Target stores around the country have pre-sunrise lines around the block, and the trading card sections look like bread aisles before a snowstorm or toilet paper aisles at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as fans, collectors, and resellers are trying to arbitrage tins of Pokémon cards that can be resold for an easy profit.
The chaos at Target stores has gotten so bad that the company has instituted new policies limiting how many Pokémon cards any given person can buy. Target "restocks" are one of the only topics currently being talked about on many of the most popular Pokémon collecting forums, and Reddit is full of posts about people managing to snag packs or metal tins at Target. A lucky few have managed to snag a VMax Pikachu, which in good condition can sell for several hundred dollars.
"It’s 4AM and I’m like 15th in line at Target," one Reddit post reads. "Think Target increased demand with their new policy, blah. Happy collecting out there!"
Signs have been posted at Target stores indicating that a three-item-per-person limit would be reduced to one-item-per-person, and that some stores would ban overnight camping; multiple photos of a Target policy posted on the PokémonTCG subreddit has suggested that Target employees are supposed to warn customers that they cannot camp outside stores and that if they are there for more than 30 minutes that employees should "determine next steps and if law enforcement engagement is required."
The popularity of the Pokémon Trading Card Game has seen a recent surge as a new generation of kids is discovering it and people who played it when they were younger are learning their old cards could be worth thousands of dollars. Prices of cards old and new have skyrocketed to the point where Certified Guaranty Company, which grades cards which can improve their value in secondary markets, announced that it is working to increase its capacity to meet "extraordinary growth in demand."
The main targets at Target seem to be "Shining Fates" tins, which retail for $29.99 and come with six booster packs of the Shining Fates expansion and a foil chase card. Each booster pack contains a total of 10 cards. Beyond being popular and fun, every Shining Fates tin contains 60 cards and one of those 60 cards may be an ultra-rare chase card worth hundreds of dollars. They're also trying to score "Hidden Fates Elite Trainer Boxes," which retail for $49.99 and can easily and instantly be flipped on eBay for about $150.
One particularly sought-after card in the Shining Fates set is the VMax Charizard, which in mint condition can sell for between $600 and $800. Another, in the Vivid Voltage set is big chungus Pikachu, a rainbow foil decorated card depicting a giant sized electric Pokémon called the Pikachu Vmax. The chonky Pikachu, in mint condition, can sell for roughly $400 on eBay. Your chance of getting a glistening rainbow Pikachu is about 1 in 1,000. Meaning that for every 1,000 cards you buy, you’re probably going to get a Pikachu, according to Cardzard, a website that estimates pull rates on Pokémon card packs.
This has created a financial incentive for scalpers to buy up as much of the stock as possible to resell them. Even if you only get one chonky Pikachu, you’re probably going to break even and the other 700 plus cards you acquired in the process aren’t worthless.
The Pokémon TCG subreddit is full of people trading stories, photos, and strategies about detailing how to acquire cards from various retail stores. Target has become a focal point both because it's getting regular restocks of rare cards, but also because it’s been experimenting with policies aimed at curbing scalpers. About a month ago it quietly announced via in-store signage that it would only put out trading card game stock at 8am on Friday. It would be first come first serve.
It’s a policy that makes sense for Target. When an item like this becomes popular, stores are often inundated by calls from fans asking the same questions over and over again. Do you have Pokémon cards? Can you check in the back from Pokémon cards? When will there be more Pokémon cards? If everyone knows that the cards are coming at 8 a.m. every Friday, then it cuts down on the amount of obsessive fans calling the store and pestering employees.
It does, however, create a new set of problems. Anxious Pokémon fans have started lining up outside of target stores the night before a new supply of the cards drops. Different stores have different policies, some start selling at 6am, others discourage people waiting in the parking lot overnight entirely. One Redditor posted a Target sign that said it would only sell one item to one guest per day starting on April 30.
“We always want to create a safe and positive experience for our guests and team members. Given the significant interest in trading cards, we’re making several changes so more guests have access to high-demand items,” a Target spokesperson told Motherboard in an email. “Effective April 30, we’re limiting MLB, NBA, NFL and Pokémon trading card purchases to one item per guest, per day. We’ll also ask guests not to line up outside of stores overnight to help ensure a safe environment for all. If lines form at a store in the morning, guests can visit Target.com/line to receive a text when it’s their turn to enter the store.”
Like graphics cards, consoles, and sneakers, Pokémon are a victim of their own success. Normal people who want to know the joy of dropping a hefty Pikachu in the middle of a game are competing with people who just want to sell their rainbow chonker onto the next person for a tidy profit.
Update 5/4/21: This story was updated with a comment from Target.