Supermarket retailers are hoping the end of the major league baseball strike will spark a rally for trading cards. Though some executives polled by SN don't foresee any significant changes in the slumping trading card business, others said the end of the strike could mean high scores for the category.
"It should help lift card sales," said Vic Anthony, nonfood buyer at Abco Foods, Phoenix.
Abco's baseball card sales have gradually picked up since the strike ended, according to Anthony. They are currently running 10% to 12% ahead of last year, he said. Abco may promote baseball cards during the All-Star Game in July with freestanding cardboard shippers.
At the height of the strike, trading card collectors and traders shifted from baseball to football and basketball cards. But in late winter, when it seemed the baseball season would get under way, demand for baseball cards began building, according to several retailers polled by SN.
"Sports trading cards have been off for a couple of years, but the end of the baseball strike is definitely renewing interest," said Lisa O'Brien, trading card buyer at Associated Wholesalers, York, Pa. Since February, Associated Wholesalers' trading card sales have been increasing. The wholesaler is booking the same amount of cards as it did when the category was in its prime, according to O'Brien. At Hughes Family Markets, Irwindale, Calif., baseball trading card sales picked up after floorstand shippers of cards were introduced in February. "I'm hoping the end of the strike will rekindle interest in sports cards," said Deborah Romero, trading card buyer at the 53-unit chain. "We'd pretty much gotten out of sports trading cards, but a few months ago we started to dabble in them again." While Hughes has started to restock its baseball trading card bins and racks, it's holding back on significantly building up the mix until it sees how the game is received, Romero said. Another concern about the category is pilferage, which is high in the supermarket environment, Romero added.
Hughes carries sports trading cards at 35 of its stores, which merchandise them near the front of the store by magazines. Trading card margins run in the 30% to 40% range, she said. If the baseball card business does well, Hughes may expand its card mix to include football, basketball and other sports.
"It will depend on the response we get during the baseball season," said Romero.
Though Romero predicts that sports cards will become popular again, she doesn't think they'll be as hot as they were a few years ago, when new series sold out as soon as they arrived at stores. Hughes is limiting its sports cards mix to retails under $9.99. It will avoid carrying full-box sets that sold for up to $99 when the category was at its peak a few years ago.
Associated Grocers, Seattle, carried light amounts of baseball cards when the players were on strike. But once teams were back on the field, Karen Razwick, trading card buyer, began placing larger orders so that card bins at retailers would be up to full measure.
Still, the number of trading cards being ordered will be about half the amount carried two years ago. During the strike, Associated had football, basketball and hockey cards, but in smaller amounts, said Razwick. "When baseball and hockey fell off, it certainly seemed to affect all sports. The whole trading card industry shut down for a while. In fact, all sports trading cards just fell off. Even basketball cards weren't moving well during that period," she added. Razwick said a strike-free baseball season will be instrumental in rebuilding the ranks of trading card collectors, and help draw shoppers at supermarkets searching for trading cards. "If they would play the game, stay off strike, quit worrying about the money and let the rest of the nation enjoy the game for what it is, the trading card business will follow," the buyer said.
At the same time, prices of cards need to remain affordable, Razwick said. At present, trading cards may no longer be a children's hobby, mostly because of their $2 to $3 price points. "It's more of an adult hobby. Kids can't take their allowance and go out and buy sports cards every week. While the cards are bigger, better and more beautiful, they are very costly," said Razwick.
She said manufacturers should provide lower price points to keep the cards affordable for eight- to 14-year-olds.
"This is the age when kids first get into sports cards as a hobby. If manufacturers want to keep the sports card industry going, they need to have lower retails," she said.
Roger Wilcox, trading card buyer at Raley's, West Sacramento, Calif., said just because baseball is back in full swing doesn't mean that the trading card business will follow suit.
The 64-unit chain presently carries sports trading cards in 2- to 4-foot sections at the front end in only six San Francisco Bay area units. Though Raley's dropped baseball cards on the corporate level about a year ago, individual stores are free to carry them, as well as basketball cards. It doesn't expect to grow the segment, however, until it sees what kind of support baseball gets this season.
Wilcox isn't convinced that the late start-up will necessarily spark a bigger interest in trading cards at stores, which now limit their selections to smaller 10- to 12-card packs at under $2 retails, he said. "I'm not ready at all to rush out there and start bringing baseball cards back in a big way now," he said.
However, he said, if demand picks up, the chain will expand the category.
Some chains, like Hanna-
ford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, don't expect ever to get back into the card business. "We've been out of them for a while," said a Hannaford Bros. nonfood buying staffer, who requested anonymity.
Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C., also has opted out of sports trading cards. The chain contacted its trading card vendor last October about the time the baseball players' strike went into full swing. "We got completely out of sports trading cards as soon as the strike hit, when we had our supplier pick every card up," said Tony Federico, vice president of general merchandise. Ingles has no current plans to re-enter the trading card field.
Federico stressed, though, that card suppliers and manufacturers are not to blame.
"We're not mad at the card suppliers, we're just mad at baseball," he said. Vic Anthony of Abco Foods predicts that interest in baseball cards will increase with time. But he said location of a supermarket also helps drive business. He said Abco is in a good position to capitalize on the business.
"The major teams have spring training here, which is a big help in selling rookie cards," he said.
Abco also carries basketball, hockey and other sports collector cards. It offers five- and 10-card packs priced under $3 from locked glass display cabinets.