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Hobbyists provide input to improve the relationship between dealers and collectors

Improving the relationship between collectors and dealers can be beneficial for both parties, and collectors share thoughts on how that can be done.

By Jeffrey S. Copeland

A recent article, “Negotiating a Price: Views from Both Sides of the Table” (Sports Collectors Digest, May 25, 2018), explored an important, yet seldom discussed, area within the hobby. In the article, I asked dealers to share what they appreciated most when customers approached them about negotiating the price of an item—and, at the same time, what they didn’t care to hear from customers during the negotiation process.

To review, in the “what they appreciated” category, dealers mentioned such things as “politeness” on the part of the buyers and the importance of customers asking up front if there might be some room for price negotiation.

On the other side of the coin, what dealers didn’t care to hear during negotiations ranged from customers bringing up eBay and other online prices for an item (in an attempt to drive down the price), to buyers bringing up what the piece used to sell for in “the old days” (and how those prices should still be used as a guide today), to hobbyists who ask for “a better deal” on very inexpensive items.

What do collectors expect from dealers?

 Buyers favor when items are arranged so that everything can be seen easily and clearly. (Jeffrey S. Copeland photos)

Buyers favor when items are arranged so that everything can be seen easily and clearly. (Jeffrey S. Copeland photos)

So, the dealers had their say about this topic, but what about the buyers? At the end of the article, I asked buyers to write in and share what qualities they liked and what they didn’t care for in those who sell sports memorabilia at shows and other venues. The responses started flooding in immediately, and fell into five major categories. However, before diving into the responses, a preface is in order. First and foremost, those who sent notes were not using this as a forum to vent frustrations or to disrespect dealers. To the contrary, the overriding tone of their comments suggested they were genuinely interested in improving the relationship between buyers and dealers to make the hobby stronger and more enjoyable for all. One respondent put it this way: “Without dealers, there is no hobby. Without hobbyists, there would be no dealers. It’s a symbiotic relationship that would cease to exist if either party didn’t bring their best ‘A-Game’ to the table. That is what we have to strive for—improving the ‘A-Game’ on both sides.”

That wise comment was echoed in some variation by virtually all who weighed in on this subject. The respondents mentioned they had learned much about themselves after reading what the dealers had to say in the initial article and intended to step up their own “A-Game,” while passing along a few suggestions they hoped would also help the dealers with their side of the table.

In terms of the responses, by far the most popular topic of discussion had to do with how dealers display their items at shows. One respondent called this area “Display 101.” The single biggest issue related to display was dealers who do not mark prices on their more expensive items. Nobody expected a price tag on everything at a table, but nearly all said it would be very helpful if the more expensive items had asking-prices clearly marked for two reasons.

First, if a price isn’t marked on a card or other piece in a display, the potential purchaser often has to wait a lengthy time to learn a price while the dealer works with other customers. Then, if finding the price is way above what was expected, the person has wasted a significant amount of time that could have been spent at other tables.

Second—and this was mentioned by 27 respondents—even more time is often wasted when the dealer has to look up the card or other piece in, as one collector put it, “the dreaded price guide.” This collector amplified this by saying, “My worst fear in these cases is when those dealers reach for the price guide. When they do that, I know the price of the card is going to be very high in most cases. So, if I see a dealer reach for the guide, I now usually say, ‘I don’t want to put you to the trouble of looking up cards—I know you are very busy at this show and would feel guilty about that.’ Then, I get away from that table as quickly as I can.”

 Buyers are clamoring for clearly marked prices on the fronts of items, as these examples show, so they can immediately tell if they want to consider making a purchase.

Buyers are clamoring for clearly marked prices on the fronts of items, as these examples show, so they can immediately tell if they want to consider making a purchase.

Many other collectors brought up this same subject in relation to the binders of cards that many dealers have on their tables. As one collector put it, “I’m not going to start looking through binders without knowing how much the cards will cost. In general, if they aren’t marked, I don’t wait around to find out the prices.”

Several collectors also relayed what they termed “horror stories” of pulling a fair number of non-priced cards from binders only to find out afterward the dealer was asking prices the collectors thought were too high—and then having to replace them all again while the dealer gave them a hard time for pulling them out in the first place. Some even likened this to being scolded by a parent when they were younger. Situations like this are, hopefully, the exception rather than the rule, but enough wrote in with similar stories that would indicate they happen more often than most would guess.

Another major group of comments in this area had to do with what the collectors called “Messy Table Syndrome.” It’s just a fact in life that not all people are neat and organized all the time. However, one collector said, “Lately, I’ve seen more and more dealers’ tables that remind me of Sanford and Son. [For younger readers, this was a television show about a father and son living in a junkyard.] I’m not kidding when I say at a recent show I found a fast food wrapper mixed in with one dealer’s box of baseball exhibit cards.”

While not as extreme as this example, dozens of other collectors relayed similar tales—and said they at least expected tables to be set up in a way that will allow for easy viewing/access to items of interest.

Next, most respondents declared the “people skills” of dealers as vitally important during the process of price negotiation. Again, they didn’t intend for their comments to come across as disrespectful; the hope is only that dealers might better understand how they come across to buyers. A representative sample of the comments in this area included these:

• “I like when the dealers say ‘hello’ as I arrive at their booths. This makes me feel good—and ready to buy cards.”

• “Sometimes dealers seem too pushy, like they are expecting me to buy every card I find and they find for me.”

• “I appreciate a dealer who is friendly and has ‘people skills.’ I may not buy from them then, but if I like their setup, attitude, and stock, I will take a business card, take notice of the location in the room, and probably come back. I’ll also pass along the dealer’s information to someone I know who is looking for something I saw at that table. I might even order later from that dealer by phone or e-mail.”

• “Sitting there at your booth and munching on a pizza isn’t going to help you make back the expenses you’ve put out for the show. Please show some respect for the collectors, who have spent their time and money to get there. Some of these dealers act like they can’t be bothered.” [Note: A large number mentioned dealers eating instead of working with people who came to their table. Yes, dealers have to eat, too, but several also said dealers actually said to them, “You’ll have to come back when I’m finished with my meal.”]

• “I’ve been collecting cards for nearly thirty years, and some dealers just don’t seem to value the expertise and knowledge I’ve gained about certain issues I collect. No matter what I say about a card or set, these dealers always tell me I’m wrong in some way—and do it in a not-so-nice manner.”

 With no prices listed on anything, as is the case here, potential buyers have to wait and ask dealers about every item, which costs precious time at shows.

With no prices listed on anything, as is the case here, potential buyers have to wait and ask dealers about every item, which costs precious time at shows.

• “I don’t care for the ‘know-it-all’ dealers who really don’t know it all, if you know what I mean. It isn’t many, but some dealers always seem to want the last word about a card or autograph, even if they don’t really know what they are talking about.”

• “I’ve had dealers belittle my offers, and I move away from them as fast as I can. My offer may have been low, but a little common courtesy would have probably kept me at the table to continue negotiations.”

• “I’ve noticed recently that many dealers don’t seem to like it when I bring my young sons along to their tables. They watch them like a hawk, and I remember one dealer who actually scolded my youngest for resting his elbows on his table. What are these dealers thinking? Young people are the future of the hobby, for goodness sakes.” [Note: It should be mentioned I showed this comment to several veteran dealers, who all responded the concerns when children are at their tables have to do with the fact some of the youngsters are “rough” with the cards and other merchandise. For example, if a corner of a card gets dinged, the result could be a significant reduction in its value. The dealers also said it was wrong for the dealer to scold the child, but they also said it wouldn’t hurt for parents to teach their children some basic manners, respect, and behaviors for shows.]

• “It drives me to distraction when dealers visit for long periods of time with old friends and acquaintances—about subjects other than the hobby—while several of us have to wait to get the dealer’s attention so we can see an item in a display case. I get it that shows are also social functions, but I remember one time when I waited almost twenty minutes to look at a card I needed to complete a set while the dealer talked to one of his friends about possibly buying his bass boat. I waited and bought the card, but I think of this dealer every time I now look at that card, and I get a sour feeling in my stomach.”

• “I don’t like it when dealers insist on talking to me about cards and other things I have no interest in—just to see if they can convince me to buy something. Time at shows is short, so I like to get down to the business of knocking off my wantlists.”

• “I don’t think it is right for dealers to belittle me for what I collect, which happens to me quite often. I’m left-handed, and I’m trying to put together a collection of all Topps cards between 1952 and 1975 of left-handed players. When dealers ask what I’m looking for, I tell them, and many have actually scoffed or made fun of me. Ok, so my area of collecting may be a little different, but I think I deserve better than that. Not everybody is trying to collect complete sets, and I think dealers should respect that.”

The comments from collectors in this area were summed up well by this collector: “I expect manners and basic people skills when I come to their booths. Speak to me—please put down your cell. I don’t need to be doted on, but some basic ‘hellos’ and eye-contact let me know you are smart and understand human psychology and that the buyer needs to be acknowledged.” Based on the notes from others who wrote in, I’d guess there would be a collective “Yes” from all of them.

Dealer behaviors

Collectors who attempt to sell or trade items at shows and other venues also had much to say about dealer behaviors. These comments were also quite revealing, a sampling of which follows:

• “I’m really bothered when dealers automatically write ‘book value’ on a price tag on a card, followed by an amount, when in reality it seems like most of the time that ‘book value’ price is the ‘High Book’ value, which has nothing to do with the condition of the card at hand. In other words, why put ‘book value $250’ on a card when a ‘Mint’ version of the card sells for that much—and the card I hold in my hand is in, at best, ‘Good’ condition? This happens all the time, so when I see dealers with their cards marked like this, I don’t stick around.”

• “I hope I’m wrong about this, but a few of my collector friends and I were just talking about this. It seems like those who dress better at shows get the lion’s share of the attention of dealers, while those of us wearing our jogging pants and t-shirts end up waiting forever in line. It seems to us like ‘the clothes make the sale’ all too often, and this just doesn’t seem right. Anyway, that’s the perception we have.”

 If a dealer has to leave their booth, collectors ask that dealers leave a note stating when they will return.

If a dealer has to leave their booth, collectors ask that dealers leave a note stating when they will return.

• “I absolutely hate it when I’m trying to trade or sell some of my duplicates or cards I don’t wish to keep any more and the dealer gives me what my buddies and I call ‘The Flinch.’ This is when I hand my cards to the dealer so he can look at them, and almost instantly he will flinch, jerk his head to the side, and say something like ‘Geez. I can’t use anything like this’—and then he will pause, downgrade my cards, and try to negotiate a very low price. Whenever I get ‘The Flinch,’ I know I’m cooked.”

• “I find it interesting that whenever I want to buy something, many dealers jump right to the highest price in the guide and quote that as a place to start negotiating. Then, when I want to sell something to them, they start below the lowest level of the guide in putting a value on my cards. I know dealers have to make money, but this is getting ridiculous. Something has to be done here.”

As these comments indicate, collectors are very much of a same mind when it comes to what they expect when selling and trading cards to dealers. Basically, they ask for a mix of politeness and respect in the negotiating process. At the same time, all realize that most dealers are, first and foremost, in the business of making money, so the dealers’ behaviors in this area were somewhat understandable. Still, all hope that a better working relationship can be built between both parties to keep the hobby strong and growing.

Payment methods

Most of those who sent notes insisted that another area be included: “payment methods.” Basically, payment methods boils down to this. Now that fewer people carry cash and rely more upon credit cards and digital devices to purchase items, this change is having a great influence on transactions in the hobby, especially at shows. Some suggested that it would help them greatly if dealers could have a small sign on their tables that would list which payment options they are willing to accept: cash, credit cards, debit cards, checks, bank wire transfer, and so forth. Many reported they are happy more dealers use devices such as the Square Reader and similar platforms so transactions can be made easily by way of credit and debit cards.

However, most dealers still seem to insist on cash. One dealer who weighed in on this repeated the old expression, “‘Cash is king’ if a person wants a great deal.”

At the other end of this discussion, one long-time collector had this to say: “I’ve attended several shows in the area long enough to know which dealers accept credit cards. So, I skip them on my initial walk through the room, so I can use my cash with those who only take cash. Then, after I’m finished at those tables, I go to those who will take my credit card so that I can make my final purchases.” This person isn’t a lone voice; many others described exactly the same practice at shows.

Another collector said, “I understand completely why so many dealers won’t take checks—I sure wouldn’t in their position if I didn’t know the person writing the check. However, not all of us have the time to go get cash before a show, especially if the decision to attend is at the last minute, so I wish more dealers would get with the current technology so they can accept other forms of payment. I honestly think they’d be mighty surprised by how much their sales would increase at shows if they took credit cards.” This same suggestion was made by many collectors who weighed in on this issue.

One collector provided a nice summary to this area when he shared this anecdote: “A dealer at the Chantilly, Virginia, show raised his voice after we settled on a price when I offered a credit card to pay. I believe my tab was $65, and he was like, ‘You never mentioned you were gonna’ pay with a credit card. That changes things.’ The deal went south quickly and I have never returned to his booth.” Clearly, more effective communication about “payment methods” can only help all concerned.

At the same time, collectors repeatedly brought up what may be something of a “trend,” which should be watched as more in the hobby use technology in the purchase of items for their collection. When many dealers use electronic devices that allow them to accept credit cards, they typically have to pay a 3-5 percent fee for each transaction, depending on how much the particular item costs. However, collectors report they see more and more dealers adding as much as 10 percent to credit card purchases, which amounts to something akin to a “buyer’s premium” at a major auction. Is this a reasonable practice? It depends, I suppose, on how much premium a buyer is willing to pay to get a highly desired item at a show. This will be an interesting area to study as the hobby moves forward.

Pet peeves

The last major group of comments might best be described as a collective list of “pet peeves” respondents shared. Many of these may at first glance seem to some like petty concerns, but to the collectors who mentioned them they are “like fingernails on a blackboard at school” and detract from having a fun and fulfilling experience at a show. Virtually all offered at least a variation of each of these:

• “My pet peeve is dealers who refuse to engage you at any level. They are more concerned with talking to their friends, looking up something on the Internet, or reading a book or magazine. That drives me out of my skull.”

• “I don’t want to hear in the loud conversations back and forth between dealers how the show stinks, nobody is buying anything, and they are wasting their time.” Another collector said virtually the same thing and added, “How do they think that makes me feel when they say these things when I’m standing in front of them?”

 There was no price or reference to which back is on this T206 Cobb card, which left potential buyers to “guess” at a price until the dealer could come to help. Collectors suggest viewing cards and other items shouldn’t be a version of guessing prices as on the “Price is Right” television game show.

There was no price or reference to which back is on this T206 Cobb card, which left potential buyers to “guess” at a price until the dealer could come to help. Collectors suggest viewing cards and other items shouldn’t be a version of guessing prices as on the “Price is Right” television game show.

• “The one thing I don’t appreciate from dealers is when I politely ask if they would take ‘X amount’ of dollars for an item or if they could do any better on it, and I get a sob story about how much it costs them to travel to the show, pay for the table, stay at a motel, etc. If it is such a hardship, get another line of work.”

• “One of my pet peeves at shows is when many dealers pack up too early. My last time at the National, many dealers left before the show ended. I purposely paced myself since the show was so huge. Unfortunately, I never saw batches of dealers.” [Note: This same sentiment was shared by dozens of collectors about this happening at local shows as well.]

• “I absolutely can’t stand it when dealers put an item on top of another one in a closed case so that a flaw in a card or other piece doesn’t show. It often takes what seems like forever to get a dealer to get to me so I can look at something in one of his cases, and then I find out a card is missing a corner or an autographed ball has a huge smudge on the side. Do they do this on purpose? I doubt it, but if an item has a flaw, that item should be clearly visible so time isn’t wasted waiting to look at it if that matters.”

• “I’m just going to say this flat-out. Dealers shouldn’t bring awesome items that aren’t for sale, display them prominently, and then not have signs that say ‘not for sale’ on them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve waited in line only to find out the dealer didn’t want to sell what I wanted to look at. Good grief. Don’t tease us that way unless you make it clear the items are for display only.”

• “Dealers shouldn’t have binders of cards where the sticker on the binder says all cards inside are two dollars, or some other standard amount—and then when I hand my stack to the dealer, the dealer pulls out the price guide and starts to individually price the cards. Talk about ‘bait and switch.’”

All these pet peeves were considered very important by those who sent them along. However, one final peeve was the clear winner in terms of being mentioned most frequently by SCD subscribers: dealers who leave their tables and don’t put up a sign that states when they will be returning.

Yes, dealers have to attend at times to the “call of nature,” and dealers do need to go get food or just stretch their legs. However, collectors shared stories over and over about standing at a table for incredible amounts of time while waiting for a dealer to return—and none of the other nearby dealers knew where the dealer had gone or when the person would be back. Buyers suggested a simple, small sign stating how long the dealer would be away would suffice and would make life so much easier for all involved.

Again, these collectors stated they truly believe attention to some of these “pet peeves” would strengthen the hobby and provide a better all-around experience for collectors and dealers everywhere.

Rules for better dealer-collector relationships

In the end, what can we take away from these recommendations from buyers of sports collectibles and related memorabilia? Perhaps one respondent put it best when he said, “You know, I think it would be helpful if dealers had a sort of checklist of our ideas to look at once in a while before they go to shows. That might help.” Others concurred, so what follows is a “respectfully offered Top-Ten” checklist that represents a summary of what the buyers hope dealers will at least think about before setting up at shows. The checklist, they suggest, might also help dealers better understand their customers and help make the shows more enjoyable and rewarding for all parties. The checklist, again respectfully submitted, is as follows:

• Politeness, kindness, and a warm greeting go a long way. As my grandmother used to say, “Kindness doesn’t cost anything.” It was suggested all—dealers and collectors alike—make sure this is put into practice.

• Display cases and shelves at shows should be arranged so that the items within are easy to view.

• The more expensive items for sale should have the asking-prices clearly visible and easy to read.

• Just as it is for dealers, buyers have only a finite amount of time at shows; therefore, dealers should leave signs stating when they will return if they are to be away from their tables for any length of time so that no one wastes valuable time.

• Don’t belittle or poke fun of collectors for what they are seeking. Some collectors may be “eclectic” in their choice of what they are putting together, but this is good for the hobby. In other words, please respect that many collect to the tune of a different drummer.

• Respect that some collectors have good knowledge related to what they collect and help them build both their collections and knowledge base. Mutual respect and understanding will build strong relationships between dealers and buyers, and this has the potential to strengthen the hobby.

• When negotiating a purchase or trade with a collector, try to avoid “The Flinch” that so many collectors have come to expect as a barometer of what is to follow in the transaction. Instead, simply state whether the items in questions are a good “fit” for what the dealer stocks and sells on a regular basis and then make a fair offer if interested. In other words, it isn’t necessary to “downgrade” an item before making an offer; collectors/sellers would rather “take it straight” from a dealer rather than beat around the bush about whether a deal can be struck.

• If items are brought by a dealer for “display only,” then please mark them as such so that customers don’t have to stand for long periods of time to find out these are not for sale.

• Because time is precious at shows, please try to limit the time spent visiting with friends and acquaintances about subjects other than those related to the hobby while potential buyers are waiting in line. Shows are definitely a social time for everyone, but it is also true shows happen very seldom these days, so it is likely best for everyone if the time available for shopping and browsing is maximized.

• Consider studying, and then employing, payment options other than cash. If options other than cash are available to customers, it is possible all will benefit.

Finally, the majority of collectors who sent notes wondered just how surprised dealers would be after seeing their recommendations and were interested to see just what changes might be on the horizon now that all the cards, both literally and figuratively, are on the table. Ok, dealers—the hobby is now waiting to see what transpires next. The ball is in your court. Here’s to a new understanding—from both sides of the table.

Happy collecting—and selling—everyone.

Jeffrey S. Copeland is a contributing writer for Sports Collectors Digest, as well as an author. He can be reached at