Rogue Toys wants to capitalize on the fandom frenzy
Steve and Krystal Johnston are collectors. After years of researching and falling in love with their own fandoms in 2011, they scraped together enough money to open the first Rogue Toys, a vintage collectible video game and toy store in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“We signed the lease and 10 days later, opened our doors,” Steve Johnston says. “And we ate Top Ramen pretty much exclusively for the rest of the month.”
The Starbucks model
In the following 18 months, their vintage collector items had enough demand to warrant another location in West Las Vegas and their first in Portland, Oregon. “Our expansion wasn’t about hitting certain revenue numbers or profit goals,” Johnston says. “We just knew our buyer-base.”
The drive from northwest Las Vegas to Henderson, NV is around 40 minutes. Utah drivers wouldn’t bat an eye at that driving distance, Johnston says, but for Las Vegans, those miles often make or break a decision to shop. “We’ve done what Starbucks did,” he says. “We go to where we know we have demand, and we build home stores for our customers.”
Then in 2019, Utah got its own “home store.” On opening day in Salt Lake City, Rogue Toys employees faced a seven-and-a-half-hour-long line. Then, less than six months later, the pandemic forced them, along with millions of other small businesses across the world, to close their doors.
Big box retailers like Target and Walmart, however, stayed open. “All of our stores were asked to close,” he says. “And while I agree that some of these large companies do provide essential resources, in the back of their stores, they’re selling the same products I sell—cards and collectibles, games, posters, all of it.”
Distributors continued to sell to Rogue Toys and companies like them, but the smaller establishments struggled to hawk their products while closed to the public. “The product shipped, and we just sat on boxes and boxes of it,” he says. “In the collectible toys realm, our website is in the top seven in terms of visibility and monthly hits. But still, most of our sales were in-store, and most people were still adjusting to the idea of buying online. And why would you buy online, really, when you could get the same Black Widow merchandise from Target while picking up your milk and eggs?”
Responding to the online orders that Rogue Toys did receive was another challenge. “We’re boutiques,” Johnston says. “There were days that we shipped 40 packages from the store, which is a whole lot of work for just one person.”
How free-time turned into a fandom frenzy
As months passed with the world still in lockdown, 40 orders started feeling like small potatoes. “During the pandemic, you saw a lot of people with extra time on their hands,” he says. “Many of them used it to research the things that they’d always been interested in and really dive into their fandoms. They started investing, not only with their time, but with their money, too. It was really amazing, seeing all of these new collectors joining the marketplace. And it really boosted our community.”
Johnston says the spike in buying was all over the map, from comic books to superhero movies, as well as TV show merchandise and Funko Pops. But out of every collectible, trading cards—especially sports cards—saw an unbelievable surge. “The things that happened in the sports cards market were insane,” he says. “There really isn’t anything to compare it to—I think it’s something that people in our industry will be talking about for the next 20 years.”
The sports card spike was fueled by two factors: the popularity of 90s collectibles, and a set of superstars coming out of the rookie class. “For people that were following sports, four of five of these quarterbacks from this rookie class were making big waves,” he says. “The Chargers had Rookie of the Year; and Joe Burrow, the number one pick from Louisiana State University, went to the Bengals. If you weren’t already interested in the cards, all of this together probably converted you into collecting.”
As the at-home researchers fueled the buyers’ market, the seller’s market was growing even faster. “People were digging through old boxes and found all of these sports cards from when they were kids,” he says. “And when they went to see how much they were worth, they decided to throw their collections into the gauntlet, too. Once it started, I don’t think anything could have stopped it.”
A thing called “breaking”
Most of these sales were happening online. For small collectors’ stores though, online sales aren’t the primary money-maker. “We’re usually a face-to-face industry,” Johnston says. “The earnings potential from this massive boom pushed a lot of folks online who weren’t quite ready to make that shift.”
When these sellers and buyers alike stumbled into the practice of breaking… “It gave people the chance to get in on cards that they’d never have been able to before, even if they were experienced traders,” Johnston says. “If the intensity of the trading wasn’t already chaos, well, now it definitely was.”
“Breakers” buy up various products, usually packs and boxes of trading cards. They divide up the products, by team, type, or some other portion, and open the box on a live video feed. For audiences, it’s like buying stocks on a livestream. “Breaking can absolutely be addictive,” Johnston says. “It gives you this insane adrenaline rush—it’s live gambling.”
Once the stimulus checks were distributed, Johnston says the money started really flying. “Our stores were outperforming prior periods by 40 percent,” Johnston says. “It was an absolute free-for-all.”
Johnston had been involved in breaks in the past, but the pandemic-version of the process was something he had never seen before. “There was a Justin Herbert card that hit for almost $30,000,” he says. “Even my personal collection of cards that were worth about $150 per card before, were suddenly trading at $600. It wasn’t just cards either—we’re talking everything in the collectible toy world selling out left and right and then showing up on a breakers’ live stream. All of this, happening pretty much overnight.”
Months later, the impact of the breaking spike hasn’t faded away. “Now those $600 cards have fallen down to around $300, but that’s still double what they were back in 2019,” he says. “The market absorbed the sudden growth, and I think it’s going to be sustainable.”
Target bans the sale of trading cards
While even the most experienced breakers struggled to find their footing in the frenzy, big-box retailers like Target and Walmart were knocked off their feet. “Collectables were not their bread and butter,” Johnston says. “Bread and butter are their bread and butter.”
Breakers and ordinary people alike were flooding the pop-culture sections of the retailers, draining their stock. When new items were released, like GI Joe collectibles, hordes of people would set up tents and camp overnight.
“Whoever was first in line would buy everything up before the people behind them could even get in,” Johnston says. “And when you have such big price tags on the line, mixed with a genuine love of the products… it starts to get messy.”
With the pandemic raging on, employees of these retailers faced violence from customers, many of whom broke into fights over the collectibles and trading card drops. “There are threads on Reddit from Target employees talking about how much they hate collectors,” Johnston says. “It got bad out there, with people fist fighting over Funko Pops.”
Things got really heated in early 2021, when a disagreement over trading cards at a Target in Wisconsin led to one customer brandishing a firearm. Soon after, Target announced that it would suspend its in-person sale of trading and sports cards. The suspension of in-person sales seemed like it might benefit Rogue Toys and other stores like them, but Johnston didn’t reap those benefits.
“Many of these new buyers, and even older ones, too, just want the fastest product at the cheapest price,” he says. “If you’re the first one to post the tweet, you get the credit for it. If you’re the fifth one to tweet it, all you really did was just retweet the first person. You don’t get the credit, and you don’t get that customer.”
Strengthening the “nerd community”
Up against a long-winded pandemic and retailers claiming large swathes of their market, Johnston decided to double down on interacting with the communities surrounding the Rogue Toys locations. “We were so limited on what we could do, even when we were allowed to reopen,” he says. “So we went where we knew everyone else was: online.”
The store, with most of its merchandise already up on its website, took their staff online, too. Through a weekly live show with Johnston and friends hosting, audiences could purchase and bid on featured products, join in conversation about different fandoms, and keep the collecting community in their area alive.
“We were able to provide catharsis for people that we’d sold to forever, and people we’d just met,” Johnston says. “We kept nerd-ing out together, even from far away.”
Not every collectible shop had the same tech-savvy as Rogue Toys, though. Near their first Vegas store sits Alternate Reality Comics, a beloved local shop with 100 percent in-person sales. “Ralph, the owner and one of our friends, relied solely on his community of in-person customers,” Johnston says. “There are so many other people like this in our line of work, and we didn’t want these long-standing community staples to get lost to Covid.”
Johnston responded with a digital marketing campaign that you may have bumped into on Twitter: “#NerdCulture702.”
“The hashtag, using Vegas’s area code, was created to raise up people like Ralph,” he says. “It was a way to celebrate your specific fandoms, tell people when you see something cool, and promote local vendors you love.”
After the Las Vegas-specific hashtag took off, Johnston expanded it to Salt Lake with #NerdCulture801, which began trending in our communities, too. “It was the best thing that came out of the pandemic for me, personally,” he says. “It really gave us an opportunity to show our support for our local nerd communities.”
The live show and trending topics blossomed into more, with a three-hour live stream celebrating May the Fourth—“basically a national holiday for us,” Johnston says—and a partnership with FanX called the 12 Days of Christmas in Salt Lake City. In August, Rogue Toys secured a deal with McDonald’s across the Salt Lake Valley to offer customers a discount in-store.
“The interactions with our live shows and feeds were really important for our revenues, of course,” Johnston says. “And yeah, we did benefit financially from all that effort. But what we benefited from the most was that human connection. We got to see faces, and they got to see ours. Not many stores like us were doing anything like that.”
Becoming the Cheers for collectors
For Johnston, it’s this community and partnership-centered approach that gives Rogue Toys longevity. “Improving our digital presence was always part of the game plan,” Johnston says. “But the pandemic and the associated booms pushed us to create spaces online faster to survive. We emphasized customer service and created a feeling of belonging over everything.”
For Rogue Toys, that commitment has paid off. “We’re always going to be a little bit more expensive than retailers like Target. It’s the nature of distribution costs,” Johnston says. “But after engaging our audience via these live shows and virtual interactions, we’ve secured a customer base that’s more educated and more focused on the love of collecting than anything else.”
Though many Rogue Toys stores continued to sell trading cards and other popular collectibles in person, no location ever faced the violence that the big box stores did. Johnston credits that to his ties to the community.
“Walmart and Target attract customers who might not have developed a loyalty to specific fandoms,” Johnston says. “In contrast, we’ve established a business that actively engages with our customers and the people that live in our areas because we really love what we do. We’ve built strong, lasting friendships and relationships, in cases like Salt Lake City, in less than a year.”
The in-person audiences that Rogue Toys had before the first wave of Covid shutdowns came back in full force, with new faces in the mix. Johnston anticipates that these customers, too, will be in it for the long haul.
“We’re not just a toy shop,” Johnston says. “We’re creating experiences. We’re a place to come and decompress, to talk about things you’re passionate about, to find people who love what you love, and who know your name. That kind of store? That’s irreplaceable.”