IS IT TIME TO COLLECT?

Supermarkets are waiting to see if prepaid phone cards will become the kind of collectible that some suppliers have tried to create.Kroger Co.'s 93-store Houston division has no immediate plans to enter the collectible phone card market, but may change its position if demand increases, said Gary Huddleston, manager of consumer affairs."If the market develops, we'd take a look at carrying them," Huddleston

Supermarkets are waiting to see if prepaid phone cards will become the kind of collectible that some suppliers have tried to create.

Kroger Co.'s 93-store Houston division has no immediate plans to enter the collectible phone card market, but may change its position if demand increases, said Gary Huddleston, manager of consumer affairs.

"If the market develops, we'd take a look at carrying them," Huddleston said. Kroger's phone cards are sold from the customer service booth in $5, $10 and $15 denominations.

Most chains carry branded or private-label cards, though several told SN they would be interested in collector styles if there's a demand for them. Collectible phone cards have been introduced in a variety of designs and themes. Some focus on specific occasions, while others feature celebrities, famous artwork and inspirational messages.

Safeway's Phoenix division hasn't looked at phone cards as a collector's item, but like Kroger, it will offer them if consumer interest grows.

"We would certainly consider it if we see it as a trend," said Deb Albery, manager of public affairs. Safeway's phone cards are priced at $5.

Though few retailers focus exclusively on the collector's market, prepaid phone card suppliers have been quick to dabble in the area. Sprint, Washington, recently ran a collector's promotion tied into its Spree calling card. Consumers who purchased a $20 to $50 Spree calling card received a free, limited-edition NCAA Final Four prepaid card.

The promotion was part of Sprint's ongoing NCAA corporate partnership, which included the "Call the Final Four" and "Sprint Courtside" interactive telephone promotions.

The Sprint NCAA card featured an illustration of a college basketball player in action, as well as the logo for the men's 1996 Final Four tournament.

Talk 'N Toss, Vancouver, Wash., this year introduced a World of Savings prepaid series, which features six limited-edition, holiday themed phone cards celebrating Valentine's Day, Cinco de Mayo, Mother's Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day and Christmas.

Additionally, GTE Card Services, Irving, Texas, offerewd 30 officially licensed National Football League team cards last year.

While some industry observers speculated that team cards like these could create competition for traditional trading card sales, retailers said they don't expect that to happen.

Some consumers collect phone cards like they would any other trading card, but not to the degree that they have baseball and other sports cards, retailers said. Trading card sales have not been hurt by the growing prepaid phone card market at Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash., said Norm Carpenter, director of general merchandise.

A former source at Kash n' Karry Food Stores, Tampa, Fla., agreed, saying even forthcoming collector's cards, such as those that feature winning athletes at the 1996 Olympic games, won't threaten the trading card market.

Scolari's Food & Drug Co., Sparks, Nev., which offers $5, $10 and $20 Western Union phone cards at its service centers, also doesn't think phone cards will become collector's items or replace trading cards, according to Mike Van Brocklin, supervisor of nonfood.

The higher price points of phone cards, which typically sell for no less than $5 at supermarkets, may limit their collector's appeal, retailers said.

"The retail prices of designer collector phone cards tend to lock out kids," said the former source at Kash n' Karry Food Stores. "But this could change if [suppliers] get the cost down lower than a regular phone card now." Kash n' Karry's phone cards are priced at $10, $25 and $50, according to the former source.

Van Brocklin of Scolari's maintains if phone cards become the trading card of the future, they will appeal to adults.

"I don't see a kid going in to buy a $5 phone card just because he likes the picture," Van Brocklin said.

Larry Schimpf, director of nonfood at Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., agreed. "You're talking about a $5 minimum purchase, which is too much for a kid. Adults maybe, but you're never going to get the kids involved. There's too much initial investment," said Schimpf.

But Carpenter of Rosauers said there's a strong possibility that, with the right type of marketing and promotional programs, the collector's market could flourish.

"In this day and age, everybody makes something a collectible," he said.

Howard Segermark, executive director of U.S. Telecard Association, Washington, said collector's cards are still new. Once consumers become more accustomed to them, it is likely that their sales will increase.

"In Europe and Asia it's a huge market, and it's growing here as well," he said. Segermark added that there are at least three magazines aimed at collector phone cards.