Pokémon Shortage Is the Best and Worst Thing to Happen to Local Card Shops

Trading card games sales exploded during the pandemic, but some owners worry if the collectors market will push away young people who just want to play the game.
May 24, 2021, 1:00pm
Pokemon cards
Image: Getty Images photograph.

Card and gaming shops are often community centers. They’re a place where people gather to play a couple rounds of Pokémon, Dungeons & Dragons, or Magic: The Gathering. Counterintuitively, some of these stores have thrived during the pandemic. People haven't been meeting up to play games in shops, but they’re buying more than ever before. It’s good business for the card shops in the short term, but people who work in the stores worry what it may mean for the future of the hobby.

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James Humbert owns and manages Firefly Toys & Games in South Carolina. He can’t keep Pokémon cards on the shelves, but said he’s seen fewer families coming in to buy cards and far more older collectors. That troubles him. “I’m worried about what’s going to happen when events start happening again and none of these people have played for two years because they couldn’t afford the product,” Humbert told Motherboard on the phone. “That’s my concern: is it hurting the game?”

Emily Harr is a Pokémon brand manager at Firefly. She orders the cards for the store and teaches new people how to play the game. “I started noticing more of this pickup when they started releasing some of these special sets,” Harr told Motherboard on the phone. “Instead of having regular releases they ended up having spin-offs like Hidden Fates...It started picking up on the collectors side of things.”

Around the same time collectors started chasing rare Pokémon sets, the pandemic hit. Suddenly people couldn’t play Pokémon in person anymore but they still wanted to enjoy the hobby. People trapped inside all day began to root through their closets and try out old hobbies. “When you still have an interest in the game, what else do you do instead of play it but collect the cards?” Harr said.

Nintendo has struggled to keep up with demand for the cards. Collectors have flooded eBay with rare cards, and prices are through the roof. But even the card shops are feeling the pinch. Harr said that it costs more for her store to buy Pokémon cards at cost and that Nintendo can only fill around 25 percent of what her store is requesting. “Something that used to cost $15 for us may now cost $25,” she said. “The allocations are being cut across the board.” A board game and Pokémon card show in Los Angeles told Motherboard that they are never getting full Pokémon card orders that they've placed from suppliers.

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What Firefly does get hold of, it sells almost immediately. “Pokémon? We just don’t have it enough,” Humbert said. “Collecting across the board has gone up. Sports cards too. Sealed product that was a $20 item is now $150 because people are at home collecting because they aren’t going out doing other things.”

Humbert said that he’s selling more trading cards across the board but that other games have been in the business longer and are better able to meet demand. Magic: The Gathering is probably the world’s best known card game. In the past few years it’s produced more and more limited edition sets marketed towards the collector similar to the Hidden Fates tins people in the Pokémon are after. “I don’t know if Pokémon is used to that,” he said.

Humbert said he’s never seen Pokémon fly off the shelves like it is now. “I’ve never seen people come in and buy five booster boxes at once. That used to never happen,” he said. “People will come in and literally buy $600 of product at one time.”

To keep as many people happy as possible, Humbert has set hard limits on the amount of cards people can buy at one time. “We’ve started doing product limits. On release you can buy one. We’ve never had to do that before,” he said.

Humbert said he’s happy for the business but he’s worried about the future of the game. “I personally don’t like selling product at this high a price and at this low a quantity,” he said. “I’d rather have lots of people coming in playing our league and having a good time. Having a community is what my store is about, it’s not about selling as many booster boxes as humanly possible...if all these collectors are buying up all the product, what happens to the players of the game? Will they want to come back to the store and play again? That’s where I’m concerned.”

The secondary market is driving a lot of the demand. Influencers like Gary V and Logan Paul started talking about Pokémon cards like they were investment opportunities and it’s driven prices up. “On eBay sometimes the price of it is so astronomical,” Humbert said. “A 10 year old can’t buy a single card for $200 to play with. It’s scary, to be honest.”

“Pokemon, in my mind, is different. The age of the players sets it apart. When you make something too expensive for a 10 year old, you’re not helping yourself long term.”