Why are people buying mysterious boxes on eBay without knowing what’s inside?

Are mystery boxes a deal or ordeal? 

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Valerie was cursed – which might explain why she never replied to my message. A few years ago, the American took to complaintsboard.com to protest about a “mystery box” she won on the online auction site eBay. As the name suggests, the contents of such boxes are a mystery until they are opened by the buyer.

“One item stumped me,” wrote Valerie. Among “goodies” in the box was a sealed glass jar containing rolled up slips of paper. Attached was a message. “By opening this jar you are now responsible for its contents.”

Inside the jar were six typed notes informing Valerie that she was now the owner of a bad luck penny. Exactly a month later, her air conditioning broke down. Soon after, Valerie’s partner fought with her boss, and then her car died. That same night, fire ants bit her feet. “I believe it’s the penny’s fault,” Valerie wrote in her complaint. She did not respond to an interview request.

eBay mystery boxes have been around since the early Noughties, but have recently had a huge upsurge in popularity thanks to YouTubers (and Buzzfeed) creating videos about their contents. Valerie’s experiences are unusually macabre, but not many mystery box-buyers end up thrilled with their purchases. This week, I bought two. I am now the proud owner of a survival bracelet, a pack of Pokemon cards, an aux cable, some carabiners, the most hideous necklace I have ever seen in my life, and Cartoon Network: Mash Up, a DVD copy of 4 Exciting Episodes of Cartoon Network Favourites.

A £40 mystery box, available on eBay

“I think it’s an excellent way to engage with the community,” says Marc McGregor, a 27-year-old from Southampton who sold me my first mystery box for £10 (pictured below). Marc has been buying items in bulk from China and selling them on eBay since 2002, but recently started making mystery boxes as a way of offloading his stock.

“Say for example, how I gave you a survival bracelet in your box,” he says – and I mumble assent, even though before that very moment I didn’t know what one of those was – “that’s a popular item but I couldn’t sell them because people weren’t able to see my auction due to a change in the eBay algorithm.” Mystery boxes, then, were a perfect solution.

The contents of my first mystery box

Over the course of a month, Marc has sold “20 to 30” boxes for £10 each, always ensuring that the items within the box have a combined recommended retail value of more than a tenner. “There’s a few people who ruin the fun for everyone,” he says, “I think there’s a few people who are out there just to be greedy, to make as much money as possible.” Yet although the items Marc sent me have value, to me they’re worthless. This is the inherent risk – or, some might say, fun – of a mystery box.

“It’s not within my comfort zone so I feel like it’s a fun experience,” says Jessica, a 21-year-old who has been bidding on mystery boxes since watching Buzzfeed’s video about the trend. Although she is aware that she could get dud items – or things she doesn’t really want – Jessica feels the fun outweighs the risk. “I’m poor so the cheaper ones attract me,” she says, comparing the experience to a childhood party bag or game of pass the parcel.

Jessica bids on specific mystery boxes that are labelled “for girls” or “for YouTubers” to ensure the items are more relevant to her. eBay’s own rules state that mystery boxes must contain some hint to the contents of the box in the listing, although many do not. The second mystery box I bought simply challenged me with the description: “ARE U BRAVE ENOUGH TO BUY THIS BOX?!! COULD HAVE ANYTHING??”

A mystery box for a lady with questions, available on eBay

Yet although buyers might not benefit from mystery boxes, sellers certainly do. Chris Williams is a 31-year-old from Rugby who started selling the boxes after he decided to move overseas and wanted to shift some of his possessions, as well as stock from his gift shop. “I’ve been toying with the idea of doing car boot sales, but I hate early mornings,” he says.

Chris puts anything he doesn’t “want, need, or couldn’t sell” in his boxes, including clothes, mugs, CDs, DVDs, kitchen utensils, and stationery. He received one piece of negative feedback on eBay after shipping a box, but blames the buyer for not properly understanding the trend.  

And trend it is. Before this month, Chris had only sold two mystery boxes on eBay, but went on to sell 20 in one week after YouTubers began posting videos. A prominent YouTuber, AmazingPhil, actually reviewed one of Chris’ boxes, giving it four out of five stars. “I was very pleased,” says Chris. “I always put ten items in the boxes I sell and the value will always be greater than the £5 purchase fee.”

Yet although the recent rise of the mystery box was meteoritic, Chris feels popularity is already waning. “I went from selling 20 boxes a week to zero last week,” he says. “I’m sure many people have jumped on the bandwagon to try and declutter their attics and spare rooms, so that’s definitely pushed my listings way down – which explains why I haven't had any sales recently.

“Unfortunately I think the trend has passed just as quickly as it arrived – so I guess I need to go back to trying to sell items individually or brave the dreaded early Sunday morning for a car boot sale.”

When it comes to mystery boxes, then, you might be better off selling than buying. Although waiting for and opening a box has distinct ten-year-old-at-Christmas vibes, the disappointment that comes with lifting the lid wipes out any prior positive emotions.

In my second box, the seller left a note – complete with a smiley face – telling me I had “PROFITED!” because the items inside were worth more than the £5 I paid. Yet although I may yet find a use for 4 Exciting Episodes of Cartoon Network Favourites, I am concerned about the Per Una necklace that accompanied them.

I hope it’s not cursed.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh