Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Economic Irrationality of Sports Card Magazine

 Sports Card Magazine is Japan`s version of Beckett.   It is a monthly about sports (mostly baseball) cards that includes a price guide.

I haven`t actually bought one of these in a few years, the one in the photo above is from 2005 which I just picked up at random at a used book store for 100 yen.  The only time I bought one new was in 2002.  At the time I was living in Himeji and a sports card store had just opened up downtown.  I used to go there after work a lot and bought packs of 2002 BBM from them pretty regularly, I came close to finishing both series entirely through packs.  My business wasn`t quite enough to keep the store going though and it was closed by 2003, thus putting an end to my foray into baseball card collecting for a while.

Anyway, to get back to the magazine, I only bought one copy of it for two reasons.  One is that it cost 1000 yen, which is a bit pricey.  More importantly though is the fact that the prices in it just make no sense at all.  Nothing in it makes sense.

 I noticed this at the time.  Take a look at the 2002 BBM set for example.  Common cards are listed as being worth between 50 and 80 yen each. 
That is about 50 to 80 cents each for common cards in a very common set.  Every set they list the common cards as being worth at least 50 yen each, no matter how easy they are to find or how much demand there is for them.

Now a pack of 2002 BBM with ten cards in it cost only 200 yen, or 20 yen per card.  So by Sports Card Magazine logic, if you got a pack entirely filled with nothing but commons you would still be getting between 500 and 800 yen worth of cards.  What?

When I read criticisms of Beckett pricing and how it bears no resemblence to reality I always have to laugh.  You Americans think Beckett is bad?  That is amateur hour.  If Sports Card Magazine was pricing American cards, your 1991 Donruss commons would be worth 50 cents each and a complete set of 1989 Topps would probably be listed for about the same as the blue book value of a recent model Toyota Corrola. 

I really have no idea what they think is driving the price of these cards.  I mean, I bought a 3200 card box of random BBM cards including stars a few months ago for 2000 yen (about 20 bucks), which works out to less than 1 yen each. These are not rare cards nor would anyone be well advised to be paying that much for them. Also, valueing these cards so high actually kind of undervalues cards which are actually hard to find and might be worth that much.  Calbee commons from the extremely hard to find sets of the early-mid 1990s they price only slightly higher (100 yen each mostly).  Those cards are several orders of magnitude harder to find, and much more sought after, than BBM cards from mass produced sets and yet according to Sports Card Magazine they are only worth 20-50% more. 

The next logical question is do dealers actually price cards that way?  Actually, some of them do.  Which begs the question of whether or not anyone actually buys them.  I could see buying one or two to finish your set at that price, but that would be it.  And dealers can`t survive off of the odd one or two collectors buying the odd one or two cards for 50 to 80 yen each, so why would they even bother stocking these?

OK, this is making my head spin a bit.  I haven`t bought a copy of Sports Card Magazine in a long time, I`m not sure if they are still this bad or not.  Some of the articles are at least kind of interesting, but that is about all I can say for it!


  1. The cheapest store around here sells cards for 30 yen each and up. In fact, most card stores I've been to around Japan sell commons for 30 or 50 yen each. Even at the shows I've been to, singles never start that cheap, although bulk lots tend to be great deals. My collecting goals actually dictate buying singles at 30-50 yen each or higher. I can't buy bulk lot after lot of random BBM cards if I want the singles I am looking for. And in a country like Japan, it seems that there aren't many dealers other than card shops. Even the Tokyo card shows (CardFesta) are represented by dealers. I have been a bit happier with the small shows held in Nagoya and Osaka, though stores do set up there too.

    Like Beckett, the price is based on the high sales price that you should expect to pay in stores. And like Beckett, I think they're stuck on an old pricing model, and the stores sell cards based on the SCM price. It's a never-ending cycle of (un?)intended price fixing.

    Calbee prices are all over the place, but because most Japanese dealers (card stores) know nothing about Calbee, they tend to group them by decade and charge prices based on their age. Besides, why spend a lot of time looking up prices for different years' cards except for those of the most popular players?

    The 30/50 yen issue drives me nuts. Seriously, I would totally collect more base cards and probably assemble BBM (flagship) sets if I could get the cards cheaply. Stores do sell lots of singles though, over time. Customers like me putting together type collections, team collectors, player collectors, topical collectors. I have seen some stores sell bulk lots of cards for 1 yen each or less, and I've picked up some complete team sets for under 5 yen a card.

    As for the older cards vs. newer cards, 1991 BBM is harder to find than anything in the past 10 years. Finding large groups of singles from the 1990s is really difficult around here, and other than the occasional complete factory set of 1991, I almost never see sets from the '90s. I don't think it was until 2001 that NPB card collecting became more than a niche hobby (even today, it still is) when Ichiro went to the States.

    Plus, you have to remember supply vs. demand. New hotness is everything here - old Calbees just aren't interesting. The vintage angle isn't really explored by most collectors. There is less supply of older cards, but a much smaller demand, too.

    For your information, the latest SCM guides continue to do the same as before. And as long as there is no real collector's network (shows, especially) to trade and sell unwanted cards, the only outlet is through stores. For readers interested in selling cards to stores, be warned: you'll get almost nothing for goods unless you have something hot.

    Sean, do you know of any places where you can pick up singles under 30 yen each? Other than bulk lots? I know you aren't in Tokyo, but I'm interested in your experiences.

  2. All very good points!

    My experience is similar - all of the sports card stores I`ve ever been to in Japan have had commons at about the same, 50 yen each. It is one of the things that puts me off of going to card shops, the whole model of price gouging like that rubs me the wrong way. I have been to card stores in Fukuoka (Mint) and the Himeji shop I mentioned in this post, but I haven`t actually visited any in Nagoya since I moved here about a year and a half ago mainly for that reason.

    When I was collecting my 2002 BBMs it really bothered me. After having spent a small fortune on buying packs from the store and getting down to about 50 or so cards that I needed for the regular set, the fact that they would only sell them to me for 50 yen each even if I bought a lot of them ust made me mad, especially being from North American where I`m used to dealers just dumping commons into nickel or even penny bins. Even if they hadn`t gone out of business that one issue pretty much made up my mind for me about whether or not I would be collecting the 2003 BBMs (which I didn`t).

    It is a curious economic question. It is basically price fixing cartel-like behavior on the part of all card shops. But you would expect that some of the shops would cheat on that cartel by selling their singles for less and thus getting more business from collectors like you and me who want the cards but don`t want to pay ridiculously inflated prices, but nobody does. There seems to be no price competition and thus everyone gets ripped off.

    With alternative venues like Yahoo Auctions though the card stores are going to have to either change their ways or go out of business. These days I pretty much do all my card shopping via Yahoo Auctions where price competition actually exists and I think a lot of other collectors are doing the same. Not many people sell single BBM commons on there individually due to the shipping cost being more than the cards are worth, but with older singles (like for my 1987 Calbee set) I can find them for way cheaper than in stores. And there are of course tons of lots available for very cheap (there is one 1991 BBM lot with a buy it now per card price of about 7 yen each up there now and two complete sets with relatively low starting bids).

    I`m not sure if I agree with you about vintage stuff not being explored by collectors though. There is a ton of activity on Yahoo Auctions for pre-1997 (ish) stuff and the prices always go high. I follow that stuff pretty closely since I collect it and so long as the price is reasonable it always goes quickly (to my frustration sometimes). To be sure, new stuff probably has broader appeal because its new, but there is a sizeable market for vintage stuff too.

  3. The cost of shipping certainly means stores can continue to charge a high price for singles for convenience. I wish Yahoo was easier for me to use; I don't have a Japanese credit card, which makes it really tough. And a market where there's a bigger demand for vintage (all of Japan instead of just local areas) certainly helps with the supply of vintage.

    I don't want to discredit vintage as being unwanted. I think the internet makes it more accessible and probably has lead to an increase in interest. And I've noticed one of the local stores has increased its stock of vintage Calbees, at local store prices of course.

  4. True about shipping, but that only goes to a certain extent. If you are just literally buying 1 or 2 cards then it is an issue. But with Yuu-Mail sellers can ship up to about 70 or 80 cards for a flat 80 yen so if you send someone a want list then the shipping cost almost disappears. Also Yahoo Auctions doesn`t charge sellers big fees like Ebay, nor do sellers inflate shipping costs so all the transaction costs are pretty low. If you ever get a Japanese credit card, I do recommend signing up for an account. Actually, I haven`t checked recently but I think there is a simplified account you can get without a credit card. You are limited to bidding on stuff less than 5,000 yen and can`t sell anything, but you can use it as a buyer for free (and most payments are made through Japan Post transfers which are free, though it depends on the seller).

    I agree about the vintage. To me the main thing limiting it would be the stranglehold the dealers have had on the stock and the inflated prices they charge. It just turns it into a luxury rather than a fun past time. If I had to pay the high prices at shops I would probably only have 3 or 4 cards of favorite players and that would be it. But with Yahoo its just fun to hunt for bargains, which are out there!

  5. I have a Yahoo Auctions account, but I've only used it once. I'm a bit unclear how bank transfer works on my end; I thought there was some 80 yen charge or something. Actually, our discussions prompted me to spend a little time last night on Yahoo and I dropped a couple super-low bids on some things, but then I got outbid on all of them.

    I went vintage shopping this weekend, and of course went the card store route. I ended up spending 300 yen on each card (some were a little less), for 1970s Calbee. If I got the bank transfer thing down or a credit card, I'd certainly be browsing Yahoo. But since I do a type collection, I don't usually buy a lot of cards from any specific set.

    Something you could possibly post about in the future would be how to use Yahoo Auctions, at least from the perspective of someone living in Japan. I came across an English language middleman site to assist overseas buyers, but I am not sure about any good "guide" to searching and paying for Yahoo Auctions out there - especially common card keywords like "lot" "set" "box" etc. Lots of auctions seem to not outright say "set" (or the katakana equivalent).

  6. That is a good idea, I will do a post about using Yahoo Auctions for beginners!

    About bank transfers it depends on which bank you use. I have a postal account and if you are sending money to another postal account then there are zero fees. So before I bid on anything I make sure that the seller accepts yuucho transfers (about 75% or so of sellers do, but some don`t so this is an important thing to check). If you are sending a transfer to a different bank from the one you use then there probably is a fee. They also have their own online payment system, Yahoo kantan kessan, but I have never used it.

    A couple of useful keyword searches are 枚 (mai) which is a counter for flat objects. If a seller is putting out a lot of 100 cards or something, they will usually say 100枚 in the title. So if you go to the BBM or Calbee category and put that in it will basically give you a list of all the BBM or Calbee lots available, usually with a manageable number of results to browse through. セット is another good one.