Pokémon card influencers explain how scalpers, nostalgia, and YouTube have boosted the value of the collectables to hundreds-of-thousands of dollars

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Pokemon Cards Photo by Achim Scheidemann / picture alliance via Getty Images
  • Pokémon card prices are on the rise and scalpers are becoming an issue in the collector community.

  • Card prices soared over the course of 2020 due to nostalgia and YouTuber influence.

  • Target recently stopped selling the cards in their stores.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Over the course of 2020 and 2021, Pokémon card scalpers have been waiting for hours at stores to buy up large numbers of cards that they can flip for a profit. The scalpers are profiting from a new wave of trading card hysteria, stemming from a pandemic spike in interest in profitable collectibles and a sense of nostalgia hitting Millennials with disposable incomes.

Tins, starter decks, and expensive playsets containing cards can be sold for quite a bit more on auction sites and third-party retailers than in stores. For example, an Elite Trainer Box of the February expansion set Shining Fates, featuring 10 packs and exclusive cards, costs $49.99 at retail. On eBay, those same boxes can go for $80 to $100 with the rarest card in the set, a shiny holographic Charizard, going for hundreds of dollars on the auction site.

Videos on TikTok of scalpers waiting hours in line just to get product have gone viral, some with comments full of vitriol and anguish. Others, showing scalpers waiting in long lines only to fail in purchasing the entire stock, have inspired comments full of schadenfreude.

"Thanks for ruining the hobby for collectors," wrote one TikTok user. "This is why there's nothing at Target, because of people like this."

The resale issue has become so contentious, that Target stopped selling Pokémon cards on May 14 after massive lines appeared and fights broke out over the shiny cardboard.

Pokémon card scalpers are making product hard to find

Scalpers, who oftentimes purchase items before anyone else has the chance, have thrived during the coronavirus pandemic, capitalizing on a general decreased willingness to purchase products in real life.

Scalpers "have taken something already in short supply and made it even more inaccessible," Lee Steinfeld, who opens Pokémon cards on his YouTube channel for over 1 million followers, told Insider. "The worst thing about it is that it's not allowing people to continue collecting, build their competitive decks, or simply play for fun due to lack of supply."

The YouTuber, who goes by Leonhart online, has found it difficult to get "product" and has stopped opening newer expansions and sets on his channel.

Like game consoles, trading cards have seen a massive rise in popularity and scarcity, though Pokémon cards have always had some popularity - in 2016 2.1 billion cards were sold.

Online card retailer TCGplayer told Insider that they shipped over 16.2 million single Pokémon cards over the course of 2020 and that some older cards have tripled in value over the past 12 months.

"We have a lot more serious collector money influencing the market than what we had previously," John McDonald, Senior VP of Product at TCGplayer said in February.

Scalpers know what value cards have and are capitalizing on their demand

Demand in Pokémon card sales is increasing because of a number of factors.

The franchise just celebrated its 25th anniversary, with over a dozen games, movies, and television shows featuring these pocket monsters. That nostalgic feeling from older players, combined with a new abundance of content creators and videos focused on the market has created a renewed level of hype around the cards. Without disposable income going towards travel and other pre-pandemic activities, owning the fanciest Charizard from your childhood could seem like a worthwhile purchase.

In October 2020, YouTube star Logan Paul hosted a live stream opening up vintage Pokémon cards, pulling in millions of views. Soon, other internet denizens and celebrities like Steve Aoki started to buy up old supplies to collect. A PSA 10 Charizard from the original 1999 cards sold for over $200,000 to rapper Logic and Paul has said on his Instagram that he's spent over $2 million on vintage cards. Though these old sets can't be purchased by scalpers at big-box store, their influence on scarcity of current products remains unmatched.

Teddy (who asked not to disclose his full name for privacy concerns), who runs a Pokémon investment TikTok channel with 80,000 subscribers where he visits stores to search for products and opens card packs, believes that there's no single reason for the recent boom in popularity, but that scalpers will take advantage of any market that they know they can capitalize on.

"There are always going to be people that buy products, strictly for reselling, that's everywhere and it's life," Teddy said. "I've met people that don't even know what they are buying, they just know what the price on eBay is."

The pandemic has created new challenges for manufacturing and obtaining new products. Items like Sony's highly anticipated console the PlayStation 5 have had massive demand but low stock, caused by hype and a shortage of semiconductor chips. This hiccup hasn't stopped the console from flying off shelves, selling 11.5 million units since launching in late 2020.

Wholesale retailers are changing how they sell cards because of the demand

This demand has created a new breed of scalpers who comb the shelves of big-box retail stores in an attempt to find a rare card that they can flip for a profit on sites like eBay and TCGPlayer. When General Mills ran a promotion in March with Pokémon to include cards in cereal boxes, people started ripping open Lucky Charms in the supermarket just to find a Pikachu. A month earlier, McDonald's included cards with their Happy Meals that led to a collector-driven shortage of children's meals which caused the fast-food chain to encourage franchisees to limit what they sell.

"Pokémon could not keep up with the ever-growing demand and with their limited printing functions eventually ran into a point where they could not meet distribution demands for stores, big or small," Steinfeld said. "Scalpers decided to take advantage of the limited supply but growing demand and thus left us in the situation we are in."

Lines outside of stores like Target, became commonplace for collectors. Signs posted from social media users claiming to be from Target stores showed that some locations were only restocking at 8 a.m. on Fridays, causing massive lines to appear overnight. According to Vice, other Target locations had to limit the amount of product to three pieces per person before changing it to one piece on April 30. Just two weeks later, Target announced that they would be discontinuing sales of all Pokémon and sports trading cards inside their stores "out of an abundance of caution."

The news comes after a fight broke out over "sports cards" and a gun was pulled out at a Target parking lot in Brookfield, Wisconsin on Friday according to WSIN.

Still, Pokémon resellers are flourishing online.

Twitter accounts like Pokémon Drops, chronicle when certain items go on sale and when stock is available, allowing those with a pulse on the industry a chance to buy first. The Pokémon TCG and TCG Deals Reddits are flooded with tips and stories. Discord groups with thousands of members discussing where they can purchase and flip product, as well as showing off their massive collections, have become go-to spots to keep the community stitched together.

On Friday, the Pokémon Company posted an update on their website about the scarcity of their product, noting that they are "aware that some fans are experiencing difficulties purchasing...due to very high demand and global shipping constraints impacting availability." To support the demand, they are "actively working to print more of the impacted Pokémon TCG products as quickly as possible and at maximum capacity to support this increased demand."

"Once we have more supply, thus able to meet the demand, then scalpers will go away," Steinfeld said. "People are tired of not being able to walk into a store to be able to get a pack to open."

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