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Pokemon card sales spiked amid COVID-19. Now, stores are taking them off the shelves

The demand for Pokemon cards has soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to limited supplies and a scorching hot market that is driving some people in North America to erratic and violent behaviour.

McDonald’s recently issued a statement urging restaurants to set a “reasonable limit” on Happy Meals sold per customer, after a promotion that included free packs of Pokemon cards resulted in fans going to “extreme lengths” to get them — in some instances, buying out dozens of happy meals and re-selling the cards online for hundreds of dollars.

And in Brookfield, Wis., police reported four men attacked another man over the cards on May 7.


A sign warning customers that Pokemon trading cards will no longer be sold until further notice is displayed at a local Target store in Los Angeles, California on May 14, 2021.


(Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Shortly after, Minneapolis-based retailer Target announced it was suspending all in-store sales of Pokemon and sports trading cards on Friday, citing safety concerns.

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“The safety of our guests and our team is our top priority,” Target said in an emailed statement to Global News. “Out of an abundance of caution, we’ve decided to temporarily suspend the sale of MLB, NFL, NBA and Pokemon trading cards within our stores, effective May 14. Guests can continue to shop these cards online at Target.com.”

EB Games is also reducing the number of Pokemon card packs a person can buy online. Try to purchase a pack online and a flashing disclaimer will appear limiting purchase to “ONE per customer.”

“Any orders containing multiple units will be reduced to one. Any additional orders will be canceled. If you would like to purchase more units, please visit your local store at time of release. Thank you,” the disclaimer says.

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Walmart Canada wouldn’t say whether it had plans to stop selling Pokemon cards anytime soon, despite violent outbursts that have pushed select stores in the U.S. to pull them off the shelves.

“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,” a spokesperson with Walmart said, in an emailed statement to Global News.

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The value of Pokemon cards has also soared online, with one rare Pikachu illustrator card selling on Ebay for more than $3.6 million. One first-edition ‘Charizard’ card has rocketed 800 per cent in a year, after YouTube star Logan Paul paid $150,000 for one in October.

Brett Caraway, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology, applauded the decision of certain retailers to reduce the number of packs that can be sold in stores.

He said history has shown that these situations can get much, much worse.

“This has happened almost periodically, it seems like once a decade there’s some sort of mass consumer craze over some particular item,” he said.


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Recall the Christmas season 1983 Cabbage Patch Kids uproars, in which parents literally fought to obtain rare Cabbage Patch Kids dolls in time for the holidays, with some grabbing onto baseball bats to defend themselves. Or more recently, the December 1994 Tickle-Me Elmo riot, in which a crowd of almost 300 trampled a toy store employee in Fredericton, N.B., sending him to the hospital.

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According to Caraway, evolutionary psychology has shown that human beings will behave “very” aggressively when they are fighting for scarce resources that are important to them, like water or food. That aggression, he said, can also be primed, and even triggered by the marketplace for luxury items — “even in an environment that is resource rich.”

“So when you have a promotion campaign where there’s a limited run or a limited availability or it’s only during Boxing Day or Black Friday or something like that, what the marketer is doing is creating a psychological sense of scarcity,” Caraway said.

When a product goes into high enough demand and concerns about scarcity grow high enough, he said it can make people more aggressive than if there was a natural disaster.

“If a natural disaster happened like an early freeze and somebody couldn’t get their favourite produce because there was an early freeze, it would you might be upset that you didn’t get it, but it wouldn’t make you feel like everybody else wanted it. It wouldn’t prime you for competitive behaviour when you get into a store,” Caraway said.

“But when you have a whole promotional system that’s around making people feel like these are scarce, you’ve manufactured scarcity, then all of a sudden you get aggressive behaviour.”

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This theory can be applied to a variety of events over the years, he added, such as Canadians hoarding toilet paper at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, or people looting grocery stores before New Year’s during the year 2000, fearing the world would end after a rumoured widespread computer programming shortcut known as Y2K changed from the year 1999 to 2000.

Heightened consumer aggression can also happen by accident. For example, a company can incorrectly gauge demand and production can be hampered by delays. But Caraway said it can also be engineered.

“If you can do an early release and (a product is) in short supply, then all of a sudden there’s a sense that there’s scarcity going on,” he said.

“People really want it, something bad happens, then all of a sudden it makes it into the news and all of a sudden there’s free press coverage for that particular item.”


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Caraway noted that people typically exert violence to either eliminate or control a threat.

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“You’re starting to see other customers as a threat to you and your ability to secure that scarce resource, so you will behave in an aggressive way,” he said.

Marketers, said Caraway, take advantage of that, and will even promote items guaranteed to sell at a loss just to get people into stores.

“Just being exposed to marketing campaigns that highlight scarcity primes people to go into a store ready to react in an aggressive way against other people,” he said.

“Marketers do this because if they make the product look scarce, then it makes you, the consumer, think everybody wants that, it’s in short supply so that must be a really good product. It makes you attach even more value to the product because everybody else wants it.”

— With files from The Associated Press and Reuters




© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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