A high ‘Exchange’ rate
For Baseball Card Exchange, hard work, lots of travel and superior customer service result in endless opportunities
In a shrinking industry mired in a down economy, many card dealers work hard just to survive. At Baseball Card Exchange, based in the south Chicago suburb of Lynwood, Ill., it’s quite the opposite; the five-person operation is flourishing and struggling to keep up with demand. After 20-plus years, owner Steve Hart and his crew have grown into one of the top operations in the hobby.
Many vintage wax dealers have come and gone throughout the years – Mark Murphy (Baseball Card Kid), Mike Parness (Waxman), and the late Paul Wright, to name a few – but it’s Hart who is considered the most knowledgeable person in the hobby today when it comes to authenticating unopened material. His reputation within the collecting community is unmatched.
When PSA decided to launch a pack grading division, Hart was their choice to be the sole authenticator. Since 2006, every single pack encapsulated by PSA must first receive his approval. In fact, every major auction house in the country seeks out Hart’s opinion on any unopened consignments they receive before they will list it in their respective auctions.
Servicing their customers
What differentiates Baseball Card Exchange (BBCE) from other companies in the hobby? Ask any BBCE employee, and you’ll get a diverse set of answers. Rick Oskierko, shipping and warehouse manager at BBCE, believes willingness to ship internationally has significantly increased their customer base.
“Selling different types of collectibles has earned us new customers from around the world,” said Oskierko, who has been with the company since 2005. “The other day we shipped several boxes of 1990s hockey to Germany, a few Michael Jordan inserts to China and some 2007/08 basketball to Australia. Our foreign customers are aware of how difficult it can be to ship overseas, and the repeat business we receive tells us we’re doing something right.”
Added Reed Kasaoka, director of acquisitions at BBCE, “Collectors have an immense thirst for knowledge when it comes to the real story about a particular item.”
Kasaoka thinks it’s all about their willingness to share information that sets their company apart from the rest.
“In our efforts to help educate collectors, we are sharing our decades of hobby experience by contributing a column in every Beckett baseball, football, basketball, and hockey issue about vintage unopened product. We’re also doing video box breaks featured on the Beckett website, where their magazine editors and ourselves open vintage packs and talk about what we find, while sharing all the great stories associated with that particular product.”
In addition to authenticating packs for PSA, Hart also facilitates “group rips” (splitting a box to open by the pack) for the members of the Collectors Universe message boards.
“For several years, unopened pack collectors and pack busters, alike, have pooled their resources together to break unopened boxes or cases of product offered on our website,” Hart explained. “One of the members keeps track of orders until all the packs are sold out – each member pays us directly – and then we ship out cards all over the world. When everyone receives their packs, they post pictures of what they got on the message boards. There’s no better form of advertising when someone buys just one 1981 Topps Football wax pack and pulls a mint Joe Montana rookie, or orders a 1975 Topps Baseball cello pack and finds the back of a George Brett rookie peeking through the cellophane, then jumps on a public forum to brag about his/her good fortune.”
Anatomy of buying a collection
The real answer to what makes BBCE so special is their ability to travel anywhere, anytime, to buy collections. Hart and Kasaoka offered a rare look into how they buy a collection, from start to finish.
“It all begins with advertising and self-promotion,” said Hart, whose company utilizes several forms of advertising to introduce themselves to past and current collectors. “BBCE runs full-page ads in every single major hobby publication – Sports Collectors Digest, SMR, Beckett – advertising our desire to buy cards; it’s costly but well worth the expense. Even though the hobby has fully embraced the benefits of being online, nothing is able to convey our message to buy cards better than a print ad.”
That’s not to say BBCE doesn’t have an established online presence. “In addition to our website, we chronicle what’s happening with our company on our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/BBCExchange),” said Kasaoka, who posts regular updates about where they are traveling to next and pictures of all the unique items they find. However, he thinks what really seems to win over clients are the message boards.
“I encourage potential sellers to research us on various industry message boards like those hosted by Collectors Universe, Beckett, and Net54. Once they have a sense of what collectors have to say about us, they become confident with their decision on who they should be working with to sell their collection.”
At this point, Kasaoka, who does most of the traveling to buy collections for BBCE, isn’t ready to hit the road just yet.
“One of the most difficult things about buying a collection is trying to figure out exactly what’s there before traveling to see it in person,” says Kasaoka. He cites the number of inquiries from all over the U.S. and Canada makes it impossible to travel to everyone in a timely manner.
“Whether it’s over the phone or through e-mail, what I’m really trying to do is screen potential clients, to see if what they have to sell is of interest to us, and more importantly, if their level of expectation regarding value is in line with what market price is. I really grow interested when I receive a detailed description or inventory list – with pictures if possible. It lets me know this person is motivated to sell their collection and willing to put in the effort to showcase what they have.”
BBCE advertises they will travel anywhere – at any time – to buy a quality collection, and it sure seems like they back those words up with actions.
“One of the main reasons why I hired Reed, who I knew from his days as the head buyer at Dave & Adam’s, was his willingness to travel anywhere and do whatever it takes to buy deals,” said Hart, who previously did almost all the buying for his company. “I figured with two buyers, naturally we’d be able to cover twice as much ground, but what we’ve been able to accomplish over the past two years have exceeded my expectations.”
Part of the reason for being so busy was expanding their product base from just doing vintage wax and vintage PSA-graded singles, which Hart said has always been their “bread and butter,” to embracing the product lines Kasaoka had become familiar with throughout his years as a dealer.
“Two months after Steve hired me, I told him we should spend six figures on a store that sold modern cards, autographs, and coins in Durango, Colo.,” said Kasaoka. “Without any hesitation, he said, ‘OK!’ and because of his faith in me, I was able to show him all these different areas of the hobby I knew well but were new to BBCE – modern unopened product, autographed memorabilia, insert cards, and even coins. Do you know there was more than 3,000 ounces of silver in that store? After we returned from Colorado, Steve admitted if it was he who went to check out this store, he might have tried to buy the wax but would’ve left everything else, because he couldn’t think about what they would do with everything else. It took three 26 foot trucks to get it all back to the office.”
Once they arrive at the client’s home, business or storage unit, BBCE doesn’t automatically consider it a done deal. Both Hart and Kasaoka have sometimes traveled thousands of miles only to leave empty-handed.
“Though disappointing, not all negotiations resulting in us buying the deal,” said Hart. “It’s an unfortunate cost of doing business, but we understand that not all deals work out.”
However, while they have found their screening process has significantly improved the odds of buying a collection, it really comes down to negotiating honestly and fairly.
“Every collector can tell you at least one story about a dealer insulting them with a low-ball offer,” said Kasaoka. “While we can’t promise to always pay what the seller wants, Steve and I do believe that when making an offer, we should come out firing with our best shot. We don’t purposely start low and play the offer/counteroffer game like you see on shows like Pawn Stars. It might make for some entertaining TV, but all it does is insult the client and results in hurt feelings. We’d rather be unable to agree on a price and walk away with respect than buy a collection from someone and have them be upset about the entire experience.”
This article appears in the June 15, 2012 issue of Sports Collectors Digest (www.sportscollectorsdigest.com.)