When good cards go bad

By Dan Campana

A Duke Snider autographed relic card numbered to just 10 copies – surely a nice hit most collectors would be happy to pull from a high-end product.

Then you see two tear marks near Snider’s name.

Noticing the damage to this 2009 Topps Sterling card set off what turned into a frustrating chase for a replacement card – a situation prolonged when another damaged card was sent to satisfy the original problem.

This scenario played out for a customer at More Fun Sportscards in Dyer, Indiana, during a time when Topps touted the ease of its missing hit and damaged card replacement program.

“It doesn’t seem like they care,” Darren Bala, an employee at More Fun, said recently.

Bala’s frustration comes from what he calls repeated troubling experiences with substandard cards from higher-end sets. In particular, he’s still upset over a damaged 2009 Topps Tribute Tony Gwynn dual patch card that he says was replaced by a card with similar problems, just with a different serial number.

“I couldn’t even tell you the last time I had someone tell me they tried to send something back to Topps,” Bala offered. “If (the Snider) had been mine, I probably wouldn’t have sent it in.”

Bala’s experiences, along with other stories of damaged card woes, indicate unhappiness exists among collectors tired of feeling they’re getting the run around.

Manufacturers have clearly stated guidelines available on their respective Web sites. The process ranges from Press Pass requesting just the card and a letter of explanation to Topps asking, but not always requiring, different types of proofs of purchase to accompany a damaged card.

As with any retail operation, complaints and criticism are easy to find when it comes to customer service within the hobby world. None of the four manufacturers contacted – Panini, Press Pass, Topps and Upper Deck – provided statistics as to the number of damaged card reports received in 2009.

Collectors are quick to offer prolific stories of long waits and apple-to-oranges compensation that paint a picture of a system not set up to benefit collectors. At the same time, company representatives defend their best practices and downplay how widespread of troublesome the replacement process really can be.

Don Hoover, a collector from Pennsylvania, spent more than a month looking for a solution to a damaged box of 2009/10 The Cup.

“The corners were all bent on the upper right side. To make things worse, the Mark Messier Stanley Cup signature is completely scratched and there (are) parts of the card where the foil background is completely rubbed off,” Hoover wrote to Upper Deck in October.

Upper Deck requires collectors begin the process by emailing their quality assurance staff to open a “case,” which then generates return instructions. That first step takes up to six business days to be completed, and matches how long it took before Hoover received an email from a customer service representative.

In the response, Upper Deck asked for scans and Hoover’s address. The next day, Hoover got another messaged which indicated “some complimentary” product would be sent to him to compensate. While no timeline for his replacement items was given, Hoover was also told the quality assurance department would decide what to send him. A month later, he received only a Marty Turco quad patch to account for his damage pack.

“If this situation was handled correctly and in a timely manner, I would have bought several more packs of The Cup by now,” Hoover wrote in November.

Upper Deck declined comment for this story, according to a spokesman.

Bala praised his replacement experience with Upper Deck after he pulled a damaged Exquisite Lance Briggs card. Unable to give him an exact replacement for the Briggs, Upper Deck reached out to Bala.

“They actually took the time to call and see what would work for me,” Bala said, adding he received a nice Matt Forte UD Black card in place of the Briggs.

Admitting he has less faith in Topps, Bala – in the interest of good customer service – did try to exchange the damaged Snider for the collector who pulled it at More Fun.

Although easy was the theme of Topps’ recent video on the replacement process, it isn’t what Bala or More Fun’s customer experienced. Six different phone calls to Topps customer service led to unreturned voice mails and dead ends after getting transferred around. Finally, Bala resorted to a Facebook post on Topps’ page in hopes of getting a response.

A week into the process, a Topps representative contacted More Fun, according to Bala. The Snider was sent directly to the same Topps employee. On Oct. 19, three days short of a month after the first call, a replacement Reggie Jackson arrived – damaged, with a split running down the card’s right side. Bala’s customer didn’t want it.

Mark Sapir, Topps marketing vice president, didn’t know specifics of the Snider card, but found it a disappointing scenario.

“I can’t defend that. I take responsibility for that,” Sapir said in an interview. “Clearly it’s not acceptable.”
In a hobby defined heavily these days by card grading, Sapir indicates there is “debate” over what is considered damaged.

“Nothing is ever perfectly clean, nothing is guaranteed mint,” he said, speaking generally about card condition.
Topps has a multi-layer approach to quality control, Sapir explained, that stretches from the time vendors are selected through the collation and pack-out.

“In total, we put out quality product and have many processes in place to assure it,” Sapir added.

In what Sapir calls “isolated” instances when something isn’t up to par, he says the company is available to collectors in many ways – by phone, email, social media – to discuss the problem.

Topps wants collectors to send wrappers, box UPCs and purchase receipts – which are sometimes difficult to obtain if a pack or box was bought at a show – along with a damaged card, although the company appears to honor swaps where not all items are available.

“Our job is to make people happy, we don’t hide,” Sapir said. “We’re going to make good on it.”
As with Press Pass, Panini offers simple direction for getting a replacement.

Panini has you fill out an online request form to generate a packing slip for factory damaged cards. Although its customer support Web site indicates the replacement wait can take up to three months, Hobby Marketing Manager Tracy Hackler estimates it at more like four to six week, with sequentially numbered cards taking longer. If the exact replacement can’t be made, Panini will send a “comparable card of equal value,” according to the Web site.
Hackler said the approach to replacements “is more a company philosophy, trying to make the customer happy.
“Ultimately, we want the consumer to be satisfied,” he added.

Panini’s current process has been in place since 2006, using a vast library of cards on hand for situations when a replacement might be needed. An experience production team and quality assurance group have helped minimize problems that can occur in what Hackler acknowledges is a “human process.”

In general, Panini takes a “case-by-case” look at how best to fix the problem, even when scarce, low-numbered cards are involved.

“We just try to make it right,” Hackler explained.

Collector Steven Schaffer attests to that. Disappointed to pull a damaged 2010 Donruss Classics Tim Tebow autograph numbered to 25, he contacted Panini to find out they couldn’t match the low number in a replacement.

Instead, within two weeks of his call, he received a “perfect” Tebow autographed card numbered to 249, as well as Colt McCoy and Sean Lee autos, each numbered to 499. SCM

Dan Campana is a freelance writer and media consultant in the Chicago suburbs. He can be reached at dan.campana@hotmail.com

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