I was looking at various extensions of the classical Coupon Collector problem, but couldn't find any answers or hints for the following modification:

Assume there are $n$ distinct coupons and you get them in batches of a different (random) size. That is, assume that every time you get a black box with coupons in it, whose number can be from $0$ to $n$ and coupons within a black box are distinct. The probability of having a specific coupon in a box is $p$ (that is, it's the same for all). What is the expected number of black-boxes one needs to open to collect all coupons?


I'll assume that you intended to imply that each coupon independently has probability $p$ to be in any given black box.

Then we have $n$ independent Bernoulli trials with probability $p$ and are looking for the expected time for all of them to have succeeded at least once. The probability for a given coupon not to have been collected after $k$ black boxes is $(1-p)^k$, so it has been collected with probability $1-(1-p)^k$, so the probability for all coupons to have been collected is $\left(1-(1-p)^k\right)^n$, so the probability that they haven't all been collected is $1-\left(1-(1-p)^k\right)^n$. The expected number of black boxes required to collect all coupons is the sum of these probabilities:

\begin{align} \sum_{k=0}^\infty\left(1-\left(1-(1-p)^k\right)^n\right) &=\sum_{k=0}^\infty\left(1-\sum_{j=0}^n\binom nj\left(-(1-p)^k\right)^j\right) \\ &=\sum_{k=0}^\infty\sum_{j=1}^n(-1)^{j-1}\binom nj(1-p)^{jk} \\ &=\sum_{j=1}^n(-1)^{j-1}\binom nj\sum_{k=0}^\infty(1-p)^{jk} \\ &=\sum_{j=1}^n(-1)^{j-1}\binom nj\frac1{1-(1-p)^j}\;. \end{align}

The same result can also be derived using the maximum-minimums identity. The time it takes to collect all coupons is the maximum of the times $X_i$, where $X_i$ is the time it takes to collect the $i$-th coupon:

\begin{align} \def\ex#1{\mathbb E\left[#1\right]} \ex{\max_iX_i} &=\sum_i\ex{X_i}-\sum_{i\lt j}\ex{\min\{X_i,X_j\}}+\sum_{i\lt j\lt k}\ex{\min\{X_i,X_j,X_k\}}-\cdots \\ &=\sum_{j=1}^n(-1)^{j-1}\binom nj\frac1{1-(1-p)^j}\;, \end{align}

since the minimum of the completion times of $j$ particular coupons is the expected time it takes for a Bernoulli trial with success probability $1-(1-p)^j$ to succeed. Equivalently, we could use inclusion-exclusion to find the probability that not all coupons have been collected and then sum over $k$ as above.

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Hint 1: The expected number of coupons in a single box is $E[X]$. The expected number of coupons in two boxes is $E[X+X] = E[X] + E[X] = 2E[X]$. You can extend this to the expected number of coupons in $m$ boxes. So you can calculate the expected number of boxes required to get a total of $y$ coupons.

Hint 2: There is a formula for counting the number of coupons required to collect all $n$ coupons. Once you calculate this, you can replace $y$ in Hint 1.

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  • $\begingroup$ Am I right thinking that it will be about $\frac{n \ln n}{K }$, where $K$ is the expected number of coupons in a box, that is $K = np$? $\endgroup$ – Vika Apr 6 '16 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Vika the expected number of coupons in a box is $K = \frac{n+1}{2}$, other than that, you're correct. $\endgroup$ – ashleydc Apr 6 '16 at 18:14
  • $\begingroup$ Why doesn't the answer depend on $p$ then? If $p$ is really small, then I think we will need to buy more boxes. $\endgroup$ – Vika Apr 6 '16 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Vika My apologies, I mis-read the question and didn't see the part about the coupons in the black box being distinct. I thought that there could be duplicate coupons. I'm taking a second look at this and will edit my answer if I can come up with an approach $\endgroup$ – ashleydc Apr 7 '16 at 2:44
  • $\begingroup$ The reason that I was confused was because when I read that there could be between $1$ and $n$ coupons in a box, I thought that the probability for each was identical (for example, the probability of receiving a box with $n$ coupons was $\frac{1}{n}$). It looks like the problem is actually stating that there is $1$ box with $n$ coupons, $n$ boxes with $1$ coupon, ... Is this correct? $\endgroup$ – ashleydc Apr 7 '16 at 3:07

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