Collector-toy makers aren't turning a blind eye to untapped market potential

Xu Wei
Blind boxes now focus on overseas markets with new sets based on Chinese movies and TV shows, history and science.
Xu Wei

The popularity of "blind boxes" in China has moved beyond just trendy purchases for mostly young collectors. They are now a tool for introducing the world to Chinese films, TV series, culture and technology.

Blind-box toys, also known as mystery boxes, originated from Japan. People bought them sight-unseen and collected the contents – which could be fantastic or a bit mundane. It has become an obsession among some collectors.

Manufacturers now see a channel for expanding domestic sales by taking their products overseas.

Koitake, a relatively new toy brand under Alibaba Pictures, has developed Zheng Xiaolong's classic epic series "Empresses in the Palace" into toys depicting the emperor and concubines in the tale of love, betrayal and scandal during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It's marketing the toys in blind-boxes for overseas buyers.

Eight regular models and two hidden editions of the classic characters are included in the blind-box series, along with various imperial palace memorabilia, providing insight into the royal court life in the ancient Forbidden City.

Koitake has also designed blind-box toys from costume dramas such as "World of Honor" and "Immortal Samsara," from comedy series "Country Love," from period drama "The Age of Awakening," from the sci-fi comedy film "Moon Man," and from the variety show "Street Dancing in China." Each figurine is priced at around 80 yuan (US$11.46).

These blind-box toys seem to be favorably received abroad.

A foreign netizen calling herself "Sweetgirl" posted on YouTube that she is a big fan of China's palace dramas and found all the figurines in the "Empresses in the Palace" series very enchanting.

After receiving the set of "World of Honor" toys, another foreign customer praised them as: "Absolutely beautiful! It's a great souvenir to remember a great series. Two thumbs up!"

Since it began in 2021, Koitake's revenue has reached 100 million yuan. Many of its sets are particularly popular on overseas e-commerce platforms like Shopee and Lazada.

Collector-toy makers aren't turning a blind eye to untapped market potential
Ti Gong

Pop idols and dance teams from the hit variety show "Street Dancing in China" have inspired collectible figurines.

Within six hours of its release last year, the "Country Love," the first batch of 20,000 collectible figures sold out worldwide. The recent "Street Dancing of China" series has also performed well, with around 100,000 toys exchanged by show enthusiasts with Tmall membership points since August.

Qu Fang, Koitake's product development director, told Shanghai Daily that a new set of toys usually takes at least two months to develop. In the process, designers communicate with content providers, a series' crew and fans.

A big challenge for designers is to have a good grasp of a TV show's essence and plot so that the clothing of character figurines and backdrops resonate well with fans.

China's profound history and traditional costumes are obviously an inspiration to designers.

Some artistic figurines feature distinctive elements from hanfu,or traditional Han-style clothing, and from the murals in the 1,600-year-old Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang.

"It has turned out to be an effective model to build emotional connections between audiences and timeless series and films," Qu explained. "The vitality of classic culture is retained in these collections. At the same time, eye-catching spin-offs can also help take Chinese TV series and movies to people around the world. It is a virtuous circle."

In addition to movie and TV shows, the industry is tapping the ancient Chinese literary classic "Journey to the West," the mythical monsters of "Classic of Mountains and Seas," the 12 zodiac animals and traditional festivals in the development of blind boxes.

Blind-box producer Pop Mart reports that its revenue from overseas businesses in the first half of 2022 soared 162 percent to 157 million yuan, or 6.6 percent of total earnings. The latter figure is expected to rise to 10 percent by year's end.

As the Year of the Rabbit approaches, Pop Mart's culture-themed sets include a cute bunny series mixed with animals of the Chinese Zodiac and sweet treats.

A netizen called Dani said on Twitter, "Since discovering Pop Mart, I am worried about my wallet because there are so many cute blind-box figurines that I want to buy."

Blind boxes are also promoting China's achievements in science and technology.

Drawing on the nation's progress in space exploration, Pop Mart has released several "Space Molly" sets in partnership with Shanghai ASES Spaceflight Technology Co.

Some limited-edition astronaut Molly dolls are embedded with rocket materials and are among the best-selling figurines worldwide. Part of the proceeds go toward supporting China's space research and youth education programs.

Pop Mart plans to have 40 offshore stores by the end of 2022.

Serious collectors often specialize. Jessie Wu, a local blind-box toy collector in her 30s, said she is interested in series inspired by the cultural relics of history museums across the country.

In the past four years, Wu has spent several thousand yuan on figurines drawn from the Palace Museum in Beijing and the Sanxingdui Ruins site in southwest China's Sichuan Province.

Although some super blind-box fans may queue overnight for new releases or spend tens of thousands of yuan on hidden editions, Wu said she is very rational in her approach, building a collection strong on Chinese culture and history.

"Some museums in China are also releasing their own blind-box series based relics and artworks in their collections, " Wu added. "It's a good way to spread culture to the world and make history more accessible to ordinary people."

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