Target Stops Selling Pokémon Cards, Citing Safety Concerns 1

The game, first released in 1996, has seen a resurgence in recent years. The pandemic sent demand for some cards into overdrive.

The intense demand for Pokémon trading cards, which steadily rose in recent years then rocketed up even more during the pandemic, has caused Target to temporarily suspend sales of the cards, citing a threat to the safety of customers and workers.

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In-store sales of Pokémon Trading Card Game packs — along with M.L.B., N.F.L. and N.B.A. cards — were to be halted “out of an abundance of caution” on Friday, a Target spokesman said. The company did not elaborate on what caused the decision, or what threatened people’s safety, but media reports have offered hints of unruly behavior among customers, and long lines outside stores while waiting for restocks.

“The safety of our guests and our team is our top priority,” the Target spokesman said in a statement.

At one Walmart, a paper signed by “Store Management” said the cards would not be stocked “due to inappropriate customer behavior and increased demand,” according to an image circulating online.

A Walmart spokeswoman said that the sign posted at the store was incorrect, and that “we have not suspended the sale of any trading cards.”

“Like other retailers, we have seen increased customer demand, and we are determining what, if any, changes are needed to meet customer demand while ensuring a safe and enjoyable shopping experience,” Walmart said in a statement.

The Pokémon card game, first released in 1996, is a strategy game that allows players to battle each other using the beloved characters of the wider Pokémon franchise. While old cards have jumped in value, the demand now is for new packs, like those sold in mainstream retail stores like Target and Walmart. Each pack holds several common cards worth little, but collectors can occasionally get lucky and find a rare card in pristine condition.

It is more difficult than ever for collectors to get their hands on the cards, as the value increased significantly in the past year. Agencies that confirm the authenticity and condition of rare cards have been overwhelmed, feverishly trying to hire more graders to contend with a monthslong backlog.

To many Pokémon fans who have played since the beginning, the cards were an after-school game, similar to Magic: The Gathering, and they never intended the cards to be an investment as they were roughly handled and shoved into shoeboxes as their owners grew up. But much like with baseball and football cards, some high-end collectors sought out rare cards, and are now reaping the rewards of their astronomical values.

A rare Pikachu card was traded for an estimated $900,000 worth of cards in December. In March, a holographic Charizard card sold for $311,800. Logan Paul, a YouTube star, has spent millions on cards.

But it’s not just high-end collectors benefiting from the boom, said Charlie Hurlocker, a Pokémon card expert and dealer.

Getting cards graded — a necessary step in fetching the highest prices on markets like eBay — once made sense for mostly just the rarest of cards. But now that cards once worth $10 are worth $20, and cards once worth $20 are now worth $50, there’s suddenly an enormous demand among collectors who wouldn’t have bothered spending about $10 to get a card graded in the past, he said.

That has led to madness at the grading agencies.

Joe Orlando, the president and chief executive of Collectors Universe, said in March that its PSA Authentication and Grading Services division was receiving more cards every five days than it used to receive over three months, and that it had doubled the size of its staff and headquarters. After an avalanche of submissions in March, the company stopped accepting new ones so it could work through all of its back orders.

“It would be disingenuous of me or anyone else to say they believed prices for certain cards would go up 10X-20X in the midst of a pandemic,” he wrote in a post on the organization’s website. “The market moves were fast, and they were furious, as were the number of submissions that started hitting PSA.”

CCG, another grading agency, purchased a new building and raised its bonus for new hires to $2,500 from $1,000.

“We have increased incentives to motivate and reward our employees as well as attract new talent,” the company wrote in March. “We will not rest until this situation has been resolved.”

In addition to older cards multiplying in value, a similar boom is playing out for new Pokémon cards. Alan Narz, the owner of Big League Sports and Pokemon Cards in Orlando, said a few months ago he would have been thrilled by three new customers a month. Then, during the pandemic, he sometimes saw 25 new customers a day.

Sports cards have also seen a surge in value and interest during the pandemic, but Pokémon has been the main source of new interest, he said.

“It’s just crazy the amount of new people that we’ve seen,” Mr. Narz said. “I cannot imagine, for the life of me, ever again will a trading cards hobby store like ours ever see so many new people come in.”

Part of the increased demand traces back to social media influencers who have found many viewers by streaming themselves opening packs on video, he said. And with people unable to spend their money at bars, theaters and sporting events, some have used their expendable money on playing cards instead, he said.

But as demand increased, supply has remained woefully short. In addition to global supply chain issues during the pandemic, there are not many facilities that do the kind of highly specialized printing needed for the cards, Mr. Hurlocker said. Smaller card stores are barely getting any new cards to sell, with distributors focusing more on big-box retailers like Target and Walmart, he said.

That has led to the sometimes-chaotic scenes at the megastores. For some Pokémon fans who have camped outside the stores before restocks, it’s not just about the chance to pull a rare card — it’s also about participating in the phenomenon, Mr. Hurlocker said.

“It’s very clear to me at this point that they’re having a good time,” he said. “They either like the competitiveness, or they have made friends along the way, or they just want to be able to talk in the future about the time that they were camping out for Pokémon products.”