Geekonomics

As I’ve stated before, geeks largely define themselves through objects. Comic books, Magic cards, action figures, t-shirts, they depend to a great extent on things that express their interests. Likewise, they have an interest in things. A comic book geek needs comic books, RPG geeks need RPG books, toy geeks need toys. The geek world relies a lot on the purchasing and selling of objects, and has for some time now.

Which is why I’m baffled that they don’t understand the very rudiments of economics.

An old comic store I used to frequent (because it was my only nearby option) had a bizarre system for handling back issues. The fewer issues they had in stock, the higher the price was. So if me and a friend walked in, and he bought Fistoplex #6, and then I bought Fistoplex #6, I would pay more. Because there were fewer. The store seemed to believe that they were the only source for comics, and if they had fewer, then the comic had somehow become more “rare”.

This is a weird view of supply and demand. And yet it still takes place in comic stores all over the place.

Firefly star Nathan Fillion discovered this when trying to buy a comic book recently. The book, Serenity #1, was only a week or so old, but was “hot,” so the store in question was charging $20 for a $3 comic book. Their excuse? “It’s hot and hard to find.” Hot, yes. Hard to find, not so much. Sure, it wasn’t printed in huge amounts and many stores had sold out, but it wasn’t like paying $20 was the only way to get your hands on one. Yet the store claimed they were “rare” because the store had difficulty getting them in to sell. The store, like my old comic store, believed it was an island in a void, the only place in the world with such products.

Recently I played Magic again with my friends Dan and Mike, playing with some recent preconstructed decks that Mike had. Dan played with one called “Rat’s Nest” which he liked, and he sought to buy a deck of his own. Wizards of the Coast, makers of the game, sells these preconstructed decks in large amounts for $10 a pop. Dan found he couldn’t find the deck anywhere and someone tipped him off as to why: A “rare” card in the deck is now valued at $25, so card scalpers have snapped up all the decks.

Think about that. This card is so rare that it can be guaranteed to be found in a $10, formerly easily-available location. And yet, despite this, the card is “valued” at $25. This is a value system that has no concept of reality. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the artificial “value” of the card has resulted in the decks being scarce.

Imagine if someone suddenly decided that Campbell’s Chicken NoodleOs soup was “worth” $50 a can. Despite the soup being readily available, cans would vanish from the shelves. People would sell them on eBay, and idiots there would propagate the idea by purchasing them. A fantasy of value would quickly become a reality. Some would say this is exactly economics at work; diamonds are highly “valuable” despite a glutted market solely because they’re perceived to be that way.

The action figure collectors have dealt with this for years. A new figure comes out and is instantly “rare”. Only available on eBay for 500% markup. This is because scalpers buy them and sell them to idiots on eBay at 500% markup. The system feeds itself. If the idiots didn’t buy them, the scalpers couldn’t sell them, and then you could buy the figures at Toys R Us like a normal person. But geeks aren’t normal people.

When I first got into Magic, several years ago, it was at a point when one core set was being changed in favor of a newer set. For a brief time, cards were hard to find, as the one set sold out and the other hadn’t yet been released. I had gone into some local shop and asked if they had any starter decks. I was told that they did, for $20 a pop. The normal price at the time was, I think, $7.50. I laughed, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“You won’t find them anywhere else,” he said.

And then I said something that too few geeks say, which is why we accept this ridiculousness. I said, “Yes, but I don’t have to eat them.” They’re not necessary for my survival. If I don’t get those cards, read that comic, own that action figure, I won’t perish. And hell, most of those things, if I wait a little bit, I’ll be able to buy for pennies on the dollar once the Wheel of Hot has turned and they’re no longer on top. Today’s impossible-to-find Lando Calrissian is tomorrow’s pegwarmer.

So little in the geek universe is truly rare. There’s absolutely no reason to pay over retail for any of this stuff. Doing so merely encourages people to continue to sell things this way. I understand it’s part of geek nature to conflate fantasy and reality, but let’s not apply that to simple laws of supply and demand, okay?

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13 Responses to Geekonomics

  1. Mrs. Mancer says:

    I think your first sentence should read: “…geeks (like most Americans) largely define themselves through objects,” just to clarify that this particular tribe is no different from others who do the same. Can you say Pottery Barn? Lexus? Hummer? Manolo whatever? insert name of bottled water company here? There’s no shortage of people who will pay more than a thing is worth, precisely *because* they can afford to pay more, or are willing to pay more just to have it before others do.
    Also, I think it interesting (but not at all surprising) that in geekdom especially, it’s the middlemen who are out to make a buck and create shortages to capitalize off of. Most *makers* of geek products want to sell as many items as possible–they make no money off “rare.”

  2. David Thiel says:

    Au contraire, Mrs. Mancer. Some makers of geek products deliberately limit availability, ostensibly because it makes their product “hotter.” That’s why WizKids makes comic convention attendees pick up lottery tickets to “win” a chance to pay $75 for their con-exclusive Mage Knight Apocalypse Dragon.

    I do find it amazing that a comic book shop dealer would try to scalp a Firefly comic to the guy pictured on the cover. At the very least, it should’ve been, “Well, this is normally twenty bucks, but for you, Mr. Fillion…”

    Oh, and Dave, the reason that Fistoplex #6 cost so much is that I bought all but one of the copies. Gotta have me some Fistoplex!

  3. Surely it is _exactly_ supply and demand. People want the comic, there aren’t many copies about, therefore the price goes up. The price the previous week is pretty much irrelevant. When nobody wants a comic, the price drops down to cents in the hope of selling them.

    The comic bubble of the 90s followed exactly the same behaviour of the DotComBubble too…

  4. Dave says:

    Except that the comic ISN’T that hard to find. I think most people who want it can get one without paying $20 for it. Add that to the fact that this is a Dark Horse Comic. I didn’t buy Serenity because I know that DHC will collect it in a trade. They collect everything in a trade. So it’s not like you will never be able to take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime offer to read the comic.

    I know I’m asking something difficult here: for geeks and geek store owners to think rationally. But come on, people. This is asinine.

  5. This is largely analogous to ticket scalping at concerts and sporting events. The scalpers go through a lot of time and effort to get tickets first, just like those guys snapping up action figures, and then sell them to people who would rather pay higher prices for the same itsem in exchange for not working so hard to get it. The markup is a convenience fee. And in the case of non-time-sensitive items (e.g., comic books and action figures, but not concerts), it also reflects a short time preference — paying a premium for having that Heroclix figurine now even though it will be less expensive later.

  6. Dave says:

    I’m certainly familiar with what we call the “RTFN tax” — I could get this cheaper later, but I want it now — but there’s a hidden cost to that tax. Its name and description implies it’s a penalty willfully taken by the impatient geek who’s just gotta get his mitts on that game or book or toy right away. Which is fine, but when the result is that nobody can buy the item in question because the scalpers have bought all of them to service the impatient idiots, then it’s not just a problem for a few people. My point is that so many of these “rarities” are artificially produced by the very people who are complaining about the rarity. That is, guy resents having to buy a new Heroclix off eBay because you can’t find them anywhere, because scalpers have bought them all up to sell to people on eBay, because people like him buy them. (I’ve often wondered why those scalpers think so small. Why not go buy out every loaf of bread from the area grocery stores and mark THOSE up?)

    If somebody wants to be foolish with his money, well, that’s his business. But this is widespread foolishness that’s having an adverse effect on everyone connected with the industry, and thus it’s no longer just his business. If geeks would just calm the hell down and buy things the way most normal people do, we’d all be doing a lot better.

  7. Andrew Weiss says:

    My little (age 29) brother is a big Silver Age Marvel fan. When he set about collecting his complete Journey Into Mystery/Thor run, he deliberately placed a “spend no more than five bucks an issue, apart from the really early stuff” restriction on himself. And guess what? He managed to pick up 90% of the run without exceeding his limit, and in pretty good condition, too.

    He’s the first to admit it took more time and effort to collect than other runs he owns, but it was possible.

  8. Shane Bailey says:

    We’re almost out of Potato Soup on aisle ten…let’s go mark it up before someone buys it.

  9. David Thiel says:

    The scalpers go through a lot of time and effort to get tickets first, just like those guys snapping up action figures, and then sell them to people who would rather pay higher prices for the same itsem in exchange for not working so hard to get it.

    Here’s the thing: if the scalpers would simply save themselves that time and effort–and leave the allegedly-hot action figure/Magic deck/Hummel figurines on the fucking shelves–the people who actually want them could simply walk into a retail store and buy them at a retail price, as the manufacturer and retailer intended.

    This theory assumes that are only two classes of people: proactive scalpers and lazy collectors. As someone who does make the toy store sweep on a regular basis, it’s long been a source of frustration that even hard work doesn’t pay off when some fuckhead buys out a town’s entire retail stock and then offers to sell one back to me at a 500% markup. “Convenience fee,” my ass.

    Scalpers are dirty whores, and no amount of justification on their part will make them anything other than people out to screw their neighbors for a buck. I can’t believe that I’ve been collecting toys for this long and am still hearing that old “scalpers are doing us a service” excuse.

  10. Charlie says:

    Think of it like this…at least for “collectible” games. The geeks pay outrageous prices for “over-powered” cards/heroes/insert collectible here because they want to be able to use it in this weekends tournament so they can beat everyone else with it. Naturally all the other geeks playing this weekend are going to use the same basic thing so the card/hero turns up in the deck/form/whatever of the top players. All the geeks then have hard data that shows that to win you MUST have this piece so the geeks flock to the middle man to buy it at a huge markup. This is especially prevalent in the current block of M:TG. Ehhhh…funny how people who style themselves as having a superior intellect fall prey to such a simple concept as supply and demand.

  11. Shane Bailey says:

    “Scalpers are dirty whores”

    Then who are the high priced ones?

  12. David Thiel says:

    Umm…the ones with the highest prices?

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