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Not even all retail packs are made alike

By CHRIS OLDS | Beckett Baseball Editor

Some days, I wonder what the hobby would be like if all packs were made alike. You know, if there was no divide between hobby and retail.

Would improved odds in retail boxes — ideally, the same as hobby boxes — be the end of the world? Undoubtedly, some would scream “yes” — but others would emphatically say “no.” It really depends on what crowd you’re in — the manufacturers, the hobby dealers, the collectors.

Some might argue that such a move might help collectors buy more packs and boxes. I remember the days before the divide when dealers would often buy up the hot products at retail to re-stock their shelves — and obviously charge more for their packs in the process. But when one found “that box” at retail? It was worth buying … but times have changed in the hobby.

These days, the mark-up comes often — but there’s supposed to be a trade-off as hobby boxes often deliver more. (That is, if you can find a hobby shop.)

Sure, times have changed in many ways for the hobby but many times those retail shelves don’t — and that same stock of blaster boxes at your neighborhood Target or Walmart seems to be older than ever before. And that’s exactly where I recently noticed something that seemed a bit unusual.

Not even all retail packs — especially those for one new brand — are made alike.

Now, again, that’s no real revelation, either. However, for the prices of packs these days one might expect some type of parity when picking and choosing at retail, right? I mean, after all, they’re not hobby boxes — which is the “ideal purchase.”

I’ve been a long-time supporter of buying wax at retail — but one needs to be selective balancing cost vs. typical return and expectations (particularly at retail, but really in either locale). And that means examining the odds as not all products are alike when it comes to delivering autographs or memorabilia cards, particularly in the last three or four years.

Statistically, some boxes from some companies that shouldn’t have delivered autographs on a consistent basis did. And other boxes from other companies I wouldn’t touch. (I learned the hard way on one product where a blaster case at a very cheap price turned out to be a small fraction of a single hobby box when talking a return in game-used or memorabilia cards — one jersey card in an entire case. Not sure if I’ve bought a blaster from that company since.)

The key is to always buy what you like — hobby or retail — so that way you can be comfortable with what you have when you’re done because the “hobby gods” (or lady luck?) will only grant you so many good days.

But back to that Target card aisle …

While crunching the numbers between some Topps Heritage High and some Topps 206 — “what I liked” on this evening was obviously vintage-style baseball — I noticed that Topps 206’s odds between its three types of packs available (blaster box, standard retail packs and rack packs) were substantially different for the cards that really matter, the autographs and Relics.

Typically, I’ve always had relative luck with $20 Topps blaster boxes — love me some Fan Favorites and Topps Archives blasters in the early days — but the Topps 206 blaster? Well, it didn’t look promising.

Examine the chart, which details all inserts with printed odds in the product, below — then keep reading. (Not bothering to compare the retail to hobby.)

Insert type Blaster box pack ($2.50 for six cards)
Standard retail pack ($3 for six cards) Retail rack pack ($5 for 12 cards)
SP Variation 1:4 packs 1:4 packs 1:4 packs
Polar Bear Mini 1:10 packs 1:10 packs 1:10 packs
Old Mill Mini 1:20 packs 1:20 packs 1:20 packs
Cycle Mini 1:62 packs 1:36 packs 1:17 packs
SP Variation mini 1:20 packs 1:20 packs 1:20 packs
T206 Autograph 1:630 packs 1:156 packs 1:117 packs
Framed Autograph 1:162 packs 1:41 packs 1:31 packs
Mini Relic — Piedmont 1:672 packs 1:166 packs 1:126 packs
Mini Relic — Old Mill 1:1,010 packs 1:254 packs 1:190 packs
Mini Relic — Cycle 1:2,010 packs 1:510 packs 1:379 packs

Naturally, the first thing to do is to not have a knee-jerk reaction. But shouldn’t someone buying in a higher number of units (via blaster) have the same odds at finding something compared to someone else who buys the same brand at the same place? Should they be remarkably worse?

Searched packs is an issue at retail — and don’t let people fool you; it’s an issue in some hobby shops as well — so many of us buy blasters just so we know that we have a “surer” shot at a card that could be searched out by those who do the dirtywork. But one’s odds of landing an autograph or memorabilia card are roughly four times better if buying loose packs? And five times better if buying the most-expensive type of pack? No wonder people get discouraged buying at retail — and that’s where a lot of the “mainstream” non-everyday collector types find them some cards.

Now, sure, those odds could be as accurate as past years — you know, the years where statistically blasters that shouldn’t have delivered did — but they’re certainly not encouraging. I picked up one of each — a blaster, a regular pack and a rack pack — so I could document my findings above and my in-the-box results were consistent across the board with the tougher-to-find cards. (It wasn’t good.)

Optimistically, there’s another thought to consider — the production runs of blasters vs. the other types of packs. One would think that could play into the statistics based on the volume of boxes found on store shelves, but they don’t vary at all for all of the inserts in the brand — just the ones people care about the most.

One of Topps’ stated missions in 2010 and forward — as it enters an era as the lone fully licensed manufacturer of cards for Major League Baseball — is to clean up and simplify its retail presence, which likely means fewer brands or more realistically fewer choices of buying format at retail.

Let’s hope that also means cleaning up some of the craziness that comes with the odds of landing something good at retail, too.

Chris Olds is the editor of Beckett Baseball and Beckett Graded Card Investor. Have a comment, question or idea? Send an e-mail to him at colds@beckett.com.

3 Comments

Nice article. My own experiences with buying retail have been of the “depends on the day” variety. I enjoy buying the $20 blaster boxes if I’m starting to work on a base set or something because I can typically get a whole bunch of those cards and a few variations to get me set up at a relatively decent price – such as the Topps Allen and Ginter 2009 boxes, where you get 8 packs per box for $20. At my local hobby shop, 8 packs would cost $40 at $5 per pack.

The thing about it is, I’ve had about fifty-fifty luck with those. I’ve pulled an Evan Longoria framed auto (books for $60 in Beckett) and a lot of nice parallel minis in the blaster boxes, so it’s been worth it for me. But I’ve also had other boxes that were probably not even worth the $20 I paid. In loose packs, I’ve discovered much worse luck, whether that be because the packs are all “searched” before I get to the store or simply bad odds/no luck from the “gods,” but I rarely pull anything good from loose packs in a retail setting.

The bottom line is, I still prefer going to the local hobby shop out here over retail any day for the good company and the atmosphere, regardless of the expacted odds.

Posted December 18, 2009 at 11:25 pm | Permalink
moosehead92

I have probably the same luck as Andrew in buying loose packs at retail. Over the last year I have probably bought over 75 packs (09 Allen & Ginter, 09 Topps football, 09 Topps baseball) and never got any jersey or auto card from any of the packs that I bought. Between my bad luck and this article I will stop buying these and will also stick to just going to the hobby shops for my loose packs. Thanks for the info.

Posted February 11, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

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