Gotta Catch ‘Em… None? How a Pandemic Gutted the Pokémon Card Hobby in South Jersey

You think this Pikachu card is cute? Well, good luck getting ahold of it. - Graphics Editor / Jana Jackstis

Rowan University sophomore English and education major Jason Evers has just one regret about his Pokémon card collection: starting too late. By the time he’d decided to begin collecting again, after a post-childhood hiatus, the pandemic had already paralyzed production and supply.

“In elementary school, you’d see them in the store, and you’d beg your mom for them, but I was never really into serious collecting,” Evers explained. “Then over the pandemic I was at a friend’s house, and I didn’t know that he collected until he opened a cabinet of his and he had like the biggest collection I’ve ever seen. It was cool seeing all the regular cards, but there are all those crazy shiny cards that they make now. The art’s really, really crazy. It made me want to start collecting again, because I’d missed out on a lot of really great art.”

“I love it so much. I just wish I could afford it.”

Evers is referring to the recent spike in prices and drop in availability of cards. Where it had once been easy to find cards in big box stores as well as hobby shops, supply has recently plummeted. Scalpers have rushed to take advantage of the situation, reselling items for more than double their manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP).

Sophomore Jason Evers shows off his budding Pokémon card collection binder. He had just begun collecting for the first time since childhood when supply chain issues made the cards all but impossible to obtain. (My own binders can be seen in the background.) – Managing Editor / Tara Lonsdorf

“There’s a pretty big problem with finding anything you want to get,” he explained. “Anything that can be sold in this hobby gets bought up in the second that it’s stocked, and resold for like twice the market value.”

My renewed interest in Pokémon cards resembles Evers’ closely, though I had begun my earnest quest to “catch ‘em all” a few months before he had. Like many others, the pandemic allowed me to reinvest time in hobbies that had eluded me since childhood. Much like Evers, though, I too had noticed issues in obtaining cards at a reasonable price.

This scarcity ultimately culminated in my standing for thirty minutes outside the Comic Book Store in Glassboro, in the freezing rain, in a line that wrapped around the store on the day of the release of the Shining Fates set, only to be told that the cards had been entirely sold out. Though staff at the Comic Book Store declined to provide any commentary, I was still interested in learning more about how Pokémon card scarcity was affecting other collectors, especially those in the South Jersey community.

I took my questions to the “New Jersey Pokémon TCG” Facebook page and asked other collectors to share their thoughts and concerns.

“The culture thats [sic] formed out of apps giving items value (Ebay, FB Market, Mercari, etc) and the present reality of the pandemic has created the right conditions for a scarcity economy that has affected many different collecting communities,” Matt Kradelman, a Facebook user from Lawrenceville, wrote. “Having previously collected Amiibo, I’m all too familiar with scalpers and the creation of artificial demand. People will pretty much do anything to make a quick buck, especially during a pandemic where people have lost jobs. The demand has created tension between consumers, retailers and those on the secondary market, and nowadays you seemingly have to dip into the idea of reselling in order to get what you want. Such tension has caused stores such as the Princeton Target to cease Pokémon & Sports TCG sales altogether.”

Evers’ full-art Sonia card is one of his most valuable for resale. However, he doesn’t think he’ll be selling any of his collection soon. – Managing Editor / Tara Lonsdorf

Other users (and Evers) have directed blame at Logan and Jake Paul, the popular YouTube brothers who have recently shifted to producing Pokémon-based content. Often, these videos hyper-focus on the hypothetical resale value of each card and view collecting through the lens of “profit gained.”

Meanwhile, Erik Hernandez, a Facebook user from South Jersey, claims to have driven an hour and a half just to purchase a single Shining Fates Elite Trainer Box and two Shining Fates Pikachu promo boxes – and paid $140 for the set, which has an MSRP of $90. But Hernandez wasn’t making a bad deal for himself. Compared to other gouged prices, $140 be a steal.

Greg Peck, owner of Greg’s Games in Hamilton, shed some light on the issues affecting trading card supply, demand and community.

“It was like, ‘we can’t have people in the printing factories,’ so that was a very large hinderance,” Peck said. “Wizards of the Coast [which licenses Magic: the Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons titles] got backed up with their printing now, and so did Pokémon… The factories used to print 18 hours a day, say they had three six-hour shifts. They would have to cut out a shift to make sure the could sanitize the factory, and they cut down on how many staff they could have in on the assembly lines.”

“COVID,” he said, “in my opinion, rocked supply chains in a way that people didn’t expect and I definitely didn’t expect.”

Greg’s Games had only been open for six months when the governor’s orders forced it to close for about 90 days due to COVID-19, not even allowed to engage in curbside pickup until May 2020 – even when they had outstanding purchase orders to fill. By the time they were allowed to open, Greg’s Games was struggling to pay its rent, struggling right along hobby shops across the state.

And it wasn’t just cards themselves that were difficult to obtain. It was also all of the accessories that accompany a trading card hobby.

“A big thing with supply chain is a lot of the consumer products – in general – use plastics,” Peck explained. “In my store specifically, we buy a lot of plastic-based products: binders and their pages, card protector sleeves, top-loaders. They became impossible to get because a lot of the companies producing these things shifted to making PPE for hospital workers because the plastics used in those were the same type or thickness as different face shields or hazmat shield plastic windows.”

While the hobby of trading card collecting may be going through a rough patch, it seems likely that it will make it through. The impact that the pandemic has had on the trading card hobby has been, in many ways, double-edged. According to Peck, sales haven’t just rebounded from the beginning of the pandemic: they’ve spiked.

“Sales dropped to effectively zero until mid-to-late April when people realized, ‘oh this is for real, we’re not coming out of this soon,'” Peck explained. “And that’s when people shifted to buying online. We had a big surge of [purchases of] paints and models that people could do at home, but that wasn’t just isolated to our store. It was for other store owners as well in this card, game, hobby industry… people are looking for things to do with their families.”

Since then, he says that the store has seen days with over twice the sales it had experienced pre-pandemic. The best days for the store are those he believes customers receive their federal government-issued stimulus checks.

Evers is no exception to a trend of people finding joy in a hobby in the uncertainty of the pandemic. From the way he talks about his growing Pokémon card collection, and each card in it, it’s obvious that he’s in it to stay.

He spent a minute talking about one card, an Alcremie Vmax – one we’d coincidentally both bought as a single online. Evers had ended up paying about twice the market value. But he’s happy to have obtained it nonetheless, hoping to use it as the cornerstone of a playable deck. “I watched a video about how to run this as your main,” he said, as he began explaining how each move could work synchronously with other cards to create massive damage-dealing combos.

Alcremie Vmax is one of Evers’ favorite cards he owns. He bought it in an eBay bidding war in order to assemble what he hopes will become his first competitive playing deck. – Managing Editor / Tara Lonsdorf

“I had just wanted something new over quarantine,” Evers said.

But it seems like his interest will long outlast the pandemic.

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