and beyond.

My Response to the Growing Debate Over Digital Cards

I love Digital Cards. I play all the apps, I buy a lot in game with real money, and I write a similar blog to this one about Digital, all because I find it so interesting. Unlike many of the people who spend a lot of money on Digital, I started off as a Physical card collector, and still classify myself in that way over anything. I am a person who has a foot firmly in both worlds, and I can testify that they are not as mutually exclusive as people make them out to be.

As a whole, digital is quickly becoming a new ambassador for tens of thousands of new collectors, with new users joining each of the four apps on a daily basis. Where it looks like the hobby is declining at a very steady rate on the physical side, digital seems to be increasing in population by the double digits. If you have any desire to continue seeing new products and new cards continue to hit the market on a regular basis, this is a very good thing.

Its a good thing because the hobby needs new people – any people. For the main companies involved in the hobby, debt is a regular thing. Topps has over 100 million, Upper Deck owes the IRS about the same amount, and Panini would be in the same spot if they didnt have support from Italy. Sports cards are getting more and more expensive to produce and sell, and there are fewer people around to buy them each year. That is the definition of a money pit, and interactions with the leagues and players are only getting more difficult and more expensive.

Because of how much money digital can generate 24 hours a day, with no retail space overhead, no warehouse space overhead, no physical production cost, no chasing down players for autographs, and the ability to produce on demand content, its a dream. They can literally operate a card business and not have any of the production limitations that the physical card team does.

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For those of you who are familiar, the creation of a physical product begins months, if not YEARS in advance. For digital, that could be a matter of weeks, days or even hours. Its the difference between building an episode of the Simpsons and building an episode of South Park. One takes multiple months, one takes exactly one week. That gives a lot of flexibility in content and every element of the product. Plus, they dont have to pay for signatures or relics, or worry about redemptions.

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Based on this situation, its easy to see why each of the companies who makes cards (and some who dont), are lining up to build card collecting games for IOS and Android. Its a golden goose with potential to turn into golden geese. Not only that, with technology taking leaps forward regularly, it presents an opportunity to do “the next big thing” on a much more frequent basis. The last "next big thing" in sports cards happened in 1996 with relic cards. The 20th anniversary is coming up this year. Wow, that is a long, long time.

I get why this is a debate. If people want to live in a simpler time, where there were four sets a year, and people put baseball cards in albums without fear of condition sensitivity, that’s on them. They are going to be waiting a lifetime for things to go back to that.

In the same vein, I see it as counterproductive to continually disparage those who see digital for the real power it represents. Digital is the future, and there isnt much a few blog posts will be able to do to change that. However, that doesnt mean physical wont be there too in some capacity. Its not a guarantee, no doubt about it. Clearly, if trends continue, physical will eventually take a back seat because of cost to profit ratios, and its not just collectors leaving the hobby as the main factor. League licenses are becoming exponentially more expensive to maintain. Player related content is becoming more valuable to all sorts of people, including the league. This means relics are more difficult to obtain and more costly to acquire. Even if more and more people came back to the hobby, it might not be enough in the long run. Every aspect of producing physical sports cards is rising in cost too fast to overcome.

I also want to make sure we talk about this whole thing about “real” cards versus “fake” cards. Calling digital cards fake isnt really accurate. Digital cards are not meant to be “real” any more than the WWE is meant to be real. Its entertainment, its an experience, and its just supposed to be fun for the user. Its NOT designed to be an investment opportunity, even though some treat it that way.

Lets look at digital this way. Its basically a competition with 10,000 people to be the best at a few different parts of the game, and the cards themselves are just a means to an end. We know they can be taken away, we know they arent tangible, but the entertainment value is very, very, very real. The competition is very, very, very real.

Its obvious that physical card collectors rarely see digital as something they could ever spend money on, mainly because I think they are looking at it through the wrong lens. They look at it the way they look at their own collection, and we all know how passionate that can get. They see card collecting as something you keep and something you hold onto, as well as the entertainment of completing the action of collecting.

Digital is just about the entertainment of completing the collecting action, as well as the competition ingrained in the setup. There is REAL value and money involved, because this competition is fierce. The apps are designed to foster this mentality, and like with any competitive atmosphere, people will want to win. That’s digital. My opinion is that its not meant or designed to be something you hoard with the future potential for payoff years in the future. Its not meant to be something you hand down to your kids. Its just supposed to be fun, and Topps has found quite the way to monetize it. Good for them. They need it.

Another one of people’s main complaint about digital’s existence is that they some how feel it takes away quality from the brands they love. Collectors who have been in the hobby for many years see new designs for Topps Series 1, or a shift in the way the photos look on the cards, and they think that the brand continuity between physical and digital is to blame. I see how that argument comes into focus, as people expect that the two teams are tied together. Its not a stretch at all.

In fact, the digital team has its own graphic artists, separate from the artists that create the physical brands. The physical design is created long before the digitization is built, and from what BOTH sides of this say, they work completely separately. Here is Jeff Zachowski, from the physical side:

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and Neil Kleid from the digital side:

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The designs are the way they are because physical thought that was the best choice of the submitted designs available, and digital uses it to maintain parity. Pretty simple. If you dont like the 2016 Series 1 design, that’s fine. Dont blame digital though, as Bunt isnt the reason that it looks the way it does. After ripping through almost a case worth of Jumbos by myself, I really like the design. I think its quite modern and sleek, and I guess that’s why people dont like it.

Lastly, I have heard people talk about fostering addiction and holding Topps responsible as an enabler for people to spend money they dont have. I swear to god, this is something people use as a dig on digital. Im really just putting this in here so that you can marvel at its ridiculous and hypocritical nature. I wonder if the same people have that similar contempt for Bars and Casinos as well. Addiction is real, but in the end, its the individual who is ultimately responsible for doing anything. Last time I checked, anyone can walk into a card shop and put cases on a credit card. Do we hold contempt for Blowout or DA for making it more accessible? If I wanted to, I could rack up a nice little bill with a group breaker during the time I wrote this article. I dont see many people commenting how they enable the wrong behavior. I see people referring to it as gambling, but no where have I seen the ridiculous argument that doesnt hold the user responsible for their actions.

Let me close by reinforcing how both elements of sports cards can coexist in a fluid way. There is zero reason to pit them against each other or loathe their existence. If you dont like one or the other, that’s fine! You dont have to play and no one is forcing you to rip packs at your local shop either. Lamenting the success of one over the other is such a losing proposition, mainly because everyone seems to be missing the main element that digital brings to the hobby – growth. Not only growth, but potential for enormous growth. If you dont think that is a special thing, its time to realize that card collecting is not some VIP club. You cant and shouldnt want to keep people out. With the way things are going today, its better to adopt a “more the merrier” perspective, instead of looking to find excuses to exclude.

All I am saying is that its fine to not want to be involved in digital, but to paint it as a villain is not seeing the forest or the trees.

On the Radar: 2016 Topps Chrome Baseball

Im sad writing this post, because I know that Chrome baseball will likely be baseball only in 2016. That isnt a total loss, as I had a HELL of a good time ripping through Chrome last year. The set has definitely gotten some new life over the last few years, and I dont see that changing all that much this year.

Cards looked really nice last year:

2015 Topps Chrome Kris Bryant Purple Refractor Auto

2015 Topps Chrome Mike Trout Illustrious Auto /25

2015 Topps Chrome Noah Syndergaard Blue Refractor Auto BGS 9.5

2015 Topps Chrome Joc Pederson Purple Refractor Auto

The main piece of news is that Carlos Correa’s 2015 Chrome cards (only appeared in the set as high number SPs last year), will be inserted as autographs in this year’s product. Im sure this is going to set people off similar to what happened with Kris Bryant and his Bowman Chrome autographs. Personally, I dont see an issue, and I would find these cards to be awfully attractive hits to pull. From pictures posted by Topps, its clear that Correa signed the cards after the Chrome release in 2015, so its not like Topps purposefully held them back. They were offered in jumbo form earlier this year as well. If anything, this is a good way to add some oomph to the product now that there isnt a clear Kris Bryant or Correa this year.

I also love that there looks to be a lot more on card content this year, with many of the inserts and base autos showing as non-sticker on the sell sheet. To me, Chrome autos lose half their appeal when they are sticker, and 2016 is looking good in that respect.

Bottom line, Chrome will never have the punch it used to have, mainly because of how many years a prospect will have cards in Bowman prior to hitting the bigs. The main guys in Sano, Conforto and Schwarber have all signed a ton over the last few years, so their card arent as valuable as they would have been years ago.

Regardless, it should still be a fun rip this August.

First Finished Cards from 2015 Topps Definitive Collection

If you were around back in 2010, and a fan of high end, you probably remember all the previews of the first go at Five Star that Topps released weekly. It was like someone brought all the feeling back to football cards after we found out Exquisite would no longer be NFL licensed. Seeing previews of Definitive kind of brings that full circle, because I know we are only going to get one version of it before Panini takes over.

2010 Five Star remains one of my favorite products ever:

2010 Topps Five Star Peyton Manning Auto Triple Patch Booklet

2010 Topps Five Star Ndamukong Suh Auto Patch RC

2010 Topps Five Star Ladanian Tomlinson / Ryan Matthews Dual Auto

2010 Topps Five Star Matt Ryan Quotables Inscription Auto

Its rare these days that I am floored by how a design looks, and after seeing the simple beauty here, I am really impressed. Really fucking impressed. On the Gurley and Mariota single autos, it looks like there is a “de-bossed” area with a very intricate design behind the player. I cant remember that ever being done before. The framed element on the Gurley card adds a premium element that I like a lot.

Also, we are getting a set of inscriptions again, which ARE my favorite cards in existence. I love me some inscriptions, and these look as good as ever. Last year’s Five Star left them behind, and I still feel like the set wasnt the same. Glad they are making a triumphant return one last time. The checklist looks pretty strong as well, with a lot of rookies, vets and HOFers, so I would guess that we are going to see some major wars over tracking those down.

The worst part about this is that I know people are still going to put Treasures ahead of this in terms of value, if not only for the reason I mentioned about one year and done. That is fucking bullshit, because these cards look a million times better. Not only does the design look better, but for the first time, it looks like the rookie patch autos will be bigger than treasures. I know how that inexplicably impacts value, despite the relics being event worn for 2 seconds.

Im bitter and sad that Topps is losing their license. They clearly know how to produce the best looking cards on the market.