Pricing a Card: How to determine a card’s worth in a world of opinions

Our friend Tanner Jones even wrote a book on his addiction to cards. You can buy the book on Amazon

If this article found its way to you, then I assume you’re a hobbyist, just like us here at About the Cards! I carefully chose the word “hobbyist” instead of “collector” because there is a myriad of differences and variables. It is oft argued about what truly defines a collector versus someone who is in the hobby for profit, or to fulfill a gambling addiction.

I won’t get too deep into defining what a collector is in this article since that’s not the intent, and it’s a very subjective topic to begin with. However, there is a parallel between collecting and pricing which I will touch on. So, with that said, let’s get started.

If you are ever to peruse Facebook, in any number of the countless trading cards groups, a common theme that is frequented Is “what is (this) worth”? Most groups have rules against these types of posts since they can be seen as “phishing” posts, especially when the comments are full of “Private Message (PM) sent”. However, it is, in some cases, a very valid question. For the sake of this article, let’s avoid hopping in the way back machine and discussing the junk wax era, where there was an abundance of cards printed. Even vintage should have enough of an established market, where comps (cards used for comparison) are bountiful. 

Instead let’s focus on current releases, since those have developing or fluid markets. In other words, a card’s perceived and market worth can change in a matter of minutes, or typically within days of a product’s initial release. We find ourselves in an era where cards are literally printed on-demand daily and weekly, along with the predetermined hobby and retail releases. Where depreciating values are a common thread. To put this in layman’s terms, the attention level of most collectors is tenuous at best. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a fellow collector reach out to me with an A’s card from a “recent” release and ask if I was interested. Usually, I already have that, if the product is more than a week old. The economic theory of FiFo (First in, First Out) is applicable here. Get in, get what I want/need and move on to the next release before the train has left the station. Because… There’s always a next release. I do not sit alone on this bed of trepidation.

Herein lies the problem most sellers face. If the consumer segment interested in my card has a shelf life of 7-10 days post release, how do I measure a card’s fluid worth, in order to sell it a timely manner, before their attention span has moved on to something else? Bingo. We have arrived at the issue at hand. A seller who pulls an auto, relic, parallel, short print (SP) or super-short print (SSP) has to move quickly to assess their card’s current market worth before the market shifts and they’ve lost potential returns. You have to dance with two devils… I want to maximize my sales price… But, I also want the card to sell, while there’s still a market for it.

Before we move any further, I want to break down card sellers in to three different segments. This will also help us determine how a seller might “price” a card as a Buy in Now (BIN), hoping to capitalize on team and player collectors, as well as those that suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). 

Segment 1: The traditional seller. Here is where we would find case/box breakers, who open product with the intent to resell most, if not all, with eyes geared towards maximizing their respective return. Some, under this umbrella, even do so for a living, using card sales as their primary source of income. Sellers in this segment have to consider their respective IRR (Internal Rate-of-Return). I commonly use this phrase on Twitter to explain the difference between listing discrepancies, or difficult sellers. In a nutshell, every company (or seller in this case) has to adhere to their own IRR, which will differ between every company/seller. Most major corporations try to get an IRR with a multiplier of 1.5x. In other words, for every dollar they spend, they need a positive return of $1.50. There, of course, are a lot of variables that will affect this, but each needs to stay close to whatever IRR they designate.

This is the most common of the three segments. Collectors, like myself, live off of this segment, gobbling up cards at-or-below current market worth. It’s a win-win. They get money to go towards their IRR (and profit) and the collector gets a card(s) they want, without having to open a box in hopes of pulling it. This is also the most stubborn and methodical of the bunch. These sellers are here to make a profit… they need to make a profit. They are much less likely to make a deal, or should I say make a “sweetheart” deal. They have a strict IRR and will stay very close to that, even if it means sitting on a card. They also can fall behind on fluid market prices, due to the sheer number of cards they have listed at any given time. This can sometimes backfire on them as well, if a certain player, or card, gets hot.

If a seller opens up a box of Museum Collection, at $200 a box, they need to get $300 in value from the cards (IRR of 1.5x). Sellers that open a lot of product can anticipate a smaller IRR, than someone who opens a box or two, knowing they will make up the difference in volume. When factoring your IRR, remember that associated costs, such as shipping supplies and packaging (penny sleeves, top loaders, teams bags) should always be factored in the resale value and not the perceived market worth of the cards. 

Segment 2: Would be the breakee, or gambler. These are the people in the hobby, most often just opening product, or breaking with a group breaker, looking to hit it big. They will keep the good cards and liquidate the rest. They might keep cards, based on their collecting wants, but most often they are using the hobby as a way to reap the benefits of high-end, high-octane gambling.

These sellers are most likely to be extremely motivated to sell and might surprise a buyer with a deal they weren’t expecting. If a SP card is listed at $59.99, a seller in segment one might not sell theirs for below $50-55. A gambler needs that money for their next break/case and might sell it for $30. This method of selling is called “burn-n-turn”, or “wheelin’-n dealin”. These sellers hold similar qualities to flea market dealers. “Make me an offer and if its reasonable enough, I just might sell it!” 

Segment 3: This is where a lot of us find ourselves. There are two sub-segments within this one, but closely related enough to be categorized together. First, you have the collector that opens products and resells the excess, with the intent to create a self-sustaining hobby. (Check out ATC’s friend, and frequent guest, Mike Sommer @themikesommer for his thoughts, and advice, on this subject). The second sub-segment is the collector who just wants to move clutter. This is the collector, who often has a ton of trade bait and is more inclined to trade, than to sell. 

This segment is where you will find collectors that run auctions vs BIN’s. These are true collectors at heart, yes true being used very subjectively. They are motivated to move cards as well, but less so as the volume sellers. They just want to recoup some money, from non-wanted cards, to reinvest in something else they’d prefer. They aren’t as concerned with the final sales price as the previous two segments are. We’ve all ended up with cards we have no desire to PC (personal collection). If we can’t trade them, why not sell them to create more money for our PC? This segment of collectors relies heavily on those sellers from segments one and two, as well as one another. 

So that brings us back to pricing our cards upon release… 

The best thing to do would be to understand which seller segment you consider yourself. That will help determine what type of return you need, along with urgency in which you are looking to recover your costs. It will also help you know how to list your card(s) (Auction v BIN). Also understand that pricing is not an exact science. We’ve all overspent on a PC item and we’ve all undersold a card, by not understanding the card/player’s market worth, or misreading the fluidity of a certain card/player. Things happen. Lesson learned, sulk for five minutes and move on.

Note: You can reach out to ATC’s friend, Beau @onemillioncubs if you have questions on how to ship PWE and whether or not it’s an appropriate shipping method for you as a seller

Know that Topps Big League Baseball and Topps Opening Day are low-end collector sets and most cards have very little resale value, other than to team/player collectors. Most cards will be no more than the website minimums and should be offered with free shipping, shipped in PWE’s (Plain White Envelopes).

However, keep in mind, less Big League Baseball and Opening Day are printed (and opened), so their respective SP/SSPs tend to sell for more money than you’d see in Flagship, or expect from a product at their price point(s). In turn, higher end products can net similar profit margins, just at higher dollar figures. 

When pricing a card, always look for immediate comps. Here’s where we all roll our eyes simultaneously. We know this. Well, do we? Last year when Museum Collection dropped a seller listed a Paul Blackburn Auto/Relic for $124.99. Now, I’d like to think I know the A’s market fairly well, as I often help set it with my early purchases. Most A’s collectors would agree that the Blackburn card was a $5-$7 (max). I made an offer and got declined, with the seller letting me know “your offer is insulting… we will see what the market says”. Okay, my man… You do you! Falling in line, other sellers started listing theirs at “below-market-prices”, coming in comfortably at $89.99, $79.99, etc. The issue being, that ALL of them were severely overpriced. 

ATC’s friend Chris Torres (@crt_sportscards), posed a question on Twitter, expressing his frustrations with sellers who set eBay’s “auto-decline” feature. Agree, or disagree, Chris’ position was you should always counter (as the seller) to create an open dialogue, even when the offer can be construed as “insulting”. Those that disagreed with his position, agreed with a similar counterargument that they didn’t want to deal with the hassles of “unreasonably”, or “low-ball” offers. My position, being neutral, was… “who is to say whether or not it was a low-ball offer”? Whenever, I say this, I always get hit with the “supply versus demand” argument… or “it’s worth what someone is willing to pay for it”

Welcome to the conversation, Captain Obvious(es)! (Or is it Captain Obvi-Eye?)

Both of the above-mentioned principles are factually based and foundations of most economic principles. However, in a fluid market, both are only one singular variable, albeit, important ones, to a much larger issue. What if a card (or item) is grossly overpriced to begin with? What if a collection of sellers have cards listed at prohibitive prices, because seller A doesn’t understand a card, from a specific product, or a specific player’s fluid market worth? And then sellers B, C & D follow suit… What, then?

Well as I illustrated above, the Paul Blackburn card from Museum Collection was severely and absurdly overpriced, based on what I knew his market to be. When I joked about it on Twitter, other fellow A’s collectors agreed with my assessment. I did end up buying one, serial numbered to the same number, for $5. As well as a second Blackburn from Museum Collection (auto only) for $10 shipped. For both. Total. My offer to the seller for his single card was $12. (I knew I was prematurely high, but I wanted to secure one and move on).

I can’t tell you if the seller ever sold his, or for what amount, but I know that there are plenty of sellers that fall into this bucket. The same bucket our friend Chris referred to. Had that seller selected to auto-decline anything under a certain dollar amount, he would have never saw my “low-ball” offer. Except it wasn’t a “low-ball” offer at all. It was 240% ABOVE market worth. How many times has a seller overpriced a product, selected “auto decline/accept” and missed out on a fair market valuation offer(s)? (Hint: Many and Many, Amen; Insert Randy Travis reference).

So here are a few tips from ATC as to how to price a card, with little-to-no current comps:

  • Look for current listings to use as comps
  • Look for sold listings to see if any have already sold, setting a temporary market worth
  • If none of that player are listed, look for similar players, from that product to use as comps
  • If you’re still unsure, use similar products to compare your player to (Use Big League and Opening Day together; Gypsy Queen/Allen & Ginter; Museum Collection/Triple Threads; Five Star/Definitive)
  • Make sure you find 5-7 comps, if you can
  • Understand the seller segment umbrella you fall under; It’s okay to leave a little money on the table if you feel you got an equitable and fair deal
  • For low-numbered, or rare, cards, never hesitate to ask the collecting community (if someone doesn’t know, they might know someone who can help; ATC is always happy to assist a seller with information either directly, or by pointing them in the right direction)
  • Low #’d cards, even 1/1s, have a market cap; Sure, it only takes ones, but asking $3,000.00 for a Canary Eric Hosmer, when in reality it’s a $200 card, it not good peripherals 
  • When in doubt, put it at auction and let the real-time market dictate its worth (for better or worse)
  • Be adaptable, flexible and current with pricing before declining a “best offer”
  • If selling privately, the seller should assume all associated fees when selling Goods & Services; Do not push the cost to the buyer; It’s bad peripherals and metrics
  • Do your best to decipher between a perceived “low-ball” offer and a “reasonable” offer if it comes in at a price-point lower than your listing price
  • Pricing is not an exact science
  • Never use Beckett as anything more than informational (it’s antiquated and no longer relevant as a pricing tool

I hope that this has helped some with a few of the questions a prospective seller might have when attempting to price a card without an established market, fluid or static. There are always going to be sellers, incapable of properly ascertaining the market worth of their cards, or cards in general. The best we can do is try to be as close to market worth, an ever-moving entity, as we can. If we were always perfect at it, well we’d all be playing the stock market, making millions! 

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