Monday, March 8, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 61


Over the many years I’ve been in business, I’ve dealt directly with many companies to buy our inventory. Most of the companies treated us as valued customers but some were less than professional.

Topps Chewing Gum Company has been manufacturing trading cards since the early 1950’s and in the 1980’s they were still the leader in the baseball card business. When we first opened our store and decided to deal in sports cards, we contacted Topps and opened an account with them. We were told that we must pay for the product three months before it would be shipped to us and we would not have return privileges. We were also told that the local candy distributors would get the product significantly before us. This didn’t seem right to us because the local candy distributors paid less for the baseball cards than we were being charged, had full return privileges on any unsold product, and they had thirty to ninety days to pay for the cards after they receive them. We were told that we had no choice so we continued to send them our money. Each year we’d buy at least one hundred and fifty cases of the Topps baseball cards, which meant that I had to tie up over twenty thousand dollars for months before we ever received the product. I would sometimes hear that the candy distributor was selling the baseball cards directly to collectors at a price below what I paid for them! These distributors were supposed to only sell to retailers but all they cared about was moving the product quickly.

After a few years of this I decided to call the customer service department of Topps in New York. The head of the customer service department was the type of woman you’d expect to find at a truck stop diner. In her thick New York accent, she basically said, “That’s our company policy and there’s nothing we can do for ya. If you don’t like it just don’t buy our product, okay Hon?” Although I knew that I needed to have Topps cards as part of my inventory, I decided that I would no longer directly support this company. I began to buy very small amounts from local sources. I paid a slightly higher price but I was no longer letting Topps hold my money for months at a time. I’m sure that Topps didn’t care at all, but I certainly felt better.

The Upper Deck Card Company released their first baseball card product in 1989. The suggested retail price for each pack of cards was an outrageous eighty-nine cents when all of their competition was pricing their cards at fifty cents per pack! We thought that it would be very difficult to convince baseball cards collectors that these new cards were worth the money but we ordered the cards anyway. To our surprise the cards sold quite well so we continued to order large amounts of their product and developed a good reputation with our customers as a reliable source for Upper Deck products.

In the third year of our relationship with them, Upper Deck began to limit the number of cases we were “allowed” to buy. The first year that Upper Deck created football cards I sold almost one hundred cases in the first week. The second year they only allowed me to buy ten cases. This didn’t make any sense to me because I was selling out of every case that we were getting and I actually wanted to buy more!

When I called the customer service department to request an increase in my “allocation” Jay McCracken (the top guy) informed me that the policy made good business sense. He actually said, “You are like the child and I’m the father so you’ve got to trust that I know what’s best.” I explained that he doesn’t understand my business. I’d now have dozens of sports card collectors who would have to go elsewhere to find the Upper Deck products that I used to be able to provide to them. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea that my customers would now be forced to shop at other card shops. He didn’t see any problem with that. From that moment on I developed other sources for a much smaller quantity of Upper Deck product. There’s no sense in promoting and building a demand for a product that I’m not able to provide to my loyal customers. Although Upper Deck still hasn’t changed their policy, I was later told that Mr. McCracken was let go and last I heard he was running a small (and probably an unprofitable) sports card shop.

There was a time in the early 1980’s that I used to get periodic visits from an old salesman for a company called Selchow and Righter. He used to drive a beat-up old Buick and he’d come into my store and almost plead with me to buy a Parcheesi game or some jigsaw puzzles or a Scrabble game. I explained to him that I was primarily a collectibles and nostalgia store so if he had anything that was based on old television shows or movies, I might be interested. Occasionally I’d buy a few puzzles from him. One day, one of my customers, Zvi Szafran, told me about a great new game that he saw on a trip to Canada. It was called “Trivial Pursuit” but it wasn’t currently available in the United States. He encouraged me to try to buy the rights to distribute this game in the USA but I didn’t believe that it would be a popular game. A few months later, on the TV show “Family Ties” starring Michael J. Fox ) the actors were shown playing Trivial Pursuit and they were pretending to have fun playing it. People were curious about this new game.

The salesman for Selchow and Righter came into my store and offered to sell me some Trivial Pursuit games because they had recently bought the United States rights. I was still reluctant to buy a bunch of them because the suggested retail price was so high. Most board games were being sold for $9.00-$12.00 at that time and Trivial Pursuit was a $30.00 game. I bought ten games from him. To my surprise, I sold all ten pretty quickly. I called the salesman’s toll-free phone number and ordered a dozen more. I put a sign in the window of my store that read, “we have Trivial Pursuit” and it became crazy! So many people kept coming in trying to buy this game that I was ordering more almost every week. I was too timid to order a huge amount because I knew that I didn’t want to get stuck with any of these when the “fad” ended. After a couple of months of successfully selling these games, the big department stores started ordering them so I knew it was only a matter of time before the excitement would end. I called to place another order and I found that Selchow and Righter had disconnected their toll-free phone number. I called the regular number and left messages for the salesman but he wouldn’t return my phone calls. I was irritated but I could “live” without Trivial Pursuit. The big department stores and toy stores were now fully stocked with the game and they began discounting the price.

When the salesman finally showed up at my store again, he was driving a new Lincoln. He explained that Trivial Pursuit was the hottest game on the market and if I’d like to buy six Trivial Pursuit games I’d have to also buy a case of Parcheesi games and some Scrabble games. That attitude was enough for me. I tried to explain to this guy that this wasn’t good long-term business thinking. I believed that companies should take care of the customers who support them but it was apparent that Selchow and Righter didn’t agree. I didn’t order anything from him.

A year or two later, when the Trivial Pursuit craze was over, the salesman stopped into my store and sheepishly asked if I was interested in buying some Trivial Pursuit games, some Parcheesi games, or some Scrabble games. I declined.

Most of the companies we deal with recognize our unique “partnership” in business and we are usually treated with respect and gratitude. In a future chapter I’ll discuss the most outrageous antagonistic attitude of all: Terry Stewart and the betrayal of Marvel Comics.

Next chapter: The year of The Batman.

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