Subscription Boxes of Junk: Enough Already
It’s understandable. People like getting mail. But the subscription box industry—those startups that periodically ship a “curated” collection of products to your doorstep—has become insane. Companies pop up almost every week, targeting every imaginable demographic, from stepmoms to rock collectors. Late in November, a company called OuiPlease ($150 for each monthly shipment) introduced a box that offers a “selection of the finest Parisian products,” such as cheap jewelry and chocolate. There’s also HeavenSent ($32.50, monthly), which sends “beautiful Christian inspired” women’s tops, and Dive Bar Shirt Club ($22, monthly), offering T-shirts from “unusual” bars across America.
Other treats you can receive on a monthly basis include sunglasses, sex toys, and random things crafted in Michigan. At least 10 online companies offer “time of the month” boxes, stuffed with tampons, pads, and various other goodies, that cost as much as $33. A box of Playtex, by comparison, is about $6. DoggieLawn ($60, biweekly) provides shipments of real grass so your dog always has a place to go inside.
How did we arrive at box mania? In 2010 two Harvard Business School graduates founded Birchbox, which mails out $10 monthly packages of beauty samples. Those who like its mini bottles can buy full-size products through the birchbox.com store. “We were inspired by the idea that every woman would want a best friend who’s a beauty editor and is helping them curate the clutter,” Katia Beauchamp, one of the co-founders, said in 2011. Ten months in, Birchbox had 45,000 paying subscribers. Today, after raising almost $72 million in seed funding, it has more than 800,000 customers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
Copycat businesses popped up almost immediately. The first ones, such as GlossyBox and TestTube, stuck with cosmetics. Soon new genres arrived with names like BarkBox, Rocksbox, and NatureBox—selling, respectively, dog treats, jewelry, and wholesome snacks. Right now, lots of these companies are offering holiday promotions—perfect for the kind of person who wants to send a box for Christmas but would rather someone in Silicon Valley choose what goes in it.
Most of the products aren’t just thoughtless gifts, they’re wasteful. This month’s $19 Goodebox—offering “healthy beauty products”—includes 1 oz. samples of body scrub and shea butter, nail polish tester, eye shadow tester, and an eco-friendly notepad. A recent $19.99 Nerd Block box contained a T-shirt, a Batman figurine, a mug, a plastic watch, and a Star Wars sticker. Now imagine all that junk arriving each month. “It creates a proliferation of stuff in people’s homes that they have to hire me to come clean out,” says Collette Shine, president of the New York chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers.
An entire side industry has sprouted, dedicated to analyzing these subscription boxes. On YouTube, one video blogger received almost 32,000 hits for a tedious clip comparing the October boxes of Birchbox and competitor Ipsy. Ipsy won. Liz Cadman, who subscribes to more than 75 box services with her husband, runs the website mysubscriptionaddiction.com. By simply reviewing subscription boxes regularly, she says she gets about 5 million unique visitors each month. “I started with Birchbox and got hooked,” Cadman explains. “As a 30-year-old adult, it’s a nice way to send yourself a surprise in the mail every month.” But not all surprises are good ones: Her site started a service this year that allows junkies to swap items they received and didn’t like. It has 7,000 active users.
Some boxes are also almost impossible to cancel. A Harvard Business School case study of Birchbox found that “credit card expiration was the most frequent reason for departure.” So many customers just get auto-charged monthly until the day payment is denied. “It’s one of my pet peeves,” Cadman says. “If you can, always use PayPal, because it lets you cancel from your own account.” Or just go to a drugstore and buy yourself something special.