Time Sensitive Releases and the Future of Collecting

There’s a new trend in card manufacturing, and quite frankly it scares me a little bit.

This season, Topps introduced a new product called Topps Now.  This would not be a retail or hobby release, but instead an online exclusive with a very limited window.  Each day, Topps would take events or milestones from the previous day’s games and make a card out of it that would be available for 24 hours.

The concept is essentially a physical manifestation of their daily card trading phone apps, like Bunt, except without a “free-to-play/collect” option.  The cards would cost $10 each shipped (or less per card for small lot of the same card).

Now, I completely understand why Topps (and now Panini, but I’m focusing on Topps since I’m mostly a baseball collector) would want to pursue this avenue.  There are several benefits, with little downside:

Cut out the middle man – It starts to open up the direct to consumer market space that card companies should be taking advantage of without fully harming existing distributor and hobby shop relationships.  It’s tough to compete on box prices, oddly, because manufacturers focus so much on retail price and don’t want to undercut (and thus alienate) the outlets that are selling in higher quantities.

High chance for profit – I’m assuming that the set-up cost (card creation/photo licensing/printing) is well factored into the high price of admission, so that even if they don’t sell many more than one or two hundred, they’ll probably make a little bit of cash.  Considering it’s all print to order (with I’m sure a small percentage for damage returns), they don’t have to sit on inventory.  And if it’s a big, or interesting event like Bartolo Colon’s home run, there’s a small windfall heading their way.  I’m sure that the regular season is proof of concept and the playoffs will be where some of the bigger money is made.

Publicity – Let’s go back to Colon.  By producing cards of the previous day’s events, you’ll have more opportunities for news outlets to pick it up.  “Hey, remember that cool event?  There’s a card of it that you can get if you act fast!”

Engagement – When you have new cards every day (and now new mini-sets every week), it theoretically increases collector engagement.  They will want to follow the company’s social media outlets to stay informed and be ready with their wallets when their turn comes.  On top of that, we’ve already seen that customers will use #toppsnow when a big moment happens in a game in the same way some do for the Sportscenter Top 10 plays.

Seems appropriate

But, despite how beneficial it may be for Topps to at least explore this for a season or so, its actually reducing my appetite for collecting for a couple reasons.  Let’s go back to engagement.  My social media presence is very “off and on” due to various factors.  Luckily I don’t collect any current players, but even the concept of having to check in with Topps every day to see if there’s a new card for my collections is daunting, exhausting, and sounds like a chore rather than fun.  I want more than a day or a week to decide if buying a card is worthwhile.

It is something of a precursor.

Of course, that assumes I can afford it.  So, let’s talk about the price.  To this point, I know of two cards that fit my goals:  one with Frank Thomas and one with Tony Gwynn.  If I were to grab those, I’m looking at $20, unless I wanted to buy multiple copies and try to flip them at a huge risk of losing money in that process.  It’s really hard to rationalize that kind of money, and I make a decent living.  I see several collectors online that really struggle with bills at various times and it makes me feel terrible.  I don’t want to feel like I’m being punished as a collector by missing out on this time sensitive card because I have to focus on paying bills.  And you can say that a person doesn’t have to buy the card, but don’t you also think there’s a different impression with these?  Most budget conscious collectors clearly wouldn’t go out and buy a box of high end cards, but they also don’t have to worry about that box of high end cards going away.  It can sit on the shelf and remain a pipe dream.  This venture has a built-in “fear of missing out” factor that is meant to trigger the impulse spending that shouldn’t happen.

For those that have the discretionary income, do you spend $10 on a single card just because of the immediacy, or do you spend $10 on multiple cards that have a lower print run.  They also just released a “limited to 99 copies” Hosmer All-Star MVP relic for $60 each.  When was the last time you saw a pack-pulled relic actually sell for $60?  Even Babe Ruth and other legends don’t go for that.  The crazy part is that they’re being flipped for $350 right now.  That’s more expensive than his rookie red refractor auto /25.  How is it fun to feel like you have to be at the ready at all times, so you can grab a card at highly inflated prices within 5 minutes before it sells out just to avoid potentially feeling the need to buy it later at an even larger price?  That’s not fun to me.  Collecting should come at my own pace, not dictated or time restricted.

These also typically go for about a dollar if you’re patient.

So, ultimately my problem is with the price versus print run.  Since most of these cards have a print run ranging between of 200 and 1500 or so (with a couple extreme outliers), the cost flies in the face of what we know of the modern card market.  If you look for a non-numbered, non-auto, non-relic card of a player, the odds of reaching that $10 cost plateau is very low in the modern world.  Even when you get into relics, it’s doubtful unless you have a superstar of the hobby and other factors.  What I’m trying to say is that print run doesn’t really mean much when talking value/price.  I’m sure all of us have had the experience of finding a card #/50 or less in a dollar bin on multiple occasions.  When I buy cards on ebay, I rarely have to bid more than the minimum of 99 cents unless the card has a print run lower than 99, and many times you have to dip below /50 to see a considerable difference.  So, what makes these different?

In theory, these cards are all going into the hands of collectors that want that card for their own.  But I doubt that’s true.  There have to be a decent amount of card shops or other sellers buying in bulk to flip.  But, when cards are readily available (and apparently more than 100 copies meets that standard these days), secondary prices are going to fall.  The sheen is going to wear off, because it will be replaced by the next new set.  How many people will care about these cards in a year or two the way they are occasionally scrambling for them now?

Take a look at the Colon card now.  Already, you can find auctions that are ending at just a hair over the $10 max distributor price.  It’s climbing back up temporarily, possibly because of a recent internet article and All-Star hype, but in general that leads me to believe I’ll be able to find the cards I need in the dollar bin after a couple years.

That will be fun.

8 comments to Time Sensitive Releases and the Future of Collecting

  • You put into words some of my aggravation with ToppsNow. Mostly all I’ve been able to say is “Too many Dodgers! I can’t afford it!” But what you write about how if you want to collect these, you have to WORK is very true. The ToppsNow concept is interesting, but not executed all that well. But I’m wondering if it ever could be executed in a way that would make it more collectible.

    The sad part is: this is the product that has convinced me once in for all that, no, I will not be able to collect all the Dodgers. Sure, I was certain I’d never be able to get them all — all of the 1 of 1’s, etc. — but the way this product is issued, and the number of Dodgers in the set, made me realize, I can’t possibly get them all.

  • Brett

    I really like the concept and think that versions of it will consistently be part of the yearly product output from companies. I like that it involves an instance that just recently occurred and that there is immediate excitement involved. That said, I do think that there are areas to be tweaked and I have no doubt that the concept will be refined over the next couple years (after all….this is year one for Topps Now).

    I think that the “need” or perceived need to act quickly when a product is released occurs quite often with most product releases. There is a definite wave of activity that hits quick and hard when a new product comes out (especially in the secondary market). Many times I hear people saying that they need to act now or they may never see the cards again.

    The mindset (as a player collector) of being able to obtain one of every card of your guy is a pipe dream. Always has been. I think that collectors that place those expectations on their project will be nothing but disappointed. I agree that the collector must dictate the pace in which they collect, but that creates a world of letting things pass by. And that’s ok. Once people are accepting to NOT getting every card, I think they can go about their collecting with a great deal of fun.

    I see concepts like Topps Now evolving the trading card industry and might even give a jolt to the younger generation and introduce them to one of the greatest hobbies I’ve ever known.

    Great post.

  • Mike

    I run into this problem: I’m in Canada. Shipping for ONE card from ToppsNow is close to $50 US.. Factoring in exchange, this one card would cost me close to $80 CDN.

    The other thing is.. Barely any Jays. The ones that have come up have print runs hovering around 200..

    I get the idea Topps has with this, but I don’t really like it.

  • James Atkins

    I completely agree that checking the daily release in case it’s a player or team you collect sounds far too much like work than is appropriate for a “fun hobby”. Though is it much different than monitoring an online auction site for a card you covet, forgetting to check one day, and missing a “buy it now” that sells shortly after listing?

    I imagine one could subscribe to push notifications via text or email whenever a new card (or one that fits certain user-specified criteria) is released.

  • Jon

    Thanks everyone for your comments!

    N.O. – Interesting that this was the breaking point. I would think the prolific 1/1s would have killed that long ago. That’s why I don’t actively try for anything with a print run lower than 50, and even that seems like a stretch.

    Brett – Great points. I do enjoy the heart of the product and appreciate what they’re trying to do. Hopefully it can be tweaked and adjusted in future cycles to be more accessible in some way. I agree that the waves are pretty high for each new product (and as a former case breaker, I relied on that), but I think there was also a built-in contingent that knew they could wait and get most of what they wanted at a lower price. The “limited time” factor of these is so new and unprecedented that it really feels like a gamble. I’m hoping that prices will drop after some time like it does with most things, but I could be wrong and that is a little scary to me. Lastly, I’ll just say that letting go and collecting are nearly polar opposites. I definitely see your point, but that’s sort of the eternal struggle as I’m sure you’re aware, and even though it’s a pipe dream, the hope is that I can avoid it being dashed by anything other than myself.

    Mike – International is always a problem, mostly thanks to our collapsing postal service. I see several people complain about the Canadian presence of Topps. I wonder if they’ve considered opening up a distribution center or channel up there to ease that burden. I’m not sure where these are printed, but contract with a shipping center in Canada and send a truck or air freight load to them regularly…maybe it would reduce the barrier for enough consumers to make a profit? Of course, that doesn’t solve the parity problem….

    James – I like that idea. If I could register with Topps to get notified when my teams/players are part of a card, it would be a great start. That could also help them understand how many smaller market fans are waiting for representation.

    • Brett

      Yes, very true. I still have the desire and mindset that any and all cards of the guy I collect might at some point be obtainable….albeit highly unlikely and requiring crazy-lucky circumstances.

      Regarding the constant need to check Topps for new releases…I find I check my eBay saved searches multiple times a day. It’s so simple with the app on my phone. I wonder if in the future a setup of that sort could be devised? Log into the app and check out the latest goods. If it’s quick and up to the minute to access (which a lot of things are becoming these days) I don’t know if I would see it as inconvenient.

      Lastly, I am growing to live this hobby more and more as the years go by. It’s so great to know that collecting can be finely tuned to pretty much what I want to go after. I don’t feel like I’m limited or pigeonholed by the lack of product or uninspired efforts from a company. The selection is so vast now that I can tailor my experience to whatever I want. And that’s pretty cool I’m eyes.

      Excellent post. Great comments.


  • […] this post?  Probably not, but now that a year plus have passed and people are more accustomed to Topps Now, I […]

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