Defining the Various Retail Sports Card Formats

February 21, 2021

There was a time when you would just buy a pack of baseball cards and hope you got a good player. Today, when you want to purchase cards, you have to make several important decisions before starting. Looking at what is available, you may be asking yourself questions like, “What on earth is a hanger box?” Well, aren’t you lucky you found the article to answer all of your questions?

You will not be able to buy or even keep up with everything, so choosing what to focus on is an essential first step. The first significant decision you will make is whether to buy retail or hobby formats. Generally speaking, card shops sell hobby formats. Meanwhile, retail boxes and packs are the ones you see at large general retail stores such as Target and Walmart.

Keep in mind that retail packs are often sold individually.  Unscrupulous pack searchers sometimes take advantage of this to search or weigh each pack. By doing so, they can often identify more valuable cards by either seeing through the pack or locating the higher-value cards based on their weight. Be aware of this possibility when buying loose packs at retail outlets, or on the secondary market.

Hobby vs. Retail Sports Card Boxes

Hobby boxes typically have a higher proportion of rare cards such as silvers, numbered cards, autographs, and memorabilia items.  Some exclusive parallels are only available in hobby boxes. Also, some prestigious releases do not have a retail equivalent, such as the Topps Transcendent Collection or Panini National Treasures.

Overall, retail and hobby boxes of a product contain similar cards but the odds of hitting a rare card in a retail box are smaller. Retail cards have a more significant proportion of base cards and fewer parallels.

What makes retail products so desirable is that they are actually available for Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price at retail outlets, whereas hobby boxes for popular releases simply cannot be had for MSRP.  For instance, MSRP for 2020 NFL Optic Hobby Boxes is $100, but even directly on Panini’s website they were $800 and selling out in short order.  Meanwhile, blaster boxes of 2020 Optic Football with an MSRP of $20, actually sell for $20 at Walmart and Target if you are lucky enough to find them.

The 2020 Optic Football release is the norm, not an exception.  This dynamic is why people around the country are reporting that it is challenging to locate and purchase retail boxes at major licensed retailers. If you look at the various collector forums, pictures of empty shelves and expressions of frustration abound. While Target and some other retailers have limited the number of items individuals can purchase, the shelves will largely remain empty as long as retail products continue to be available at a relative discount to hobby products.

Retail cards are enormous right now, so as a collector, it’s important to be well-versed in the various formats and terminology.

Blaster Boxes

Blasters are generally considered the baseline retail release.

  • Retail Price is around $20.
  • Typically have eight or fewer individual packs inside.
  • Will often guarantee (or “average”) one limited card (ie: an autograph or jersey card) per box.
  • Often have a parallel exclusive to blaster boxes, and sometimes exclusive to the specific retailer.

Cello Packs/Cello Boxes

Mosaic cello Zion

Companies call these cello packs because they package the cards using a transparent material, which is quite similar to cellophane.

  • Retail Price is typically $10.
  • Vintage cello packs typically have the top and bottom cards plainly visible.  Packs with stars visible are more valuable.
  • Vintage cello packs don’t have gum (or gum-stained cards) like vintage wax packs.
  • Modern cello packs typically include multiple smaller packs inside with around 10-15 cards total.
  • Often includes one pack of cello-exclusive parallels.
  • A box of cello packs typically contains 12 or 24 packs.
  • Sealed cello boxes sell for a premium on the secondary market because the packs are untampered with.

Fat Packs

A fat pack is a single pack typically with a hole in the top fitted onto a peg.

  • Retail price is typically $5 – $10.
  • The cards are directly inside the pack, not protected by additional smaller packs inside.
  • Fat packs are generally “fat” and contain 25-35 cards.
  • Similar to cellos, sealed boxes of fat packs are more desirable than loose packs because of the purity of the fat packs.

Gravity Feed Packs

Gravity feed boxes open from the bottom. Therefore, each time you take one out, gravity forces the one above it to come down.

  • Pack size can vary from 4 to 16 cards.
  • Sold by the pack for $2 – $3 per pack.
  • Often contain exclusive and relatively short printed parallels such as Checkerboards.
  • Packs do not usually guarantee a parallel.
  • Found at Target more than Walmart.
  • Dollar Tree often has gravity feed boxes with exclusive parallels in $1 packs.

Hanger Box

2020 NFL Prizm Hanger Box

Hanger boxes are rectangular boxes intended to hang on a hook at retail.

  • Retail price is typically $10-$17.
  • Typically inside the box is a single pack of cards.
  • Hanger Boxes often contain exclusive parallels or other chase cards.
  • The number of cards varies by release, but generally, they have more cards than cello packs and fewer than a blaster box.

Mega Boxes

Prizm NBA mega box Zion

Mega boxes are most similar to the hobby box counterparts because they contain more cards and typically offer better-guaranteed parallels.

  • Retail price is typically $40 – $60
  • Offers the most cards of any retail format.
  • Typically is one of the more desirable formats, in part because there are usually fewer of them than other formats.

Which Retailer Should I Buy Sports Cards From?

Retailers have different pricing, policies, and products so it can make a difference, but not a big one.

  • Target tends to have the best prices, with Walmart next and Meijer the worst.  It isn’t rare for Meijer to have 30% higher prices than Target
  • There may be more than one type of each format – sometimes a Walmart hanger is different from a Target hanger.
  • Meijer and Walmart are supplied by MJ Holdings, and Target is supplied by Excel.  For that reason, Meijer and Walmart mostly have the same products.
  • Big Lots, RiteAid, Walgreens, Party City, Dollar Tree, and other stores also carry sports cards.
  • Watch and their sister sites for high-demand exclusives.
  • Some retailers have exclusive parallels, like the popular Topps Purple parallels (previously exclusive to Toys R Us)

What Else Should I Know?

Some of the best cards you can find in retail boxes may not have immediately apparent value. Very often, their popularity only becomes apparent over time. A great example of that is the beautiful Topps Baseball Target Red parallels of the early to mid-2010s.

However, there is some concern that the tremendous amount of retail flipping we see right now will devalue many retail sets. After all, the rules of supply and demand will come into play at some point. But as of now, the popularity of retail formats is incredibly high. Ask anyone working at Target.