Sean McElroy was recently at one of his local card shops in Hanover, Mass., talking with the owner. The two had plenty to discuss about the red-hot industry.

A guy came in with four blaster boxes of 2020-21 Prizm Basketball he had purchased from Walmart. The guy was looking to sell that retail product to the hobby store owner.

His asking price? $500 for all four blasters. The guy would have purchased them right off the shelf at Walmart for $20 apiece, so $80 for the four. That’s a heck of a markup.

The shop owner and the owner of the Prizm boxes negotiated and agreed on $420.

“The [shop] owner told me that he hadn’t seen boxes like that in the last year,” said McElroy, who is a card collector and also one of the hosts of TTMCast, a sports collectibles podcast. “That was the first one he saw, so that’s why he said he was throwing down $400 because he knows that somebody else is going to come through that door and is going to pay $500, $500-plus to get those boxes.”

This scenario has become all too common in the trading card industry, and it’s happening nationwide. Trading cards at retail outlets — especially giants Target and Walmart — are almost nonexistent.

Flippers, collectors and a combination of flippers-collectors are snatching up all the retail cards as quickly as they hit the store shelves. Some people are spending hours in line and even pitching tents to stay overnight outside Target and Walmart, waiting for a shot to get access to cards.

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When buyers can actually get their hands on retail products, they can be moved on eBay or social media outlets quickly, and for three, four, five times or more than the sticker price.

Welcome to the retail trading card industry in 2021.

“Wherever there’s money to be made, people are going to do their thing,” said collector Ben Aguirre, who frequents his local Target in Sunnyvale, Calif. “And you can’t necessarily fault them, but there’s kind of a fine line of, OK, how far is too far.

“People are out of jobs or can’t actually go to work or they’re working from home and have some free time to go hang out at the store. If they can take $20 and spend it on a blaster and then flip it for $100 — if we’re talking about a higher end product — that’s five times their money. The first wave that gets in there, they’re going to make quite a bit of money. Again, if people are seeing there’s an opportunity to make money, everyone else is going to come with it.”

Derek Grady, who is the Vice President of Sports Auctions at Heritage Auctions, has witnessed a similar craze in the past.

“This reminds me of back in the ’80s with the Cabbage Patch Kids or even Starting Lineups, when they first hit the shelves,” Grady said. “The Cabbage Patch craze made national news and people were fighting over those.

“I’ve seen it before, but I didn’t realize I’d see it in the trading card industry for, quite honestly, regular product. That’s how hard the regular product has become to get that it’s literally the manufacturers put it out and it’s sold out immediately. The dealers are charging a lot for it as soon as it comes out, so people are going to get these retail hanger packs at Target and Walmart and get a good price on them.”

On May 7, it was reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that a disagreement outside a Target in Brookfield, Wisc. resulted in a fight. One of the people involved accessed a firearm in which he had a concealed carry permit.

One week later, on May 14, Target corporate decided to halt the sale of certain trading cards nationwide in its stores.

A Target sign notifies customers that the store is temporarily suspending the sale of sports and trading cards.

A Target sign notifies customers it is temporarily halting the sale of sports cards. 

“The safety of our guests and our team is our top priority,” a Target spokesperson said in an email to Sports Collectors Digest. “Out of an abundance of caution, we’ve decided to temporarily suspend the sale of MLB, NFL, NBA and Pokémon trading cards within our stores, effective May 14. Guests can continue to shop these cards online at Target.com.”

Said Grady: “I just think that one incident where there was violence — in today’s society, we tend to overcorrect. I think that was an overcorrection of there was violence in one store one time and now it’s, OK, shut it down.”

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Topps, which did respond to SCD’s requests for an interview, along with Panini are the two big manufacturers that sell cards at big-box retailers such as Target and Walmart.

There has been quite a bit of chatter all over social media following Target’s announcement. Some inaccuracies about the situation with Target were spun out of context — such as the company will never sell cards in-store again.

D.J. Kazmierczak, the VP of Sales/Product Development for Panini, started commenting on people’s posts to set the record straight. He spoke with SCD to make sure information is accurately reported.

“The official response from Target from a spokesperson there mentioned the word that this was not permanent, they said it’s temporary,” Kazmierczak said. “I don’t know how the industry suddenly perceived that as a permanent decision. It’s not. Could it go for a long time or could it become permanent? It could if we as a community don’t behave better, I guess.”

While perusing social media posts, Kazmierczak has noticed a number of people posting inaccurate statements.

“When people say that a distribution partner of ours is back-dooring product, that’s simply not happening,” Kazmierczak said. “Have there been incidents where a rep might have texted somebody and said, ‘I’m going to a store now?’ Yes. Every time we had conclusive proof, we sent that to the appropriate distributor and they dealt with it however they felt they needed to deal with it. We have been on top of that stuff, but it’s not rampant.”

LONG LINES FOR TRADING CARDS

Prior to halting sales of basketball, football, baseball and Pokémon cards, Target had limited customers to one trading card purchase per visit. That caused long lines inside and outside the stores.

A Target sign notifies customers that they can only purchase one box of trading cards per person.

A Target signs notifies customers they can only purchase one box of cards per person. 

Videos have been displayed on social media sites of vendors stocking the shelves at retail outlets and customers lurking around waiting for their chance to pounce on product.

“I’ve seen videos on Twitter and stuff of vendors getting followed to their truck like it’s a Brinks truck,” Carlos Alvarez said. “You can’t have that. You’re putting lives at risk over cards.”

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Prior to shutting down, Alvarez would generally get to his local Target in Miramar, Fla. on Friday mornings at 6:30 a.m. to get signed up for cards through a virtual line. Someone associated with Target would come outside and take down the customers’ names, and when the store officially opened at 9 a.m., each customer was allowed inside to get their one box of trading cards.

Customers stand in line to buy trading cards at a Walmart in Miramar, Fla.

Customers stand in line to buy sports cards at a Walmart in Miramar, Fla. 

“There were people there since 11 the night before,” said Alvarez, who is the founder of the Clutch Ripz, which sells and trades cards on its Twitter page. “My friends would be coming home from work at night and they would go to the McDonald’s next to the Target and they’d see people. I’d be on the phone with them and say, ‘Yo, ask them if they’re waiting for cards or what cards they’re waiting for.’ I would hear them, ‘Yeah, we’re waiting for Pokémon cards, Prizm,’ etc.”

Alvarez said every Friday about midnight, there would be about 10 people waiting in line for the next day’s card delivery.

A similar scenario was happening at a Target in Massachusetts for McElroy. He was able to get his name into an associate at 6:30 a.m., go wait in his car until 9 a.m., and then go into the store for cards.

“I thought it was a good system,” McElroy said. “It was fair. It was a little frustrating at first because there would be these people that line up before 6 a.m. and just the crowd that shows up, they’re not the collecting crowd. You can tell, they’re a crowd that’s either looking to flip stuff or they’re into something else that’s illegal and they’re just using this as a front, whatever it may be. That was frustrating.

“I guess Walmart said that they’re going to continue to sell the stuff, but I don’t know how much longer that’s sustainable because if Target’s not doing it, you’re going to put double the amount of people into Walmart. … Something bad’s going to happen.”

As for Walmart, it hasn’t changed its approach on how much trading card product a customer can purchase at one time. The shelves are just bare a lot quicker these days.

“They’ve maintained sort of a moving target in terms of how they service, whether it’s the day of the week they service particular stores or the time of day, because people started to figure out patterns,” Kazmierczak said. “But they haven’t changed. In fact, this week [May 19], they did a bunch of resets on many of the planograms throughout the country and earlier in the week and over the weekend. There’s been an abundance of product in stores, but, obviously, that flies out pretty fast.”

Employees at Walmart in Miramar, Fla. prepare to stock the shelves with boxes of trading cards.

Employees at Walmart in Miramar, Fla. prepare to stock the shelves with trading cards. 

Walmart, which also didn’t respond to interview requests from SCD, has been slammed with customers waiting for cards.

“Walmart’s harder to get cards at because the vendor comes in randomly,” Alvarez said. “Target, I was actually going when they had the weekly thing; at least in my area, it was easy. When they started doing the one per person, it was more fair. At first, they were doing three per SKU and people were getting three Prizm blasters and three Select blasters, and by the time it’s like the seventh person in line, everything good is gone. They changed it to one person and that’s when everybody got some. It was fair.”

Aguirre, who has been collecting cards since 1987, has enjoyed collecting with his 10-year-old son, Tony. Dad is more of a vintage card connoisseur, while the youngest Aguirre is into picking up modern packs. Up until the pandemic hit, packs were readily available for the Aguirres at Target.

“Things weren’t completely blowing off the shelf — we’re talking Opening Day baseball, Topps Heritage baseball,” Aguirre said. “This is the kind of stuff that would sit around for months [on the shelves]. Even last year, Opening Day sat around for a little bit. But when the pandemic hit, we weren’t sure if the stores were going to close. The night the NBA stopped, we went to Target and bought like seven blasters so we could kind of get something to hold us through for a couple months — or at least that was the thought, anyway.”

Trading cards have been flying off the shelves at Target, forcing the store to limit the availability of products.

Target has always been Aguirre’s go-to for groceries, household items and, obviously, retail cards. So, when Target stopped stocking cards, his sometimes several-times-a-week stops at the outlet have diminished. Three days after Target’s imposed card halt went into effect, the Twitter-friendly Aguirre posted: “I haven’t been to Target in about two weeks. It’s absolutely tied to the fact that I have zero shot at cards.”

“The appeal of having the cards on the shelf is always a plus,” Aguirre told SCD. “I bring my kids into the store; the first stop is the card aisle and then we’ll go do everything else. Now, we know that there are no cards on the shelf, there haven’t been for months, but prior to the announcement that they’re not selling them, there was always an outside chance that you run into something. Maybe something that was hidden and located and put back into place, but now we know there’s nothing.

“I’ll find myself going to actual grocery stores now to buy groceries. I have a grocery store across the street, but I’d go a mile and a half out of the way to go to Target simply because they had the chance of having some cards available while also doing these other household purchases.”

With Kazmierczak trying to set the record straight about what is going on with cards in retail outlets, he heard another rumor floating around social media. Kazmierczak wanted to squash chatter that starting in 2022, Panini would no longer distribute any of its products to retail outlets. People were spreading lies that Panini would just sell all its retail through its own website.

“There’s no truth to that whatsoever,” he said.

However, Panini will be raising prices on some of its products. Kazmierczak said that didn’t happen overnight, it was approved at the beginning of 2021.

“You can’t just say, ‘We’re going to raise our price.’ Neither can Kellogg’s, neither can Tide. You have to get approval quite frankly from the retailer, they have to be OK with it, because they know their consumer better than we know their consumer,” said Kazmierczak, who noted this is the first time in his nine years working for Panini that retail prices will increase.

“Obviously, we share consumers, but at the end of the day, they’ve got data that says what works in their place. So, you’ve got to negotiate price increases and we did that at the beginning of the year. You’ll see them in effect around September, that’s how long it’s taken to process everything and get things changed.”

Kazmierczak revealed that blasters that have traditionally sold for $20 will be going up to $25 and $30, depending on the product.

“That’s reflective of that fact that in the secondary market right now, they’re trading for $50 and $60,” Kazmierczak said. “So, we still haven’t gone all the way to the top of the ladder. But that is what the retailers are somewhat comfortable with.”

As one of the main manufacturers in the trading card industry, Panini is trying to rectify the retail fiasco as best it can. But it can only do so much during this red-hot demand.

“What I don’t want to get lost in all this — this is not an optimal situation at all,” Kazmierczak said. “What I mean by that is the fact that product goes out of retail and hobby and other places so fast, it’s not an optimal solution. However, it is still the best time this industry has ever seen. So, you’ve got to balance a little bit of the emotional reaction to the fact that it can be a challenge to find cards where you have to make an appointment almost to get them. If it was the opposite where nobody cared, I don’t know that’s good, either.”