Plight of the Scalper
In the toy collecting hobby, as well as several others, the word “scalper” is associated with many people who sell items on the secondary market. Although it generally applies only to items still available in retail stores at the time of sale, there are those who will incorrectly use the word to describe anyone selling any collectible for a penny more than its original price. For the purposes of this page, the term will be limited to describing sellers of currently – or at least very recently – available merchandise.
There is no shortage of hatred for scalpers in the hearts of so many collectors. If you’ve spent even a small modicum of time reading the content of collecting sites, especially the message boards, you’re already well aware of that. Who knows? You might even be a hater yourself. If that’s the case, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to cure your bias, but I can at least encourage you to think about the issue a little differently than you have in the past.
First of all, let’s talk about what scalpers do. A basic example is a guy walking into a Walmart and scooping up all the “rare” or “hard to find” toys, the ones with the highest resale potential. He buys all the store has to offer and then sells his haul for a profit, whether it’s in his own shop, a flea market, or an eBay auction. Tales of creepy old men lurking in the toy aisle every time pallets are brought out from the stockroom or even stalking the delivery docks as trucks are unloaded are usually nothing more than an exercise in hyperbole. I’m not saying this never happens anywhere in the world (Los Angeles and Orlando being two areas where collectors face more competition from resellers than other parts of the U.S.), but it’s more geek urban legend than reality. I’m sure people who regularly engage in this practice make trips to retailers more frequently than most of us who only collect, at least if they’re going to be at all successful. The truth is, though, when they hit the plastic jackpot, it’s usually the same as any of us finding some uncracked cases of goodies stacked in the floor: LUCK. I live in a city with a metro-area population of over a million people, and I’ve managed to open sealed cases aplenty with nary a scalper to be found. That’s not to say I’ve never encountered them, but the swarms of scalpers lying in wait to snatch every hot toy from the hands of wide-eyed children everywhere are a myth. It’s easy to spot scalpers in stores, but many are clueless. The few who do manage to keep track of the hobby’s Zeitgeist are usually pulling double duty as both scalper and collector, many of whom supplement their own spending habits this way.
The fundamental premise which fuels the ill will is that scalpers are responsible for every instance of an item being difficult to find at retail. They remove every latest, greatest hot release from the pegs, “hoard” them all, and facilitate an “artificial demand” for products, thus inflating prices on the secondary market. The glaring problem with this logic is that the very concept of an “artificial demand” is a misnomer. Buyers will only pay what they believe something is worth. If someone is willing to spend $50 on a $5 action figure that’s currently finding its way to stores, then the demand is very real. There is nothing “artificial” about it.
I go into detail about having patience in my must-haves for collectors page, but I must also mention it here. If scalpers are “hoarding” figures, as many haters are so quick to claim, then just wait. Don’t even look for it. Sooner or later, the scalpers will have to unload all those “hoarded” figures you guys aren’t buying, right? The overwhelming majority of toys that sell for a premium on eBay when they first hit the streets are pegwarmers within three months. How could that happen if scalpers were “hoarding” all of them? The U.S. is a big place, and toy distribution is a slow process. With rare exceptions (I’m looking at you, Renegades Storm Shadow), initial panic is almost always unfounded, as stuff eventually finds its way to your local stores. The fact that eBay doesn’t become inundated with scores of auctions at heavily discounted prices as soon as this happens clearly demonstrates that “hoarding,” like the toy aisle stalking, is yet another myth. There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth among the most vocal minority of hobbyists who spend countless hours on their anti-scalping soapboxes, and this is how the myths are perpetuated. Repeat anything often enough, and people will believe it. It’s why propaganda works, it’s how bizarre cults attract large followings, and it’s even more effective when the message is something your audience will want to hear. “The scalpers did it,” is more interesting and dramatic than, “Distribution is slow,” and it provides us with someone to blame.
It never ceases to amaze me just how quickly the most far-right, Republican-voting, and tax-cut-espousing collectors will transform into full-fledged socialists the moment you mention selling stuff they want at a price they don’t like. Suddenly the free market is a tremendously unfair rip-off, and it’s unethical to make a buck in America! Sorry, but that’s how supply-and-demand capitalism works. Socialized health care is a gateway drug to Communism, but the lowest common denominator should be able to dictate the prices of action figures? I can’t even begin to fathom the logic behind such thinking, but people can get excessively defensive and emotional about the issue. Mention that you don’t hate scalpers with every fiber of your being, and expect it to be interpreted by some zealots as the hobby’s proverbial kiss of Judas.
Try to understand that I’m not defending scalping, as I don’t care enough to defend it. I honestly don’t believe a defense is necessary. There is nothing illegal about it, and no one is being harmed or deprived of anything they actually need. Collecting toys is a luxury; no one is entitled to a room full of action figures. Don’t confuse your privilege with your rights, and don’t confuse my annoyance at the incessant “die, scalpers, die” preaching with an attempt at justification. Before you get hostile and condemn everyone who’s ever bought an item at retail to resell for profit, try to consider the topic objectively.
Meet Jeff. Jeff lives in Smallville, USA. Jeff was managing a local store, but a big Super Target just opened there last year, eventually forcing the owners of his shop to close its doors. How could they compete with those low prices? Jeff’s only real option was to seek employment with Target, but all the management positions had been filled already, so he took a significant pay cut to work there. In this small town, there aren’t many toy collectors, but maybe there are a few. Jeff has decided that he wants to go back to college so he can get that degree he never quite obtained. That costs money, though, and Jeff doesn’t have a lot of it. He realizes that he can earn a bit of extra loot by grabbing some of the newest toys when they come into the store and listing them on eBay. Ten bucks here, fifteen bucks there, it all adds up after a while. Some might say Jeff has an unfair advantage, but isn’t that just one of the very few perks of working such a job?
How can anyone honestly criticize Jeff for what he’s doing? It’s an ugly sight to behold when people who earn enough money to support large, expensive collections disparage retail employees for trying to make an extra buck here and there. While someone like Jeff is struggling just to make ends meet, people are throwing tantrums over having to spend a few dollars more on their toys. If that isn’t the biggest pile of self-serving garbage I’ve ever seen, I’ve repressed the memories of more egregious offenses.
Before you go passing dogmatic judgment on scalpers everywhere, try to remember this is a hobby, not a necessity. Billy Bob Scalper might be trying to earn enough money on the side to buy his son a new bicycle for the holidays, but would it even make a difference to you? Or would you just call him “scum” because you can’t find that elusive Spider-Man with the 732 points of articulation? Why should Jeff or Billy Bob care about you or your toy collection? These examples are, of course, hypothetical, but they’re hardly unlikely (even more true today than when I originally wrote this years ago). Even if they have no particularly virtuous motive, can you think of a good reason for scalpers to care? Do you lose sleep because the bank where you work foreclosed on who-knows-how-many mortgages last month? I have actually read comments by other collectors in which they compared toy scalpers to war profiteers, of all things. Try to wrap your mind around the absurdity of that analogy if you dare.
And it’s not just toys. Collectors of statues, busts, and replicas have similar attitudes, especially with limited edition items. Once again, we get the same old complaints about “artificial demand,” but the reality of the situation is that these collectors want a $1,000 statue for $120 or a $500 bust for $50. The secondary market, not the MSRP, sets the value. We are no more entitled to add these items to our collections than hobbyists with more money to spend or the so-called scalpers who buy low and sell high to meet their desires. No one is “screwing” other collectors or “cheating” anyone out of anything, even though this is popular terminology. Sooner or later, a collector ends up with the item. It just happens to be a collector with more disposable income than the haters, and that is what really generates the resentment.
In the end, we exist in a capitalist economy where the buying and selling of goods is the very basis of our system’s functionality. Nothing is more American in modern times than consumerism, and we collectors certainly do our part to help pull that train. Until such time as we abandon capitalism, things aren’t going to change. Scalpers will buy toys, and they’ll sell them for as much as they can get on eBay. In the grand scheme of things, is that really such a big deal? The answer is a resounding no, and if you approach the issue soberly, employ a little patience, and remember that this hobby is supposed to be about having fun, you’ll learn to get over the idea of it, too.