Popmart’s Molly Dolls – pouting, blue-eyed mini-mannequins – have become “a pastime and means of decompression” for thousands of young Chinese women, according to U-quan, a zimeiti blogger.
Consumers are kept deliberately unaware of the version of the doll that they are buying by packaging that keeps the identity hidden. This ‘blind box’ psychology creates an element of surprise, as well as a desire to collect the entire series or – even better – the chance of getting hold of a very rare limited edition.
Plenty of customers have got hooked on the doll range, although netizens scorn the addicted, saying they have ru keng, or ‘entered the pit’.
Prices for Molly Dolls aren’t high, ranging from Rmb39 ($5.46) to Rmb69. However, surging demand for particularly popular series and special editions saw prices for some of the most sought-after dolls – like the Rmb59 Pan Shen Christmas model – rise to Rmb2,350 in the secondary market.
Popmart sells the dolls from more than 400 stores as well as vending machines around China. Another 200,000 people were reported to be buying the dolls on Tmall, the Alibaba shopping platform, with some spending more than Rmb20,000 each a year. Sina estimates that four million Molly Dolls were purchased in 2018 alone and there are plenty of chat groups on WeChat and QQ that discuss and trade them too.
Since the line was first created, the Molly Dolls have evolved into versions that incorporate the celebrities of the moment and the latest in fashion and design.
The first generation was known colloquially as ‘light ass cherubs’ due to their smooth bodies, flexible hands and feet and baby fragrance.
It wasn’t until the second generation was released – when each doll wore a cute animal hat – that the ‘blind box’ distribution style was introduced to tantalise ardent collectors.
The third generation saw the introduction of clothes and special edition features. Attracted by the fashion angle, entertainment stars and celebrities added marketing pizzazz. Limited edition models started to become even more prized, although the chances of finding one of the most sought-after dolls are thin: about one in 144 typically, although ‘super-specials’ like Molly’s Westward Golden Special are even rarer at only one in every 720 blind boxes purchased.
Some of the collectors can only be described as fanatical. One couple from Beijing spent Rmb200,000 in 16 weeks on blind boxes. Another consumer thinks she spends more than Rmb700,000 a year on Molly Dolls. Popmart says the demographic is 75% female, with 58% of customers aged 18 to 29, 33% white-collar workers, and 25% students.
The Molly Doll craze is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the cutesy toy wasn’t invented on the mainland itself. In fact, the idea came from Hong Kong and was the brainchild of designer Kenny Wong. He came up with concept in 2006 but told China Daily that collector numbers surged more than tenfold after he partnered with Popmart to launch the line on the mainland in 2016.
While Molly is the most popular doll on sale, Popmart has partnered with other brands to produce similar lines such as Mickey Family, 3 Pigs, Baby Sushi and Labubu.
But at a broader social level, commentators wonder what this more extreme forms of collecting says about modern China. Is it an indicator of materialism run riot among younger consumers or evidence of a generation of directionless women seeking a purpose by completing their collections?
In interviews with the media, Wang Ning, the Popmart CEO, offers his own, rather elusive take. “The toy itself has no story, no values or emotions, so it is not its soul that is affecting you, [rather] you have to substitute your own soul,” he told 21CN Business Review.
“It’s about individuality and relieving pressure. People collect designer toys and they interpret the characters’ emotions in their own way,” he added to China Daily.
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