Youngsters know the Topps brand stands for collectibles. Over the years, it has signaled information and entertainment for generations of card enthusiasts, some of whom continued collecting as adults. The company is best known for its lines of sports trading cards, which feature pictures and statistics of athletes in professional baseball, football, basketball, hockey and soccer. Topps also makes cards, comic books and sticker/album collections based on characters from popular movies and TV shows, such as Pokémon, Planet of the Apes and Star Wars. An assortment of candy and gum rounds out the business.
While collecting cards and stickers started in the US, the hobby has expanded around the world. Topps has sold Pokémon products in 22 countries in 15 different languages. There are series of European football and basketball stars, making Western Europe a big market for the brand’s collectibles. Outside the US, which accounts for about half of company sales, Topps has offices in Canada, England, Italy, Brazil and Argentina.
The US and Canada are the only markets so far for Enduring Freedom, the high-gloss picture cards released in October 2001, one month after the attack on America. The collection presents biographical information on the military and civilian leaders guiding America’s war against terrorism, as well as photos of military hardware and armed forces. For example, there are cards of President George W. Bush and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, as well as cards of B-52 bombers and fighter jets.
"Kids don’t read newspapers and magazines, but they’re curious – if not worried – about what’s going on," says Arthur Shorin, chairman and CEO of the Topps Company whose headquarters is near Ground Zero in New York City where the World Trade Center was destroyed.
"We’re not educators, per se," Shorin explains. "We’re providers of information in a format with which kids are familiar and comfortable. That information can be about Lord of the Rings, (the movie) which just came out, or a significant current event. We have a tradition of chronicling significant events in history for kids."
Indeed, card collections from Topps have included a retrospective on the Civil War, a series about the Korean Conflict called "Freedom’s War," "Man on the Moon" cards, and three series of "Desert Storm" cards about the Gulf War. The company donated one million "Enduring Freedom" cards to the USO (United Service Organization), which distributed them to American troops. A second series is scheduled in the first half of 2002.
Topps made the leap from the caves of Afghanistan to cyberspace late last year with the launch of eTopps. The company calls the series an "online sports experience" that combines world-class athletes, collectors and the power of the Internet. It allows collectors to buy, store and sell cards on a secure website. Trading is patterned after trading on the stock market.
The "experience" begins with the sale of IPOs, or Initial Player Offerings, of new trading cards available only though the Internet. Once bought, owners can choose to have the cards delivered to them in uncirculated mint condition. Or buyers may choose to have their card physically remain with Topps in a personal online portfolio. Only eTopps cards kept there can be bought and sold on the eTopps Trading Floor on eBay, the online marketplace.
"We are reaching out to new groups of consumers with eTopps. They’re not sold as packs, but as individual cards," says Shorin.
Selling cards on the Internet is far from the roots of the company, founded in 1938 as Topps Chewing Gum. The Shorin brothers – Abram, Ira, Philip, and Joseph (Arthur’s father) – sold individually-wrapped gum for a penny. After World War II, they launched Bazooka bubble gum.
In 1951, the company expanded its business into baseball trading cards, which quickly became part of Americana. Many of today’s baby boomers grew up collecting and swapping cards of their baseball heroes such as Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. A slowdown in the market for sports trading cards in the middle of the 1990s prompted Topps to create cards for pop stars, major movies and television programs. Its biggest success in this area came with a licensing agreement to market trading cards of the Pokéman characters popular in video games, on TV and in the movies.
The company also markets lollipop brands such as Ring Pops, Push Pops, and Baby Bottle Pops. Shorin is especially proud of his lollipop sales, which exceed US$ 150 million a year (168M euros). "We have the largest share of the lollipop market in America," he says.