Spending: The subscription-box wars
Small-batch liquors, bacon, macarons, positive-energy crystals: “What do all these things have in common?” asked Tara Burton in Vox.com. “You can get them in subscription boxes.” The box business has exploded, and there’s a reason. “It’s like getting a present in the mail when it’s not even your birthday,” said Leah Stodart and Emily Heller in Mashable.com. You can now subscribe to a monthly box of seemingly anything. Some, though, are a better value than others. Monthly clothing box Stitch Fix, for instance, can feel like a boon if you hate to spend time shopping for clothes, but it can also deliver “questionable quality” and “steep prices.” On the other hand, makeup box Ipsy for a mere $10 a month gives you a customizable box of five high-end products, two of them full-size. A few boxes do genuinely surprise—for example, Loot Crate, which contains things like comic books and pop-culture collectibles, was one of the first subscription boxes, and is still “the best of the best.”
Ipsy is one of the biggest winners in the highly competitive and hugely valuable “subscription-box wars,” said Elizabeth Segran in Fast Company. The e-commerce subscription industry has exploded in recent years—in 2011, the market was worth $57 million; in 2016, it was a whopping $2.6 billion. New services—crafts, Grateful Dead–inspired fashion—pop up every day. There are now 3,500 of them, up 40 percent from a year ago. Some services count on revenue from the boxes themselves; others “drive subscribers to buy full-size products” in stores. The success of the box often has to do with a lot more than simply the products—Ipsy, for instance, markets a whole lifestyle brand, backed by YouTube “beauty influencers.” Other services play up their luxury bona fides. Mostess, a high-end home-goods box for “Millennial women who are busy professionals,” ships quarterly and costs $150 for just six items, things like a cast-iron teapot or a crystal decanter.
Sure, “there’s joy in a monthly mail-order surprise,” said Marissa Miller in The Wall Street Journal, but “beware: It’s a false, fleeting joy.” When you start to subscribe to multiple services, the products you don’t need will pile up. The box deliveries may introduce you to new items, but they skip the “crucial step of inspecting those items before they occupy valuable space.” A “bone box” from Skulls Unlimited is certainly novel. But how quickly will the novelty of a monthly bone shipment wear off? Even the best boxes make us “lazy consumers” and rely on buyers’ inertia, since it’s easier to “pay a monthly fee rather than cancel.” ■