Singing the Card Return Blues!
By Kurt Kuersteiner (© 2002 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine
I love getting cards in the mail. It helps offset the frustration caused by bills and junk mail. I've spent thousands of dollars on cards purchased through The Wrapper and I've dealt with most the dealers. Most of the time I'm delighted. But a few times, I'm not. Having also sold many cards in The Wrapper, I understand both sides of what it's like to buy something that wasn't quite what I expected and then need to return it. Some recent events have brought to the forefront an issue all readers and dealers should agree on. What are reasonable expectations for doing business through mail order, especially with The Wrapper?
The basic rule of thumb is pretty simple. The customer is always right... as long as he is also honest. This means if someone orders something and it wasn't what he expected, then the dealer should return his money, but only if the exact same item is returned in the exact same condition. It must also be returned in a timely manner. Customers can't sit on it for a week and mull it over or shop around for a better deal. That's unfair to the dealer.
A return policy is necessary because the customer doesn't really have a chance to see what he's buying until he opens the envelope. Computer scans help, but they often don't reveal creases and such. So when something is bought sight unseen, it's only fair that the customer have the right to return the item if not satisfied. There should be no "restocking fee" or other nonsense (especially when it wasn't listed in the ad). If ordering though a monolithic corporate giant, perhaps such shenanigans would be justified to offset the bureaucracy, but that's the exact opposite of anyone featured in The Wrapper. 99% of the dealers operate out of their homes. There's no storefront or employee costs. Returns are an inconvenience, but that burden should be shared equally by both parties.
Who pays postage when returning cards? The fairest solution is for both parties to split the postage 50/50. The dealer loses the money he spent sending the item, and the customer loses the money he spent sending it back. The best dealers should refund the full amount, including their half of the postage. Why? Because anything else would be a double penalty, and the object isn't to punish one side or the other, but to resolve the disagreement in the least offensive manner. That's assuming there was a problem with the cards, and not just a change of heart by the buyer. If customers want to buy cards on approval, they need to say that up front. That doesn't mean they lose the right to return poorly graded or poorly described material. And why should the customer pay to send it both ways when the dealer is partially responsible for the dilemma over grading? I know some folks from either side may argue against this, but if they consider the alternatives, it seems the fairest compromise.
Recently, I ordered some cards and thought they were somewhat overgraded. I wanted to keep the cards, but after seeing the actual condition, I felt they were overpriced. So I called and asked if he would take less for them. We couldn't agree on a new price, so he volunteered, (much to his credit) "No problem, you can return them. Just make sure they're insured." I did, and so we both lost a few bucks in postage but there were no hard feelings. He stood behind his product without copping a bad 'tude, and that's the most you can ask anyone to do.
Of course, if I were at a show, it would be a different situation. If you see the cards in person and buy them, you can't come back and say the condition wasn't what you expected. You had your chance to examine them and for whatever reason, accepted them. End of story... with one exception: I once bought a set of Outer Limits at a show in Orlando. I showed them to Harvey Elander, another Wrapper guy, who took one look at them and said, "those edges have been retouched." Sure enough, you could see some of the edges were dabbed with a black felt-tip marker. I took them back and the dealer refunded my money. How could he not? He said he didn't notice it either. If he had noticed, he should have warned me before selling the cards. (The same goes for reprints or trimmed cards, or any other alteration.)
Another fellow I know recently bought a batch of cards from The Wrapper and was dissatisfied with some (but not all) of the purchase. He wanted to return several of the cards, but the dealer said it was either all or nothing. Now that seems rather hard nosed, but at the same time, many dealers discount for bigger purchases. If someone negotiates four $100 cards down to just $300, they can't expect to return three of the cards and keep the forth one for free. Keeping the 25% discount wouldn't be fair either, because there is no longer a volume purchase. This should be a no brainer.
What about card switchers? Those pesky little dip-*&$#s who think they can upgrade cards for better ones and the dealer won't figure it out. Big surprise, dealers aren't stupid. It's easy to detect people who swap cards. When I send vintage cards of any worth, I Xerox them. Not color, just cheap black and white copies of the fronts. If someone swaps, the centering of the cards and other details give it away instantly. Fortunately, no one has swapped cards on me yet-- but they have tried with other dealers and were caught. At 8 cents a copy, it's cheap "cheat insurance."
There are other scams customers try on dealers. Sometimes they order stuff and claim it was lost in the mail and never arrived. This forces dealers to charge extra for delivery confirmation or insurance of items. But dealers also talk among themselves and learn which customers try what. It's a small, small trading card world. Once a customer gets a bad reputation, dealers often avoid him. Some even lose their Wrapper subscription. Like Cicero said, "no one believes a liar, even when he speaks the truth."
Meanwhile, collectors of cheap older sets get caught in a bind. No one likes paying more for postage and insurance than the card is worth. If I order single cards, and the dealer wants $2 to mail me a few singles, I often explain that I'm on a budget and ask if I could send him a self addressed stamped envelope with the understanding that I won't blame him if the card gets lost in the mail. Sure, he could say he sent it and keep my money, but no one has ever done that to me, and I've saved hundreds of dollars in postage insurance completing dozens of sets. (I generally insure items over $50, even though I've only lost one item in the mail since 1991.)
The sad truth is that there are more bad customers than there are bad dealers. When people try to cheat dealers, it makes ordering trading cards harder for everyone. It's similar to how shop lifters drive up the price for the public in general.
Probably the biggest legitimate gripe against dealers is grading. Some dealers can be very picky about grading when they are buying cards, but suddenly become very lax about grading the same cards when selling them. It's like the parents who think the neighbor's kids are brats, but don't recognize the same behavior in their own kids. There's not much one can do about this self serving bias other than send the cards back when there's disagreement. Collectors also compare notes and have favorite dealers that they buy from. That's why a good reputation is such an effective advertisement. Of course, it takes much more time to establish a good reputation than it does to destroy it.
There's one other thing folks can do to reduce the grading problem, and that's to discuss grading standards before completing the sale. Some dealers post their grading system on their web sites. That's a good indication that they are not ashamed to define their exact standards. Others believe grading is more an art than a science, or that it's all in the eye of the beholder. There may be some truth in that, but I believe there are several universal rules everyone should agree on about grading. The first is that grading has nothing to do with the age of a card. Older EX cards should be just as EX as new EX cards. Special allowances can't be permitted for older cards, because there is no agreement were to start or end that practice. Rounded corners are never EX, Creased cards are never EX. Never, period. A rare card gets graded as strict as a Pokemon card. It otherwise becomes a bunch of chaotic nonsense.
Some think it already is. Witness the widespread use of slabbing cards by third party grading services. I think this trend is a sad commentary on the times, because it shows how little trust there is out there and it also runs up the price on otherwise affordable cards. For example, if I want to by a $10 Horrors of War card, I get stuck spending several dollars more for it because the dealer spent extra getting it slabbed, then I waste another extra $2 for postage because it can't be sent in a SASE (it's too heavy). Now it's almost twice the regular price. The final outrage is when the encased card arrives. I get to struggle with a screwdriver trying to pry the #*$% thing out of the plastic in order to put it in my album, sometimes ruining the card in process. (Somebody up there is having too much fun at my expense.)
This slabbing fad (let's hope it's a fad) could have been easily avoided if people were just a little more strict to begin with. If dealers didn't fudge on the grading so much, buyers wouldn't feel compelled to get it graded by an independent third party, and we all could save a lot of time and money. It all boils down to the golden rule: Do on to other collectors as you would have them do on to you. Let's hope people remember this common sense principal and don't ruin the hobby for future generations.
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