When the trading card hobby boomed at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, eBay was the primary outlet for folks who wanted to buy cards but didn’t want to leave the house.
Nearly two years later, the boom is still, well, booming. According to eBay, there were more than $2 billion — with a “B” — worth of transactions in the first half of 2021, which is more than all of 2020 combined. And that’s after the vaccines first became available and people started to return to at least some semblance of normal life.
With the boom came issues, of course — problems always follow the money. Things got so crazy in the hobby that Target actually suspended in-store card sales for months before finally resuming. And there were issues with online sales, too. Unscrupulous people abound.
Earlier this week, eBay announced its Authenticity Guarantee program, designed to ensure that all buyers who spend more than $750 actually get what they expect. Here’s how it works: The seller ships the card to the eBay authenticators — the third-party Certified Collectibles Group — and the authenticators go through their process and checklist to verify that it is, indeed, the card as listed. Then they’ll put the card in a special case with a QR code and a tamper-proof seal, and the card is shipped to the buyer, at no cost to either party (for a limited time, the website specifies). It’s the same basic process eBay already has to authenticate watches, handbags and sneakers.
It sounds like a great idea. We had questions (as we always do), so we chatted with Bob Means, who is the director of trading cards at eBay. Here’s an edited and slightly condensed version of that conversation.
SPORTING NEWS: So, your press release says that eBay’s trading card market saw $2 billion in transactions in first half 2021, more than all of 2020 combined. That’s just a jaw-dropping number. Can you offer some type of perspective for that?
BOB MEANS: What’s important to recognize is that we’re on six years of growth for trading cards. This had been an uphill thing prior to what was basically a bonkers first half of 2020. Trading cards — and that’s sports trading cards, but we also include collectible card games in there, like Magic the Gathering and Pokemon, and non-sports trading cards, which would be Star Wars and Garbage Pail Kids and all of that — we’ve seen growth in all three categories. Trading cards has been on about a six-year tear of consistent growth. We do think COVID had a big piece of this; COVID hit and people were home, looking through their attics, surfing the web and there have definitely been a lot of new people coming in. We can tell from our numbers that there was a tremendous surge of people new to the category.
SN: People had to find something to do.
MEANS: Now it’s a social kind of event. Now people are sharing their cards on TikTok, they’re sharing on social media, they’re doing twitch streams of opening boxes and there’s excitement when you pull an amazing card. It really created a fun sort of zeitgeist of a cultural experience that really was a cool thing to watch.
SN: A lot of people seemed to think the hobby would fall off again, maybe not back to what it was a decade ago, but a relatively sharp drop, after the vaccines came out and people started regularly going out again. But your numbers show that hasn’t happened.
MEANS: It hasn’t, and we’re still really happy with the trajectory we have. If you thought of it as a stock chart, you would look at this as a pretty amazing growth period. But if you look at it over a longer period of time, you see it’s a pretty nice trajectory. We still have new people coming into the space. We still have what we call ‘reactivated’ people coming into the space. We still have a lot of interest, and I don’t think the interest is dying. If you look at what’s on Instagram at any one time, if you look at the amount of social influencers that have built little empires around just talking about cards. The core thing here is the collector, the person who is building their collection because it means something to them.
SN: Obviously, you wouldn’t put this sort of cost and time and effort into an authentication service if it wasn’t needed. How did the process begin?
MEANS: So, AG (Authenticity Guarantee) started with sneakers, handbags and watches. That’s where we dipped our toe into this process (editor’s note: sneakers in 2020, handbags and watches in 2021). We’ve authenticated over one-and-a-half million things. There’s a component of it that is just leaning into our everyday effort of making eBay the most trusted marketplace in the world. We want buyers to get what they thought they were getting, we want sellers to feel confident that the buyer’s going to be happy with their purchase.
At its simplest, it’s making sure that when someone buys a Kobe Bryant, they get a Kobe Bryant and they don’t accidentally get a LeBron. It prevents mistakes from happening, too, which are always frustrating. And mistakes happen. You might put them in the wrong place. I’ve done that myself as a seller on eBay, put this card in that envelope and that card in this envelope and I get two messages a week later that are like ‘What are you doing?’ That doesn’t feel good. It’s cleaning up the shopping experience, it’s leaning into trust and making sure people feel confident we’re a trusted marketplace where you can get exactly what you’re looking for.
SN: So does every card that sells for more than $750 have to go through the process or is this something sellers can opt into?
MEANS: It’ll be automatic. It’ll be seamless to the buyer. Obviously, there’s a little extra shipping that goes in there, so it’ll slow down the process for delivery for a little bit. We’re starting at $750 and we’ll work our way down to $250 at some point. Eventually it’ll include graded cards in the process. We’re going to take our time to do this. We want to make sure we’re doing it right. We want to make sure we don’t create something like the PSA backlog or the BGS backlog or the CDC backlog, or any of those things where they were all sort of caught off guard with sheer volume that everyone was doing.
SN: I was wondering about that. So, let’s say I buy a card today for $800. When can I reasonably expect to get that?
MEANS: I don’t think we’re ready to start talking about SLAs (service-level agreements) from a shipping perspective yet. It won’t add … it’ll be a fast service. It’s not going to add a disparate amount of time to the process.
SN: So let’s say I buy a card, like a 1993 Upper Deck SP Derek Jeter rookie that’s listed as mint and looks pristine in the pictures, but what the authenticators open is a 1993 Upper Deck SP Derek Jeter rookie with a couple of nicked corners and signs of the foil damage that’s so common with the bricking issues of that set. What happens?
MEANS: If it doesn’t pass our authentication — which basically means the card that was actually shipped was not, in our authenticator’s opinion, the card that was listed — it gets returned to the seller, and it’s a done deal. In this situation, we would just ask the seller to re-list it with a different condition rating. It’s not a grading service by any means. We’re not going to make a judgment that a card could be, say, a BGS 10 or a PSA 10 or anything like that.
SN: That’s what I wondered, too.
MEANS: But if somebody says a card is near mint and it comes with a coffee stain on it, that’s what we want to catch. We think we have some very good guidance out there to make sure people aren’t overzealous about this, but we do want to find anything that feels like an egregious mis-listing of condition.
SN: Are the return guidelines any different for this authentication service?
MEANS: With the current return policy, sellers can set their return windows for whatever they want, and that includes no returns. There’s always, at a minimum, a three-day money-back guarantee window, so when the buyer finally receives the item, if they think there’s a problem, they still have the ability to return it at that point. It would go back to the authenticator, we would look at whatever they claim the reason was and then send it back to the seller with the reason attached.
If you have a 14-day return window, just to get into some nuance, then that 14-day window starts when the buyer gets the card, so they can look on it and sit on it and all that kind of stuff. But we really recommend for this business to not offer returns, to have a zero return policy, especially when you’re selling cards like this, because it’s going through an authenticity guarantee. We think it’s a way of protecting both sides of the business.
SN: On the webpage talking about the service, it says eBay will cover all costs “for a limited time.” Is there any thought about when eBay might stop covering the costs of the service?
MEANS: No. This is one of those things where we need to understand what the future holds and what the value is. We’ll readdress those kinds of things as reality sets in. I can give you a different example. We created a service for under-$20 cards, called ‘eBay standard envelope’ which is just a cheaper tracking method to throw on under-$20 cards. This isn’t really related to AG, but it’ll give you an idea of the way we think about things. The purpose here was, for a lot of these under-$20 cards, people were just putting stamps on them and they’d go wherever and they were getting lost in the mail. That’s frustrating for a seller. The cost associated with that is not negligible, but it’s worth it for us to continue to absorb because we think it’s a good service to have; having the tracking on those lower-end cards gives everybody a lot more confidence. So there are times when fees are the right things to do for the business and there are times when eating those fees are the right things. We’re stepping into a brand-new era, and authenticating cards will add a lot of volume to our authentication process, so we’ll have to keep our eyes on that and see what the future holds.
SN: You touched on this a bit earlier, but I’m wondering what lessons eBay might have learned from the issues that PSA and other grading services have had during the boom, where it’s up to a year or more to get things graded, and that’s even if you can get them in. What have you learned that you’ve tried to apply to this?
MEANS: We got the benefit of having a really good idea about how much velocity this is going to be. We’ve gotten the benefit of being able to scale that down to make sure our authenticators have time to ramp up their business, and we’ve got a great authenticator in our collectables group. We’re pretty confident we’re going to be able to keep the throttle appropriate. We always would have the ability to throttle back down if we need to, and we’ll have the ability to throttle up, too, if we need to. But I think we have a pretty good opinion of how much velocity we’re going to be adding and I think we have a high degree of confidence in our authenticator’s ability to handle that velocity, without adding a significant amount of time to the process.
SN: That’s key, too, and I’m sure you would agree. You don’t want it getting to the point where you buy a card and you don’t get it for three months.
MEANS: That would be unacceptable to us as well. The purpose of this is to improve the buyer journey, and if we added weeks to the process, that would be unacceptable to the buyers. And it would be a failure, quite frankly. We will not allow something like that to happen.
SN: Is there anything else you think I should know? Something I’m missing or something about this you want to mention?
MEANS: One thing, and you probably saw this, but as it goes through authentication, we’re going to seal the card to let everyone know. It’ll be really interesting for us to see what people do with that. Do you break open the seal, to touch and feel the card? Do you keep it in the seal? We’re really excited about the fact that we’re creating a new step for the cards to be in. The goal here would be for people to keep it in its authenticated state. That’ll be something we keep our eyes on.
SN: Let’s say I buy an authenticated card, then a few months later decide I want to sell it with the seal still on it. Does it have to go through the authentication process again, where I’d send it to your people, then they break the seal and authenticate it again?
MEANS: Right now, it does. Right now, we would literally re-authenticate it, just to ensure there’s been no funny business, that nothing has happened. I don’t know what the future holds there. I certainly would like to see a world where we’re not adding additional friction to the process, but for now that is the step. If something was authenticated, it would be re-authenticated.