Signs of life are beginning to return to the trading card field, some retailers report.
Buyers are reporting renewed shopper interest in sports and entertainment cards, despite plummeting sales at supermarkets over the last three years, higher cost of cards and fear of theft.
The release earlier this year of a limited-card series that featured Mickey Mantle baseball cards spurred an upward tick in baseball card sales.
Despite the sagging baseball trading card market that developed in 1994 following the labor dispute between the players' union and team owners, demand for trading cards generally priced between 99 cents to $1.20 has been good, say nonfood buyers.
"Last year was terrible for baseball cards, but this year it is better," said Lisa O'Brien, trading card buyer at Associated Wholesalers Inc., Robesonia, Pa.
"There's a lot more [choices] than baseball cards. Other cards are picking up and doing a little better," said Deborah Romero, trading card buyer at Hughes Family Markets, Irwindale, Calif.
In 1993, dollar volume of sports and novelty cards hit a high of $45.1 million at supermarkets, according to Scantrack information from Schaumburg, Ill.-based ACNielsen for the 52 weeks ending March 13, 1993. Since then, sales dropped double-digits to a low of $17.9 million for the 52 weeks ending March 9, 1996. This was a 38.6% plunge over the previous year.
O'Brien expects the improvement in trading card sales to be gradual. In the last two years, football card volume has grown at AWI, she said.
Limited-edition baseball cards have shown strong sales, said O'Brien. A Topps limited-edition baseball card series with several Mickey Mantle cards allocated to retailers this spring, "came in and just blew out of stores at $1.29, even before the baseball season started," she said.
These earlier Topps cards "really stirred up the baseball card business," O'Brien added, pointing out that some consumers will purchase Topps full 600-card baseball set containing 10 to 20 Mickey Mantle cards for $50. Trading card margins are running 30% at supermarkets and 40% at convenience stores, she said.
Even though trading card costs have increased 10%, it hasn't hurt AWI's sales of basic selections, priced from 99 cents to $2.49. The wholesaler shies away from higher-priced state-of-the-art cards with special die cuts, embossing and holographic and interactive features that retail around $5.
"Cards like this are too high-priced for the average supermarket shopper. Trading card manufacturers also allocate these more expensive versions to hobby shops because they know that's where many collectors go," said O'Brien.
The major challenge in trading cards is simply knowing what cards to merchandise. "When Topps came out with its baseball series nobody knew it would be as hot as it was. When you see one taking off you've got to jump on it," she said.
Hughes Family Markets boosted its trading card volume this year when it broadened card variety and moved the cards to better shelf placement at the express checkout.
The retailer is experiencing fairly good movement from entertainment cards themed around popular children's movies, racing cars, football, basketball and hockey. "There are many cards besides baseball that do well," said Romero.
Despite the major impact the baseball strike had in slowing sales over the past two years, Romero said trading card business has started to come back.
Among the better movers in the category are die cut, embossed and hologram sports cards and NASCAR and racing circuit cards. " 'Pocahontas' and 'Toy Story' also are popular with kids and have done very well.
Hughes merchandises an everyday racked trade card set from the top two shelves of a three-foot-wide fixture by the check lane. "We previously had a shipper or master case of trading cards at each store that wasn't uniform," said Romero. Trading cards carry a 30% profit, she said.
The uniform checkstand set provides better security and exposure for trading cards. Most sales fall around $1.99, with the highest price point topping out at $3.99. Like AWI, Hughes also avoids higher-priced trading cards, pegging the assortment to supermarket customers who are most often kids rather than the serious collectors, Romero said.
Baseball and football are the most popular sports cards at Homeland Stores, Oklahoma City. Price points are $1 to $2.
"Trading cards aren't near as hot as they once were due to higher price points over the past five years," said Steve Mason, Homeland's vice president of marketing.
While trading cards were "a trendy fad, there's still that loyal group of baseball card collectors. But the baseball strike hurt baseball cards big time, and that's what killed the card business," Mason said.
Homeland carries primarily Topps and Upper Deck in-and-out promotional card shipper packs at 40% profit. These packs are geared to the different sports seasons.
Seaway Food town, Maumee, Ohio, has been out of the trading card business for a while due to a corporate decision. "But that isn't to say we may not change back," said Bill West, Seaway's director of nonfood.
The chain's decision in opting out of trading cards was based on security. "Our trading card sales were fairly good but they became a problem and were too risky to carry. Because of their small size they can be disposed of quickly and they attracted people that are a security risk, said West.
Carr Gottstein, Anchorage, Alaska, phased out trading cards a year ago after it became apparent "people were stealing more than they were paying for," said Gary Schloss, Carr's vice president of general merchandise.