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Sticker Shock – The Latest York Times


BUENOS AIRES — As prices continued to rise, Argentina’s commerce department decided something needed to be done.

Shop owners were frightened about shortages. A key supplier was struggling to fulfill the demand. Desperate customers were standing in blocklong lines. So, two weeks ago, Matías Tombolini, the country’s commerce secretary, and a bunch of other government officials gathered interested parties around a big conference table in a downtown office constructing for a seemingly solemn discussion to “hunt down possible solutions.”

Argentina was facing a crisis: It didn’t have enough World Cup stickers to go around.

Every 4 years, soccer fans across the globe fall hard for the World Cup and for the palm-size collectible stickers known here as figuritas.

This yr, nevertheless, the beloved pastime of filling the trademark Panini World Cup album has exploded like never before in Argentina. A confluence of supply-and-demand issues — but additionally a domestic inflation crisis and a surge of expectations that Argentina’s team could contend for the trophy later this yr — has made World Cup figuritas more coveted than ever before, and exceedingly difficult to search out.

Corner stores, where the stickers typically have been sold, saw their supply plummet this yr, leading parents and their children on feverish hunts for sticker dealers as resale prices shot through the roof. Stickers now routinely sell for at the very least twice the suggested retail price of 150 pesos ($1) a pack, and counterfeits have infiltrated the market.

Things got so bad that even the national government, which is battling sky-high inflation and an increasingly discontent society, found the time to intervene — only to retreat when its effort was mocked as a waste of presidency resources.

Tombolini, the commerce secretary, didn’t reply to repeated requests for comment, and his meeting didn’t solve the issue.

On a recent Tuesday within the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Villa Urquiza, the buyers included teenagers on bikes, grandmothers searching on behalf of their grandchildren, fathers with their sons and a mother with a chatty dachshund. A curly-haired boy bounced right into a corner store with the query that appeared to be on everyone’s lips today.

“Do you could have figuritas?” he asked breathlessly.

“Yes,” responded the shop owner, Ernesto Acuña. “Five packs for 900 pesos. But you could have to go stand in line.”

Acuña said that he had his response to the frenzy all the way down to a science. On the times he can get his hands on packs of figuritas, he offers them on the market at 6 p.m. sharp. But before handing over the primary pack, he surveys the road that forms down the block and rations out the amount that every customer can take home. On some days, the limit is just two packs per person. Then Acuña stands on the window, as figurita fanatics trickle in with money in hand and eyes wide at a prize that’s, in lots of places in Argentina this yr, agonizingly and frustratingly out of reach.

“The World Cup is a cultural thing. It gets crazy for everybody,” said Marcela Trotti, who accompanied her 11-year-old son, Franco, to purchase figuritas for his friends and a cousin.

The increased demand may very well be tied to expectations — Argentines are feeling optimistic about their possibilities in Qatar after last yr’s victory within the Copa América, South America’s regional championship — and since this yr’s tournament will likely be the last World Cup with the star Lionel Messi on the roster.

And in a rough economic climate wherein annual inflation is projected to succeed in 100%, the escapism of soccer glory has been a welcome distraction.

That has produced a white-hot economy wherein the black-market value of packs of figuritas has soared. A single Messi card was retailing for 3,000 pesos ($20) at a recent figurita exchange market in Buenos Aires. A special Messi “gold legend” card was listed at 60,000 pesos ($403) on a well-liked Argentine online marketplace — a price nearly comparable to the monthly salary of a minimum-wage employee. (The figuritas frenzy has even reached into Messi’s household; the player confirmed after a recent game in the US that his children are collectors, too.)

“The Argentine responds to passions,” said Acuña, a vice chairman with the union representing kiosk-store owners. The group staged a protest on the Buenos Aires-area office of Panini last month, demanding more inventory.

Many have blamed the scarcity in kiosks on the incontrovertible fact that the product is now available in big grocery chains, gas stations, delivery apps and other outlets, but Panini Argentina contended that kiosks never had exclusive rights. The corporate sells to a slate of distributors, who in turn sell to smaller distributors who’ve traditionally supplied the kiosks, Acuña said.

But this yr, kiosk owners said, they will barely get any supply or have needed to pay higher prices for what is on the market. To make his point, Acuña scrolled through a series of WhatsApp groups he had with other kiosk owners, who responded with incensed emojis at offers from distributors selling figuritas for greater than 200 pesos ($1.34) a pack.

Panini Argentina, the local subsidiary of the Italian firm that first sold World Cup stickers in 1970, said there was no shortage. “There’s a much higher demand,” the corporate said in an announcement. In response, it has increased production, although Acuña said it had probably not made a dent.

“Every week that passes, the pack of figuritas costs more within the kiosk, on the road, on the web,” he said.

Jorge Vargas, the owner of a figurita store in the middle of Buenos Aires, said it was not that you just couldn’t find figuritas. “It’s that they’re hard to search out at 150 pesos,” he said.

Vargas has been in a position to secure a superb rate from a reliable distributor, allowing him to keep on with the suggested price, but he said other distributors were selecting to sell on to the patron, often online at an inflated price.

His own customers buy in bulk, he said, after which turn around and sell them in parks at a premium. Some clients became aggressive sooner or later when he ran out of figuritas, so now he has the police come around to control things.

For collectors, a accomplished sticker album is viewed as an investment that might increase in value, very similar to those from Argentina’s last victorious World Cup run led by Diego Maradona in Mexico in 1986. But greater than money, collecting figuritas is about memory, fans and kiosk owners said. “It’s a memento,” Vargas said, “in order that they will look back and say, I used to be there in that era.”

Figuritas are dipped in nostalgia. In Buenos Aires’s Parque Rivadavia, a hub for sticker trading, there have been more adults than children one recent Sunday. Huddled in groups, they pored over lists they’d printed that made it easier to find out the stickers they were missing.

Collectors called out the names of nations and jersey numbers. “Uruguay 18. Portugal 11. Switzerland 2. Serbia 8. Do you could have those to trade?” a young man asked Agustín Corredoira, who shook his head. The 18-year-old Corredoira was there together with his mother, Maria Laura, and his sister, Carolina; they said they walked greater than two hours to a kiosk to purchase 20 packs.

Matías Mannara, 19, was in a position to find his figuritas in a kiosk near his night school. He paid 300 pesos ($2) a pack. “That hurt,” he admitted.

Nearby, Diego Radio grumbled on the “mafia” that had driven up the worth of figuritas. But it surely has already been a lucky World Cup season for him. 4 Messi stickers appeared in packs he and his 8-year-old son bought. One is of their album. One other was traded for a sticker featuring Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. The opposite two have been stored away for safekeeping.

“He doesn’t wish to let him go,” Radio said, smiling at his son.

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