Blind Boxes Unwrapped
Lifting the lid on the voices driving domestic success, the business of selling mystery is set to explode as it taps into a globally shared desire for discovery
Blind Boxes 盲盒 (máng hé) are the latest trend to capture both the hearts, and wallets, of China’s Generation Z. Think collectible figurines packaged up in carefully designed but purposefully nondescript boxes sold in stores and vending machines, physical and virtual. Collectors do not know exactly what item they are buying until the moment of unpacking, generating an air of addictive trepidation. Blind boxes come in a variety of formats, often co-designed through IP licensing agreements with an ever wider range of creative partners. Already own the figure you’ve just unboxed? Not to worry, a thriving community of fans and collectors eager to swap and trade awaits.
This is big business. A Tmall report from August 2019 revealed that over 200,000 Chinese consumers spent an average of 20,000 RMB ($3,100) on blind boxes. The most ardent fans report spending over 1 million RMB ($155,000) on their collection. With an increasingly global footprint, this is a craze that is no longer confined to East Asia. Last month, Pop Mart, the biggest name in China’s mystery toy sector opened a pop-up store in Westfield Stratford, Europe’s largest shopping destination. Investors are paying attention, as Pop Mart’s share price jumped 100 percent off the back of its Hong Kong IPO in December 2020, where it raised $674m.
Far from just another fad, the blind box industry is rapidly maturing. Japan’s Sonny Angel, perhaps the first known brand among collectors, will turn 16 years old in 2021. South Korea’s biggest blind box brands such as Sticky Monster Lab and Repolar are known to frequently work with professional artists. Across East Asia, these brands are linked by a common denominator; simple functionality, on-trend design and price point - typically hovering around the £8 mark per item.
Growth in this sector has captured the imagination of an increasing range of brands looking to scale up their ‘lifestyle’ offering. Domestic organisations such as Palace Museum of China have used the blind box format to sell designer souvenirs on-site, while international brands such as IKEA, Starbucks, Disney have all launched limited editions or collaborations with the likes of Pop Mart.
Who are the communities and collectors driving this trend? Pop Mart’s own customer data indicates an unsurprising skew towards younger audiences aged between 15-30. Among them, a striking 75% are female and 65% are returning customers.
Sangsang, a 26 year old secretary from Nanjing explained the mechanics and culture of blind boxes to TONG. “One collection normally comes in a set of 12 blind boxes, that is 12 toys of different styles. Sometimes there are even rarer hidden styles in a collection and those are normally the most valuable collectibles. Last year, I spent 200 RMB ($30) to secure a Disney blind box.” With Pop Mart continually introducing different themed collections, some dropping seasonally and in partnership with artists or celebrities, the offering for new styles and tastes become infinite. When a toy is wrapped up, unboxing becomes a lucky draw, a small gamble and a self funded gift opening moment. “It’s interesting because it’s you that pays for it, but then you have to open the box to find out what you actually bought. At that point, my heartbeat starts to speed.”
It’s this moment of suspense that makes the unboxing model of consumption so addictive, and thereby effective. Collectors itch to acquire complete sets of 12. In fact, the toys themselves serve little practical function - it’s the feelings of indulgence and reward triggered by the thrill of buying and unveiling something for you and you alone that’s driving such runaway demand. The anticipation, surprise and delight of the blind box experience recreates many childhood memories of countdown calendars, Kinder Surprises or swapping trading cards and stickers in the playground. The blind box plays on these emotions, as well as on deeper seated curiosities inside all of us.
Mystery as a consumer strategy is far from new in the region. Fukubukuro, “lucky bag” in Japanese, are bags full of random undisclosed products at significantly discounted prices, normally sold during New Year. Toy collectors are also very familiar with Gashapon, vending machines of capsulated toys found in tube stations, kiosks and street corners, dispensing little toys for just a coin or two. Consumer desire for serendipity and surprise are leveraged through gamification and smart price-setting mechanisms.
The rise of digital has led to greater innovation within the blind box space. Mobile apps allow customers to purchase and compare collectibles whenever and wherever. Some platforms even allow customers to mitigate some of the surprise by paying extra so as to exclude certain styles from the running, as well as top-ups to reveal and seal a style of choice. This is a business model that has proven resilient over the years, adapting and thriving where other trends have faded into distant memory. Its digital user growth is illustrative of a user base today driven by novelty and perceived scarcity, the key to Pop Mart’s healthy customer retention rate.
In recent years, blind box communities have flourished among fans and collectors. The hashtag #blindbox has generated over 400 million reading counts on Weibo alone. On other platforms like Douban, RED or WeChat private groups, people connect to discuss the latest drops, share unboxing content and trade or exchange personal collections. Similar to other communities, certain individuals become leading voices of knowledge and expertise that others turn to for advice. “You can feel the box and tell if one of them weighs heavier or lighter. Also you can shake the box, and if the style you want wears accessories, you will hear the sound of scattered components”. Sangsang shares this technique as she helps a friend to identify a specific item in a bustling Pop Mart store, located in a premium shopping plaza in Shanghai. Like other engaged communities, members act as advocates, willingly offering recommendations and must-knows on the unique culture and practices defining this particular pastime.
For many, the first “fall into the blind box pit” is typically sparked by a draw to one particular figurine, a purchase that would inadvertently establish an almost ritualised spending habit. Many collectors take pride in self-identifying as “blind box lovers”. For Yan, a 23 year old accountant from Shanghai who owns over 100 Sonny Angel figures, a core part of her social life is tied to the blind box community. Whilst others use personal motifs such as family pictures, books or even plants on a desk to represent interests and express identity, Yan has a layered plastic box in the office to display some of her favourite dolls. “When new colleagues need to talk to me or send me documents, I simply tell them to ‘look for the wall of blind box dolls’.” The importance of blind box figures central to to consumer identity and community further contributes to the product’s enduring appeal.
Another key to its success has been the adaptability of brands such as Pop Mart to prevailing trends and tastes. Collaborating with local artists, designers and brands has allowed Pop Mart and its competitors to continuously reiterate their product offering, while simultaneously tapping into fan communities around the individuals they work with. Katie, a 28 year old freelance designer from Shanghai, was first drawn to blind boxes as a way of expressing support for one of her favourite artists, Taiwan-based no2good. Katie is representative of many blind box buyers. She purchases specific figures that align with her broader interests and tastes, rather than collecting en masse. “Other designers just aren’t as appealing. They also occupy way too much storage space”. This deliberate choice of medium for artist support reframes the perception of blind boxes as an object. For some it’s a toy, for others it’s art. Putting aside preconceived notions around adults playing with toys, Katie represents a particular mindset of a new consumer class who value creativity and are fully aware of their individual and collective purchasing power.
So, what’s next? Pop Mart has expressed its desire to become the Chinese Disney and is investing heavily to enrich its product mix and expand rapidly across ranges. The company now owns the rights to 93 IP licences (12 self-owned, 25 exclusives and 56 non-exclusive), to retain its 3.6 million registered members. Recently, they launched a new IP of heartthrob Jay Chou, called “Classmate Chou”. The range of stickers are diversifying the brand’s appeal across short-video sharing platforms such as Kuaishou, bringing their IP to new audiences.
Beautifully crafted and curated with the end customer and their communities in mind, blind boxes are ultimately designed to satisfy. Whether it’s the thrill of self-gifting, the moment of surprise when unboxing, the community comradery or the expression of fandom in supporting the latest collaboration, the blind box encapsulates many of the most exciting and innovative aspects of consumption in China today with the potential to transcend borders and cultures. Above all else, it reflects the importance of fun and irreverence in an increasingly automated world, the role of mystery as a commodity in a society seeking convenience and finally the power of a common passion to shape markets.