Random Thoughts About Topps

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1. You Down With MDP?
Talking to Topps employees you often hear the phrase “internal red tape”. It speaks to the tight budget control the private equity ownership deploys at Topps. Madison Dearborn Partners and other private equity firms attempt to squeeze profits out of a business and then sell it later on. That’s not malicious, or a bad business strategy. It’s what they do.

Think sports card message boards are full of angry old men? Visit a Yahoo Finance forum and it will make card collectors look like Kum-Ba-Yah nation. Business is a cut throat thing. Employees are merely “head count”. When a Dearborn big wig is ripping a drive on the famous Pebble Beach golf course, the last thing on his mind are the cards you got out of your box of 2013 Five Star Baseball.

2. Helpless Employees
Topps isn’t a place to go work if you want to take creative control of a product line. Some employees have mentioned a “good old boys club” exists at the New York company.  It appears even the ones with some decision making power, well, that power is limited. Working at Topps is far from a dream job. Most rarely rub elbows with famous stars. Topps doesn’t have a huge inventory to dip into to cure backlogged redemptions. Employees can’t spend money at will to get cards printed and signed by the players collectors are waiting on. When you speak to Topps employees, the conversation isn’t about how they are working on making the best set of cards. The conversation is usually about how their hands are tied.

3. Made To Order Products
Topps says that their products are made to order.  Maybe the hobby products. Just those right? Target and WalMart don’t pre-order Allen & Ginter retail six months out. Get out of here with that. “Made to order” means Topps only makes what the wholesale distributors purchase way in advance. That is why you see previews of Topps sets that don’t come out for months. Topps will claim their made to order philosophy also impacts redemption cards. If they don’t know how many boxes they will make until orders come in, Topps says this delays the acquisition of autographs.

It also speaks to a larger issue. You, the collector, are not Topps’ customer. The wholesale distributor is who Topps cares about most. Topps sells the product to the distributor, then they move onto the next product in the cycle. Your redemption cards or customer service issues are a secondary concern.

4. The Brand has Value
One thing Topps has going for it over it’s competitors is brand equity. Topps has sets that collectors are familiar with. Finest, Topps Chrome, Allen & Ginter, Bowman, Triple Threads, Flagship brands. By contrast, competitor Panini, has much weaker brands. Many of Panini’s best brands were bought from the failing Donruss company.  I often try to engage casual or non-collectors into conversations about cards. Most are familiar with some of the brands in the Topps stable even if they don’t collect anymore. Some still remember the good old days of Upper Deck. Familiarity with Panini America brands? Yeah right.

The MLB typically likes to deal with American companies. Topps and the MLB have had a long history. Don’t look for anyone besides Topps to make licensed baseball cards anytime soon, even after their current deal runs out.

5. Why I Bash On Topps
Some of their products are nice and I enjoy buying single cards throughout the year. Most of the good ones I buy are Topps. Panini cards don’t look as nice. A card with a sticker autograph? C’Mon. I don’t have any kind of emotional attachment to Topps. I was a lucky one, when I was in 7th grade I got hired to work at a card shop. I quickly became more interested in the business of cards, and not the cards themselves. Over the years I’ve sold cases of Topps products on eBay, opened (and closed) my own sports card store, and currently promote Topps products on various card websites.

Topps as a company is in a tough spot. It’s almost like rooting for a sports team that has bad ownership. You don’t really know what to do. Many people rely on Topps products to earn a living. I know what it is like to struggle running a sports card business. The margin is slim, the help is none, and the hours can be long. Failing at my sports card store during 2006-2008 was one of the worst times of my life. I worry some are in the same spot I was in. That is probably one reason why, at times, I speak out in a negative way about Topps.

In combination with my brother Colin, we help sell current Topps products in a way. The sports card websites we work on have gotten several million views over the years. Over a half million people will visit Sports Card Radio during the year, in most part to find out information on sets. It was all by accident. After we went broke running a card store in 2008, Colin started a sports card podcast on a whim. Collectors started to email my brother about his show. They were so positive and urged him to keep going.

You can make decent money if you have a website getting thousands of visitors each day. Probably a little more than you think, even a site about baseball cards. I can pay my bills. I couldn’t do that running a card store. If those collectors in the early days didn’t email my brother and encourage him to keep working on the shows and the site, I’d probably be hiring nurses for a living.

In late 2012 we started to get several emails a week about customer service issues at Topps. Many collectors were having problems with old redemptions they were waiting on.

Colin and I can be overtly negative toward Topps. What? Are we going to continue promoting Topps sets without saying anything? C’Mon. It doesn’t sit well with us to make money on the backs of collectors, then turn our backs when they are having issues. If it wasn’t for card collectors I’d be getting up at 7 a.m. to go work somewhere tomorrow. If they are having problems with Topps, then I am willing to complain and be a class A jerk. That’s something I don’t see changing.

6. What Can You Do?
Do you stop buying their products? I don’t think you have to go that far. Some of their problems may not impact you and your collecting style. If you are waiting on a Topps redemption card that is over 15 weeks old, I would highly suggest opening a case with the Better Business Bureau.

Keep in mind that Topps is in the business to make money. That is their utmost concern. They have been able to limit licensing in key sports to unlock a margin to operate. Current management at Topps have no concern about your collection or if you get value from buying a box.

Collectors come at this hobby from so many different angles. Some like single cards, some like new stuff, some like old stuff, some buy packs, some buy boxes, some do group breaks, some don’t buy online. It’s easy to feel burned when buying cards. They can be expensive and the values can drop off the table quick.  Hopefully you can find niches within the hobby that peak your interest. I don’t have a magic wand to wave. If you’ve been collecting cards for a long time, there is probably something still in it for you to explore.

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