Is the deck stacked against Tim Hortons card collectors?
Company says it has ‘strict security measures’ to ensure promotion is fair for everyone
Someone is cherry-picking hockey cards at Tim Hortons.
There’s simply no other way to explain it, said Christopher Lau, who suspected something strange when trying to collect an entire set with his 10-year-old son after the annual NHL card promotion began this month.
Lau and his son bought pack after pack and there were very few of the prized insert cards inside: the transparent “clear cuts,” and the multiplayer “franchise trios.”
“They list the odds on the back of the pack, so you only have to buy roughly 12 packs before you hit these inserts,” he said. “Something felt wrong.”
Lau and his son decided to investigate. They visited seven different Tim Hortons stores in the GTA, purchased at least 20 packs at each store and found that, while some locations produced one or two special inserts as expected, one had no clear cuts or trios at all. They then bought 20 more packs at that store, and still there were none.
Clear cuts appear in one out of every 12 packs and trios appear in one out of every 24, according to odds printed on the cards’ wrappers.
“It sounds rare, but statistically, after opening 40 packs, there is only a 0.56 per cent probability that this was random,” said Lau, who has honed his math working as an engineer.
“A lot of kids and parents may have spent hundreds of dollars on these packs before knowing that they have almost no chance of ever completing a set or experience the joy of getting agreat pull — a McDavid Trio or a Crosby Clear,” he said. “They’re cheated before they even nibble the foil on the corner pack to open them up.”
In a statement, Tim Hortons said it has no evidence of cheating in 2020. The company has implemented “strict security measures” and provided “clear training materials” to ensure this years’ annual NHL card promotion is fair and all customers have a chance to open a pack containing a rare and valuable card.
Members of the public are encouraged to report any irregularities to the company.
The Star has obtained records of another customer’s three separate complaints to Tim Hortons flagging concerns valuable cards were being skimmed as far back as 2016. In each case, the sender received a short, general response assuring them Tim Hortons takes the problem seriously and will investigate.
While the company has taken action to address some issues, such as banning returns, Lau worries other abuses continue. So he visited a collectible store, where a staffer told him unscrupulous people weigh unopened packs to figure out which ones contain the heavier insert cards.
“It was an ‘aha’ moment,” Lau said. “We’d gotten so many packs and I’m thinking maybe I’m just unlucky.”
There are YouTube videos showing a difference of more than1.5 grams between packs — something that’s easily detectable on a cheap digital scale.
“As an engineer, I thought these guys must be sophisticated, but it makes so much sense because it’s so easy.”
Thomas Clemmer, who runs CanadianHockeyCards.com, says the weight differential between packs used to be far bigger. Three years ago, Tim Hortons made pack weights much harder to distinguish, he said. A Tim Hortons spokesperson, Michael Oliveira, said the company has no evidence pack weighing has occurred this year. He said the company has prohibited the weighing of packs of cards prior to sale.
“We know how much parents, kids and hockey fans look forward to the release of our cards every year and that’s why we take the integrity of our program extremely seriously,” he said.
As more sensitive scales become cheaper and more acces
sible, it becomes easier to exploit differences of only a fraction of a gram. And there’s a profit motive involved.
The resale market for special inserts can be extremely lucrative. A Sidney Crosby signature card is on sale for $2,000. But the more common inserts also demand a premium. A Connor McDavid Clear Cut can go for $22 and an Edmonton Oilers Trio can fetch $60.
On eBay, some sellers have lots of relatively rare cards on offer. One seller has more than 250 franchise trio cards for sale at $23.95 each, a trove that would have statistically required opening 6,000 packs.
Each pack costs $2. If this seller bought all 6,000 packs, he wouldn’t come close to making his money back.
In response to questions, the eBay seller, lylymay, told the Star: “I don’t have to weigh any package, I just have good contacts.”
Lau doesn’t buy it. “These people that (weigh packs) turn around and sell them back to kids at insane markups,” he said.
A former investment banker, Lau is familiar with markets that are distorted by what’s referred to as “information asymmetry,” where either a buyer or a seller knows something others do not.
“It happens on the stock market; it happens in antique stores. Now it’s happening in hockey cards,” he said. “It’s a fact of life for adults, but I don’t think it should be that way for children. It’s OK if I lose $200 or $300. But for a kid to lose their allowance? I don’t think that’s right.”
Lau can’t prove who, if anyone, is weighing packs and pulling out the heavier ones. As a test, he took a scale into multiple restaurants and weighed unopened packs right on the counter before buying them. No store employees tried to stop him.
CanadianHockeyCards.com’s Clemmer said there are some simple fixes. “What they need to do is stop certain locations from allowing customers to go through the packs themselves,” he said. “They need to stop employees from cherry picking packs in advance and they shouldn’t be taking any packs back in returns.”
Tim Hortons told the Star: “All purchases of packs of cards are final sale and no returns are to be accepted. Owners are asked to keep the supply under security camera surveillance and the weighing of packs in advance of a sale is strictly forbidden.”
The company has previously received a customer’s complaints about suspected card skimming, according to emails sent in 2016, ’17 and ’20, seen by the Star. The complaints flagged issues such as card weighing and allowing customers to handle unopened packs before purchase.
In response to the emails, a Tim Hortons representative sent a general response assuring them the problem is being taken seriously and the company will investigate.
Because card weighing has been a problem for years, several counter measures are now commonplace in the hockey card industry, said Clemmer, including the insertion of blank “decoy” cards into packs to make them appear to be thicker and heavier. Tim Hortons has not instituted this for the annual NHL card promotion.
The cards’ manufacturer, Upper Deck, declined to comment on why decoy cards aren’t used for the Tim Hortons NHL cards.
“We produce this product for Tim Hortons according to their requirements,” said Chris Carlin, head of customer experience at Upper Deck.
Clemmer, who is based in North Vancouver, buys boxes of 100 packs from stores in order to resell individual cards. Only once has he gotten a “dud” box. It was in 2017, he said, when weight differentials were easier to find, and the box had been picked clean of valuable cards.
“There should be at least four and sometimes five high-end cards,” he said. “But, in that box, there was only one.”
He reported the incident to Tim Hortons and was told they would investigate. It has not happened again.
“Overall, they are doing a good job of making sure packs are distributed to customers fairly. There may be the odd bad apple at a location or two, but if they monitor customer complaints these shouldn’t be too hard to identify,” Clemmer said.
Lau says he wants to see the problem taken seriously.
“For a young kid, especially now that they’re not playing hockey, not going to card shows and who knows what’s happening to the NHL season, the one joy they’ve got left is these cards. It’s not about money, it’s a small piece of hope during these difficult times.”