When the hobby hit its peak some 20 years ago, card shops were everywhere. It didn't matter whether you lived in a small town or a huge city, trading cards were as easy to find as drugs. But as the easy money disappeared and the masses fled from the hobby realizing that everyone couldn't plan their retirement around a 1991 Upper Deck Baseball
SP1 Michael Jordan (the original Michael Jordan baseball card). Throw in a couple of labor disputes and hobby apathy set in.
Hobby shops have been a dwindling breed, with more and more going under all the time. It's sad in the sense that people lost their businesses and some collectors lost their local community hangouts. Replacing it was the rise of the online dealer - someone with low overhead and a truly global marketplace. Through online shops and auctions, for savvy dealers, it was never easier to move stock. Sure the margins were much smaller and losses needed to be expected at times, but it was an evolution I'd say was necessary for the hobby to survive.
Yes, online dealers led to the demise of some shops. But so did poor customer service, over-priced product, no stock, no initiatives, dealer cherry-picking, smug comments, boy's club mentalities that made some shops intimidating to new collectors and many other problems that plagued the hobby.
For me, the advent of online dealers actually kept me in the hobby. I could finally collect the baseball cards I wanted rather than being strictly baseball because that was all my local shop carried. Not having any other local collectors to trade with, I found a fantastic community to swap with.
Don't get me wrong, I love discovering hobby shops and checking out their display cases and shelves. But when they're uncomfortable to be in due to lack of customer service, piles of random cards cluttering up counter space and unreasonable prices, I'm out of there (money still in my account) within a couple of minutes. Some stores are great. They're the ones I'd go to whenever possible. They're the ones I'd spend my money in, even if it meant paying a reasonable premium over what I could get the same thing for on eBay. However, more often than not, the shops I stumble across are depressing dungeons that I never return to no matter how passionate I am for the hobby.
I haven't been a loyal shopper at a card shop for almost a decade. When I moved in 2002 to a new province, I left behind a shop that I enjoyed going to, spending my money and even befriending one of the owners. The new city I moved to had a shop but it didn't stock enough baseball to make me a regular there. I'd go from time-to-time, when it was convenient, but it never felt like "home." When I moved again a few years later, the closest shop was a couple hours away. Even though it was the best card shop I'd even seen, it was merely a treat to go there when I was in the neighborhood. When I moved back to the west coast this past summer, I found a shop within walking distance from my house. My wife was concerned. Especially when we discovered it was open until 9:00 PM. Even on Sundays. But then I went inside. Cards everywhere, awkward owner, little baseball, Webkins. My wife let out a sigh of relief.
If I want to be honest with myself, my loyalty to "the hobby shop" ended almost nine years ago. I found ways to continue to collect. I supported dealers. They just happened to now live in other countries. They happened to run their "shops" out of their homes. Rather than browsing in showcases, I'd fill online shopping carts. My collecting, along with a huge chunk of the remaining collectors in the hobby, evolved. We adjusted. And so did most of the shop owners that remain today that have been open for more than five years. It was a hobby-wide evolution.
New distribution initiatives being put in motion by Panini and Upper Deck are poised to provide some distinct advantages to hobby shops in an attempt to lure us back in the brick and mortar shops that have become something of an endangered species in many parts. This might be great for the few shops that remain but it's also going to create a huge damper for many collectors who don't have a shop and for many dealers who have moved online.
I'm not going to pretend that I fully understand the ins and outs of how the business side of the hobby works. I get some of it, but I collect as a hobbyist. I like to get cards, build sets, flip through binders, trade. That said, from what I understand about these new distribution methods, Panini and Upper Deck are going to give hobby shops exclusive windows to have new product. When a new set comes out, only dealers with physical stores will get them right off the bat. Online dealers will either have to pass or wait a couple of months. Not only that, but dealers won't be able to advertise below certain rates. Goodbye pre-order boxes at or near cost. So long comparing prices on eBay the week of release.
The idea is that by limiting what's available online collectors will flock to their local card shop and pay blindly for the new product du jour. Awesome! Fantastic! Great! Hooray for hobby shops! Wait a second. My local shop still doesn't have any 2011 Topps Series One Baseball. And I'm not a fan of going there because it kind of creeps me out.
"But, Ryan, it's your local hobby shop. For the good of the hobby, you must suck up the fact that it's an uncomfortable place to be and support it."
"No, internal voice, I don't. I'm a patient guy. I've been working on some sets for more than a decade. I'll wait. Or I'll buy other things from the friendly online dealers that have what I'm looking for."
I do think it's great that Panini and Upper Deck feel that hobby shops are an important part of the hobby. They are -- when they're done right.
But I don't agree with cutting collectors off.
I'm also not a fan of what is essentially price fixing by forcing dealers to advertise a certain price. Here's a piece of advice -- provide a product that carries good value and the price won't plummet two weeks after release. In fact, box prices will actually rise if demand outpaces supply. It's basic economics that even I understand.
What about those who don't have local shops? Online dealers are a necessity in order for them to remain collectors. They shouldn't be denied the latest product simply because of where they live. Yes, hobby shops will have the ability to sell online as well as out of their storefronts but it's still limiting the market.
And what's going to happen to dealers who are exclusively online or mix shows and virtual storefronts to get by? Or those who at one point had a store but shifted to the Internet simply in an effort to stay in business? These dealers support the hobby but now they're being penalized simply because they adapted to the new model that presented itself.
I fully understand the need for the hobby to expand. This isn't the great fix. It needs to start with card companies offering compelling content and value. Collecting needs to be fun. Cards need to be accessible to anyone who wants them, no matter where they live and which stores dot their streets. This new "hobby shop-friendly" distribution focus isn't going to fix the smell I get when I walk into my local store. It's not going to change the fact I don't like going there. It's not going to make me spend more there.
Good hobby shops that offer a friendly, satisfying experience to collectors have found ways to stay open. They've adjusted and adapted just as the hobby has itself. If the ultimate goal of this initiative is to grow the collecting base, perhaps a greater focus needs to be put on celebrating what's great about the hobby and inviting innovation rather than trying to get things back to the good ole' days when scowling shop owners didn't matter because cards were so cool and you could overlook the stink eye. Celebrate and reward the great shops. Create content that's exciting. Make collecting fun and the collectors will come along for the ride.