Canadians and retailers toy with risk and reward through mystery box trend

TORONTO — When Toronto YouTubers Becky Wright and Kelsey MacDermaid picked up the mail last October, the sight of a bright blue box had them bubbling with excitement.

The duo, who call themselves the Sorry Girls and make do-it-yourself videos on YouTube, had shelled out $67 for the box on eBay, but had no idea who it was from or what was in it.

The package was one of the thousands of “mystery boxes” advertised and sold online by average joes hoping to make a quick buck, hobbyists who take delight in orchestrating a game of risk and reward and businesses looking to get in on the craze.

Boxes typically go for as little as $20, but some have fetched as much as $50,000. What’s inside remains a secret until it’s opened by the purchaser, but social media shows some people discovering Apple MacBook computers, Louis Vuitton wallets and Rolex watches, while others have found holiday ornaments, DVDs, action figures or even broken electronics.

Wright and MacDermaid’s box was full of crocheted items — a pumpkin, fingerless gloves, a headband, a hat and a dream catcher.

“We got lucky, unlike most people who order these things,” Wright said.

They said they have since noticed YouTubers buying the boxes — primarily because they are a fast and easy way to rack up views for a channel.

“I was seeing some getting so ridiculous. (They would say) ‘I bought a $5,000 mystery storage locker of stuff,’” said Wright. “That’s crazy.”

Kent Sikstrom, Kijiji Canada’s community relations manager, said in an email that the company doesn’t have any official policies limiting the sale of mystery boxes, but chalked it up to being a “fad/trend of the month” and said it is “likely being exaggerated for entertainment purposes.”

Meanwhile, eBay’s policy does not allow “mystery items where contents aren’t identified,” but The Canadian Press found plenty of boxes with no descriptions of what’s inside listed on the site.

Camille Kowalewski, eBay Canada and Latin America’s head of communications, clarified the boxes are allowed if you indicate the type of item enclosed.

Kowalewski said boxes with collectible or sports themes get the most traction, but said she has noticed retail brands and specialty goods companies wading into the trend.

Muji sold Fukukan or “lucky cans” that contain handmade traditional lucky charms from different regions in Japan in November, while Nordstrom has rolled out $25 “surprise bags” it stuffs with seven or eight small items from accessory and memento maker Three Potato Four.

Brian Ehrenworth, the president of sports collectibles company Frameworth, said his company also jumped on the trend, which he first learned about three years ago when he saw someone selling mystery boxes at a trade show.

A few buyers were excited with what they got in their boxes, but others were disappointed. Ehrenworth, whose company has long-standing relationships with athletes, figured he could use his connections to put a twist on the model that would see every buyer walk away with something of considerable value, limiting the gamble to which team the merchandise they got was related to.

Within six months, Frameworth was selling its first set of mystery boxes. That set and every other one following it has sold out.

The latest version is being sold for $250 plus shipping on eBay, though they are advertised as having an average value of $725. Each includes an authentic, autographed, fully-stitched and officially licensed NHL jersey, though buyers won’t know which they’ll receive. Fifty of the 200 available boxes will have a jersey from an NHL All-Star or Legend such as Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr, but one contains a “golden ticket” redeemable for a Sidney Crosby game-used stick valued at $5,000.

“They might not get (the Crosby product), but they should be happy with the product they receive because if they don’t like it, they can put it back up on eBay,” Ehrenworth said.

Reselling anything in his boxes, he said, should be easy because interest in the NHL is broad, but he warns that reselling mystery box items you are unhappy with might be difficult if you buy from sellers that are just as secretive as their boxes.

“There are a plethora of companies that will do this kind of thing. Some of them are very reputable, but a lot of them in our industry are not,” he said.

“If you have someone working out of their basement forging autographs and you are buying from them because it is cheaper, then let the buyer beware. You are probably going to end up getting ripped off.”

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