'Psychological trap:' You pay your money, you take your chances

Lu Feiran
The popularity of blind boxes of designer toys seems to be petering out. However, the concept of potluck remains innovative in selling goods.
Lu Feiran

When Caroline Lin saw a promotion for "parcel blind boxes" while browsing the e-commerce platform Taobao, she clicked on it and found the vendor selling random unclaimed parcels – surprise boxes that could contain anything.

Each box cost 30 yuan (US$4.65). Lin bought three after perusing consumer comments and finding that other buyers had found items like new smartphones, digital cameras and watches in boxes they bought.

"I never expected to find a smartphone or anything expensive in the boxes, and as it turned out, I was right," says the 28-year-old, who works as a personal assistant.

In her three boxes she found an old-style light bulb, a smartphone case that didn't fit her phone, and a packet of ballpens that didn't write well.

"A bunch of crap, to be honest," she says. "I can't help but suspect that all those online comments about finding valuable contents were actually a ploy by the vendor to rope people in."

According to current express delivery regulations, it is actually forbidden to open, sell or destroy other people's parcels. Delivery services are required to keep unclaimed parcels for at least a year. After that, the parcels can be opened under supervision, and any profits from selling the items inside must be handed over to the national treasury.

But many surprise box marketeers seem to be flouting the rules with impunity.

The market has moved out onto the streets. Some online stores attract street vendors by selling 100 to 1,000 unclaimed parcel boxes at a time, priced 360 to 3,400 yuan. The boxes soon appear on streets for resale.

Online videos going viral show how the street vendors operate in the southern cities of Xiamen and Shenzhen.

The videos show huge piles of smallish cartons stacked on the ground, surrounded by curious customers. Some buy. Some just gawk.

A vendor who was not identified by name said he has been selling unclaimed parcels on the street for almost a year. Cost: 10 yuan each. The come-on sign at his booth reads: "Surprise yourself by finding digital products, daily necessities, cosmetics, watches and much more!"

"The business is far better than you would expect," the vendor says on an online forum discussing street vendors. "Just set up a booth in a busy spot, and no joke, you can make thousands of yuan in a day."

Unclaimed parcels are the latest twist in the blind box market.

Last December, Shanghai Daily and its website published stories about the popularity of blind boxes of designer toys. People snapped up the boxes to collect the toys. The rarer the toys, the more they were coveted.

That fad seems to be petering out. It's not prevalent in online trending topics anymore, and some of the leading toy blind box vendors have been suffering lower sales.

However, the concept of potluck remains innovative in selling goods.

The lunar Qixi, or Double Seventh Festival, that falls on August 14 this year is also known as Chinese Valentine's Day. For Daoxiangcun, a time-honored snack brand in Beijing, love is blind. The company is selling surprise boxes of qiaoguo, a thin, fried pastry associated with the festival. Each box contains seven flavors, including grape and raspberry, and buyers won't know which is which until they taste them.

Blind boxes have also moved into the realm of tourism.

Several museums, including the Palace Museum in Beijing and Sanxingdui Museum in Sichuan Province, sell blind boxes of souvenirs to visitors.

Meanwhile, back in Shanghai, a food store in Hongkou District packs up foods whose expiry dates are nearing and sells them as blind boxes at hefty discounts. Every evening, consumers line up to buy the packages, not knowing whether they will get liters of milk, frozen meat or instant noodles.

While the whole blind box fad is generally well received by consumers, it has its downsides. Earlier this year, there was public outcry about online vendors selling mystery live animals by mail. The result was a wave of dead dogs and cats.

Unclaimed parcel boxes, too, have their share of detractors. The business is often linked with fraud schemes or leakage of personal information, not to mention its dubious legality.

On Taobao, many people complain that they have received empty parcel blind boxes or boxes of broken products. Sometimes the names and addresses of people who originally bought but never received the goods are printed on the boxes.

"It makes me worry that one day if I lose a package, other people will access my personal information," comments a Taobao user whose screenname is Mad Alice. "That makes me feel very uncomfortable."

The State Administration for Market Regulation says officials are investigating the unclaimed parcels market but no penalties have been levied thus far.

Psychologists say it is the mystery of blind boxes that lures people, even causing obsessive behavior.

"It is just like gambling," says Wen Yongjia, a psychiatrist who has studied the blind box market for a while. "When you open a blind box with good things, you think that you will get more good things if you buy more boxes. And if you open a box and find things you don't want, you might try again to make up for the loss. It's a psychological trap that not many people can escape."

Wen says the fascination with uncertainty is human nature. Some scholars call it the "Pandora Effect." When people open up a surprise box, even if the things inside are not what they really hoped for, at least they have something.

"We call it the 'silver lining principle,'" says Wen. "It's the mindset of gamblers that people will try purchasing more blind boxes in the expectation they will one day get what they want."

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