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Understanding PSA Turnaround Times

If there’s one aspect of PSA grading that veterans and the newly curious are equally tripped up on, it’s turnaround times. PSA graded cards are an awesome product, but when exactly our cards come back to us in those coveted cases isn’t always as clear as the acrylic we’re buying. Today, I wanted to tackle the mystery firsthand and answer the question I get asked the most about grading: When the heck do my cards come back?!

The Business Day

Business days have a long history, but our modern conception is largely attributable to Henry Ford. The Business Day is just a fancy way of saying “any day not on the weekend,” for us grading folk. And the business day is the first hurdle in understanding what to expect with your PSA turnaround times. PSA, like millions of other businesses, primarily staffs Monday through Friday. While they don’t outright say they never work on Saturdays, we recommend you don’t bank on it. Because grading is a skilled trade, PSA works within the confines of what working professionals want. And working professionals want a predictable work schedule that balances well with their out-of-work life.

Every calendar week is five business days. So when you’re looking at Ludkins or PSA estimated turnaround times, the quickest way to get a rough idea of how long to expect to wait on your cards is to take the turnaround estimate, divide by 5, and use the result as the number of weeks your cards will be with PSA. For example, PSA direct bulk submission is currently estimated to be an 85 business day turnaround. A lot of people see this and think, “Oh, that is about 90 days or three months.” But they haven’t accounted for business days. 85 business days divided by 5 is 17. And 17 weeks is just over four months. If you do not take note of the difference between a business day and a calendar day, your grading experience could unnecessarily test your patience.

When does the countdown start?

There is a lot that happens before your cards even start the process your business day estimate refers to. First, the cards have to be logged on PSA’s system. If you’re submitting with Ludkins, that is replaced with sending them in and handling your pre-submission process. The cards are then shipped to PSA and arrive with their facilities. Incoming packages are processed by the mail reception. Then they make their way to the researchers who verify paperwork against the package contents to make sure everything checks out. And finally, after all of this processing occurs, PSA logs the order to the submitting account. It is here, at the end of this long hallway, that the estimated turnaround time begins. This means that you might have several weeks of processing overall before PSA considers the order registered, depending on how long each step of the process takes and current volume.

FIFO

Queues are everywhere. The bank. Overloaded video game servers. Waterslides at fun parks. And every time we participate in a queue, it subtly influences our concept of how sorting demand for a product works and ought to work. The style of queueing we are used to can be referred to as FIFO, or First In First Out. Using a FIFO system, if I submit my cards on Tuesday, and Barney submits his cards on Thursday, then my cards should always be completed before Barney’s cards. Many are surprised to find out that PSA does NOT use a FIFO system of operation. And it’s better for everyone that they don’t! I’ll explain in depth here why it’s better that PSA does not use a FIFO system, but if you’re just looking for how the process effects you without extra details, you can skip ahead to the last two paragraphs in this section.

PSA has a handful of processing challenges. First, they don’t know on any given day exactly how many orders they are going to receive in the mail. Second, they don’t know how big each of those orders is going to be. And finally, they don’t know what service level the order is going to be for. They handle this extreme variability by processing mail with prejudice. One request PSA makes is that you put the turnaround speed of your order on the outside of your package when you send it to them. PSA prioritizes their faster turnaround times from the moment the package hits their doorstep. Their incentive is obvious, as faster turnarounds produce a higher margin due to their turnaround-based pricing catalogue, but we know when we submit bulk what we’re getting into. Fast turnaround times are their priority while bulk turnarounds are their way of selling the extra processing “space.”

By “space,” I mean the difference in their capacity between the time taken by low turnaround time orders, henceforth referred to as “premium orders,” and bulk turnarounds. I mentioned earlier that one of PSA’s challenges is not knowing how much volume they’ll receive on any given day. As a business, this means staffing can be tough. If you hire staff according to your lowest volume days, you’ll perpetually be behind on orders. If you hire staff according to your highest volume days, labor is wasted as employees frequently sit around with nothing to do and the cost of providing your product is increased dramatically. Instead, PSA uses what I refer to as a “cautious middle approach.” The cautious middle approach leans toward understaffing on high volume days but seeks to accommodate new averages that express themselves over long periods of time.

For example, you may know that November through January tend toward high volume, but February and March are typically slow. Because of the service’s dependence on skilled trade, seasonal employment isn’t an option. You might be able to get people to unload packages for an hourly, part-time, seasonal wage, but a qualified grader isn’t going to bite at that opportunity. Under these circumstances, your best bet as the business is to do nothing at all. You allow some delays to build up in processing during the holiday time, but that is remedied in the new year when things slow down. In this scenario, your staff is working the same full-time hours at full capacity during high and low demand months. Where this approach breaks down is during prolonged changes in demand for the product. If you have high volume from November through January, but February and March stay high, or even keep growing, the business will quickly find itself perpetually understaffed. In this situation, PSA has to adjust by hiring more skilled workers. This can be quick, if they’re lucky, but is more likely a lengthy process taking years, not months, to resolve itself and find the new cautious middle. You don’t want to react too quickly and hire people that are underqualified, as your product is entirely based on consumer faith in your assessments. You also don’t want to overhire and have to lay people off if you overcompensated for the shift in demand, as this hurts the individuals you hired and potentially jeopardizes future potential hiring opportunities if the small skilled community doesn’t trust you to keep them on. But there’s a knife on the other side of PSA’s neck as well. If they allow the delays to continue for too long, consumers will grow angry and either expect compensation or discontinue use of PSA’s services altogether. These are the delays I talk about in the next section of this article. For now, let’s wrap back around to the queueing system PSA uses to accommodate for all of this variability we’ve discussed.

How does PSA not using FIFO affect my turnaround times? Simply put, it adds another layer of unpredictability. PSA’s cautious middle system of hiring means their model is dependent on days with high volume and days with low volume. Under normal operations, their premium orders make up the first chunk of orders attended to. With the time left over after keeping up with premium orders, bulk orders are introduced to the graders. A bulk order can be anywhere from 100 to 500 cards. PSA introduces these orders to graders based on the predetermined speed at which the graders can grade and based on the amount of time left in any given grader’s workday. If there’s a lot of time, they might bust out a few 500-card orders. If there’s not much time, they might just grab a 100-card order and reassess after they complete it. This flexibility to pull orders that correspond to the available manpower, rather than being forced to always take the next order in line, is critical to maximizing PSA’s total output. Or in fewer words, FIFO wouldn’t be great for PSA or the consumer and we’re glad they don’t use it.

The total picture is a lot messier and is why PSA’s internal logistics are a full time job for several people. Graders aren’t strictly on premium orders at the beginning of the day and bulk at the end. And graders are human (or so rumor has it), so they have sick days, fast days, slow days, and bathroom breaks just like the rest of us. Storeroom logistics can’t hire people to work full time shifting packages to the left to fill in empty spaces, so the physical location of orders on the shelves can be scrambled by date. And the number of challenges I’ve not even imagined within this article is likely high. Grading so many cards for so many people is a complicated process, but PSA is always working to tackle that challenge to the best of their ability.

Delays and You: A Love Story

In the FIFO section of this article, I talked about PSA not knowing how many cards are going to come on a given day. In late 2018, that started to be particularly evident for them. Demand for the service increased dramatically. According to PSA’s own President, as of February 4th, 2019, PSA had seen a “165% surge in the number of collectibles received,” but had only been able to produce a “25% growth in capacity.” This has led to delays that feel like they keep increasing but never come all the way back down. PSA has increased the estimated turnaround on their bulk submissions multiple times, sitting at 85 business days as of this article’s publishing date. Stories shared online reflect dozens of orders currently exceeding 100 business days. 

Delays are inevitable, and they’re the final chunk in understanding PSA turnaround times. PSA grading is a process and it takes a lot of time, unless you want to fork out big bucks for premium turnarounds. But the majority of trading cards aren’t worth enough to justify expensive submission tiers. And the continued provision of a bulk service suggests PSA knows this to be true. Getting a feel for what the current delays are is impossible with direct submission, given PSA isn’t going to put an advertisement for their own delays on their website, but Ludkins tries to use the sum of our dozens of submissions to get a feel for the overall status of PSA turnaround times and reflect those in the updates that we provide to all of our submitters. 

Let me take one more leap on the topic of delays: delays can be good for you. I know that sounds crazy, and maybe you aren’t sold on this being a love story so quickly, but delays at PSA do have a handful of positive effects. First, delays in current processing strengthen the value of graded cards on the market. When it takes 5-6 months to get a card graded with no guarantee of what exactly PSA will designate it, the bird in hand gains a lot of value. There’s huge incentive to buy a card that’s already processed when people are staring down long queues at PSA. So if you’re someone who grades regularly, the delays can play in your favor. And if you’re a collector without much interest in the aftermarket value of your cards, consider the growth in the overall community that the delays signify. The increases in demand aren’t artificial. They’re the result of heightened activity around the world. That means new people to talk with, new people to share experiences with, and new opportunities to grow your collection. Sure, the upfront delay can feel like a steep price. We all want that instant gratification. But since instant gratification is off the table, I think it helps to look at some of these benefits to the delays. If nothing else, the spoonful of sugar makes the hard pill of waiting go down easier.

Give Yourself Every Edge

Congrats! You made it to the end of this lengthy article and you’re a PSA turnaround expert. You throw around terms like “cautious middle approach” and “premium service” and you’re educating scrubs all over Facebook. But what now? How can you turn this information into an extra edge for yourself?

That’s basically what we do here at Ludkins Grading. We love PSA’s product and the communities that have formed around it, but we see some ways the process could be better. So the good news is that we’ve done most of the work for you. Our contract with PSA runs at a lower base turnaround time than PSA bulk submission. We offer Express services that allow an extra edge without immediately jumping to premium tiers and their associated prices. We streamline communication and submission while using our own host of tricks that come from years of experience in the field. But here are Charlie’s recommendations to you for giving yourself even more edge:

  1. Get your cards in when you decide you’re ready to grade them - A lot of people sit on cards and save them up. That’s great! But there are diminishing returns to volume and a lot of people make the process feel much, much longer by waiting a long time to send them out to be graded. If you are just starting the process of grading and you already feel like you’ve been waiting three months, you’re gonna have a bad time. Consider getting your cards out the door earlier and making the process feel better. A card that’s been submitted is always making progress and a card that hasn’t is never making progress.
  2. Frequency improves the experience - Of course I have a vested interest in you grading often, but I ask that you hear this from the collector in me. When you send off even just a few cards with regularity, you feel like you’re getting returns more often. Many people submit huge chunks at once and then wait on those to come back before submitting again. While that’s a totally valid method and a financial necessity for many, if you have the luxury of being able to submit smaller batches more frequently, you’re going to feel better overall. Instead of waiting out every order and feeling the full brunt of every delay, you’re going to be getting submissions back, on average, as often as you send out. That really helps take the edge off of delays and variability long term.
  3. Submit it and forget it - This is easier said than done. The average submitter to Ludkins has a small order, only submits a few times a year, and has sent off the cards they care the most about. We know you are anxious to have graded cards in hand. But instead of setting an alarm on your phone for when you think/feel they should come back and entering total panic from that point forward, just relax. Let us worry about that for you. Making the process painless is mostly a matter of patience.

Grading with PSA is a journey. And as canned and corporate as that last sentence was, it’s true. Your cards literally travel the country and/or the world to find themselves back in your hand in their newly-encapsulated condition. By virtue of this alone, you’re looking at a wait. PSA turnaround times aren’t fun or exciting, but they exist for a reason and aren’t without their benefits. Taking the time to understand them can take some of the mystery out of the equation and give you a more satisfying experience overall.

Until next time,

Charlie Hurlocker 

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