Remember those sticker and gumball machines at pizza joints and grocery stores when you were a kid? Put a quarter in, turn the crank, and hope that that extra-sparkly sticker will be delivered to your little hands. You had no idea which item was going to come out of the machine. It could be anything! I recall getting stickers not as excellent as the one I had wanted, but not quite the worst sticker in the bunch. Those machines kept me coming back for more as my parents enjoyed their leisurely pizza dinner.
Now that I get more than $5 a week for allowance, I can relive the excitement with blind box toys–the grown-up version of the mystery sticker machines.
What are blind box toys (also known as “mystery minis”)?
A blind box toy is a product with an identity that’s hidden by uniform packaging in a series, often sealed within an opaque bag inside a box. The toy is typically from a pop culture series ranging from movies to comics to animation, and some blind box items are from an artist wanting to feature their work.
Blind boxes are a relatively new phenomenon in the United States–starting as early as 2004–but they have been popular in Japan for decades. Gashapon machines are similar to the 25-cent plastic capsule machines found outside of American grocery stores, only Gashapon capsules contain much higher quality toys that are sold randomly at $1 – $6 and often earn a much higher rate on the secondhand market if they’re rare.
Why collectors love blind box toys
Blind boxes aren’t cheap. And even if you could see the small vinyl toy before purchasing it, would you still pay $8? Far fewer would.
So why do people buy these little plastic figurines? For people who collect blind box toys, the excitement of opening a mystery item offsets the risk that they spent money on something they don’t want. The thrill is in the chase for your favorite item and in being an active member of a passionate community.
Blind box toys are an easy and affordable way for casual buyers to collect pop art and for artists to get their work in front of a new audience. Individually-wrapped artifacts seem to have a special presence about them. The fact that they were secret somehow makes collectors admire the artistic details even more.
Blind box fan communities–in person and online–exist for collectors to connect. It’s a social outlet for those who like to trade minis they don’t want or have duplicates of, or simply if they want to share conversation around the release of new series.
The hardcore collectors (also known as “Completists”) will simply buy blind boxes for the thrill of completing a collection. A lucky few collectors will be able to get their hands on the most rare of all the toys in some sets. Where many toys in a series have a 10% chance of getting selected, some will be as difficult to collect as a 1-in-150 chance. The most rare of them all will often take a large sum of money to acquire – either through buying many boxes or buying them on the second-hand market for hundreds of dollars.
Very popular, highly collectable My Little Pony blind box toys. Image: BronieAustralia.com.au
Jeremy Riad authored an interesting breakdown of blind box toy fans if you want to learn more about the types of collectors and their motivations.
Why retailers looooove manufacturing and selling blind boxes
The economics of blind boxes are brilliant: they rely on the addictiveness of random luck while moving inventory for retailers. Blind boxes are often marketed in series of related characters to generate interest – the “luck” comes into play when toy producers limit certain characters in a series and making other characters more common. It keeps collectors coming back for more: buying more boxes to increase the chance they will find that one rare character (and usually a fan favorite).
A blind box collector changes his tactics. Image: Kidrobot.com
Retailers can easily reduce inventory on unpopular items by creating their own “blind box”, better known as a grab bag. Grab bags help rotate stock by retailers placing the hard-to-sell clear-packaged characters (known as “peg warmers” in the retail industry) into a blank paper bag and sell at a steeply discounted price. Grab bags are a bigger gamble as your money is at the mercy of whatever unpopular item the retailer needs to move. With blind boxes at least you will know which series or media property you’re purchasing, even if you don’t know which character lies within.
There’s another benefit of retailers selling blind box toys: they are most popular with young buyers. It’s a great way for retailers to gain a new customer from the 10-year-old who stops in to buy a new blind box with her allowance every week. Over time, that 10-year-old will become a 16-year-old with a part-time job, and eventually a full-time careerist earning disposable income who may just still remember that retail shop with her favorite toys.
Lulubell Toy Bodega in Tucson displays blind boxes in a refrigerator case (with the power off). Image: JeremyRiad.com
Finally, many retailers are collectors themselves. I have met a few comic shop owners who happen to sell blind boxes and have admitted to me that they weigh every blind box and are able to predict with a high degree of accuracy which boxes contain which characters. They will keep the boxes for themselves that might contain the toys they are looking for – unfortunately taking some of the potentially rare collectors’ items out of circulation for the next shopper.
Interested in collecting? Currently in the process of collecting? Keep your eyes peeled for a Big Fish Games blog post with sneaky tricks to get the toy you want without blowing out your budget!