FIFA World Cup: Shortage of Panini stamps in Argentina

BUENOS AIRES — As prices continued to rise, Argentina’s Commerce Secretary decided something had to be done.

Store owners were concerned about the shortage. A key supplier said that he could not contain the demand. Desperate customers lined up for miles. So, two weeks ago, Matias Tombolini, the Secretary of Commerce, and a group of government officials gathered stakeholders around a large conference table in a downtown office for a serious discussion “on the search for possible solutions.

Argentina was facing a crisis: it did not have enough World Cup figurines for everyone.

Every four years, soccer fans around the world fall in love with the World Cup and the almost palm-sized collectible stickers, known in Argentina as figuritas.

This year, however, the beloved pastime of filling out Panini’s signature World Cup album has exploded like never before in Argentina. A confluence of supply and demand problems — but also a domestic inflationary crisis and rising expectations that Argentina’s national team will be able to challenge for the trophy this year — have made World Cup figurines more coveted than ever. and very hard to find.

Newsstands, where the stickers were normally sold, have seen supply plummet this year, sending parents and children on a feverish hunt for figurine sellers as resale prices have skyrocketed. The stickers now sell for at least double the suggested retail price of 150 pesos (about $1) per sachet, and counterfeits have infiltrated the market.

Things got so bad that even the national government, battling sky-high inflation and an increasingly discontent society, found the moment to intervene, only to back down when its effort was derided as a waste of government resources.

Tombolini, the commerce secretary, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But meeting him did not solve the problem either.

On a recent Tuesday, in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Villa Urquiza, among the shoppers were teenagers on bicycles, grandmothers looking for orders for their grandchildren, fathers with their children and a mother with a boisterous dachshund. A snail-haired boy walked into a corner store with the question that seems to be on everyone’s lips these days.

“Do you have any figurines?” she asked breathlessly.

“Yes,” replied the store’s owner, Ernesto Acuña. “Five packages for 900 pesos. But you have to line up.”

Acuña said he has made a science of his response to the frenzy. On days that she can get packs of figurines, he puts them up for sale at 6 pm sharp. But before delivering the first package, she surveys the line that stretches down the block and rations how much each customer can take home. Some days the limit is only two packages per person. Acuña then stands at the window as figurine fans stream in, money in hand and eyes wide at a prize that, in many places in Argentina this year, is painfully and frustratingly out of reach.

“The World Cup is cultural. It’s crazy for everyone, ”said Marcela Trotti, who accompanied her 11-year-old son Franco to buy figurines for her friends and her cousin.

The increase in demand could be tied to expectations — Argentines are optimistic about their chances in Qatar after last year’s victory in the Copa América, the South American regional championship — and because this year’s tournament will likely be the last World Cup with the star Lionel Messi in the lineup.

And in a difficult economic climate where annual inflation is projected to hit 100 percent, the escapism from soccer glory has been a welcome distraction.

That has produced a red-hot economy in which the black market value of figurine packs has skyrocketed. A single Lionel Messi sticker was selling for 3,000 pesos ($10) at a recent figurine swap market in Buenos Aires. A special “legend gold” Messi card was trading at 60,000 pesos ($208) on a popular Argentine online marketplace, a price equivalent to the monthly salary of a minimum wage worker. (The figurine frenzy has even reached Messi’s home; after a recent game in the United States, the soccer player confirmed that his children are collectors, too.)

“The Argentine responds to passions,” said Acuña, vice president of the union that represents the newsstands. The group organized a protest at Panini’s office in the Buenos Aires area last month, demanding more inventory.

Many have blamed the shortage at kiosks on the fact that the product is now available in large supermarket chains, gas stations, delivery apps and other outlets, but Panini Argentina maintained that kiosks have never had exclusive rights. The company sells to a list of distributors, he said, who in turn sell to smaller distributors that have traditionally supplied kiosks, Acuña said.

But this year, kiosk owners say, they can barely get a supply, or have had to pay higher prices for what is available. To make his point, Acuña went through a series of WhatsApp groups that he has with other newsstands, who responded with indignant emojis at the offers of distributors who sell figurines for more than 200 pesos a package.

Panini Argentina, the local subsidiary of the Italian firm that first sold World Cup stickers in 1970, says there is no shortage. “There is much higher demand,” the company said in a statement. In response, he has increased production, although Acuña said he hasn’t really made a difference.

“Every week that goes by, the pack of figurines costs more at the kiosk, on the street, on the internet,” he said.

Jorge Vargas, owner of a figurine shop in downtown Buenos Aires, said it’s not that you can’t find envelopes of figurines. “It’s hard to find 150 pesos,” he said.

Vargas has been able to get a good rate from a reputable dealer, allowing him to stick to the suggested price, but he said other dealers are opting to sell direct-to-consumer, often online at an inflated price.

His own customers buy in bulk, he said, and then turn around and sell them in the parks at a higher price. Some customers got aggressive one day when he ran out of figurines, so now he has policemen coming to watch.

For collectors, a complete album is seen as an investment that can increase in value, like those of Argentina’s last World Cup glory led by Diego Maradona in Mexico 1986. But more than money, figurine collecting is about the I remember, say the fans and the newsstands. “It’s a memory,” Vargas said, “that they can look at and say, I was at that time.”

The figurines are imbued with nostalgia. In Buenos Aires’ Parque Rivadavia, a trading center for trading cards, there were more adults than children on a recent Sunday. Gathered in groups, they carefully studied the lists they had printed to facilitate the search for the missing cards.

The collectors shouted the names of the countries and the numbers of the jerseys. “Uruguay 18. Portugal 11. Switzerland 2. Serbia 8. Do you have those to change?” A young man asked Agustín Corredoira, who shook his head. Corredoira, 18, was there with his mother, María Laura, and his sister, Carolina; they said they had walked more than two hours to a kiosk to buy 20 packages.

Matías Mannara, 19, was able to find his figurines in a kiosk near his night school. He paid 300 pesos (about two dollars) per package. “That hurt,” he admitted.

Nearby, Diego Radio complained about the “mafia” that has pushed up the price of the figurines. But it’s already been a lucky World Cup season for him. Four Messi stickers appeared in packages that he and his 8-year-old son bought. One is in his album. Another was changed for a sticker of the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo. The other two have been kept safely.

“He doesn’t want to let go,” says Radio, smiling at his son.

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