If there’s one part of his life that Eric Koenigsberg has come to love during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the freedom.
“There’s 24 hours in a day and they’re all mine now,” said the Toronto-area collector. “I was laid off right away when the [shelter-in-place] rules came out, so now I’ve got all the time in the world to do whatever I want.”
For the 42-year-old retail manager, that’s meant playing with his dogs, working out on his home gym equipment, and arranging online hangouts with his friends and family. It’s also allowed him a ton of time to spend with his Maple Leafs collection.
“I’ve been doing a lot of the stuff I didn’t always have time for [in the past],” he said. “Framing and hanging some autographs, updating my want list, organizing my stuff for eBay, reaching out [to other collectors]. It’s been fun digging through everything. I’ve found some cool stuff that I didn’t know I had.”
He says he’s made some provisional trades with collectors online but is waiting to consummate them at a later date.
“I’m a freak about social distancing, so I don’t think it’s a good idea to stand around in line at the post office right now,” he said. “People understand. Some don’t care and have mailed their stuff already. Others, we’ve agreed to mail stuff to each other when we get the all clear.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s going pretty good,” he says. “I’m having fun doing something I enjoy.”
While Koenigsberg is among the number of collectors making the best of things, it hasn’t been so easy for others.
“This season has been a downer,” said Californian Brett Wilkens. “[Jack] Hughes and [Kaapo] Kakko were busts, the Sharks sucked and now there’s no hockey. It’s hard to get excited right now.”
It’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on the sport. At a time of year when the playoffs should be underway, there are no games to watch, no stats to check, and no new heroes being minted.
Hockey fans have experienced long breaks from the game before. The entire 2004-05 season was lost to one NHL lockout. Another limited the 2012-13 regular season to just 48 games. Wilkens says he maintained his passion during those stretches, but the transition has been tougher this time around because it’s not just the game that he’s missing. He’s also lost the camaraderie he found hanging out at his local card shop.
“During the lockouts we could still go to the LCS and pick up a couple packs and do all the things we normally did. Now we’re stuck at home with no games, no shops. It’s been rough.”
Giving collectors – many of whom are sheltering alone – a sense that they’re still part of something bigger has been a motivating factor for many shops.
Mike Fruitman, owner of Mike’s Stadium Sportscards in Aurora, Colorado, was one of several shop owners we spoke with who has reported strong sales even as the pandemic and the related lockdown ground on. His shop has welcomed collectors through its doors for 27 years but he also has a well established online presence, which he says has been key to his success. So has his commitment to seeing customers as people, not simply a source of revenue.
“Collectors still want to collect,” he said. “They still want new products, but more important right now is they’re looking for that sense of community.”
Fruitman draws a sizable crowd when he goes live on Facebook and YouTube for group breaks or another concept he calls “Singles Night,” during which he offers a variety of pre-priced singles for sale. It’s a format that allows for significant collector interaction.
“It’s a good way for people to connect and enjoy the hobby,” he said. “I’ll get emails from people afterwards thanking me for giving them a sense of normalcy.”
Jim Amerey of Wests Sports Cards in Edmonton said his business is typically split 90/10 between brick-and-mortar and online sales. That dynamic has changed considerably since Alberta mandated the lockdown.
Responding to customer demand, Amerey said Wests has been more active with the online breaks, hosting events on Facebook and YouTube from 8:00 pm to midnight every evening except Monday.
“People are looking for new stuff,” he said. “They want something to do. Most people still have their jobs, so they still have money coming in. The government stimulus checks helped, too.”
Amerey said both he and his customers miss the personal interactions that define the local card shop experience. “I’d rather talk to people face-to-face in the shop,” he said. “We can’t do that, but we’ll give a wave when they’re picking up curbside now.”
He’s also spending a lot of time with customers on the phone. “The day O-Pee-Chee Platinum came out I probably took 100 calls,” Amerey said. “I missed a bunch, too. I lost my voice that day from talking to so many people.”
The demand for Platinum has been a significant driver for many shops. “The response to has been nothing short of spectacular,” Fruitman said. “Collectors are hungry for new product. It’s been huge. I don’t think I’ve taken this many calls on a product since the [2015-16] season when [Connor] McDavid’s rookie was in Upper Deck.”
Though Platinum slipped a few days past its announced release date, the hockey product pipeline from Upper Deck has been relatively unaffected. Spokesman Chris Carlin said the company remains on, or very close to schedule for all upcoming releases despite the unanticipated and unprecedented challenges it is facing.
“We’re still full speed ahead,” said Carlin. “With Shelter-In-Place orders, some [printing] facilities are being forced to shut down temporarily across North America. That said, we work with a variety of vendors to produce our products.”
While their work continues, Upper Deck recognizes that demand could be impacted by COVID-related financial issues. Carlin says the company has been flexible with shops who might be in a different position than when they first ordered.
“Our sales team proactively reached out to direct shops who had orders placed for O-Pee-Chee Platinum in particular to see if they still wanted the product in light of circumstances and allowed them to cancel if needed,” he said. “I’m happy to share there were very few cancellations, [and those were] primarily by shops that had to be closed.
“The real challenge has been working with shops to make sure they have a way to deliver products to collectors,” Carlin said. “Our network of Authorized Internet Retailers and Authorized Group Breakers are reporting that sales are great for them, but I’m more concerned with the smaller mom and pop shops who haven’t really embraced technology and rely on walk-in traffic.”
Untouchables Sports Cards and Gaming, which is located in a mall in Mississauga, Ontario is one of those shops.
“It’s been tough,” said manager Andrij Rybsky-Shaw. “We have our regulars, but with the passport office next door we usually get a lot of walk-in traffic, people who pick up things after looking around at the showcases. With the mall closed, we’ve lost that traffic.”
He said the shop began offering curbside delivery mid-April as a way of making things easier for his regulars. He hoped that service, along with plans to start an online breaking presence, would help the shop survive a “pretty significant” drop in revenue.
Clearly, the nature of this situation has everyone on edge as they make adjustments on the fly.
One card shop employee, who asked not to be identified, said his phone didn’t ring for three days after the shutdown was announced in his state. “People were scared,” he surmised. “People lost their jobs, they didn’t know what to expect.
“Honestly, neither did I. I was sitting there wondering how long we could keep [the business] going.”
Fortunately, there are other shops where the wind has found their sails.
“I thought I’d sit here in the shop by myself for a month, maybe use the time to clean up and make it look good,” Fruitman said. “But it’s been so busy the shop looks like a war zone.”
Thanks to online activity, Fruitman said he practically lives on Stamps.com and has seen a serious uptick in his shipping requirements.
“We had a driver come for a pickup the other day and had [so many parcels] waiting that I could have filled his vehicle by myself,” he said. “I probably wear 20 hats as a shop owner during normal times. Becoming a shipping manager makes it 21.”
Although it entails extra work and expense, shipping was his only option for a time. Fruitman initially offered his customers the option of curbside pickup of cases, boxes and singles in response to his shop’s forced closure. A state rule change forced him to drop the service for a while, but he says he’d love to offer it again in the future.
While he’s keeping busy with shipping, another group has found a different use for their time. Players stuck at home have been doing a great job fulfilling their signing agreements with Upper Deck.
“We’ve been doing really well with autograph acquisition so products like SP Authentic are coming along nicely now. Things should be good,” Carlin said.
That’s great news for everyone, including the licensors. Dave McCarthy, NHL Vice President of Consumer Products Licensing, is impressed by how the hobby is handling the unfolding situation.
“We understand there are a lot of pain points to this crisis from so many people affected by it, but we have seen the positives that come with staying at home as well and reconnecting with the hobby,” he said. “We’ve been blown away by all the social media posts about getting collections organized, completing sets and opening new products together as a family. Furthermore, we are seeing a lot of activity with collectors using trading cards as a teaching tool now that so many parents are filling in as teachers at home.”
McCarthy praised UD for their efforts to keep collectors engaged. He cited the Upper Deck Educates initiative, for which the company created lesson plans for kids that incorporate trading cards in the study of geography, statistics, art and communications, along with the Genuine Heroes digital trading cards that honor American and Canadian workers who are getting us through this crisis.
Martin McQuaig, Senior Manager, Licensing for the NHLPA, echoed McCarthy’s sentiments, adding that the PA is a strong supporter of Upper Deck’s brick and mortar retail support campaigns. He hints more help could be coming.
“There will certainly be initiatives [to help hobby shops and engage collectors] that will be announced at the appropriate time,” he said.
While no one can say anything with certainty at this point, there’s a sense that better days lie ahead in a post-pandemic world.
“I think some people will use this time to re-evaluate their collections and maybe change their focus,” said Koenigsberg. “But we’re collectors for a reason. We love this stuff. We’ll find a way.”
The NHL’s McCarthy says the eventual return to action should provide a big bounce.
“I think a loyal fan who has embraced hockey as a part of their lifestyle will be thrilled to see the boys lace up the skates and put on a good show,” he said. “And they’ll want to capture those moments once again on hockey trading cards.”