Why Is Scalping Wrong?

An essay by Dave Van Domelen, copyright 1999.

    For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, or think I refer to removing the top of someone's head, here's what I mean by scalping. Scalping is the practice of buying up a desirable commodity, such as tickets to an event or copies of a hard to find toy, and then selling it at inflated prices once the demand exceeds the supply that you helped deplete. Certain types of scalping are illegal in many states, mainly ticket scalping. However, in this piece I intend to address that rather scummy practice of toy scalping.

    If you've ever tried to buy the latest "hot" toy, or even a less-popular and under-shipped part of a major line, you'll know it's often almost impossible. The shelves will be full of everything BUT what you're looking for. Five hundred Line Dancing Attack Batman figures and no Batgirl. Dozens of Sammy Sosas but no Ken Griffey Jr. And so on. Then you happen to go into a comic shop or toy show or some place where toys are resold, and there on the shelf is the toy you've checked fifteen stores for this afternoon! Except, while the toy would have been $6 at Wal-Mart, it's $24 here. Maybe you pay the $24, but if you don't, you may never get ahold of that toy. You fume. How did these guys get it?

    The answer is what Greg Hyland has dubbed "Toy Pirates." Toy Pirates may be scalpers themselves, or they may simply be the agents of scalpers, taking a percentage of the jacked-up price the scalper charges customers. Toy Pirates are people who arrange their schedules and lives so that they can be at the toy store the moment the trucks come in. They wait in the aisles, or even on the docks (some Toy Pirates are store employees!) and as soon as the boxes are opened, they snag all the toys that they think might be popular or hard to find. It there's only one in a box, they take it. If there's no short-packing (a practice of sending lower amounts of toys the company thinks won't sell as well), then they take the biggest "names" in the box. By the time regular customers can get to the store after work or on the weekend, all that's left are the toys shipping ten to a box or the ones no one wants. Toy companies do try to work around this, by shipping more of a character they think will be popular, but that just creates new scarcities in the toys that have to be short-packed to make room for the extra popular toys.

    In short, there's no way a normal person who's in school or has a job can compete with the Toy Pirates, and all the "good stuff" ends up on the Scalper's shelves.

    Now that I've explained the situation, you might be wondering what's so wrong? Well, in the grand scheme of things, not a whole lot. After all, the Toy Pirates aren't physically hurting anyone (usually...there have been fistfights over the contents of boxes), and they don't even really cause that much emotional distress. Compared to other things Toy Pirates could be doing with their free time and lack of ethics, Toy Piracy is pretty small stuff.

    But it's still bad.

    First, the obvious reasons. They're not playing fair. The kids who actually want to play with the toys have to pay sometimes ludicrous prices ($400 Furby, anyone?) or go without because some greedhead Toy Pirate blew half his month's pay on every cool toy in the store (and made it all back with extra, of course). It may be a lesser degree, but it's the same type of behavior that leads to profiteers selling bread for a hundred bucks a loaf in wartorn countries. War profiteers have been shot in the past. Toy Pirates and scalpers should at the very least be made uncomfortable. The behavior is reprehensible regardless of the degree, it's only a matter of how much we should despise those engaging in it.

    The cycle feeds on itself. Anyone burned too often by scalpers will probably start playing the game as well. I've even found myself tempted to buy toys that I don't WANT simply because it's the first one of its type I've seen in weeks of looking, and I know it's somehow "valuable" as a result. Then I regain my senses and put the toy out front on a low peg so that a small kid can buy it (I hope).

    But beyond this, there's a profound bit of unpleasantness that scalping helps perpetuate. The idea that toys are not to be played with, that they are simple investments to be fought for, hoarded and resold to any sap clueless enough to pay the price.


    It's a simple truth, and one I don't want to see scalpers bury. I'm 29 years old (as of this writing) and I buy toys to play with. If I didn't intend to play with them (or trade them for toys I want to play with), I wouldn't buy them. Sure, my "play" patterns are different from those of a 5 year old kid, and might often be considered "tinkering." But the point is that I take the things out of their boxes and have fun with them. They aren't just inventory, a column of dollar signs.

    Scalpers debase the fundamental meaning of what a toy is. They corrupt children into accepting this debased definition. They take a little piece of what is GOOD about humanity and turn it into greed. And it is that tiny darkening of our collective spirit, that deliberate act of banality and venality, which is what is wrong with toy scalping.

    So...being that it is a small evil, you can do a lot to fight it with small bits of kindness and goodwill. If you see a toy that looks like scalpers would be after it, try to find a kid in the store who would like it, and hand it to him (ask any parent present, of course). If you find something scalpable hidden behind racks or under piles, it's probably part of a secret stash...not all Toy Pirates have bottomless wallets, and they often try to hide stuff until their next payday. So take these neat toys, buy any you plan to play with or give as gifts, and put the rest out in prominent locations, to increase the chance that some kid or parent will buy it. There's other, more extreme actions, but these tend to annoy the stores more than they stop the scalpers, so I won't recommend them here. But do what you can in small ways to foil the Toy Pirates. See a parent casting about looking for something to buy the kids? Point out anything the Toy Pirates haven't gotten to, explain how neat it is and how it'll just end up on a scalper's wall for 300% markup otherwise. Stores like it when you help them make sales to real customers. Real customers outnumber scalpers, after all, and making things good for them is good for business (which many stores have recognized with "limit N to a customer" policies).

    Basically, if you can do something nice for a kid or a parent and also sock it to a scalper, go for it. Keep toys in the hands of those who will play with them!

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