In the late winter and early spring of 2020, as COVID began to spread across North America, sports card shop owners were rightfully concerned.
In the Denver suburbs, Mike Fruitman looked as his checkbook, started doing some math and thought about the number of months he might be able to keep his head above water if things got really bad.
“I didn’t know if we were going to stay open,” he recalled during a panel discussion for sports card shop owners at the Industry Summit in Las Vegas.
The late spring and early summer months were challenging. Curbside service and online sales were all some could do. The results were limited but somewhat encouraging.
Then the roof blew off.
People who had collected years ago had limited entertainment options and a thirst for cardboard. Facemasks and social distancing were no match for the enthusiasm and money that came crashing through the door.
“It’s been a good 16 months,” said Fruitman.
That vibe has continued as 2021 heads into its final quarter and new shops have been springing up. Fruitman and long-time Georgia store owner Joe Davis provided some insight and tips to their colleagues on how to navigate in the new world where the biggest problem isn’t selling product, it’s finding it.
Finding good help to manage their stores may not be as difficult as it is for restaurants these days, but it’s a challenge.
“I’d always worked alone, but there came a time when I couldn’t go solo,” Fruitman said. “I brought on a young collector and he’s dealing with customers better than I did.”
Davis wound up in the hospital two years ago and the need for good help became all too real.
“I have a new employee starting today. We are up to 15 or 16 right now, I lose track,” Davis said of his growing storefront and booming online business. “If they lower my blood pressure or take pressure off me, it’s worth it. I want people with good character. I’ll take character over knowledge every day of the week.”
Both shop owners have invested profits back into their business, but that doesn’t always mean buying more product. One of Fruitman’s latest projects has been to help with supply drives for local schools who look to provide backpacks and other essentials to students who can’t always afford what they need to make it through the year.
“I’m investing in my collectors,” he said of efforts to make the store part of the local community through social events.
One thing both shop owners told their fellow business owners is that they shouldn’t feel obligated to offer free collection appraisals. The stores’ increasing traffic and other demands like engaging with customers through social media, box breaks or trade nights mean there just isn’t time, unless that customer says they are ready to sell now and has material the store can use.
“We are experts in this field and we have to act like it,” Davis said. “Value your time and the time of the people working at the shop. Also value the time of your customers. Pre-screen what customers want to bring into the shop to sell. Then set up one-on-one appointments with the customers that you really want to meet.”
They say as long as the seller has realistic expectations, though, buying ‘walk in’ deals is still a fun part of the business.
“I can find a home for anything and buy any collection and flip it,” Fruitman said. “I try to be upbeat with people about their collections.”
Both addressed growing concerns about security in the wake of growing store traffic and the value of what’s inside.
“I picked up a 16 camera set at Costco recently,” Fruitman said. “It lights up as customers move throughout the store. So it lets them know they are being watched.”
Attracting new customers to a hobby shop when there are so many online options for buying cards used to be a bigger challenge but it’s still necessary to keep generating revenue.
“I find traditional advertising is the worst. TV, radio, newspaper doesn’t work for me,” Fruitman told the audience. He said he sticks with social media, sometimes paying to reach a larger audience that way but he’s also open to trying new methods.
“ I recently spent $800 to be on a hotel’s room key. Hit me up in six months and I’ll let you know how it did.”