All this week, ToyCyte has been having a conversation about blind box toys: Are they a marketing strategy or a fun experience? As designer toys travel from toy company to toy fan, they pass through a middleman: the toy retailer. In this segment of our report, we’ll hear from the proprietors of our favorite toy stores.
The fine folks who own toy stores are themselves also customers: They buy the toy companies’ products before we walk through the door. The toy companies have a vested interest in taking care of the toy stores, but they also control the merchandise and which shops get the hot items. I was concerned that toy retailers wouldn’t want to go on the record for this story—that they’d be too worried about offending the toy companies or alienating the fans. But blind box stories, like blind boxes themselves, are full of surprises.
Toy retailers are an eloquent and gregarious bunch who are also collectors and members of our community. Rotofugi, Ningyoushi, Toy Tokyo, Shoparooni, Red Hot Robot, Lulubell Toy Bodega, Wizard Sleeve Toys and hometown heroes, The Sausalito Ferry Company all gave their two cents (sometimes more) for the story.
Retail According To Uglydolls
Let’s have David Horvath explain a bit about retailing.
The Japanese toy companies pack toys in blind boxes to prevent what we call “peg warming.” We decided to keep our guys blind boxed to help both the collector and the independent shop owner. We wanted to avoid “peg warming.” Lets say a shop orders 6 cases of 12 figures, which are not blind boxed. Put the first case on display and the customers start to pick their favorites. Let’s say Ice-Bat is the least favorite. Well, if nobody buys Ice-Bat, after 6 cases of figures, you have 12 Ice-Bats left. So the next kid who walks in finds a full display of 12 Ice-Bats…
“Hey mister, do you have Wedgehead?” he asks…
“Sorry kid, I have to sell what’s there before I order more.”
“Aw come on mister! Please? Wedgehead is aweeeesomeeee!”
“Oh, ok kid. Come back Thursday.”
“Gee mister, you’re the best!”
So the shop owners order another 6 cases. The Ice-Bats don’t sell yet again. In fact now they move even slower simply because people see 12 Ice-Bats, and only 2 each of the other ones. Hmm, there must be a reason for those being so abundant…if nobody wants them, neither do I! Pass! So now after 12 cases sell, we have 24 Ice-Bats left behind. The shop owner can’t order more until he sells those down. [A big store like] Target gets to send [things] back after a while…but the small shop owners selling independent toys can’t send the stuff back. They have to sell what’s in stock before ordering more of the same thing.
As we’ve already discussed in the segment on toy companies, Horvath struck a compromise by blind boxing a full set of Uglydoll Action Figures into a sealed case. In this manner, Ice-Bat, who incidentally is my favorite Uglydoll, will not be left lonely hanging upside down on a peg. Fans can pick a few from the case, knowing that they won’t get a duplicate. They can feel the excitement for the 1/4 variant figure. (”Our factory took the last 1/4th of the figures on the line and painted the teeth red instead of white. But we don’t consider this to be a separate figure. It’s just a variant. So there’s not really a chase figure. We’ll never do a chase figure.”) And collectors can bring home a whole set without a lot of rigmarole. After all, as nearly everyone from all sides of this debate said, toys are supposed to be fun, right?
Blind Box Story Telling
I got the chance to finally visit Toy Tokyo in Manhattan last December. The store is intense. It’s almost like a museum with drool-worthy collections of Kaws, Michael Lau, Bounty Hunter, Be@rbricks and more. Israel “Lev” Levarek has been in the toy business since 1987 and considers everything in the shop a part of his own collection. I asked Lev to tell me a blind box story:
I remember one time we had these closed box toys and a customer was looking for only one figure that would complete his collection. I told him to just go for it, and buy up the whole case, which was around 8 small boxes. He bought one by one and unfortunately didn’t get what he wanted, and decided to leave the 8th one. I said to myself, “I know the one he’s really looking for has to be that last one.” I just gave him the box, and that was the one he was looking for. He was the happiest guy in the world!
By most stores’ accounts, young kids are the fastest growing consumers of blind box toys. There is always a kid hanging out in my local hole-in-the-wall toy shop, Boss Robot Hobby. It’s these pre-teens that have helped me avoid the trappings of buying blind by squeezing Dunny Series 5 boxes to find MAD’s figure or weighing out the Vivisect Playset to correctly ID Amanda Visell’s piece. Yesterday, I spoke with artist Sket-One who said he buys blind boxes with his three daughters because you can’t beat $10 for toys.
Lulubell Toy Bodega
Amy Del Castillo of Tucson’s Lulubell Toy Bodega agrees: “I had a wonderful 8-year old boy named Max tell me yesterday that he feels the boxes. Some feel cold, and some feel warm. He picks the warm ones. He was looking for a Yummy Breakfast cupcake, and by golly – he got it! Really.”
I found an interesting blog post from 2007 by Justin Adler about Lulubell. The shop’s proprietor, Luke Rook, who is currently in Japan, said his primary clientele “consists of middle-aged, affluent men who look to ‘recapture their childhood’ by frequently buying new toys.” I wondered if there are still affluent middle-aged men left in this economy? “It really does span,” said Amy. “I am seeing a trend towards more young collectors lately just getting into blind boxes, like Fatcaps and Dunnys. But we have our share of young professional regulars and highly successful middle aged men as well. Many of them have progressed into bigger collecting–kaiju and completest by certain artists–but many cite blind box toys as their gateway drug! So the well known, mainstream toys often get people reeled in, then they discover there’s a whole other huge world of vinyl.” Amy says with a smile: “It’s all downhill after that.”
In keeping with the Bodega theme, Lulubell cleverly houses its blind box assortments in a refrigerated case (powered off). They also dabble in some open box sales: “We never used to sell blind box toys open box. We just started [doing] it, due to so many requests from customers. Many want that one last figure to complete their set, and we feel this is a way to help them avoid the Ebay pitfall.” Lulubell also adds a safety net to the blind box thrill: they allow customers to trade a blind box dud for a preferable one that’s open on display. “That’s how we sucker them into letting us join in on the fun!” says Amy. “I love watching the excitement when someone pulls the one they want, or that lucky chase. Last year’s [blind box] oversaturation did not help, but it’s still fun.”
Blind Boxes Galore
Red Hot Robot
There must be something in the desert because Jason Kiningham from Phoenix’s Red Hot Robot also provides buying options for the 30 blind box series he currently has in stock: “I open a few figures for each series and put them out on display with the blind boxes so people can pick them up, feel and look at them. Any opened figure that’s on display can be purchased outright, or it can be traded if you buy a blind box from the same series. This gives people more options than just being ’stuck’ with what they get, or getting tons of the same figure. When a series sells out, all remaining open figures go into a ‘bargain bin,’ usually at discounted prices.”
With a nod to yesterday’s segment on the spectrum of toy fans, Jason continues, “Closed blind boxes still sell better than opened boxes. Some people like the element of surprise. Some like the thrill of the hunt. And lots of people buy them as gifts.”
Steve Brown of Cleveland’s Shoparooni enjoys that element of surprise: Here’s Steve speaking about the salad days of collecting toys:
Like the Maoris, whose tattoos are chosen for them by the artist as a permanent and public judgment on their character, I would get whatever figure the universe deemed me worthy of receiving. I loved it. The thrill of the unknown is alluring beyond belief. It’s the reason people do drugs, it’s the reason people jump off bridges with parachutes, it’s the reason hillbillies strap rocket engines to their Ford F-150s…because you really aren’t sure what’s going to happen and THAT is a huge part of the thrill. It might be awesome. You might die or go insane. You’ll find out when you get to the other side of the experience, but not a second before.
This is a colorful endorsement for blind box toys, and I think it get to the issue of something bigger: there are people who think doing drugs, base-jumping and hillbilly Olympics are straight up stupid and simply want a toy for toy’s sake. In this world, there’s room for Steve-O and Steve Jobs. Thankfully, we don’t expect Steve Jobs to staple his bits to his leg, and we don’t make Steve O lead MacWorld. In theory, I like Brown’s thinking, but in practice there are people who can appreciate toys as art sans thrills. Steve Brown continues, “When you consider what some people do for thrills, plunking down $200 on a mystery sculpture by a respected artist hardly seems like much of a risk by comparison.” I know Brown is a yo-yo master, but I wonder if he also knows hypnosis. Against all odds, I find myself in agreement on some of his finer points.
Like Steve, Kirby and Whitney Kerr from Chicago’s Rotofugi began collecting blind box toys and enjoy it to this day. “Blind box toys are a part of the designer toy scene and have been a part of it for as long as we’ve been involved. Whether it’s a true ‘blind box’ or purchasing a capsule toy from a vending machine, the element of surprise is an important factor that has made series like Dunny, Qee and Be@rbrick popular over the years. For every person who hates not having a choice, there is a customer that loves the surprise and fun that blind boxes provide.” Rotofugi has recently gotten into producing their own toys, and two of the first are both blind box series. The Marshall series consists of about 16 blind boxed figures. The Tear Drips series has 12 figures, and per Whitney: “They will all have a 1/12 ratio, and you will be able to buy a flat and get all twelve.”
Wizard Sleeve Toys
Mike Franco started his online shop, Wizard Sleeve Toys in 2008, and he’s been working with toy blogs and toy conventions to support the scene.
I remember when I was younger, I used to buy a pack of [baseball] cards and get someone I wanted and then the rest were a bunch of nobodies. Scoring one of my favorite players always made me want to buy more packs of cards. I used to trade cards with my friends to score even more of my favorites, and this was a hobby of mine for several years. The same concept is being used today for blind box packaging.
I asked Mike if there was still a place for blind buying in an unstable economy. “I definitely think this benefits the toy maker foremost because they get to sell more units,” he said. “Next up, the collectors who score the rare finds and choose to ‘flip’ them on eBay because times are tough. The only real ‘loser’ here is the artist, and I don’t think the artist really loses because they definitely gain popularity and more fans in the long term.
Omar Valles of San Francisco’s Double Punch and Ningyoushi points out with a little humor that sometimes the stores lose too. Regarding MINDstyle’s Scavengers blind box series, he said, “Since the packaging had this strange magnetic closure, it was intuitive for the customer to take apart the box, find out if was blind bagged anyway and just walk away from the product. Imagine all these half open Scavengers boxes on a table to clean up. Good times.” But he concedes that the majority of fans are better behaved, “Most customers do enjoy the blind box experience. It’s like opening a little birthday gift every time.” Double Punch also sells one of the best selections of open box Kubricks and Be@rbricks in the Bay Area.
Sausalito Ferry Company
Many of us in the Bay Area know about the wonderful toy haven that is the Sausalito Ferry Company. The store is chock-a-block with a large counter of tiny versions of everything, over 350 different Japanese erasers, all things Re-Mented and, or course, vinyl toys. Any time I have visiting family, I take them up to Sausalito and quietly escape to this paradise of toys. Not only does Sausalito Ferry Company open blind boxes, but after a recent trip, one of the friendly workers there emailed me to say they’d opened a few more I might be interested in. With service like that, I had to chat up the shop’s owner, Ken Robinson:
We have always opened blind boxes: Be@rbricks, Re-Ment, Kidrobot, Japan domestic products and others. We took them out of their [boxes and] vending capsules and hung them by style. These items sold much better because the customer was able to see and touch the product. During the height of the Peak-a-Pooh craze, harried parents led by excited children would arrive at Sausalito Ferry on word of mouth, and you could see the look of relief as they realized that they would not be shoving rolls of quarters into another capsule vending machine. It’s simple. It gives us the advantage. When a customer has seen the blind boxed product opened and available, they are inclined to purchase with the uncertainty removed. Blind boxing is just another variation of supply and demand and a marketing attempt to move more product.
Had I finally found a store that sold only open boxes? Ken said they still hang onto some “Kidrobot unopened boxes for the few nuts who like the thrill.” He continues: “Lottery tickets anyone? The Japanese love their blind boxes. Blind boxing in the US may be a relic of the ‘old economy.’ I just know in the last few months all the rules have changed, but we can only guess at the new rules.” There’s no guessing about how much Bay Area toy fans love the Sausalito Ferry Company, though.
To bring it all back home, I had to consult with a wise man who has been selling toys since before many collectors were walking. This man is Steve Agin. He runs Agin Toys and curates the kaiju and art toy selections for the Phillips de Pury & Company auctions. He knows his shit. And since Ken brought up the Japanese, I knew Steve could finish the thought.
In response to whether buying blind is a bummer, Steve said:
For the philosophical among us, if you just consider the overall amount spent to be what you paid for the one you wanted which you get finally, the others are free! If you have to buy several and wind up paying $20 or $30 for the one you wanted, well maybe you’d have been glad to pay that for that one anyway. And look what else you got. Maybe you got another by an artist you never would’ve bought but wind up liking even better – kismet! And, you supported the culture.
But there’s a big caveat with that: “I LIKE TO SELL TOYS THAT PEOPLE WANT! When someone buys something they don’t want they wind up looking upon it as a mistake (and if they’re crazy enough) maybe even a swindle. If they got it really cheap, it just takes longer until they regret it but, they always do. Now, if we ever decide that chance and surrender and freefall are our idea of a good time, and risk itself, becomes a trip, then we’ll feel differently. More like our brothers and sisters overseas.”
Not so much. Young kids are growing in the ranks of our little niche, but older alpha-geeks are still representing. Some stores sell mostly blind boxes, some sell mostly open boxes, and some allow options like trading for display figures. For some, the “thrill of the unknown is alluring beyond belief.” For others, “there is a look of relief as they realized that they would not be shoving rolls of quarters into another capsule vending machine.”
Join us tomorrow when toy artists Doktor A, Joe Ledbetter, David Horvath, Jon Burgerman, MCA, Sket-One, Huck Gee and Buff Monster answer the question of the hour: Do you buy blind box toys?
[You’ve been reading a 5-part investigative series I originally wrote for ToyCyte over the course of a week in March of 2009. It’s being reprinted here in its entirety, including reader comments.]