Grand Cards: Misjudging Customer Demand

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Misjudging Customer Demand

Sometimes sitting in an airport, or on an airplane, gives you a chance to just think.  I've been doing a whole lot of sitting in or on one or the other, so I guess this whole "thinking" think was destined to follow.  With a flight delay, I figure why not write about it?  I do have a blog, after all.

Today is a beautiful fall day.  The air is crispish, the skies are clear, long sleeves and jeans are comfortable...and the baseball season is wrapping up.  Game 1 of the World Series was last night.  Game 2 is tonight.  After that, we get to sit back and relax for a month or two, at least until we get that ol' baseball "itch" again.

You see, with a 162 game season, the fans get tired too.  By the time we get to Game 2 of the World Series, 28 of 30 fan bases have checked out.  Sure, they'll tune in, especially the bigger baseball fans in the bunch, but this is no longer a time for baseball fever.  Rather, we're on the cusp of baseball hibernation--the much needed act of post-season baseball recovery.

Whether MLB understands this is inconsequential.  They are in the midst of their crown jewel event and need to do whatever they can to hype the event.  I get that, and, despite the exhaustion I felt after the Tigers were batted out of Texas, a few days has given me a chance to recoup and be moderately interested in the World Series.

But, I think that there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the level of excitement that exists at a national level for baseball at this time of year.  And it's not just baseball--every sport experiences this type of burn-out towards the end.  And most people get it.  Nike isn't going to introduce a new baseball bat right now.  Nobody cares.  Under Armour is saving it's new cleats for the fall.  The apparel companies are packing it in.  The Tigers Pro Shop is having a 50% off playoff merchandise sale this week.

And Topps is cramming a slew of new releases down our throats.


That's right.  Topps has essentially decided that the baseball season consists of two parts: the beginning and the end, with nothing in between.  In order to maximize their card sales, they need to capitalize on the excitement in the sport during those truncated parts of the season and then sell, sell, sell.

Let me explain.

Through their contract with Major League Baseball, Topps is allowed to produce 17 card sets per season.  I'll refrain from commenting on whether Topps should produce 17 sets per season, something that seems like far far more than anybody could reasonably care about, especially considering that they are not allowed to create sets of 1) retired players and 2) prospects, but I digress.  17 sets.  That's just around a new card release every 3 weeks (again, that seems like shockingly too many card sets...)

On its face, it doesn't seem to make sense to actually release sets with such a regular timeline--I'd imagine that December and January are pretty slow in the baseball card world, so it makes sense to work off of a 9 or 10 month sales schedule--capitalize on spring training, opening day, the season itself and the playoffs.  After that, exhale.

Yet Topps seems to confuse the basic tenets of 1) baseball fandom and 2) baseball fan demand.  That's where I started with all of this: people are burnt out.  As such, Topps is scaling back for the winner, right?  RIGHT?

September 7th: Topps Chrome  -- Great release time, people are playoff chase hungry and this is a consistently strong set.

September 12th: Topps Marquee -- One week later.  Topps Chrome is already becoming old news.

September 21st: Topps Heritage Minor League -- This somewhat intriguing set got no attention because it was released when nobody cares about minor league baseball and is the third set in three weeks.

September 27th: Topps Triple Threads -- This is a consistently popular high-end set that collectors seem to flock to in droves, especially on the singles market.  This release completely buries Topps Marquee.  Topps Chrome, less than a month from its release, is collecting dust.

October 5th: Topps Update -- Back in the day, they would release this right after the playoffs and include season highlights in here.  Instead, they try to jump on the playoff excitement.  Still, this is an fine release, considering no low-end or set-collector releases have been out in a while.

October 11th: Topps Finest --  ...and you just crushed Update.  Might as well not have been released.  This also gets lost in the Triple Threads singles fury.  Marquee is history.

October 17th: Bowman Chrome -- one of the most popular prospecting sets of the year just killed everything that came before it.

In 6 weeks Topps put out SEVEN products including FIVE sets with a consistently strong following and two sets that didn't have a chance in hell.

The only explanation is that the company has a fundamental misunderstanding of baseball fans and card collectors.  This is too much, too fast.  Nobody has the money for it, nobody has the energy for it and nobody has the appetite for it.  Even famed casebreaker Brent and Becca was a no-go:

Brent Williams
I did not break Finest due to the release being on top of Update this year. Plus thought about BC and doing TC football. Got to pick best 1s
13 Oct
That's right, didn't break what has been a historically major product for Topps because of how they spaced it out.  Of course, cramming all of these releases in made things pretty slow in the baseball collecting world the rest of the summer:

February 2nd: Topps Series 1
March 5th: Topps Opening Day
March 14th: Topps Heritage
April 11th: Topps Tribute
April 25th: Gypsy Queen
April 27th: Topps Attax
May 12th: Bowman
June 1st: Topps Pro Debut
June 6th: Topps Series 2
July 10th: Allen & Ginter
July 26th: Bowman Platinum
August 3rd: Topps Lineage
August 15th: Stickers (!)

Why did Gypsy Queen do so well?  It came 5 weeks after the last major release.  Why did Topps Lineage seem to garner such a (surprisingly) positive response?  People were starving.  They hadn't seen anything new in months.  Bowman Platinum is filler, A&G is what it is, Series 2 and Pro Debut are variations on the base set...Topps Lineage was the first accessible new product since Bowman in May.

Give me a break.

All year people have been bitching and complaining about Topps' Monopoly in the baseball card world.  I've stayed out of the fray, as I generally believe that everything that people have complained about (design, quality, misunderstanding collectors etc.) are things that Topps has done since I got back into collecting in 2007.  But if there is one thing that competition--real competition--could do, it is slap some sense into these folks and get them to release their products in a sensible way.

Meanwhile, I'll site on the sidelines.  If there is one thing a deluge of products is good for, it's picking up my team sets and singles on the cheap.  The more they shovel dirt on old favorites (Chrome, Finest, Update) by stacking up the new releases, the more easily and cheaply I can pick up the cards I actually want.  At some point though, someone is going to realize that collectors have a finite number of dollars to spend, and maybe, just maybe, it doesn't make sense to throw big new products out there week after week.