Blind box economy: what soft-betting tells us about Chinese Millennials' over-consumption
Collecting objects without real utility has been associated with wealth and existed as a peculiar form of consumption.1 But why are Chinese youngsters spending a fortune collecting Popmart designer toys?
Since the beginning of civilization, collecting useless objects has been associated with wealth and, nonetheless, existed as a peculiar form of consumption.2 In ancient Greece, artists’ signatures were the equivalent of modern brands, and rich merchants obsessed over a certain sculptor’s pieces the same way we now lose our minds (and salaries) over the latest Supreme release.
Once we acknowledge the link between collecting, consuming, and wealth, the popularization of this practice within Chinese society in the past twenty years or so should not come as a surprise. Craving unique pieces is far from being specific to an era or a culture. However, what makes the so-called “blind boxes” 盲盒 manghe so peculiar is that they are situated right at the intersection of two equally enticing realms: collecting and gambling.
From Japan to the Chinese e-commerce: genesis of the Blind Box Economy
Blind boxes are not native to China, but their success is inseparable from that of one specific company: Popmart 泡泡玛特. According to the founder Wang Ning, blind boxes are inspired by the gashapon: toys dispensed by vending machines toys, extremely popular in Japan.3 Blind boxes are organized according to series, each featuring a different character. Every series has 12 pieces, one of which is extremely rare (the chances of finding it are only 1/144) and is often referred to as “Mystery Style” 藏款 cangkuan.
Another trait shared by gashapon and blind boxes is the use of automatic vending machines. Popmart started from traditional brick-and-mortar stores, and then in 2014 began experimenting with vending machines, which ended up being very successful and mushroomed in shopping malls across the country.
However, what made experts coin the term “Blind Box Economy” (盲盒经济 manghe jingji) is the volume of their online sales. Besides the TMALL and Taobao Popmart flagship stores, the online flea market 闲鱼Xianyu (belonging to Alibaba) played a significant role in their spread. As many Popmart aficionados point out, collecting and exchanging toys fostered a new kind of social interaction (both online and offline), allowing them to enjoy a more comprehensive shopping experience.4
What are the implications of the Blind Box craze?
Besides the questionable nature of such consumption-oriented socialization, other threats might hide behind the Black Box craze. The gambling component of such a trend is evident, and cases of Chinese citizens spending tens of thousands of yuan just to get their hands on the “Mystery Style” are not unheard of.
Although this kind of designer toys (潮流玩具 chaoliu wanju) normally cater to young adults, blind boxes are now available for virtually every category of goods (clothing, books, snacks…). In particular, stationery blind boxes (文具盲盒 wenju manghe) are targeting elementary school kids,5 a social group who is not only unaware of the value of money but also extremely prone to addiction.
In a country where gambling is illegal and overconsumption is frowned upon, it seems paradoxical that a company like Popmart can boast a 73 million dollars profit per year.6 After a closer look, a socioeconomic phenomenon like the rise of Black Box economy can be telling of a substantial disconnection between legislators and new generations of Chinese consumers and their needs. Although Millennials’ consumption patterns are thoroughly researched for market purposes, little research has been done on possible ways to tackle the potential threats soft-betting (变相赌博 bianxiang dubo) consumption can pose to young consumers’ mental health and responsible financial behaviors.
Reference / To go Further
Russell Belk, Collecting in a Consumer Society. (London: Routledge, 2013).
Yue Wang, “ Master Of Mystery: The New Billionaire Who Made A Fortune Selling Toys In Blind Boxes,” Forbes, July 2, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ywang/2020/07/02/master-of-mystery-the-new-billionaire-whose-cult-favorite-toys-are-sold-at-random/?sh=5b818e3742c6.
Wang, “Master of Mystery.”