A worrying phenomenon sweeping the business world over the last few years is that one lucrative business idea often spawns swarms of imitators irrespective of its social impact, and some even take it too far. The blind box hype is certainly a case in point.
Businesses across sectors have been increasingly resorting to the blind box retailing tactic since Pop Mart International Group made a name as well as a fortune out of it. Even more alarmingly, the vast majority of them target the younger generations as their main customers.
From toys and stationery to snacks, air tickets and even shoes, a wide array of merchandise nowadays come in the form of a blind box, a business strategy modelled after Japan's century-old New Year tradition of "fortune bags" or "fukubukuro." The gambling-like thrill of unpacking these mystery boxes has hooked legions of millennial and Gen-Z consumers as well as many small kids in China. It even gave rise to a speculative secondhand market, where some sought-after items can fetch prices up to 30 times the original.
Shocking stories of extreme cases have emerged one after another. A recent one was about a 12-year-old girl in Qingdao, Shandong Province, squandering 10,000 yuan (US$1,547) on blind boxes within three days. A Tmall report shows that nearly 200,000 consumers each splurge at least 20,000 yuan annually on blind boxes on the e-commerce platform and a large proportion of them are those born after 1995.
News reports last week revealed an even more disturbing twist: pet vendors have also jumped on the bandwagon to sell animals via blind boxes. About 160 puppies and kittens packed in blind boxes were rescued from a warehouse in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, last Monday, before they were to be shipped to locations throughout China, including Shenzhen. Four animals were already dead and many were infected with viruses, local media reported.
It is a warning signal regulators can't afford to ignore. The blind box concept itself is a departure from widely valued business ethics. Wild applications of it make it even more questionable, especially when the targets are youngsters.
Blind boxes automatically fall into the category of things that parents hope their children would keep a cautious distance from, not just because of the money or the excessive spending habit, but because of the implications it carries.
Fundamentally, its popularity derives from the fact that it plays into the gambling psychology. It breeds addiction in the exact way that gambling does. No parents would be willing to see their children acquire a habit of trying their luck, or an opportunistic way of thinking, from an early age.
It seems inevitable for parents to spend some time and money helping their children understand the blind box enigma inside out, which, if vendors refrain from playing dirty tricks, is just a matter of probability. Moreover, children should be educated about the grim reality that vendors are not sufficiently scrutinized over the declared odds.
But regulators can save us the trouble, and there is an urgent call for prompt action. Chinese regulators tend to exhibit patience, especially when it comes to innovative business ideas in this fast-evolving Internet era. Different from bike sharing or peer-to-peer lending, the blind box sector carries much weight with the youth that will shape the future of our country.
(The author is a business editor with Shenzhen Daily.)