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Collective Blindness

Is the Gen-Z mania for blind box toys just a way to provide enjoyment in a stressful life, or is it the next collectible bubble waiting to burst?

By NewsChina Updated Jan.1

The Satyr Rory sells for 1,650 yuan (US$235.7) each. Who wants it?” 

Launched by Pop Mart, a Chinese producer of art toys, messages on social media groups about its Satyr Rory “blind box” toys, which are marketed as collectibles, continued to pop up on collectors’ groups, even though it was past midnight.  

Having originated in Japan, blind box toys are contained inside opaque packaging, and usually contained in another bag inside the box. Often connected to pop culture, like movies or animation, and sometimes produced by artists, blind box toys or blind bag toys have become hot items to trade, with the added thrill of neither buyers nor sellers knowing what is inside.  Pop Mart, which specializes in designer or art toys, mainly marketed to young adults, started selling blind box toys in 2016. Selling online and from brick-and-mortar stores, Pop Mart has seen great success with its series of figurines contained in blind boxes. Young adult consumers with disposable incomes are buying into the craze which is seen as having an almost spiritual dimension. In China, it is considered as part of the chaowan or art toy culture, where fans believe they are paying for more than just a toy.  

Yet, as many people are becoming addicted to buying the lottery-like toy, the price of many has inflated to dozens of times the original cost, experts warned that such trendy consumption will lure people into thinking they can speculate on the cost of the toys, much as the Beanie Babies craze of the 1990s caused many people, except the inventor, to lose thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars.  

Moment of Anticipation
Two months ago, Wang Chuantian (pseudonym), a 36-year-old blind box aficionado in Beijing, bought one in a shopping mall. When he opened the box, he found it was a Pop Mart Molly doll that he likes very much. He was excited to have got one with just a single purchase. Wang usually buys blind boxes every two or three days, mostly displaying them at home. But, he said, the best time was the moment of anticipation when you are about to open a box.  

“It’s like lifting the cloth on a magic box when your curiosity is greatly satisfied,” agreed 28-year-old Beijing resident Deng Juan. 

Deng said she spent 600 yuan (US$85.7) buying 20 blind boxes from Playmobil, a German toy brand, only to find that none contained the doll she really desired. “Truly, I was a bit disappointed, but the disappointment goes right against the exultation I feel when I find a desirable or a limited doll in the box,” she said.  

Playmobil launches blind boxes with different themes twice a year and Deng said she wishes she could collect all the dolls she likes. “Cute dolls are irresistible to me. Playmobil is my favorite brand, but I also buy other blind boxes,” she said. “Just last Sunday, to comfort my sick son, I bought one at the hospital.” 

In many cities, there are blind box vending machines in subway stations, shopping malls, supermarkets and even private hospitals like the one Deng went to. Many producers like Pop Mart sell online.  

 The convenience and the cheap price – around 19-69 yuan (US$2.7-10) per box – makes it easier for people to join the blind box club and become addicted to the rush of finding out what is inside the next box.  

To make it even more enticing, many toy makers put a mystery doll in each full carton – which contains 144 boxes – hoping that people will buy the whole set. Others just like to buy one at a time, preserving what Deng refers to as the “sense of mystery.” 

Pop Mart, according to co-founder and CEO Wang Ning, sold four million Molly series dolls in 2018, with its blind box sales in the Chinese mainland exceeding 200 million yuan (US$28.6m). So far, the blind box giant has more than 100 brick-and-mortar stores in 52 Chinese cities and regions, full of vending machines. The company is now expanding its business abroad.  

In August, Tmall, an online B2C (business to consumer) platform under Hangzhou-based tech giant Alibaba, released its first report on the consumption habits of people born after 1995. It said that about 200,000 Tmall consumers spent an average of 20,000 yuan (US$2,857) annually buying blind boxes. The top consumer splashed out around one million yuan (US$142,857). An official report by Xianyu, Alibaba’s platform for second-hand goods, showed that by July 2018, 300,000 blind boxes had been resold on the platform.  

The blind box fans interviewed by NewsChina said they spent on average several thousands of yuan annually, with some buying every day and others having little space to accommodate the growing number of dolls. Yet all said they highly enjoyed the buying and the unboxing. 

“I spend around 2,000 yuan (US$285.7) on blind boxes every month, not much, I think,” Deng said. “In my spare time, I like to take out all the dolls and play with them... It makes me feel very relaxed and satisfied. I think it’s my way of releasing stress, and it’s just the same as people who like watching movies or reading books.”

Gen-Z Spending Power
According to Pop Mart data, most of its blind box consumers are aged between 18 and 35. This figure conforms to the Tmall report which said that most blind boxes on Tmall are bought by people born after 1995, or Gen Z (those born between 1995 and 2009). 

According to the Gen Z spending power white paper released by internet giant Tencent and market analyst Kantar, compared to older generations, Gen Z are more willing to pay for spiritual enjoyment. It encompasses social interaction, for pleasure and to display who one is to others, the top three motivations for Gen-Z consumption in China.  

Deng told NewsChina she was in a WeChat group for Playmobil devotees. Though not big, it is very active. “We talk about buying and playing with the dolls. Just two days ago, someone posted a video teaching us how to nicely disassemble a Playmobil doll in only one move. It is amazing. I’m now practicing it,” she said.  

Exchanging models is also a major topic in the group, which has a few dozen members. Playmobil stops producing older series when new ones are launched, and as it costs a lot to buy these models on public websites like Xianyu, private exchange is much more economical and provides a good way to socialize. “The dolls you don’t like might be someone else’s favorites,” she said.  

There are many different social media chat groups for blind boxes, and Pop Mart has even developed its own social network app.  

Besides the chat group, Deng likes to visit popular short video apps like Bilibili and TikTok to watch other people unpack blind boxes. “Many of the posters open several boxes at one time... It’s much cooler and more exciting,” she said.  

The top video tagged “blind box” on Bilibili has been viewed more than 650,000 times.  

A recent report by LOHAS, an entertainment magazine, revealed that blind boxes have greatly promoted offline communication among fans. The report gave the example of Pop Mart’s biggest store in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, which has become a meeting place for blind box fans to exchange, show and talk about dolls, as well as develop friendships. 

“My life would not be complete without blind boxes,” one fan who identified herself as Mao Jin told LOHAS. Working in Hangzhou alone, Mao said that she had led a very lonely life until she got involved with blind boxes and made many friends among fellow fans.  

Deng has not met her blind box friends offline, but she said that it was nice to make like-minded friends.  

“We all like blind box dolls and we really have a lot in common. Relationships like these are very pure and true,” she said.  

Deng likened the blind box craze to the mania for collecting trading cards in the 1990s that came with a brand of instant noodles. “Most kids were saving their pocket money to buy the instant noodles just for the card... and they would also exchange cards,” she said. “Yet, compared to the cards, blind box dolls are much more delicate and exquisite. That is why they could be a separate toy rather than an add-on,” she said.  

This is one of the reasons why blind boxes are considered chaowan which, unlike other popular toys, focus much more on design and craftsmanship. “Blind box toys are not just an extension or sideline to animation,” Li Ceng, a chaowan seller told NewsChina. He believes chaowan designers integrate art concept and style into the toys.  

An industrial report by analysts Li Kanglin and Yang Zhen published on Huxiu, an app for exchanging business ideas, ascribed the rising popularity in China of blind boxes to people’s increased level of consumption and improved quality of Chinese toy manufacturing and design. 

This belief is shared by Pop Mart’s chief marketing officer Guo Xiao, who states that design is at the core of chaowan culture. “Our consumers have the spending power and desire for artworks, and they understand them,” he told NewsChina.  

According to Deng, buying a blind box is the lowest entry point to chaowan culture. Many long-time chaowan fans, including pop stars, will go after limited edition items of higher quality, which are much more expensive.  

Molly dolls are displayed at a Pop Mart store in Beijing, July 30, 2019

Pop Mart sold four million Molly series dolls in 2018

Gambler Mentality 
But many observers are calling out the over-hyped values for what are in fact cheap plastic toys.  “I felt sad for the players when they were labeled by some critics as ‘chives,’” Si De, Pop Mart’s co-founder and vice-president, told Langchao Xinxiaofei, a social media site focused on new consumption. The Chinese word for chives is used to describe someone who is easily taken in by vendors or investors. 

“Art design is the core of the dolls... our dolls are not made by some unknown factory. There are over 100 processes to make a doll which takes eight months to complete,” he said, adding that the majority of blind box buyers do so for enjoyment and collecting, not for investment.  

But still, there are many reports of people paying disproportionately high prices for rare blind box collectibles. For example, a secret-edition Satyr Rory doll sold for more than 2,000 yuan (US$285) on Xianyu, nearly 40 times the original price. Other stories include a couple in Beijing spending 200,000 yuan (US$28,571) on blind boxes in just four months and some blind box scalpers allegedly bribing retailers to pick out secret-edition dolls by weighing them. As these stories multiply, so do the criticisms.  

At the end of September, a China Central Television (CCTV) program looked at the hyped-up prices of blind boxes, warning viewers not to fall in the trap set by scalpers. In an interview with China National Radio, Zhang Xiaotong, an emotion management expert, pointed out that the mania for buying blind boxes is largely based on a desire to gamble that is hard to control, especially for minors. For example, the probability of someone getting a secret-edition Pop Mart doll is one in 144. The odds are low, but still enough to keep people buying.  

There is still no indication that speculators are entering the blind box field as they have with sneakers, but many experts worry that if it starts to spiral out of control, consumers and upstream producers will enable the hype. A look at some of the forlorn Beanie Babies selling for just cents on sites like eBay should provide blind box collectors with a cautionary tale.