eBay vs Card Shop: Good, Bad & Ugly

Fifteen years ago, it was the card shop, the show or the mail order dealer. Then came eBay, rocking our world. So what’s your move these days?

by: Patrick Noll

Chances are if you collect sports cards, your source for picking up new items starts (and ends for many) with eBay. After all, why would you seek out a card shop or show to feed your addiction when it’s so convenient to buy online?

But it’s not that easy.

You might be surprised to see that there are some real and compelling reasons to seek out eBay alternatives. But first, let’s review the eBay ‘plusses’.


1. Large array of inventory. At any given time, you can find just about any single your cardboard heart desires. Whether it is a ’57 Topps baseball #267 Danny Kravitz or a ‘07-‘08 UD Black Nate “Tiny” Archibald AU Patch 8/25, the hefty volume of eBay sellers makes it likely you will find what you’re looking for.

2. Low Prices! Due to the auction format, the potential of swiping a card below market price is a guarantee at some point (assuming you are both patient and vigilant). eBay allows you plenty of opportunities to stalk, and then pounce on an item of desire with a low-ball bid which will often win the item during a sleepy buying period.

3. Research tools. eBay allows the collector easy access to information about a card’s current bid situation, how many watchers and bidders are interested in that item, and most essentially, what an item’s “completed auction” value is. The completed auction price reflects a more accurate and updated “value” (what buyers actually pay) for any given card. Many price guides have traditionally overstated a card’s value and are not as current for obvious reasons.

4. Convenience. Want to hang out on your computer, watch some SportsCenter, and mill around in your boxers while you pick up some cards online? eBay (and other internet sources) allow buyers to multitask and shop at their own pace in the comfort of their own home. Who wants to drive out into traffic to find some card shop that a) might not exist b) could be closed–card shop owners are notorious for having nutty hours c) get there to find out they don’t carry what you collect—am I the only one not enamored with Magic?– or d) when you get there the dealer believes the high book value is the Word of God.

5. Avoiding card shark confrontations. Fair or not, some sports card shop dealers have earned the reputation of occasionally ripping off their customers. Many times leaving a card shop I have felt that crater-in-the-gut sensation indicating my fear (imagined or not) that I just got hoodwinked. It can be very intimidating to find yourself locked in negotiation with a seasoned “card shop guy” that you suspect is genetically-required to clean your clock. Alas, eBay allows you to be in the driver’s seat as you pick a maximum price, and can leave the negotiating table without bruised feelings.

After reading the above, you might be tempted to think “As I suspected, eBay really is the only way to go.” But hold on a second. There is a “Con” section to this story, and these arguments have merit too, so please consider the othe side of the coin.


1. Condition Issues. Any crusty eBayer knows from time to time you will receive cards which fall short of your condition expectations. Even the most microscopic scans cannot replace the accuracy of evaluating the condition of a card in person. While there is some recourse (sending the card back/leaving negative feedback), in most cases it’s just not a battle worth picking (postage, time, hassle, etc.) As a result, you are stuck with a flawed card that irks you each time you see it.

2. Sniping/fixed auctions. For those unaware, there is sniping software (which places a buyer’s bid at the last possible second) and manual snipers (people who wait till the last minute to place a bid) that make participating in an auction frustrating and/or difficult to win an item. Additionally, though it’s highly illegal, “shill” bidding (having a buddy of yours place a bid on your item to artificially drive up the price) still happens from time to time. In short, auction bidding on eBay does not always produce a fair and honest result 100% of the time, and the process can make you want to yank your teeth out as you seem to lose every time in the last millisecond (the result of “sniping”).

3. Shipping charges & complications. Whether eBay sellers admit it or not, almost all sellers charge more to ship their cards than postage requires. (In their defense, packaging and handling costs are legitimate reasons to charge more). Thus, many buyers forget that the true cost of their purchase needs to reflect the extra dollars spent on getting the item delivered to them. Likewise, if insurance is not purchased and the item is lost, you as the buyer are often out of luck.

4. Face-to-face interaction. Attending a card show or visiting a card shop allows you to interact with the seller one-on-one. You can work out a deal by purchasing multiple or “bulk” amounts, you can discover the most recent card collecting “buzz”, and of course, you can just strike up a real genuine conversation with a fellow card enthusiast. eBay buying, of course, lacks these intangible perks.

5. Support your community. Would you rather spend your collecting bucks on a that cool card shop dude around the corner, or send a check off to an unknown Canadian dealer with a wacky zip code? For most people, the choice matters: support the local small business owner.

Are you ready to reconsider your habit of buying cards only on eBay? As stated, eBay does have notable advantages, but there are drawbacks too. Whether or not it is the right buying path for you will often depend on your priorities and preferences. For example, if you want to buy on the run and are a “Chromie” (Bowman Chrome collector), your best bet in most cases is eBay. On the other hand, if you are looking to pick up a 1951 #253 Bowman Mickey Mantle RC with crispy corners, a shop or card show might be the better route to travel.

While every collector’s circumstances and needs are unique, one thing remains in common—we all need to add to our collections, a process that has been popularized and monopolized successfully by one site—eBay. While eBay is admittedly your best bet in some cases, it is not always the right destination for meeting your card collecting needs.

Patrick Noll is a free-lance writer and teacher living in North Carolina. His work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.