Monday, October 18, 2010

What makes you pick up a pack?

I received this Allen & Ginter card and several other A&G set needs from Chris of Nachos Grande. Shockingly, he had a few to spare.

Thanks to this trade and a couple of other packages, I am nine cards away from completing the 2010 A&G set. When I do complete it, it will be the third straight year that I have finished off A&G. I don't regret for a moment the time or money put into completing these sets. They are terrific each in their own way, even as some collectors try to tell me that A&G is "all the same."

I don't know if I will collect the 2011 set. But I do know that if I don't, I will have the most difficult time walking away from it out of any set on the market.

That's because it contains several elements that make me pick up a pack from the set, head to the cash register, and hand over my hard-earned money.

That made me think: what is it exactly that attracts me to a particular set, maybe not to collect the whole thing, but to at least test-drive it?

I've come up with a few elements that attract collectors to a set, even if they don't collect like me and even if they're not a set collector. I'm sure you can come up with others, but here are a few:

1. Tradition. This is a big one for me. The older you get, the more important this aspect is. Tradition ties you to the time when you got the most enjoyment out of collecting, the time when you were a kid. Tradition, for me, means Topps, because when I started collecting, the hobby was in the midst of the Topps monopoly era. For the first seven years of my collecting life, Topps was all that you saw and all that you wanted. Why would you want more?

So, to this date, I gravitate toward the Topps base set, because that is tradition to me.

2. Content. This is a big one for a wide spectrum of collectors. I'd say that the majority of collectors decide to purchase cards from a set based on content. But what is "good" content for me could be "bad" content for another collector. I collect A&G because I like the content. I like the connection to old-time tobacco cards. I like the mix of baseball players with great inventors/achievements/performers of the past and present. I like cards of bridges and mountains, if they're mixed with baseball players. But I only like it in A&G. I know that's fickle, but that's how I am.

For others, "good" content means an autograph in every pack or rookie cards everywhere. I don't collect rookie cards, so I stay far away from any set filled with those. But for others, that is necessary "content."

Content can also mean how many insert sets are involved or whether there are TOO many insert sets. I think a big part of Bowman's appeal this year was based on the insert sets. Sure the Strasburg thing overwhelmed anything else, but the insert sets kept me buying -- at least until I couldn't find Bowman anymore.

3. Theme. Theme and content overlap. But not every set has a theme. A&G has a theme. Goodwin Champions had a theme. National Chicle has a theme. I know they're all rip-off themes, but they're themes. If you like the theme, then you'll take a chance on the cards. If you hate the theme ("Ticket to Stardom," anyone?), then you'll stay far away.

4. Look of the set: I talk about this a lot on the blog. It's sometimes a deciding factor on why I collect a set. I didn't buy a lot of 2007 Topps because I didn't like it. However, even though I'm not crazy about the way the 2006 or 1989 Topps sets look, I have bought more cards of those sets than any other.

5. Hits. This is a subset of content as well. There are many collectors who gravitate toward sets that give them a chance at a hit every pack or so. These are the sets that I rarely see or wouldn't even know the names of unless I toured the blogs. Every once in great, great while, I get the urge to buy a product that will give me a good chance of getting a hit and I hit the hobby shop. Most of the time, I leave there demoralized, ashamed and vowing to never return again. Rarely, I have something to brag about on the blogs.

For some, I think this is the sole reason why they buy packs. For me, hits are nice. But I'm pretty happy with base.

6. Cost. This is an element that a collector doesn't choose. His or her situation chooses it for them. Collectors who are single with lots of disposable income can buy a $100 pack without a care. Collectors with families and a mortgage buy cards on a budget or risk the wrath of the guilt monster.

I will be honest, for some blue collar/middle class family collectors, products like Opening Day and Topps Attax hold a certain appeal. I'm not a fan of what is inside, but there are times when the money is low and the expenses are high, that a $1.99 pack makes a ton of sense, while a $7 pack seems reckless.

7. Cardboard. If you told me before I got back into collecting that what cards were made of would decide whether collectors bought the cards or not, I'd wonder whether I'd want to associate with such peculiar people. But this element is definitely a decision-maker for many collectors, and is a small factor for me.

For example, the quality of card stock is a big selling point for A&G. It may not even be a conscious preference for collectors, but it's there. Part of A&G's appeal is card stock. The same goes for many higher end cards, that no one would collect if they were as flimsy as what Topps uses for its base cards.

That said, Topps' glossed-up index cards haven't stopped me from completing its base set 3 of the last 5 years.

8. Availability. If the cards are on the shelves in the retail store near me, then there is an excellent chance that I will buy at least a pack of that set. If you can only find it in a hobby shop, and going to my hobby shop is like a death march toward disappointment, then chances are I'm not going to buy it. I believe Topps' Pro Debut is hobby-issue only? I haven't see it and I don't have any of the cards.

I know all of these cards that aren't in retail stores are available online. But unless I really like the set, I am only buying online based on the team or player on the card, not based on the set -- unless it's vintage.

Also, how the set is issued can be a decision maker, too. If cards are only issued in a blaster and I don't have cash to spend 20 bucks on cards, then I may avoid the product. I like loose packs. I know people scream "pack-searched!" But hits are not why I buy cards.

9. Time of year issued. I think we all have more money at certain times of year then we do others. Any card set issued between October and December will get next to no attention from me. If I think I'll really like it, I'll plead for it as a Christmas gift. But otherwise, my cash is going toward others at that time of year.

Any set that is issued in mid-summer, has an excellent chance of being purchased by moi. Again, A&G lucks out in this area.

10. Players in the set. Here is another big one. For player collectors, if the player is not in the set, chances are they're going to avoid it. For others, which players are in the set is a key element, but not the biggest one. I am of the opinion of traditional collectors that a set needs to represent as many players on a team as possible. I am part of the Bring Back Topps Total Mob. But if a set isn't going to do that, I would at least like the key guys represented. A&G has a problem with this, and so do many sets that feature only about 330 cards or less.

11. Cards per pack. Some might put this under the heading of "value." But value is very subjective and covers a variety of items. I think it's safe to say that the cost-conscious collector hates 4-card packs. As much as I like Chrome, my stomach sinks every time I read "4 cards per pack" on the wrapper. I'm still not over the days when I bought 10 cards per pack for 13 cents. I know the hobby has changed, but memories don't change. And my wallet hasn't caught up to the 4-cards-per-pack concept either.

12. Gimmick. I'm not talking about Poley Walnuts here. I'm talking about things like Chrome. Chrome cards are a gimmick. Flat-out. In a lot of ways, they are the same cards you just bought six months earlier, except they feel like the hood of your car. That's a gimmick. Late 1990s cards are full of gimmicks. Cards in cans. Die-cut inserts everywhere. Some collectors loved them, others hated them. But ever since the '90s, it's an element that has attracted collectors.

Here's possibly the biggest gimmick card of all: Mini parallels. But minis work. They really, REALLY work.

13. Brand name. This falls under the heading of "tradition," but I think it's worth breaking out separately. Before the recent days of one MLB-licensed product, there were Topps people and Upper Deck people. There still are, there just isn't any Upper Deck baseball product anymore.

I suppose there were Fleer and Donruss and Score and Pinnacle people, too, but probably less of them. Collectors would buy both Topps and Upper Deck, but some had a preference for one or the other and bought more of the one they liked. On rare occasions, a Topps collector (me) would buy a less-preferred product (Upper Deck) because the product blew everything away issued during that year (1993). But most years, I bought Topps.

After looking at those elements, if I had to rank them in order of importance to me, at this moment, it would look like this:

1. Content
2. Theme
3. Availability
4. Look of set
5. Tradition
6. Cost
7. Time of year issued
8. Cardboard
9. Cards per pack
10. Brand name
11. Players in the set
12. Gimmick
13. Hits

Ask me in two weeks, and the order would probably change drastically.

OK, I've run out of time and you've got a ballgame to watch. If there are other reasons why you buy a pack of cards, speak up.


  1. Look of the set for me. Opening a pack brings me back to being a kid. Slowly sliding off the top card with my thumb hoping to see a Detroit Tiger.
    Nice piece here.

  2. I'll buy a few packs of Topps in February or March out of tradition, but otherwise I'm not really a pack buyer any more. The value isn't there for me when I can get the exact cards I want thanks to the magic of the internet.

  3. As a set collector, I'd add:
    Collectability. If a set is too difficult to collect, I'll usually steer clear...or at least I'll steer clear after trying to complete previous years sets in vain (Topps Heritage falls into this category for me now). In addition to ease, there has to be a "fun" factor for me if there is a set that I'll actively try to complete. Allen & Ginter is the poster child for fun in my eyes, every pack has a mini, and half the minis are great. There's always the allure of a great card in the pack - even if you've found the allotted hits, you might pull a rare mini (which is usually what I covet more anyhow).

    As I gravitate to more and more online purchases (I'm avoiding Wal*Mart as much as possible - and that's the only place within 50 miles of me that sells cards), I'd also add a second reason to collect: Group Mentality

    If a set has a decent following, then there is a good chance I'll have plenty of trade partners out there to help me track down the cards I'm missing. Again, take Allen & Ginter - there are TONS of people out there that collect the set - and there are lots of people who actively trade Ginter cards (myself included). However, I've also tried (in vain so far) to complete two years' worth of Upper Deck Spectrym...and it's been a disaster. No one seems to have bought enough of the product to have extras for trade - and so I can't finish off a pair of 100 card sets with no short prints but I've managed to finish three years of Allen & Ginter (300 cards plu 50 short prints).

  4. Do you have a Ginter Wantlist? I didn't see anything on your big Wantlist. I could just be blind.

  5. Prior to the advent of baseball card blogs, I used to buy random packs of cards just to see what they looked like - you know, in order to decide whether I was going to collect the set.

    The last time I did that was 2006 Allen & Ginter, so obviously I stopped on a high note (although I still need a TON from that set).

  6. I very rarely buy packs anymore. I'll get a pack or two of Topps every year to see what the cards look like, but that's about it.

    I miss the days when a "hit" was a regular card of a superstar player (Jackson, Seaver, Bench, etc.).

  7. I buy boxes, not packs.

    First, I would go with tradition (i.e. if it's something I collect each season).

    If it's a new product or a product I normally don't collect, then visual appearance or content matter to me.

    When I decide what I am going to collect, cost plays a big part. I"ll see if the price per box is reasonable for the base cards plus how many hits are included. If the price per box seems excessive (or I don't think market conditions will make it hit my target price at some point), I will just pick up a hand-collated base set.

  8. I buy whatever gets me excited for the moment. I was on a Chrome kick all last week and now I think I'm over it. Who knows what I'll be into next week.

  9. I like to buy a pack or two of new stuff to see if I like it. I came back to collecting after I found the blogs in late 2008 and discovered how much I liked A&G in 2009. I tend to buy loose packs or blasters because of the insanity of the LCS. I haven't considered all the reasons you listed, but number one is simply whether I like the product or not. I usually determine that by getting a few packs and if they grab me, I grab them back.

  10. Greg ~

    I think my want list blinded you. My A&G wants are there.

  11. Thanks, found it upon closer inspection. There was just so much, my mind and sense of sight were overwhelmed.

    Pretty sure I'll be sending you a trade proposal e-mail at some point tonight. Let's hope I track down your e-mail address without needing to ask for that as well.