Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Relativism of Relativity

My lame card show angst is taking the blogosphere by storm.  Nick just posted a fantastic blog on his local card shop, and there have been some really great conversations in the comments of my last couple posts that have left the subject lingering on my brain.  I take credit (or responsibility, depending on how you view things) for the half-cogent ramblings here.  But credit for getting the wheels turning goes to come thought provoking discussion from Nick and Tony L.

For those just tuning in, I'll do one of those little "relevant plot points from the last few episodes that are going to be relevant in this episode" recaps that always annoy me on tv shows.  Except on Buffy.  Buffy can do no wrong.

*fade to last week's episode*
I went to a mall show last weekend with six dealers set up, and 4 of them had their cards priced like Mark McGwire was still hitting 60 homers.

/cut to close shot of disappointed face.

*abrupt cut with voice over*
Having lost all hope in card collecting, I went to the local card vendor at the nearby flea market.  People were excited to buy cards like it really was 1998.  I even bought some cards from 1998!  Except prices were fair, people were happy, and there was nary a Beanie Baby in sight

/fade to intro music

Alright, now that you're caught up...

The frustrations that boiled to the surface this weekend were a long time coming.  Longtime readers (if such people exist) might remember that I've often vented about the old, out of touch, and overpriced dealers at local shows for quite some time.  It just so happened that rather than being able to avoid the 2 or 3 most egregious offenders and buy from the other 5-10 dealers set up at shows, this particular show was rough.  There were simply almost no other options.  Cue the ranting.

I'll try not to revisit those issues too much here.  I was reading a thread on a card forum recently where a show promoter was looking for some advice.  He had a guy that always buys multiple tables and puts out low end boxes - the kind of quarter stuff many of us love finding.  Apparently a few other dealers had been complaining  that they wouldn't set up at the show if this guy was allowed to sell, because customers were spending too much time at his table looking through quarter cards and didn't shop with them.  Let's not even begin to analyze the logic of that.

The most interesting part was from a dealer who jumped in saying that he believes there should be "value" in the hobby, and selling cards in discount bins like $.25, .50, and 1 boxes conditions buyers to expect to be able to buy cards for cheap.

And I think, to one degree or another, this brings us to the core of the mentality and perspective that can be so maddening.

I understand the rationale behind the dealer who sets up at a show with cards priced at full book, or a set percentage off Beckett value.  It's very likely that this guy was, for all intents and purposes, able to sell cards through the 1980's, 1990's, and chunks of the 2000's quite successfully with that formula.  And when you get so set in your ways and patterns, it's no more than a hop, skip, and a jump to think that collectors should still be willing to pay those prices, dammit.  If a parallel /50 would easily sell for $15 in 2002, why should he put it in the $.50 box now?

We talk a lot about the changing hobby landscape.  Or at least I do.  The internet was a big change.  The shifts in manufacturers and the styles of products has unquestionably had an impact.  And the prevalence of 100 case group breaks and the like has probably done the hobby few favors.

But somehow we, or at least I, often skip over the most basic element: supply and demand.  It's a complex issue in and of itself, and ties in with the ways the manufacturers produce cards (remember when jersey cards easily sold for $5-10?).  But let's look at the demand side.  There just flat out aren't as many collectors around today as there were in 2005, let alone 1995 or 1985.  The secondary aspect of the hobby has always been rooted in scarcity, whether real or perceived.

In theory, a dealer can establish a set benchmark.  A gold refractor out of /50 should sell for...$4.  But that $4 figure was essentially a ratio between the copies available and number of collectors who wanted that card.  If the number of collectors who were willing to pay that price was close to the print run, then the value was on point.  If the number of collectors who desired the card went above the availability, the price would rise.  But what about when the number of collectors who desire a card falls well below the supply, even for a seemingly "rare" card?  Go take a look at COMC.  Some gold refractors I've purchased have sat for weeks or even months as low as $2 before I finally pulled the trigger.  I've seen some veteran gold ref's sit even in the $1 range.  Granted this is a gross oversimplification of economics.  But as the number of collectors (note: collectors.  Not flippers.  Not prospectors.  Collectors.) has shrunk, it's inevitable that prices would, or should, adjust accordingly.  But when you sold the same card for pretty much the same price for 25 years, maybe it's not unexpected that you wouldn't react kindly to the realization that buyers simply aren't interested in paying those prices.

Which brings us to the small fish in the small pond.  Throughout high school and most of college, I pretty much stuck to the local mall show circuit.  If you went to one of these shows even in the best of times, vintage was hard to come by.  There were two of the old trolls we've been discussing, one who sells vintage for full book (actually overbook, since he sells just about everything at near mint prices) and the other who has the famous book price/our price stickers and big signs promoting everything being 30%(!!!) off book.  So for a long time, my vintage collection was about a dozen cards, many of which came through online trades or gifts.  If an out of town dealer set up or an older collector was selling his collection, I would be thrilled to pay around $2-3 per card for pretty much anything pre-1972.

Somewhere around 2010 I found out about the big Robert Morris show, a 100+ table show that is by far the biggest in the area.  My first day there, I was standing mouth agape when I saw dealers with rows and rows of $1.00 vintage boxes.  Later in the show I found dealers that had vintage commons as low as $.50 or $.75.  The show draws some of the biggest national vintage dealers, and while I'm sure they make most of their profit off of higher grade cards sold to set collectors, I've been happy to fill my team sets with mid grade copies.

But I've noticed a trend in my years of attending the Robert Morris show.  Prices have continued dipping downward.  Last year I picked about 50 cards from a 3/$1 vintage dealer.  And we're not talking late 60's cards, or low grade.  The cards were nicely centered with decent corners.  I found cards going back as far as 1957, with large quantities of 1960 and up.  Other dealers had gone as low as $.25 on some of their low grade commons.

These are dealers who spend their year traveling the country to sell at the largest shows, and whose cost for the weekend between tables, hotel, and food has presumably only gone up in recent years.  If their prices are getting slashed, I can only imagine it's with just cause.

Maybe it's all irrelevant.  Or at least relative.  I guess the local guys can continue to ask their dated prices, if the entire local market becomes them and their 4 equally out of touch compatriots.  Local collectors will either look elsewhere online or in person, or simply stop buying altogether.  Maybe a few will willingly or unwillingly pony up the inflated prices.  But the shift in pricing we see isn't simple enough to be attributed to that damn dealer undercutting everybody with his quarter box, or that confounded internets.  We may have simply reached the point of saturation where the number of copies available for anything beyond that top crust of the collecting spectrum simply outweighs demand in most cases.

I'm not sure what entirely that means for buyers or sellers.  Clearly many aspects of the hobby have adapted accordingly, from the biggest show dealers, to COMC, to the way we as collectors buy and trade.  And perhaps I feel a little sympathy for the dealers who are still unfolding their table and hoping suddenly those buyers from 1997 will walk back this weekend.

But that doesn't mean I don't wish they would cut the price on their Nate McLouth auto by about 80%...


  1. Nice post. You've given the blogosphere plenty to think about as of late.
    I wish we could see some numbers... What percentage of people are true collectors? Prospectors? Flippers? Dealers?
    My collecting habits are very much like they were in middle school, with the exception of massive packages from JBF. I feel like I'm part of a dying breed.

    1. I think on the whole bloggers are the exception. I think most of us fall pretty heavily into the collector category. But I do think "end user" collectors are the exception. So many forum threads I read seem to use "collection" and "prospect stash" to mean the same thing. How many cards that are sold are entering a collection and truly off the market (barring unforeseen circumstances) rather than just on a temporary stop before being resold again in a month, or a year, or 3 years when the player gets hot or traded.

      Sometimes it feels like most "collectors" just look at the hobby as a really expensive game of hot potato.

  2. "The most interesting part was from a dealer who jumped in saying that he believes there should be "value" in the hobby, and selling cards in discount bins like $.25, .50, and 1 boxes conditions buyers to expect to be able to buy cards for cheap."

    How DARE we expect to buy cheap cards!! (says the college student with about seven dollars in his wallet as we speak)

    I'm kind of halfway expecting someone to buy those Nate McLouth and Ian Snell autos when (if?) you head back to that mall show now.

    1. I was really happy to see a lot of people disagreeing with him. It was a really interesting line of argument, even if it did make my blood boil.

      One really interesting counter argument - which may warrant its own post at some point - was that card shows actually *attract* people looking for lower end cards. Nobody goes to a show looking for some high end Trout auto, because they know they have a much better chance of finding one and getting the best price online. While the low end stuff we love - dimes, quarters, etc - are the kind of things it really only makes sense to sell in person due to shipping/listing costs.

      It's worth noting none of the dealers I've been griping about had anything available priced under maybe $3, and even all their commons were individually priced.