How a 79-Year-Old Business Adapted Its Model for an On-Demand World

For baseball fans, the 2017 World Series was especially memorable, featuring close games, clutch hits, big strikeouts, and defensive gems. Throughout the seven-game series between the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers, venerable trading card company Topps captured those moments in a brilliant way: the creation of more than 100 baseball cards printed and sold after each game.

Through a limited-edition product known as Topps NOW, Topps made slick, well-designed cards that commemorated key moments during the entire series, such as Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s sparking performance that shut down the Astros in Game 1, or the walk-off single by Astros infielder Alex Bregman that beat the Dodgers in Game 5.

And here’s the kicker: Topps offered the cards during 24-hour online flash sales hours after each game concluded, and then printed and shipped the cards to customers on demand. (In fact, the flash sale for Game 7 cards had just started as I wrote this post on the morning of November 2, only hours after the Astros beat the Dodgers to win the World Series.)

The 79-year-old Topps launched Topps NOW in 2016 as a way of shaking up the model for selling collectible cards, a business that has existed for decades. Normally, Topps, like other trading card companies, sells licensed Major League Baseball cards months after a season has ended. So, for example, complete sets and packs of cards commemorating the 2017 season won’t be available until the spring of 2018. Selling cards select cards via flash sales injects immediacy and excitement into the purchase.

As Topps’s Director of Ecommerce Jeff Heckman told the Houston Chronicle, “The world has changed. News cycles move quickly, and something that happened two to three days ago seems like a long time ago. It’s that quick, and now we can take advantage with Topps Now.”

Topps markets the cards during the regular and post-season, with more than 2,300 created so far. Here’s how Topps pulls it off, as discussed in the Houston Chronicle:

  • As American League and National League teams take the field during the regular and post-season, a small group of Topps employees monitor the action and take note of any special achievements from a game, such as a player having an exceptionally good day or a historic event occurring.
  • The employees engage in daily group texting sessions to decide whether a team or player did something to deserve the printing of an on-demand card.
  • When Topps decides to commemorate a baseball achievement with a Topps NOW card, a special card illustrating the event is printed by the following day, such as when Yankees rookie outfielder Aaron Judge hit his 50th home run on September 25, the most ever for a first-year player.

As with the World Series Topps NOW cards, fans then have only 24 hours to purchase the card online from Topps before they are no longer available.

The print run depends on how many cards are ordered; each card typically costs $9.99. Fans who subscribe to the Topps newsletter or follow Topps on social media stay in the know when the cards become available.

Because of the unpredictable nature of sports, there are days when more than one card might be produced, or none. The 2017 World Series has been a gold mine, not only because the series has gone the distance, but also because the games have generated plenty of drama. For instance, wild Game 5, won by the Astros 13–12, resulted in Topps cranking out 11 Topps NOW cards. In addition, Topps has sprinkled the print runs with special cards that sell for a premium, such as one of Astros Outfielder George Springer, which contains a fragment of a base used in Game 7, where he set a record for most total bases in a World Series.

Topps NOW is one example of how the trading-card company has adapted its business model for the digital age. Much has changed since the days when buying a baseball card meant purchasing a waxy pack of cheap cardboard cards wedged against a tongue-like slab of chalky gum. Baseball card collectors are like every other consumer. They want more choices. Better choices. Personalization. Digital options. On-demand products. Topps has responded by offering higher-quality, slicker-looking cards, digital options through an app, custom cards, and a host of limited-edition options.

Topps NOW has been a success. Sales have increased by 30 percent since 2015, and Topps shipped its millionth Topps Now card in early September. I believe the cards resonate for these reasons:

  • The ordering model appeals to the age of Amazon, when people expect instant service and are willing to pay extra for it.
  • The limited inventory applies a time-honored business model of scarcity marketing — the same approach Snapchat made popular with disappearing Snaps and stories.
  • Even in the digital age, physical products that people can hold still matter, as seen with the resurgence of vinyl and the enduring power of physical books. And the Topps cards are miniature works of art, having vastly improved in quality over the years.
  • No one, least of all Topps, can predict what the inventory will be, creating a guaranteed element of surprise.

Topps has created on-demand cards for the entertainment industries, too, including limited sets for AMC’s The Walking Dead. But whereas entertainment is packaged and programmed, the outcome of a baseball game cannot be predicted. Topps has found a way to turn an unknowable outcome into an exciting product.

Writer and pop culture lover.