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Thursday, Feb. 8, 2001

NOT JUST FOR KIDS

Adults fuel freebie figure boom


Staff writer

Until several years ago, grownups collecting freebie figures from candy or snack boxes would have been labeled otaku -- geeks. Now they're practically normal.

Kenji Takasu, a 40-year-old businessman, is among thousands of adults openly indulging a childlike passion for collecting these small toys. His specialty is Choco Egg figures.

Miniature figures from Furuta Seika Kaisha Co.'s Choco Egg "Pet Collection"

Produced by Furuta Seika Kaisha Co., the elaborately detailed miniatures -- mammals, birds, insects, fish and reptiles -- are packaged inside egg-shaped chocolates. Consumers don't know which figure an egg contains until they buy it and break open the chocolate shell.

Takasu has already collected 129 of the 131 figures in the "Wild Animals of Japan" series. He also has a prized figure of tsuchinoko (a legendary snakelike creature), one of the manufacturer's "secret characters."

To get this far, he has bought more than 500 Choco Eggs, priced at 150 yen each, over the past two years, and he's still working to complete his collection.

"I started collecting Choco Egg figures together with my kids, but now I'm the one who is hooked. I sometimes feel a bit embarrassed, when I think of my age," Takasu says with a chuckle.

But he fits in well with most of his fellow Egg-heads. Nearly 70 percent of serious Choco Egg collectors are said to be male adults in their 20s or older.

Takasu says there are two reasons for Choco Egg's success with adults: First, the figures are high-quality for freebies and are fun to collect. Second, the "secret characters" are highly sought after and trade for as much as 6,000 yen at shops or on the Internet.

Nevertheless, the Choco Egg was designed for children.

According to Masahiko Furuta, director of Furuta Confectionery's sales division, the animal figures were intended to be educational and, therefore, had to look real. To this end, the company commissioned Kaiyodo, an internationally renowned figure maker whose clients include museums both at home and abroad, to design and create the original models.

But rather than children, it was adults who fueled the product's sales.

Since Choco Eggs were first put on the market in September 1999, more than 12 million have been sold. To keep consumers interested, Furuta Confectionery has introduced a new collection of 24-48 figures every two to three months. Once the new collection is introduced, the previous series is no longer marketed.

Furuta Confectionery temporarily suspended the sale of Choco Eggs in the Kanto region (including Tokyo) soon after releasing the fourth in the wildlife series. Since nearly half of all serious collectors are concentrated in the Kanto region, and grownups often buy them by the carton, supply could not keep up with demand, according to sales director Furuta.

"We hope we can resume sales [in the region] sometime in March," Furuta says.

With the success of Choco Eggs, more companies are jumping on the "candy with freebie" bandwagon and directing their products not at kids but at their parents or older siblings.

This strategy seems to be working. According to a recent survey by Bandai, a Tokyo-based toy manufacturer that boasts the largest share of this market, total domestic sales of candy packaged with toys reached 34.5 billion yen in fiscal 1995, and soared to 48.5 billion yen in fiscal 1999.

Meiji Seika Kaisha Co.'s 365 Days Birthday Teddies

Meiji Seika Kaisha Co. is among those enjoying the boom with its 365 Days Birthday Teddy. Launched in July, the product consists of a box of marble chocolate containing one of 365 different 8-cm-tall teddy bears, each with own name and birth date.

Priced at 180 yen, Birthday Teddy has proven popular among its target clientele -- teenage girls and women in their 20s and 30s, many of whom attach the bears to their cellular phones or bags. Nationwide sales are eyed by the end of March, with annual sales targeted at 3 billion yen.

"Since the Hello Kitty boom, grownup women seem less embarrassed or hesitant to own character goods or to carry them in public," says Hiroyuki Katagiri, Meiji Seika's product planning manager.

While some people try to collect all 365 bears, most only want certain ones, particularly those with the same birth date as themselves, their friends or family members, says Katagiri.

Consumers can see the bears before making a purchase, but must open the package to read the birthday and name printed on their tags.

In response to customer demand, Meiji Seika recently posted illustrated charts of all the bears with their birthdays on its Web site and at shops.

"We were not intending to sell more bears by keeping their birthdays secret," explains Katagiri. "We gave the bears names and birthdays because we want consumers to feel each bear has its own identity and is something special, not merely a thing."

But some consumers are not happy with Meiji Seika's decision, saying that it has deprived them of the excitement and surprise they would have felt when opening the box.

For the manufacturers, the extent of how openly freebies should be displayed is a major consideration. If they show too much, interest in the product may fade quickly, but too little information may provoke frustration.

"The more expensive a product, the more we feel a need to reveal details of the freebie inside," says Furuta. "Still, surprise is an indispensable element of the prizes."



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