Backlog Issues by Grading Companies Won’t be Fixed Overnight

Third party grading companies are backed up and it’s likely not ending anytime soon

Back in October, I sent a package of about 20 cards off to SGC for grading. SGC has generally been my grader of choice and the service I’ve received to date has been pretty good.

This time, though, there has been a small delay.

prewarcards-n284-buchner-george-wood-horizontal-psa-3.5My cards were received on October 2 and 25 business days later, still no word, despite the 20-day service level. It’s the first delay of this size I’ve had and I’m guessing it won’t be the last. I also am awaiting a second submission from them – this one for ten days and today was the tenth day with no word on that one, either.

Fact is, grading companies are all seemingly backed up. There have been some real horror stories of people using the super economy services and now, even reasonable service levels, such as 20 days, seem as if they’re not being met.

Now, full disclaimer here. I’ve not talked to any grading company specifically about this issue. This is a blog, not the Wall Street Journal. But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what’s going on and even the grading companies freely admit to not being able to keep up with demand.

Beckett acknowledged that their non-guaranteed orders were running nearly 11 months (!) behind. The backup has been so bad that earlier this year, they actually suspended one of their premium services, the 10-day service level. When companies have to suspend popular and lucrative services, you know there’s an issue and, on some level, Beckett should be applauded for that. The delays have had some ramifications, I imagine. Some collectors, like this one, have said enough is enough.

They’re not alone. PSA, according to threads such as this one, was also running significantly behind this year, even on express orders. And we’ve got the aforementioned SGC example as well as others mentioning issues, too. SGC’s website had said earlier that they were ‘running at a slight delay’ as well.

Here’s the thing. This isn’t likely to end anytime soon.

The Problem

Buck Ewing N29 Allen and Ginter SGCGrading services are at the height of their popularity right now. Card collecting is a thriving business and that’s trickled over into graded cards.

I suspect even long-time collectors are getting more into graded cards. I’m mostly a set collector so I don’t have as many cards graded. But I have been grading more cards lately, probably submitting around 50 in the past year. That’s not a lot, obviously, but compared to the zero I previously submitted before that, it’s a big uptick. Demand, dare I say it, has never been higher.

Part of that, I imagine, is because of specials that companies have run for bulk submissions, encouraging collectors to send in a bunch of cards while offering lower prices.

The problem in meeting demand here is that grading cards is not like flipping burgers. If McDonald’s has a backup in the drive-through line, the easy solution is to hire more people. And, no offense to the fine people at McDonald’s but, it’s generally a position that can be filled by a great many people. Conversely, finding adequate card graders is a bit more difficult.

That’s a real issue because quality control is something that can’t be lacking in card grading. When the McDonald’s down the road screws up my order (as they do frequently, I add, parenthetically), it’s not a big deal. I mean, not really. I can either suck it up or I can go five minutes down the road and ask them to fix it. Screwing up the grading on a high-profile card can have three-, four-, or even five-figure ramifications.

Hiring more people to grade cards isn’t impossible, mind you. But Joe Collector who has no grading experience other than eyeballing his T206 cards and trying to assign a hypothetical grade to them generally isn’t nuanced enough to be all that accurate. At least not on a regular basis and without the proper tools/training. Sure, we can all spot things like creases, markings, etc. And maybe if we’ve dealt with enough graded cards, some of us could be kind of accurate. But there’s more to grading cards. Like needing to know which cards are routinely counterfeited or the difference of cutting styles to ensure a card isn’t trimmed and being able to distinguish that from a factory cut.

I have little doubt that you can teach an experienced collector the ins and outs of the basics of card grading. ‘A crease this size means this.’ ‘Cards with writing mean this.’ ‘This much paper loss means this.’ But some of the stuff card graders have learned only comes with experience and in studying cards for many years.

It’s surely not as easy as it seems.

How do I know that? Because in every thread on every site, there’s some rube complaining about how graders botched this grade. Or that grade. Or how their 100-card submission didn’t get enough respect. Or how Card ‘X’ was given a 9.5 while Card ‘Y’, in equally good condition was only given a 9.

That’s not to suggest graders don’t make mistakes. They do. And even by the subjective nature that grading is based upon, we can find lots of examples where something was missed or not accurately graded, for better or for worse. But the point here is that, if collectors are complaining about the job qualified graders are doing, what do you think it would be like if you took a complete newb and had him grading Old Judge cards by the stack all of a sudden?

The Solution

Babe Ruth Beckett BVG 1933 GoudeyWhat’s the answer? Well, as you probably gleaned from the title, there’s not a quick fix to be found here. Even if grading companies did manage to get caught up and back on schedule, I don’t think this is a problem that won’t rear its ugly head again.

The best answer, of course, is for additional grading companies to emerge to meet demand. PSA, SGC, and Beckett are generally the only three US grading companies accepted pretty widely by collectors. Based on demand and the hobby, collectors’ best bet is to see a fourth or fifth added to the bunch. It’s pretty clear that three grading companies simply isn’t enough. Unfortunately, a grading reputation isn’t something that’s earned overnight as we’ve seen with plenty of fly-by-night organizations that never really got off the ground. That’s really a long-term thing.

In the meantime, the short-term prognosis doesn’t look all that great to me. Demand is high and only getting higher. The ‘solution’ that no one wants to discuss is that cards could ultimately cost more to grade, to thin out the herd, so to speak. I can’t imagine that grading companies want to do that but I also don’t think they want to also annoy long-term customers, either. Something like charging more or simply changing turnaround times to be longer so that customers are not infuriated by delays might be something that has to happen.

In short, there’s no easy fix.

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