Culture

Blind box shopping: Never too old to collect Pop Mart art toys

9 Mins read

Why do we continue to collect figurines at any age? The Kinder figurines, the Pop ones, and now the Pop Mart brand with even more choices of figurines, cuter, even more expensive, and addictive.

It’s barely past 10 a.m. on a Friday morning, and already about twenty people are heading to the top floor of Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

Amid luxury luggage and gourmet groceries stands the brand-new Pop Mart pop-up store. Two stands filled with small rectangular cardboard boxes about ten centimetres in size.

Inside, colourful figurines with childlike faces, barely larger than the palm of your hand. However, buyers have no idea which figurine they’ll get until they reach the checkout because they are packaged in blind boxes.

Skullpanda, Labubu, Dimoo, or Pucky – these character names probably mean nothing to you, yet they are very popular among Gen Z, who clamour for them, sometimes at a premium price when they are bigger sizes.

From sleepy sheep with red cheeks, and little girls with buns, to smiley rabbits, they are all in various and colourful outfits and doing activities like skiing or drinking coffee.

These figurines challenge anyone not to succumb to their cuteness quite like the Japanese kawaii style with their oversized eyes and juvenile looks, typical of pop toys.

The principle is simple: collect a complete set of 12 figurines, at €15 (£13) each, with a particular theme. Easier said than done when you don’t know which figurine you’re buying, apart from the collection.

Yet, it’s a marketing strategy that seems to work perfectly well, combining cuteness, surprise, addiction, and collecting.

All these characters came to life thanks to the Chinese company Pop Mart – launched in 2010, it is now the largest and fastest-growing pop toy company in China.

As reported by The Herald Scotland, “the blind box market is surging in China, worth 7.4 billion yuan (£810 million) in pre-pandemic 2019, according to market research firm Qianzhan Intelligence, and expected to grow to 30 billion yuan (£3.3 billion) by 2024.”

Pop Mart pop-up store at the Galeries Lafayettes
Pop Mart pop-up store at the Galeries Lafayettes [Héloïse Le Fourner]

The founders, Mr. Wang Ning, and his wife Ms. Yang Tao, stormed into the European market in 2022, with the opening of a first boutique in London’s Chinatown district, followed by another in the heart of Paris in 2023.

The company now has stores in more than thirty countries across Asia, America, Europe, and Oceania. Such success led to the opening of a theme park in Beijing spanning more than 40,000 square metres in September last year.

To continue its success in Europe, Pop Mart not only sells original figurines but also Western licenses like Disney, Harry Potter, and more recently, Kung Fu Panda.

“People’s nostalgic psychology can help blind box toys to increase their economy. Nostalgic psychology represents an experience of emotion, not only being sad or blue when recalling something,” says Xiaolin Chen, an academic at Harbin High School in China.

Everyone has their own technique to guess what they’re going to buy. Once their collection is chosen, with all characters displayed on a plastic shelf above the sealed cardboard boxes, enthusiasts shake the boxes hoping to find the missing figurine for their collection.

“Because we know the size, weight, and accessories of the figurines, shaking helps us recognise the one we’re looking for more easily. For example, my friend Théo, here, is sure to get the secret one,” explains Laura, a brown hair jurist in her late twenties, tote bag on her shoulder, while continuing to shake her boxes.

Among the blind boxes, there’s also a secret figurine that enhances the gambling aspect and drives purchases. Collectors have a one in 144 chance of discovering it.

It’s unboxing time for Théo, a 20-ish Asian man wearing glasses, barely having stowed away the receipt of €45 (£39) in his wallet and proudly holding his three boxes.

Constance, a saleswoman at the Pop Mart in Chatelet, who has worked here since the opening, confirms, “The average shopping basket is always at least two boxes, mostly likely three. So, most end up paying around fifty euros.”

Fans gather, a mix of excitement, stress, and pleasure surrounds the pop-up store. @Gingx Hobbies, an American influencer of Pop Mart from Orange County, California, who defines herself as a “kidult collector”, explains, “Adrenaline rush and happiness that only me and my fellow Pop Mart collectors could understand. Unboxing is also a stress reliever for me; I immerse myself in the world of Pop Mart and forget about the problems of the world even for a moment.”

little figurines in boxes dressed up
Dimoo’s latest collection [Héloïse Le Fourner]

While Théo unpacks the small box, another fan films it for the rest of the highly present community on social media. “Bravo,” “Let’s see,” “So cute,” he holds the treasure in his hands: the secret figurine from the Pucky Home Time collection. Another figurine to add to his shelves.

Most fans seem to have lost count. “I have about sixty figurines at home: various sets of the same character,” confesses Laura, “but there are collectors in France who have up to 300.”

@Yourfavcollectors, an Australian figurine influencer from Perth, admits, “Honestly, we’ve lost count! If we really like the series, we will invest in the whole set. We have quite a few complete sets now and treasure them dearly!”

On one of her shelves, she has 190 figurines and there are still other shelves.

Pop Mart has eight original characters which have on average per character seven to 15 sets of 12 figurines. The different figurines of one set bare display above the cardboard boxes. One collector can collect more than 2,000 figurines and it’s never-ending because there are new sets coming out regularly.

In 2020, Pop Mart had sold over 50 million toys.

Théo has less luck with the second one, a glance at the card in the box, and there’s no need to tear open the opaque bag inside, “I already have this one; I’ll sell it anyway.”

The second-hand market for Pop Mart is flourishing with prices that can multiply by ten-fold, on Ebay for instance. The price increases with the rarity of the figurine and how hard it is to discover.

A Gen Z community thriving on social media and willing to pay the price

little figurines in boxes dressed up
Mega figurines on display in a Parisian Pop Mart store [Héloïse Le Fourner]

To witness the impact of Pop Mart on the Gen Z, one only needs to visit Instagram and TikTok, the Chinese social network with over 47 million views. “People can meet new friends and form social circles through the blind box,” as Zhang puts it.

Kathie, an HR manager, and French collector, met at the pop-up store’s inauguration, says, “We have a WhatsApp group with over 1,000 members. We’ll have to create a new one because more and more people are joining.”

The WhatsApp group notably allowed four collector friends — Laura, Théo, Kathie, and Kiara — to meet up at the inauguration and continue their morning at the two other boutiques in the capital. “We can spend the whole day looking for new figurines,” admits Kiara.

Pop Mart also has its own app where fans exchange figurines. The Financial Times explains: “Fickle youth culture trends, even launching a social media and toy-trading app where toy hunters can show off their latest hauls and swap tips on the newest trends.”

Through social media, fans share their passion with others. They film their shelves filled with figurines, and stage them in stop-motion videos like ‘GingxHobbies’ or ‘yourfavcollectors’.

Of course, the most popular videos remain the unboxing ones. There’s even a grandmother on TikTok who can predict the figurine inside blind boxes just by shaking them.

While some PopMart fans make a clear distinction between their world and that of the Sonny Angels, studies show similar audiences. PopMart’s customers are aged between 15 and 25, white-collar workers and university women.

According to a Frost & Sullivan study, over 95% of PopMart toy consumers are between 15 and 40 years old, with 63% of them holding a degree or higher. These are people with bigger budgets than young teenagers, and who are prepared to pay the price.

The meteoric rise of Pop Mart

Pop Mart figurines are an example of art toys, another term for pop toys that emerged in the 1990s in Japan, initially sold in vending machines like capsule toys.

Art toys can be defined as decorative collectable items designed by artists and designers for adults sold in blind boxes, in limited editions.

The company collaborates closely with designers and artists, some of whom are from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in China, hence the designation as art toys.

This is a far cry from Kinder figures; Pop Mart’s small characters combine painting, design, sculpture, and storytelling for original licenses.

Pop Mart offers limited collections in collaboration with artists such as the Mega Skullpanda 1000% Jean Michel Basquiat figurine, available for the substantial sum of €1,256.90 (£1,080.18).

The company describes this piece as “an exclusive collaboration that merges Basquiat’s rebellious spirit with the contemporary icon Skullpanda. A masterpiece for collectors and art enthusiasts”. These rare collections enhance buyers’ desire due to their scarcity and preciousness.

In addition to capitalising on secrecy and curiosity, Pop Mart also leverages regular collection refreshes to further drive compulsive and regular purchases.

New stall with new Skullpanda collections at the Galeries Lafayette, in Paris
New stall with new Skullpanda collections at the Galeries Lafayette [Héloïse Le Fourner]

“We change collections every three to six months,” explains Pop Mart’s French Community Manager, Cindy Harimanana. “In addition to regular updates, special figurines are created for occasions like Easter, Valentine’s Day, or Christmas.” These special figurines are much more expensive than the standard models.

This addiction remains cute when it comes to €15 (£13) for one small figurine of about five centimetres chosen from one set, but some which are bigger, called MEGA collections, and are valued between €105 (£90) for one of 29cm and up €1,296 (£1,114) for one of 76 cm—a more considered investment since these figurines are not in blind boxes. These purchases represent a smaller portion of the Chinese company’s economy.

The element of mystery, adrenaline, excitement—this is what fans are seeking. The secret figurine seems to be the key to success. It creates a form of indirect competition among collectors to be the first with the mystery figurine, a competition that drives quick purchases as soon as new collections are released.

It’s an addiction almost akin to gambling or sports betting. “Blind boxes have satisfied consumers’ psychology of curiosity, pursuing beauty, nostalgia mood, and the desire for companionship,” Xiaolin Chen, an academic at Harbin High School in China, explained.

“The gambling feature attracts customers. To appeal to people who continue to buy blind boxes, the manager also designs styles of special edition and hiding edition. Such gambling behaviours, mixing mystery and surprise, prompt people to purchase them again and again until they find their favourite style, leading to an increase in sales volume.”

When asked about the money spent, fans like ‘yourfavecollectors’ don’t really go into detail: “It really depends on what’s released at the time. Last month we bought the POP MART Crybaby x Powerpuff Girls series and a 400% Mega Space Molly Heartfelt Words. We’ve released the secret! A secret worth over two hundred euros all the same.”

‘GingxHobbies’ sums it up: “Let’s just say I’m always over budget, whether in shop, online, in robot shops or at other retailers.”

Some are sometimes ashamed to show the extent of their collection: “I’ve started collecting toys in blind boxes and I have to hide from my husband, or he’ll question my spending,” confesses one reddit contributor.

It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of Pop Mart’s fantasy world. I’ve experienced it myself. A few months ago, my friends and I walked into this colourful shop in the heart of Paris.

Pop Mart bag, with a large centralised drawing of a figurine with red hair and a pink dress
Pop Mart bag [Héloïse Le Fourner]

One of us even said: “Honestly, we’re not going to buy something we can’t see, it’s ridiculous and pure capitalism”. And then we each walked out for a few minutes with a small box from a different collection. Each of us now owns between three and six figurines. Reasonable, we gave in more than once, without really knowing why we were going to the cash register.

“Because many people are starting to buy blind boxes for different reasons, there is a new trend formed by blind boxes, which is called ‘economic blind boxes’. 60% of people choose to buy blind boxes because of their charming and cute appearance, without any purpose or intention. This is what scientists have called the psychology of beauty,” Xiaolin Chen explained.

For others, opening these little boxes is a way of releasing the stress of a gloomy nine-to-five daily routine, “to light up passion and bring joy” as the Pop Mart slogan goes, and making new friends.

“I started collecting at a time when I was feeling down. You could say that it became my therapy and that it helped me to overcome life’s difficulties,” says ‘Gingxhobbies’, an art toy influencer.

For ‘yourfavcollectors’, collecting these figurines “has helped to heal our inner child. It has also given us a passion project and helped us grow online and become part of a wonderful community.”

More than 50% of Generation Z believe that “spending money is being happy” and experience immediate pleasure and joy when shopping. “The ‘blind box’ is also an easy way for people to relax in their hectic lives,” as Chinese academic Lingbo Zhang puts it.

The little characters have not finished conquering the hearts of Europeans with the opening of a second shop on Oxford Street and three others in the heart of Paris, as already excited fans are whispering.

Yushu Qi, a Chinese university student, says: “Forrest Gump says that life is like a piece of chocolate, you never know what you’re going to get. However, among young people who are crazy about blind boxes, their saying becomes: life is like a blind box, you never know what you’re going to get.”

So make some room on your shelves.


Featured image by Héloïse Le Fourner.

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