Convenience and a Dash of Surprise: The Rise of the Subscription Box


Convenience and a Dash of Surprise: The Rise of the Subscription Box

How subscription boxes have changed the way we think about online commerce.

Whether it’s a TV commercial for Blue Apron or an Instagram celebrity offering a coupon code for FabFitFun, it seems like subscription boxes are everywhere these days.

Courtesy of JoJo Fletcher's Instagram

In terms of growth, the subscription box industry has been shattering expectations for years. The craze started with Birchbox in 2010, when its founders wanted to help streamline the process of buying makeup products online. In one year, their member list grew to 45,000, and by 2012 had skyrocketed to 800,000, meaning 1777% growth in about two and a half years. Since Birchbox, subscription boxes have popped up in almost every genre imaginable. There are boxes that cater to moms and babies, dog lovers, beauty enthusiasts, and even avid gold miners (it’s called Dirt of the Month Club). According to Inc., as of March 2016, there were over 2000 boxes in operation, and visits to subscription box websites have grown over 3000% in the last three years.

So why the obsession? Why are customers flocking to these services like moths to a flame? According to a Forbes article, there are two kinds of boxes dominating the market right now.

The first offers the convenience of completing a certain chore so that you don’t have to. These boxes include services like Dollar Shave Club, which sends razor blades to your home every week, and Blue Apron, which forgoes the struggle of grocery shopping and meal planning by sending the complete ingredients for recipes straight to your door. These can be really attractive options for people who don’t have time to be running these errands. Speaking from personal experience, Dollar Shave Club offers cheaper and higher quality razors than those bought at retailers like CVS.

Courtesy of Geekwire

The second kind of box offers a more nuanced product, seeking to personalize the items in the box based on the recipients’ preferences. Examples of this are StitchFix, a stylist service that uses a preferences form to collect a box of clothes and accessories that a stylist thinks the client will like. There are also many beauty boxes based on this same idea, using a person’s eye color, hair color, and skin tone to send personalized boxes of samples to try.

Courtesy of Happygoluckyblog

Overall, it is these more personal boxes that are the most popular. In 2016, My Subscription Addiction, the leading source of subscription box reviews, listed the 20 most popular brands of subscription boxes. Of this list, the top 6 boxes were beauty focused, and only three out of the twenty were convenience focused.

Emma Straub (Nursing ’21) subscribes to two boxes, Ipsy, a beauty box, and FabFitFun, a seasonal lifestyle box offering recipients a collection of high end products for a much reduced price. When asked what she likes about these services, Straub said, “I like the affordability and convenience! I like being able to try a bunch of new things with Ipsy that I may not try without them. It helps me get out of my comfort zone.” While FabFitFun’s services are a little different than Ipsy’s, Straub is still a fan. She said, “With FabFitFun I always get just really nice stuff that I can use and I get it for so much cheaper than if I bought everything separately. Their packaging is also just really cute.”

Courtesy of Emma Straub (Nursing '21)

While they may be more popular, these more personalizable boxes are risky enterprises. People eventually tire of subscriptions, so the challenge for these companies is figuring out how to lengthen the life of the average subscription. There are many different tactics to accomplish this: some boxes let you send back items you don’t want, or give you a price incentive to keep it all. Others will tell you what is in the box before it is shipped, so that you can opt in or out of that month.

Courtesy of FabFitFun

Yet this is not always enough; the subscription box business is a fickle one, as eventually the novelty wears off and the company can no longer afford to be in operation. When asked about her satisfaction with her boxes, Emma Straub said, “For Ipsy, I wish I could pick some of the things that they vary between bags because there is some stuff that I know I won’t use.”

On top of this, the wild success of these subscription services has changed the landscape of online commerce. As a result, big online retailers like Walmart, Amazon, and Target are beginning to offer similar services, creating more competition for subscription-only services. Some of their new products seem to be in direct competition with existing brands. For example, Sephora’s PLAY! box, Walmart’s beauty box, and Target’s beauty box are all targeted towards the same audience as Birchbox and Ipsy. Also recently, Amazon’s Amazon Fresh service competes directly with Blue Apron.

Courtesy of My Subscription Addiction

Nevertheless, subscription boxes have forever changed the way we think about convenience and online commerce. Check out My Subscription Addiction’s review of the best subscription boxes of 2018. Here are some of my personal recommendations:

FabFitFun — it’s $49.99 a quarter BUT the contents are $200 worth of beauty samples, cute accessories and wellness items, and the packaging is super cute.

BootayBag — it’s 2 pairs of super cute underwear for $13 a month, they show you exactly what will be in the bag on their Instagram so you can decide if you want it or not, and their customer service is unparalleled.

StitchFix — really great if you want to mix up your wardrobe but you aren’t sure where to start, you pay a $20 styling fee to fill out a style profile, then you get five items in your box. You can keep whatever you like and return whatever you don’t, your styling fee goes towards offsetting the price of anything you decide to keep, and you get a discount if you keep the whole box.

Dollar Shave Club — for $9 a month, you get four razor blades every week to go with the handle they provide in their starter set, truly a great value. 

Blue Apron $9.99/serving for 2 people, or $8.74/ serving for family plan. It lets you pick from 8 recipes, which is great if you want to try cooking at home but don’t have time to make it to the grocery store.

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