Hobby Musings: Keller, Top Shelf Breaks Make Leap to Retail Store

Hobby Musings: Keller, Top Shelf Breaks Make Leap to Retail StoreHobby Musings: Keller, Top Shelf Breaks Make Leap to Retail StoreGroup breaking is a large part of the hobby world as we know it. One of the better known breakers in the community is Chris Keller’s Top Shelf Breaks. Recently though, Keller decided to expand his business by opening a retail location. For more on why he made the move, Keller was kind enough to take some time to talk with me. The following interview was conducted via email.

KS: Chris, Top Shelf Breaks has been known for…well breaks.  Why did you make the decision to open a retail store?
CK: Hi Kelsey, thanks for having me here. Well, the thing is, I always had it in the back of my mind that “some dayI’ll have a hobby shop, I just didn’t know if it would be in the first year of TSB, or the fifth or the 10th, but I had this instinctual feeling that I would. It’s kind of always how I’ve navigated through life and my career. Following the signs and the flow of life as it unfolds and acting on opportunity when it presents itself. I believe everything in life is timing.

In late 2017, I made the first step, which was to move the operation from the house to a different location. I moved into a little retail complex that was about 450 square feet. It was enough for a little showroom, front and an office/break studio in the back. I grew out of that place in the first year.

Every night on the way home, I drove by a giant sign two minutes from my house that said, “leasing available, 1100 sq ft.”  I never stopped because of a year lease at the current place. As that lease started to wind down, one day, no real reason other than instinct, instead of driving by it for the 500th time (literally), I pulled over and called the agent to schedule a showing.Hobby Musings: Keller, Top Shelf Breaks Make Leap to Retail Store

We met, and as I pulled up, there was a car parked in front of the door, I mean right in front of it. The license plate had the number 222 in it. This is my family number, and I took that as a sign before even walking in that this was it, provided it was not ridiculously priced, which was my fear due to the location and size. When I walked in, it was like angels singing, I knew this was gonna be the home of Top Shelf Sports Cards. So, the decision was made, right then and there. It’s time to move forward and take this opportunity before me.

KS: What challenges did you find in starting your store?
CK: Opening a full-on brick and mortar store has its challenges, and they’re a little different than the internet/cyber/e-commerce world I was living in for five years. There was construction to be done inside, building out the design and layout. I’m also a real estate broker, so the experience came in handy with regards to the construction, but it still added time (and money) to the process. Dealing with the city, permits, licenses, etc. is different than being an e-commerce business. I mean, I needed fire extinguishers and backup lights and these small city requirements to meet code. Again, time suckers. The challenge becomes staying on a target schedule of time, and still managing the TSB machine and keeping that going.

KS: What kind of items are you stocking for your customers?
CK: TSSC will be a modern, current events kind of place. I’ll be carrying all the new release products (and supplies to go with) each week. I also will have back stock of all hobby boxes to choose from, going back five years or so, with whatever else I come across that fits.

But mostly this will be the place to come in and see what the latest hottest products & trends are. Singles sales will also be part of the shop. I personally do not have a lot of singles, so I’ll be relying on the local community to load the showcases with consignment cards and possibly from the group break side of things, adding singles in that way. We will also be offering custom framing of your memorabilia, jerseys, photos, anything at all really you want framed.

Hobby Musings: Keller, Top Shelf Breaks Make Leap to Retail Store

KS: If any other breakers wanted to attempt to open a store, what advice would you give them?
CK: The reason I was able to take the leap from the smaller place to this one, was I financially ready to do it. I had a stash of cash and it was only a few hundred dollars more per month in rent than the previous place. I got a steal of a deal. So, make sure you are ready financially, that seems obvious, but I suspect some might get excited about “following their dream” of opening a shop, and not take a step back and make sure you can handle the extra expenses that come with it. Things like a good insurance plan, security, cameras, monitoring, display cases, furniture, higher overhead with rent, employees, city fees and permits and licenses. It all adds up, and if you are not prepared for that in your current business model, it will strain you.

AND, the other is be prepared to put a lot more time in it. Doing breaks, you get in a routine with your day, post the breaks, market them a bit, turn on the feed and break. Repeat. Now, with a shop, you have to keep doing all of that, but now add in managing your shop, and customers, walk-ins, vendors, etc.  It’s time consuming, so make sure first and foremost your time is allocated to do both.

KS: What are you doing to try and set your store apart from other retail stores?
CK: Well believe it or not, I’ve not been to many hobby/card shops in a long, long time. In fact, there really isn’t a shop in the area that I go to, so I’m kind of just making this my own. I’ve been to enough to know the basics of what I want and do not want. TSSC will be a clean, modern feel kind of place. Think of a sports bar/lounge type environment, (minus the food and alcohol), but with hobby related products to look at, buy, sell, trade, and a cool spot to hang out.

Watch a game on the big screen, open some boxes, have a light snack, just kick back and relax and enjoy the hobby. I’m focusing on family fun as well. Many stores do this I’m sure. It’s nothing super novel or new, but the appearance and layout will be organized, easy to navigate through and with purpose.

KS: How do you expect it to affect your breaking business and your overall company?
CK: The breaking or unboxing side of the business shouldn’t and hasn’t (so far) changed too much. The plan is to implement what we do on YouTube each night into the shop with live breaks with the customers. In talking to some other shop owners over the years, they tell me they do not do live breaks in their shop. That is such a huge opportunity to move products and increase revenue, and if you have regular foot traffic daily and are not doing that, you are missing out.

Now, I get that “breaking” can be a bit daunting for some, but you don’t have to have an elaborate setup to do the breaks. In fact, you don’t need anything at all tech-wise, just do the live breaks with your customers. Choose a midlevel product case, sell the spots to your customers, set a time in the shop, and break it. Assign the teams however you want, random.org or even just picking teams out of a Panini hat to assign them works.

You don’t need a fancy full-blown breaking operation. From there, it can evolve into streaming it live on YouTube and all of that stuff we do, but for now, just do it with your customers. That is my plan to introduce the live group break element to the customers in the marketplace, because I’m pretty sure a large portion of the general marketplace has no idea about group breaking.

KS: What do you think is the current state of the group breaking aspect of the hobby?
CK: Group breaking right now is vibrant, firing on all cylinders I would say. The thing I love about it is how competition breeds success. It forces everyone to get better and improve their business model. No resting on your laurels so to speak. There are people coming into the business of breaking, taking what is there now (and the road is already paved for them), mirroring that and making it their own.

Yes, the group break industry pie is getting bit in to and slices of that pie being taken. BUT, it’s a giant pie, so there is still plenty to go around. To keep your pie, you have to hustle more today I think, than maybe five, six years ago. Okay, enough of the pie talk, but it’s a good analogy.

The cool thing about breaking as it evolves, is that customer loyalty is a big part of it. I feel like once someone finds their home, their “breaker“, they will always check there first for what’s breaking and if it fits their mood or budget, you are their “first choice“. If you are off the air that night, or maybe have a light kind of night of products and breaks on schedule, they will move to their number 2. So, as long as you can keep your regulars engaged, happy, and feeling welcome, you will keep them. The trick then becomes to find new people all the time.

So the difference now, vs five or six years ago, is the hustle. You have to keep working to find new people as a large percentage are jumpers, meaning they jump in a few breaks, maybe a few weeks, then they disappear. You keep your regulars. Just like a restaurant, you have the same people in week in and week out. They know you and your place, and they are there. Others pop in, have a meal or two, then for whatever reasons, they will stop attending. That’s attrition and it happens in any business, so you just have to keep up the marketing and bringing in the new.

Hobby Musings: Keller, Top Shelf Breaks Make Leap to Retail Store

KS: If there was one thing you could change about the breaking community, what would it be?
CK: That’s a good question. What would I change about the breaking community? Well, its gotten a lot better now I think, meaning the open communication among fellow breakers. Some are more communicative and open than others. I’m thinking about starting a message board/website or Facebook group called The Underground Breakers Network. A place where we can all talk freely about things that affect our business, whether that be about product allocations, customers, ideas, etc. I think I’ll get on that.

I just wish that others would realize that we are ALL running a business. Yes it’s a HOBBY, but being in the hobby is a business. Those cards were sold to someone at some point, so if there are tools available to build and grow your business, use them. It’s those that choose other tactics to “market” that bug me personally. Use the actual tools given to grow your business, and pay for those tools like we all do. Cutting corners and other grey hat methods are kind of amateur and lightweight if you ask me, but it’s in every industry and it’s part of being a business owner that it’s going to happen.

KS: What do you think needs to happen in breaking for it to survive long term in the hobby?
CK: To survive long term in the hobby as a breaker, well it’s kind of unique. One answer could be that you have to be evolving and rolling with the ebb and flow of the trends, and your live stream, and creativity. However, there are some guys out there that haven’t changed a thing in 10 years and doing 10x’s volume of sales over anyone else. It’s my personal opinion that for true long-term staying power, branding power, creativity, personality, consistency, and trustworthy reputation and process are key.

I believe big money is gonna come into the space here soon. Meaning, a large corporation, or some “sharks“, that see the growth and want to invest in the live breaking. When that happens, they will be drawn towards a few things:
1. Overall reach, reputation and brand awareness in the market place.
2. Volume of sales and customer base.
3. The  X-factor, …are they marketable? If you have all three of those things as a breaker and operation I think you will have better chances of long-term success and staying power.

KS: Looking ahead a little bit, do you have any special events coming up?
CK: The National is approaching and, it’s home field advantage for Top Shelf. I’ll be having this super top secret party event Thursday night of the National, in fact, its sooooo super top secret, I just announced it here with you on GTS. That’s how super top secret cool it is. So yea, I’m really looking forward to the National, I live for it, and we will be set  up in the breaker’s pavilion. Please come see us, and if you bring THIS VERY ARTICLE and show me or a staff member on your phone, or a staff member, we’ll give you a TSB Nat pack of cards. So come find us at the National!

Stay up to date with everything happening at Top Shelf Breaks by following them on Twitter @TopShelfBreaks.

For more Hobby Musings from Kelsey Schroyer, follow him on Twitter @KelSchroy75.

Hobby Musings: Keller, Top Shelf Breaks Make Leap to Retail Store

Kelsey Schroyer

Kelsey Schroyer is a longtime hobby enthusiast and avid collector. His interest in collecting began when watching Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez give Babe Ruth a Hank Aaron rookie card in “The Sandlot.” Since then, he’s never looked back, focusing primarily on adding to his baseball Hall of Fame collection. He lives in Plainville, Connecticut with his wife Danielle.
Kelsey Schroyer