By Kevin Glew
If the economy hands you a lemon, hopefully it’s a Bob Lemon rookie card. At least that could be the mantra for Scott Polsen. Formerly employed by BC Sports Collectibles, a card chain that filed for bankruptcy in September 2008, the veteran hobbyist, along with two colleagues, Ken Condiff and Brad Humphreys, opened AB Sports in Wilmington, Del., in September 2009.
“We all trusted each other. We knew the card business and that we would all do a good job. We just said, ‘You know what? Let’s try and open our own store,’” he said.
Laid off from his job in supermarket management, Steve Laferriere also recently launched Card Collector’s Paradise in Cumberland, R.I. He decided to open his shop after his online business took off.
“It got to the point where I either had to put an addition on my house or rent a place. And I decided to rent a storefront,” he said.
Laferriere opened his store in July 2008 and moved to a larger location in June 2009.
“I’ve always been business-minded, so I really wasn’t questioned too much about my decision to open,” he explained. “Most people that knew me, knew I had an online foundation to begin with. I wasn’t jumping into a huge overhead, as far as the lease and utility bill.”
Upper Deck sports marketing manager, Chris Carlin, says that more than 1,500 sports card shops still exist in Canada and the U.S. and, despite the recession, there are new stores opening.
“The most successful shops I have seen have done a few things really well. First, they have really focused on the community aspect of the store by making it a fun place to be. By having different reasons to visit like trade nights, pack wars, new-release nights, Upper Deck Tailgate Parties, etc., they can give collectors a compelling reason to visit,” noted Carlin. “Next, they have embraced technology by creating a website for their store, or at least a Facebook/Twitter page for it, where they can engage new and existing consumers. Shop owners have definitely become more computer savvy over the last five years in particular. Lastly, just having a good reputation for being fair and honest has helped them survive.”
Polsen is attempting to incorporate all of the above into his new venture. His shop hosted signings with Philadelphia Eagles DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy last fall and has created a Kids Club.
“The Kids Club is a once-a-month event and it’s free. We give away packs of cards. We play pack wars and trivia games. We give away game-used cards and autographs,” explained Polsen. “It’s just a fun, free event to get kids into collecting cards.”
Laferriere has also hosted signings and aggressively markets his store online. He has even created a virtual tour of his shop that can be viewed on YouTube.
“That YouTube video has been priceless as far as an advertising tool. From online business to local customers, it’s brought me hundreds and hundreds of customers,” he said.
Having the right product mix is also paramount.
“We do a lot with team novelties. We have key chains, toothbrushes, blankets, car decals, license plate frames, McFarlane toys – all that little stuff that is either a great middle-of-the-road gift or is a great add-on gift,“ said Polsen.
That said, Polsen still believes that customer service is the key to prosperity.
“With the Internet as competition, you have to step up and separate yourself from everybody else,” he said.
Dick Autry, who owns two card shops in Indiana, including High Five Sportscards Inc., in Fishers, which he opened in November 2008, agrees.
“You’ve got to maintain a customer base that’s still working,” advised Autry, whose other store, Baseball Card Exchange Inc., has been in business since 1992.
But with so many people out of work, how have sales been at the new shops?
“Business is great. It’s right around where we expected. Maybe even a little better,” said Polsen.
Laferriere has enjoyed a similar experience.
“When you consider everything, I’m pleased with my sales,” he said.
Unfortunately, sales at Autry’s new store have been disappointing. He opened the shop at the same location as a previous card shop that had closed several months earlier.
“I’m not so sure a lot of the customer base didn’t find somewhere else to go in the meantime,” he said. “If I had a crystal ball and had seen what 2009 was going to look like, I might have waited to open another store.”
However, Autry, and the other storeowners, remain hopeful that 2010 will bring stronger sales.
“I think the economy is starting to get a little better, but I don’t think we’ve recovered yet,” said Polsen.
Laferriere’s optimism is also tepid.
“I think it’s going to be a slow progression, but I definitely think we’ve seen the worst,” he said.