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  • Pick A Brick Cups: Can You Pack an Investing Punch?


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    Ever since a Lego store opened in my area, I have been fascinated with the concept of Pick A Brick (PAB) cups. The clear cups, coming in two sizes, offer the customer with the ability to not only choose what they want from a wall of different elements, but also how much they want through packing methods that have been refined over time.

    As years went by, my ability to fill every nook and cranny grew. My collection of empty cups grew. And my interest in the cups as investment tools grew as well. Once I realized that the cups offered people with ways to purchase bricks for extremely cheap Parts Per Piece (PPP) ratios, I saw that the cups could lead to excellent investment returns. The following is the result of my investigation into the cups and whether they pack an ideal investing punch.

    The Large Cup vs. the Small Cup
    Currently, most Lego stores sell two types of cups. There is the small cup, which retails for $7.99 USD, and the larger cup, which retails for $14.99 USD. Obviously, most people believe instantly that bigger is better value, but is that the truth? I conducted a volume test to make sure.

    Upon first site, the only noticeable difference between the two sizes other than their height was that the small cup has a wider ring along the bottom of the cup.

    For the test, I calculated the volume of each cup and the lid, by filling each container until full with water and then pouring that water into a liquid measuring cup. My unit of measurement for this test is the Milliliter (mL), which I believe provides a more accurate measurement (a Milliliter is equal to 1 cm cubed). However, I have also translated the values to their approximate imperial cup equivalents for universal understanding.

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    The results displayed on the chart show that the large cup is indeed a slightly better value than the small cup (at no lid, it is 0.28 cents cheaper per mL). This is also good since the smaller cup can’t fit some of the longer elements, such as large plates. I included the differences between lid attached, and lid barely touching the rim because I have found generally, Lego employees are very lenient and if the lid isn’t on, will even provide tape so you can close it with it only touching at one point. Overall, the results of this test mean that it is more economical to pack your pieces into the larger cup, assuming you can pack the big ones just as good as the small ones.

    How to Maximize Cup Space
    There are several methods to packing parts into your cup. As the cups are cylindrical rather than square or rectangular with 90 degree angles, it is difficult to maximize cup space. This is where all the interesting methods come in. Generally, I would say that packing a small cup is much easier than packing a large cup because it is easier to get your hand into. When packing a Pick A Brick cup, the main objective is to place elements in a way that leaves very few air pockets. Unfortunately, dumping bricks into a cup and shaking it every once in a while still leaves lots of wasted space. In the following section, I will explore the four most popular methods of packing, and see how they fare against each other.

    Method 1: Dumping
    This method of packing involves pouring bricks down into the cup with no strategy and little to no brick placement. This method is not desirable when packing bricks/plates bigger than 1x2, as it leaves lots of air space in the cup, and the brick placement is random so does not follow the circular curves of the cup.

    Bottom Line: good for packing irregular-shaped small pieces or when you are in a rush. I highly recommend against using this method with large bricks, as it wastes lots of space.

    Method 2: Central Tower(s)
    The central tower method is my personal preference, because it allows you to pack in bricks and irregular pieces without consuming as much time as level packing or circular placement. Basically, this technique involves creating a square tower that grows in size as it reaches the top of the cup, surrounded by smaller pieces or plates that fill in the curved spaces. You can also use this method by making multiple stacks or towers of pieces.

    Bottom Line: this method is great if you want a variety of bricks or plates (placed in the “tower) and irregular parts. Plus, it is less time consuming compared to the following two methods.

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    A partially complete cup packed using the central tower method.

    Method 3: Level Packing
    Level packing involves making multiple levels of bricks in a circular shape, before putting them into the cup. Generally, the “levels” of bricks grow in size to match the growing width of the cup. This method was made famous by the YouTube video claiming “pack 169 2x4 bricks into a PAB cup” (link below). This method can be time consuming and it is best to practice at home before trying it at the Lego store.
    Bottom Line: level packing is a great way to pack a large amount of larger bricks (2x3, 2x4 etc). However, the method is difficult if you aren’t already familiar with the level dimensions you are using.

    Link: Pack 169 2x4 Bricks into a PAB Cup (a example of Level Packing)

    Method 4: Circular Placement
    The last, and arguably most difficult method, is what I call circular placement. Usually used to pack 1x2 or similar bricks, the method involves carefully arranging the bricks into circle-based formations to maximize space. The bricks are seldom connected and this method is very hard and frustrating. If you aren’t good at reaching into small spaces and gently placing bricks, stay away from this method. I have pasted a link to an example of this method below.

    Bottom Line: only use this method if you are packing small bricks and have lot of time. Do not use this method if you have difficulty doing small, intricate tasks.

    Link: Example of the Circular Placement Method
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/notenoughbricks/4910234440/in/photostream/

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    Extras: Lids, Rings, Tips and Tricks
    In addition to the basic methods, there are several tips and tricks that I use to squeeze in a couple extra bricks. Here is a list of them:

    • The Lid: the lid of the cup will sit in different places, depending on how many bricks you packed in. However, no matter how full the cup is, there is always the same amount of room in the “stud” of the lid; the cylindrical part that sticks out. Always fill this up, whether it is with 2x4 bricks or 1x1 plates. Remember: wasted space is wasted money.
    • The Ring: as you may or may not have noticed, the cups have a small ring on the bottom encircling the circumference of the cup. This allows the cups to be stacked with the stud. To make use of this area, I usually fill it with sideways 1x2 bricks, resulting in an extra 18 bricks in a large cup.
    • Containers: If you are including barrels or stoves in your Pick A Brick cup, be sure to slip pieces into them. You can also use this trick for small windows by placing them facing away from each other, and then inserting a brick in between them.
    • Sales: As with most items in the Lego store, Pick A Brick Cups rarely go on sale. However, they have been known to be included in promotions such as “buy a large cup for the price of a small”, or just the regular 2x the VIP points promo.
    • Other Methods: some Lego stores sell their Pick A Brick stock by the pound. I generally would discourage this as it is much more expensive unless you are buying large, rare parts. Also, some Lego stores offer boxes for $70. These boxes are the boxes that the pieces came in, so you only get one piece and it is pre-packed. However, these boxes are still a good value, especially since they feature 90 degree angles. Lastly, we have the Holiday PAB boxes, which are given out with special purchases. Use these boxes wisely, as the corners are straight and allow for easy packing.

    So which method is the best? Ultimately, other than the first method, all make good use of the space, so it depends on your time and what pieces you are packing. But, since I know you all love charts and numbers, here is how the different methods compare when packing 1x2 or 2x4 bricks. Keep in mind that some methods (like the central tower method) are meant to be used with a specific combination of pieces so this isn’t the most accurate representation of how they work, and that I made it so the lid is touching in one place at least. I did my best to accurately replicate each method, keeping within a half-hour packing timeframe for each to model the amount of time you might have in a store.

    The chart shows that the last three methods are all very successful, and any of them can be used to efficiently pack bricks. If you use the level packing method and pack in 695 pieces like I did, then you will end up paying 2.15 cents per piece. That is about the best deal you find on new Lego, period.

    Scoping Out Useful Pieces
    Whether you are planning on buying a Pick A Brick Cup for yourself or to invest in, it is important to know where the good pieces are located. You can drive to different Lego stores to check them out, but it would be preferred, especially if travel distances are long, to check them remotely.

    The two ways to check the selection of a stores Pick A Brick wall are to call the store and ask them, or to use the website Brickbuildr. Brickbuildr is a user dependant site where visitors to Pick A Brick walls can input what was there and when for other people to see. While I have found the information to be generally reliable if new, the site is not free of inconsistencies. Lastly, always make sure to ask a Lego employee if they have any elements that aren’t on the wall. Usually, they are very helpful and may even take you into the back to look for other pieces.

    Scoping out the right piece is very useful if you are strategically planning a PAB haul to maximize profits. Knowing ahead of time what is on the wall can allow you to research the value of the pieces to determine which will lead to the best profits.

    Link: Brickbuildr:
    http://www.brickbuildr.com/view/pab/

    Investment Returns
    When you can pack in the elements for such low PPP ratios, the investment potential for PAB pieces is huge. By using a part-out website such as Bricklink, you can sell the pieces as individuals. This may sound tedious, and it isn’t for everyone, but since the stock can be purchased at minimal pricing it is quite profitable.

    The pieces I have chosen for my investment returns chart are all pieces that I myself have purchased from a Pick A Brick wall. As I earlier concluded that large cups are better than small ones, everything is based off if the elements were packed into a large cup. Unless otherwise stated, my approximate piece counts are based off my previous estimates using the best result and my theory of one stud volume. Basically, one stud volume says that a 1x1 plate is half the size of a 1x2 plate, a third of the size of a 1x1 brick and so forth. Obviously, this theory is proven (a plate is a third the height of a brick), and is a cautious estimator because generally the smaller a piece goes, it can pack more one stud volume into a cup.

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    The chart shows two things. One, smaller elements are much more profitable than larger ones based off the sheer number that you can pack into a cup. Two, Pick A Brick investing can be extremely profitable. Now before everyone runs off to buy up all the tiny pieces at their Lego store, remember that selling even one cup’s worth of pieces can take a long time, and to move stock faster you will have to lower prices. If you already part out sets, than you should seriously consider starting to invest in Pick A Brick cups.

    Selling pieces for a profit of 160 dollars is unprecedented when the stock cost you $14.99. Plus, I haven’t seen or heard much of PAB elements being used for resale on Bricklink so as of right now, there is little competition. Pick A Brick cups give part out investors a fresh and cheap source to an already thriving market. For that reason, their investment potential is massive.

    In conclusion, Pick A Brick cups offer great PPP ratios if you can pack them right, and a decent ones even if you don’t. Whether they offer a profit-pouring punch really depends on investor; if you already work with Bricklink you will enjoy spectacular profits, if you don’t, I suggest you dabble before taking the time and space to start a Bricklink store. But one thing is for sure. Packing a PAB cup is fun, challenging, and the rewarding contents will leave you smiling.

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