Responsibility for Pack Searching: On Retailers or Manufacturers?

I was admittedly both overwhelmed and flattered by the amount of replies to a recent article on card searching, and wanted to summarize some of your comments while also proposing steps that might be taken to thwart the practice. With this being said, there were a small number of individuals who self-confessed to searching and/or saw no problems in doing so.

Regardless of opinion, it is clear card searching is a bona fide reality of the sports card industry that – if something doesn’t dramatically change – is here to stay, especially at large retailers, with no watchdogs combined with open access to literally thousands of products.

Prizm Hockey packsI put searching to a pseudo test myself, wondering  – as an amateur to this practice – if I could identify a ‘hot pack’ from five hobby packs of 2014 Topps Baseball Series 1 and two hobby packs of 2014 Prizm Hockey.   Both were blind purchased from a terrific local hobby shop in Tampa, Florida.  To make this a bona fide experiment, I requested the owner hand me the closest-to-box top packs himself, with zero physical interaction with product until after paying for them.

I applied lessons learned from watching the alluded to pack searcher, plus sentiments on Sports Collector Daily’s Facebook page plus very thoughtful emails I received following the story. Gentle rubs of the packs’ sides produced confidence in one of the Prizm packs containing an insert. The others were non-discernable. My assumption – to my amazement – proved correct. An autographed rookie card emerged from the suspected hot pack. The Topps Baseball had some inserts but nothing of the rare variety. Still, one of the packs featured a throwback mini plus Derek Jeter All Rookie Cup (no relic) card. I would’ve suspected these two unique textures would give the pack away. No such luck.

Apack searchings the emails and comments rolled in, it was clear searching a nationwide trend…decades’ long, no less. One individual recalled scales weighing Upper Deck product 20+ years ago to locate inserts and also resealing of packs. Others alluded to this extending to gaming (Magic, YuGiOh). A third relayed that he had watched a seeming grandfather and grandson search together. Last, one respondent opened up a blaster box containing the wrong (and swapped out) product entirely!

Every email noted – that when brought to retail store attention – searchers were immediately removed from the premises, sometimes to applause. While I can’t verify the nuances of these reported incidents, it did leave an impression that searching is something that some retailers do not tolerate.

If card searching is, in fact, a practice to be eliminated, does the onus therefore fall on retailers (to better protect product) or manufacturers (increase detection prevention)? I would propose the goldilocks solution to this one.

Manufacturers need to consider better balancing weight of product to include blanks (I realize Panini has done this to some extent), likewise double seal and/or wall product from texture detection. Blaster boxes and rack packs could feature hard plastic shells in sections or interior perimeters. If single retail packs would be exclusively replaced by 5 pack blaster boxes…but be search/tamper proof…would this change your perception on retail collecting (noting price point leap, in tandem)? What if all heavier/thicker inserts became redemption only (with this requiring a significant improvement in this process by manufacturers)?

Retailers – with better sealed product in tow – could have them under lock and key (akin to razor blades), with room for only one product accessible, at a time. Even if suggested manufacturer protections aren’t put in place, searchers would have higher hurdles to perform their craft. Retailers could also move card purchases to register areas, where clerks might easily spot and/or deter the practice. Perhaps not surprisingly, the National Retail Federation’s 2013 Organized Retail Crime Survey does not feature candy – prominently watched yet easy to steal – as one of its most stolen items. Razor blades – despite their protections – do make the literal cut (based on resale value).

With these proposals in hand, are there informal obligations by retailers to protect their product from excessive interaction…or should manufacturers be responsible to ensure continued value for their products and the hobby?

You can reach Dr. Paul Lieber at [email protected]