Random Thoughts on Starting a Sports Card Store

It's a really bad idea to open a sports card store. No really, it is. The idea of running a store like that might be appealing to the mind. You get to hang out all day talking sports, be your own boss, make your own decisions, and become a small business owner. The American Dream. I'd generously say that 95% of people who start a sports card store will fail. Will end up losing money. I owned a store from 2006-2008. I worry that the stress of running a losing business at that time took years off my life. I wrote about some of my failures in this February 2013 article

There are people who can probably make a sports card store work as a small business. For those brave souls out there willing to give it a try, here are some thoughts and things to consider.


Diversify Your Income
Easier said than done. Especially when spending full time running a store. Trust me, you need to find multiple ways to get a check. You have to diversify the items you carry in your store. Here are some quotes from current card store owners I've visited during 2013.
  • Iowa Store Owner: "Magic The Gathering keeps the doors open, but I love talking sports."
  • Illinois Store Owner: "Yu-Gi-Oh keeps the doors open."
  • Arizona Store Owner: "You can't make money selling these new (sports card) boxes. It's not a business, it's a hobby."
  • California Store Owner: "The margin is so slim with sports cards that you have to do other things like eBay, Magic The Gathering, Comics, lot's of things."
  • Montana Store Owner: "We do most of our business in coins, it's what we are known for, but the cards are fun and brings in a different crowd."
Magic the Gathering

It would be very wise of you to become familiar with Magic the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon and other forms of gaming cards before starting your store. Do at least a month of research and understand what makes these cards popular. You can get these products from the same people you buy your sports cards from, so it's not like you have to set up a bunch of different accounts with distributors. The gaming cards could become over 50% of your total business, so it would be wise to really understand the market for those type of cards.

The ideal situation is have some other "source" of income and not just diversify the products you sell in your store. Like have a website you make money on. Marry someone who makes a ton of money. Organize your own sports card shows and charge dealers to set up tables. Run Magic The Gathering Tournaments. Be a winning black jack or poker player. Do group breaks online. You get the idea.

I'd actually advise finding a different source of income in some other niche or field. Have a source of income completely unrelated to sports cards and your store. Think about the other things in your life that you are passionate and knowledgeable about. There might be a way to turn that into a small (or big) check per month.

 
Location, Location, Location
You could get the best retail location in New York City and go broke running a sports card store. You'd spend too much money. Counter that with opening a store in a small town for $300 a month in rent. You might be able to make that work, but you'll never be popping champagne. It's a delicate balance. Paying top dollar for a prime location can break your bank quick. There are reasons why people don't start sports card stores. You typically go broke doing it. You can speed up that process having a few slow months and have $2,500 a month in overhead..... before you buy any inventory.
Big City Blues 
I don't really know how or where to pick a location for a sports card store. I failed. I was in for about $1,150 a month for rent and utilities. Not a huge number, but I also had to live somewhere, eat, pay many other bills, so you can see where it adds up quick. If I had to do it over again I would test out my business at a local flea market or event where I could sell my stuff for a cheap table fee. Get some inventory and give it a test drive for at least a month or more. Get a feel for the area and think long and hard if I could make it work.

Sign a short term lease. Like maximum 1 year. Don't let the landlord sucker you into more years. Retail space is plentiful in so many areas across the U.S. That market has tanked hard. People are begging people to rent retail space in most locations. You have leverage being the business owner in this kind of retail property environment, so don't be afraid to bargain on price either.

Go CHEAP Young Man
Your bills are going to pile up fast. Rent, insurance, utilities, internet access in your store, lunch money everyday, inventory, display cabinets, taxes, on and on. It's not a good idea to open a sports card store, so if you are going to gamble, don't risk too much money.

Go Cheap on Your Initial Inventory
Be careful with the inventory you buy to initially stock your brand new store. You really need to get a feel for what people in your local area will buy. You may love Panini Flawless, Topps Triple Threads and big hit products. But your customers may like cheap Topps sets like Series 1, Archives and Allen & Ginter. Do you have a Magic the Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh crowd? Can you sell board games? Can you sell fan items like keychains, bumper stickers, patches, etc? Save some ammo for your first re-order. I guarantee you will regret buying something from your initial spree to fill your store.

Don't Blow Money On Traditional Advertising
There will be many suckers who come into your store to try and sell you on advertising. They range from radio, niche magazines, newspapers, Yellow Pages, sports teams, etc. Don't waste your time with these people. You'll add another $50-100 a month to your bills even going cheap with the ads. Just hustle and you'll get people to come into your store for little to no money.
No Ads
Buy some cheap paper and print up your own flyers. Talk to people, network, make friends. Most of your business will come from your own local city unless you open up shop in a tourist area. You can get involved in the community without spending money. I'd rather coach a little league team than put my business name on the jersey. I'd rather schmooze up the local newspaper writer and have him write a story about me for free. You can get into the Yellow Pages for free. Nobody listens to the radio, and the shows that are successful on radio you don't have the kind of money to buy ads on. I'd rather create my own podcast/radio show before buying a paid spot on a local station. You can create your own podcast for as low as $5 a month. Believe me, you can get people to listen to your shows with little to no effort.

Use the Internet
When I had my store, the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was build an eCommerce site or post on MySpace (stop laughing this was in 2006).  Some businesses use free platforms like Facebook as their solution to reaching customers on the web. Services like WordPress and Blogger make it very simple and easy to create a passable web presence today. I sold a lot on eBay during the years I had my store, several thousand dollars worth of stuff per month. I probably would have created my own web store, but the eCommerce solutions at that time were weak and are now outdated.  Today you can find many powerful and easy to use eCommerce solutions to create your own web store without too much technical skills.

If you have a store, there are several things you can do to help your web presence for little to no money.

RULE 1:
Don't pay anyone to design your FIRST website.  I am being serious. If you know a friend who can help you for free, go for it. Email me and I will give you free advice. Most people who design websites outsource the work to non-U.S. countries. If something goes wrong or you get hacked you'll have no idea what to do. These website guys will also try to lock you into a bad hosting plan as well. Take the time and learn how to do it yourself. Once you've done it and feel comfortable, you can then pay for additional sites or work done on your existing site. Learn how to set up a simple website. That can end up being very valuable for you even if you flunk at your sports card store. 
Random Picture
   
Wordpress, Blogger, Joomla or something else?
If you want to post simple daily or weekly content, go with WordPress. It's super easy. Try not to run too many plugins and the ones you do use keep them up to date. If you want just a landing or splash page, where you will post your store information and not much else, you can get away with using Blogger. Using Blogger you'll even be able to re-direct a .com domain to a Google server without paying a hosting bill (saving you at least $5-10 a month).

I wouldn't advise going with Joomla, although it is my favorite platform to use. It's a little more complex and difficult to get started. Sports Card Radio is set up on Joomla. You can customize your web pages in more creative ways on Joomla, but if you just want a simple turn key option go with WordPress or Blogger. I think it's much easier to make your website look "nice" on WP or Blogger, which is important because your site will be a first impression for customers who initially find you online.

There are a lot of help forums and free information about how to set up websites. If you are ambitious enough to start your own store you can set up your own website without any help or prior skills. Search Google or WordPress help forums if you get stuck or frustrated. It's not as hard as it looks, you just have to be patient and open up your mind to learning something new.
Get your customers' email address.
Just trust me. Find a way to do it even if it costs you money. This should be obvious how important this is. Companies like Groupon exist because of email marketing. Think about what you can do by having your customers email address. Build a database and value that thing like gold.
Money Sign 

You need to go through an online mail service program or your emails will probably be flagged for spam. Browse around and find the one for you, Mail Chimp, Constant Contact, there are other options as well for around $15-30 a month until you build up a huge database of email addresses.

Today, I would have an iPad in my shop, prominently displayed in the store where customers could enter their email address for my store's mailing list. I'm dumb that I didn't do that in 2006, as email marketing has existed since the start of the internet.

  
What's Up With Twitter?
If you have a store you should have a Twitter account but don't let it suck your time away. You won't get a huge amount of business off Twitter unless a bunch of people in your local area use it, or you have an online store you can promote. If Twitter was around when I had my store I would probably post pictures of nice cards that got pulled from the shop. It can also be a source of information at times, but again, don't waste too much time building a following.
Twitter

If you notice a lot of your customers using Twitter you might be able to create a Twitter coupon or promotion, but don't look at Twitter as a revenue maker for you.

What's Up With Zuckerberg's Facebook?
I don't spend a lot of time on Facebook, but I could see it being more successful for driving business than Twitter. For one, you aren't limited to 140 characters and more of your customers will be using Facebook. If I had a store today I would try and post at least a couple things a week about my shop on Facebook and attempt to build a following.

Social Media Tends to be a Fad
Don't spend too much time wasting hours on Facebook and Twitter. Honestly, you should spend more time building out your own website or email list if you enjoy using those social media platforms. Facebook and Twitter could die off just as MySpace and AOL instant messenger did. Be quick to adapt if a new trend arises. Look at other outlets like Instagram (owned by Facebook) and Pinterest (more for female niches) to see if you can use those to your advantage. I can't stress this enough, don't waste too much time with social media unless you intend to start an eCommerce store.  You can still build a decent following on social media sites without spending too much time on them. You can leverage your email list and websites to gain likes and followers.

Side Note
SITES LIKE TWITTER & FACEBOOK HAVE MULTI BILLION DOLLAR VALUATIONS. BOTH COMPANIES COULD AGGRESSIVELY TURN ON THE ADS AT ANY TIME AND MAKE SIGNIFICANT REVENUE. IT SHOULD SPEAK VOLUMES THAT THOSE SITES ARE WORTH BILLIONS. YOU CAN SET UP YOUR OWN SITE AND PROBABLY MAKE SEVERAL THOUSAND A MONTH WITH LITTLE EFFORT ONCE YOU KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING.


Use Card Shop Finder
Card Shop Finder will put information about your shop for free on their website. I have the Card Shop Finder app on my phone and I use it all the time when traveling. I never would have found the shops in Iowa, Montana, Illinois, Nebraska, Arizona and California without the app and website. I use the app, go to the store, and start spending money. It's foolish if you are a card store and you don't get listed on Card Shop Finder. Did I add that it's all for free? This is what I am talking about "hustling". There are ways to promote yourself for free and get real results.
Card Shop Finder
  
Low Ball Everyone Who Tries To Sell You Something
Some days you will get more people who come into your store trying to sell you 1990's cards then you will customers. If you see something you might want to buy (WHICH IS ALMOST NEVER THE CASE), don't pay anywhere close to what it's worth. Most of these people coming into your store need quick cash and will take anything they can get. Literally try and insult them with a low ball offer. If they don't want to sell to you at your price, let them walk out the door..... they'll probably be back later ready to take the deal.
1990 Topps Frank Thomas RC 

Don't Expect Any Help
There aren't going to be a whole lot of people who will help you on your journey. Don't expect a phone call from Panini, Topps or Upper Deck. Why those companies don't reach out to the businesses who are selling their product more, I have no idea. Those companies usually try and sucker you into a situation where you have to buy a certain amount of product to get love from them. Buying direct from the manufacture is a good example. So is Panini's Hobby Roundtable. Why don't they have an employee who cold calls card stores everyday regardless how many orders they've placed?

The honest truth that you will come to find out is that Panini, Topps and Upper Deck's real customer is the wholesale distributor. Those are the guys who get comped trips to the NFL Rookie Premiere, VIP Party's, free autograph stuff and more. Panini, Topps and Upper Deck all have the same business model. Sell through the product to the distributor. They don't care how your sales are going.

Topps has many younger employees who probably have no clue how difficult it would be to run a sports card store. Panini has made efforts to help certain hobby stores, but they are also guilty of fluffing distributors like no other. Upper Deck is a real small company now and will probably be sold, pieced off, or go broke in the next few years. Those things take time to unravel.

If you have questions about starting a sports card store you can email me, I am willing to help you for free: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


 

It's Ok to Fail
I actually did do a lot of the tips I suggested when I had my store. A very small percentage of my sales were from sports cards. I had some other small sources of income not related to the store.  I went cheap on a lot of inventory but also blew off a lot of money too.

If you fail at running your own sports card store, don't be afraid to call it quits and throw in the towel. Perhaps you are just not cut out for that type of business, but still want to be your own boss. Figure out why you didn't succeed at running your store. Where could you have saved money or spent more time on? Is there another area of the sports card industry that you could be successful at in some way?

Dust yourself off and come up with another idea. Always remember to diversify your income no matter what type of business you run. Don't ever put all your chips in one basket.

 
 

Ryan T. @SportsCardNews

  
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