Chances are, by now you’ve seen the news: Target announced that it is suspending in-store sales of all MLB, NBA, NFL and Pokemon trading cards effective May 14, citing an incident outside a Wisconsin store as the tipping point. A fight broke out in the parking lot and a gun was brandished, though not used.
That’s one hell of a tipping point. Fights and guns, because of baseball cards.
It’s insanity. Complete and total insanity.
It’s not really shocking, though. In reality, this was only the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. The hobby — especially involving retailers such as Target and Walmart — has been building toward a parking-lot incident like this for nearly a year. Truthfully, I was more surprised to hear that there was only a gun brandished, not an actual shooting.
I’ve written multiple times about the explosion of the trading card industry over the past year, as people dove headfirst back into nostalgia when forced to stay home because of the coronavirus pandemic. For most people, it’s been a good thing. Folks went looking for things that made them happy, and for lots of us, baseball and basketball and football and hockey cards scratched that itch. People found their old binders and boxes stuffed with cards, then went out looking for a real-time way to feed their renewed interest in the hobby.
Add a couple of rounds of stimulus checks to that mix — just about everybody got them, though not everybody was furloughed or lost their jobs — and newfound money flowed into the hobby in unprecedented waves. Prices shot up for just about everything, from the vintage card market to brand new, hot-off-the-press cards.
Let’s bring it back to Target (and Walmart and other retailers, though we’ll use Target as the example because that’s where the gun incident happened). It didn’t take long for people to realize that they could buy these new card releases in some type of package — a blaster box, a hanger box, fat packs or whatever — and immediately resell them on eBay for a nice profit.
The “flippers,” as they’re called, would walk into a Target, buy every single package on the shelf, then walk out and make money selling them on eBay. Shelves were empty much more than they were full, or even half full. So people started asking — or figuring out on their own — when shelves were stocked. The flippers would show up when the store opened, clean out the shelves and do it all over again.
So Target stores started limiting purchases to three items per customer, per trip. That didn’t make much of an impact, because “three items per trip” meant you could buy three items for $10 each, go to your car and drop off those packages, then walk back in and buy three more. And you could repeat that process until an employee noticed and protested.
Then most Targets dropped that number to to one purchase per person, and some moved everything behind the customer service counter. That slowed the tide a bit, but not fully.
Because here’s the thing: There was still money to be made. Lots of money, in some cases. If you walked into a Target earlier this week, chance are you would find some Topps Heritage and Topps Opening Day cards. Maybe, if you were really lucky, a Donruss baseball pack or two.
But finding a Panini PRIZM basketball pack or Select football package? Damn unicorns.
Let’s look at a real-life example: A Panini PRIZM fat pack, with 15 total cards, retails for $9.99 at Target. Know what they’re selling for on eBay? At least $40. Lots with two PRIZM fat packs regularly sell for $100 or more.
Think about that. You can — well, could — spend $10 on a product, walk out to your car, snap a pic with your phone and post the product on eBay and immediately make a $30 profit. Immediately. There is not any other product at Target that offers anything close to that type of money-making opportunity. Now, PRIZM basketball is the extreme example.
The Select fat packs retail at Target for $10 and are selling on eBay for $25ish. The 30-card Donruss basketball fat packs retail for $5 and are regularly selling for $20ish on eBay. A 2021 Bowman blaster box retails for $25, and they’re selling for $45ish.
There’s money to be made. It shouldn’t be surprising that anger and violence followed closely behind.
You get the picture. Look, “flippers” take a lot of crap in the hobby, and they deserve much of what’s sent their way, but it’s hard to blame someone for wanting to easily make that kind of cash for doing very little, other than setting the alarm a little earlier than normal and making a trip to Target. And moving sales of trading cards to online-only won’t solve the problem of keeping the product out of the hands of flippers, but I think Target knows this.
The cost issues are not just with Target and other retailers. Prices are up all over the place. When the 2020 Topps base Series 1 set came out last year, you could buy a 24-pack hobby box for $70 or so. The 2021 base Series 1 boxes hit the market at $120, minimum. Part of that was an increase in dealer cost, but mostly a reflection of what people were willing to pay.
Same thing with Panini PRIZM hobby boxes. When the 2018-19 hobby boxes came out, they were selling for $300 or so. Those had the Luka Doncic rookies, though, and prices skyrocketed in the secondary market. The 2019-20 PRIZM set had Zion Williamson, and hobby boxes started at a minimum north of $1,000. This year? Panini was selling hobby boxes of PRIZM for $2,000, and they didn’t last long.
So what happens next? It’s a great question. The market cannot possibly continue to grow at the same rate it has this past year. Is a bubble bust coming? Or maybe a slow decline, akin to a market correction? Will incidents like the one at the Wisconsin Target disgust people enough to stop buying cards? That’s doubtful. Will retailers figure out a way to keep products on their shelves? Feels doubtful, too. Will Topps and Panini step in and figure out a way to make sure their products are available to kids who have allowances in their pockets, and not just adults who have stimulus checks in hand?
I wish I had a good answer to those questions.