Are Subscription Boxes Worth the Money?


subscription boxesWhether you’re a beauty junkie, foodie or DIY addict, chances are there’s a subscription box service out there to scratch your itch.

If you’re not familiar with this relatively new retail trend, subscription boxes are a fast-growing business model in which companies like Blue Apron, JewelMint and ShoeDazzle curate and send everything from prepackaged dinner ingredients to baubles or shoes straight to your doorstep.

Most companies require new users to complete a profile survey to determine their personal styles or tastes. Some surveys can be completed on a commercial break; others are as in-depth as an eHarmony profile.

Once your profile is complete, you’ll receive monthly boxes in the mail with specialty products “handpicked” just for you. Today the boxes you can get delivered straight to your doorstep number at least in the hundreds, and are tailored to everyone from new moms to Francophiles to fishing enthusiasts.

The monthly subscription price ranges from  $10 per month at beauty-centric Birchbox to upwards of $100 for more indulgent, high-end items, like luxury body oils and spa-quality anti-aging serums from MonthlyExpress.

All you have to do is scroll through your Facebook feed for pictures of your friends’ latest deliveries (or see a targeted ad or two) to find evidence of how popular these services have become.

Why a flurry of subscription boxes now—and what is their secret sauce? To find out whether this new trend is worth the monthly expenditure, we turned to consumer behavior pros and real-life subscribers to share their insights.

Box Pop: A New Industry Is Born

Birchbox, arguably the most recognizable service today, put the subscription box retail trend in motion with its 2010 launch. Specializing in beauty, grooming and lifestyle products, subscribers pay $10 (for women) or $20 (for men) per month to receive goodies like skin rejuvenators, fragrances and makeup. Now the company has 800,000 active global subscribers, according to company rep Brittany Tomkiewicz—which translates to $96 million in annual sales.

In just four years since its inception, the industry has exploded. “[Subscriptions] represent a significant retail trend,” says Virginia Lee, senior research analyst with market intelligence firm Euromonitor International. “With the glut of products available in stores, many shoppers like the curation factor of these subscription boxes.”

As the trend spills over into countless retail categories, the opportunity for expansion only gets stronger. Lee expects the U.S. subscription box businesses to continue growing—but at a slower rate than what we’ve seen so far. As the industry becomes more solidified, larger players are crowding out some newcomers.

To stand out from the competition, Lee says new entrants need to offer cheaper products, à la Dollar Shave Club, or tout a celebrity affiliation. (Kate Hudson, Food Network chef Tyler Florence and style guru Giuliana Rancic have all jumped on the bandwagon, launching subscription services of their own.)

Even big-box retailer Target is getting into the game, incentivizing customers to join its relatively new subscription program by offering a 5% discount on all purchases, from printer ink to baby formula. (Just last month, the product assortment was expanded nearly tenfold to approximately 1,500 items.)

Need paper towels delivered twice a month? Vitamins every other month? The auto-delivery feature allows customers to personalize their orders according to their needs, with flexibility to modify the shipping schedule and quantities whenever necessary.

But if you’re looking for a service that does the shopping for you, there’s Stitch Fix, a popular subscription company that serves as your own personal shopper.

For roughly $65 per item, subscribers receive monthly clothing deliveries selected for them by professional stylists. First you fill out a style profile, which helps the company understand your size, style, shape, budget and lifestyle. After choosing a delivery date, you’ll be charged a $20 styling fee that’s applied as a credit toward anything you wind up buying from your shipment.

  • docbeanie

    I was a member of Birchbox for a year, and to be honest, I don’t think that it was worth it. The items in the Birchbox (i.e. grooming products for men, were actually just samples that one could pick up for free at the grooming and fragrance counter of your local department store. There were a lot of things that I will never use: a beer coozie with a cheesy wood pattern on the outside, a wood and nail bottle opener, or a set of 4 leather coasters. Sometimes higher end things were mentioned on the website’s videos which were never received. At first (and as an impulse buy) the subscription seemed like a value. But after the first box, not so much. My suggestion is similar to what is mentioned in the above article: get the shortest possible subscription, and see for yourself if it is worth the price. Personally, the ratio of good products versus bad products, or more accurately, unwanted or unuseable products was probably 1:4. So at that point, I quit.

  • Valerie

    I was subscribed to birchbox, ipsy and glossy box and have cancelled all of them. Because while it was awesome getting ‘goodies’ every month, I soon found myself with a hoard of samples many I would never use and essentially wasting money. While I did discover some nice brands and products. Those didn’t equal the cost of admission for me.

  • Elaine

    I have had my finger hovering over the ‘subscribe now’ button multiple times at the knitcrate website. What fun, getting surprises and surprise yarn on a monthly basis. But once I get past the adrenalin, I understand how expensive it is ($65 and up), and how there is a good chance that not only would I not be able to keep up my knitting to stay current, there’s a good chance I won’t love the project that’s selected. And there’s not enough yarn in a box to change the pattern to something larger (like a sweater). I have decided I’d rather spend my yarn budget by choice, not by chance. Good yarn is expensive!

    • Lizzymommy

      This is why I’m such a fan of Expression Fiber Arts monthly clubs – you purchase each month separately, no recurring orders, and she shows you her inspiration photos so you have a clue what the colorway will be, plus she tells you the yarn base and yardage. I’m totally not enabling…honest. :) I also love that I can then have the club experience on my own dang timeline and budget!

      • Elaine

        I also will occasionally buy Chandi’s monthly offering – beautiful yarn, and not any more expensive than normally buying her yarn. But again, good yarn is an investment and while it’s fun to get a surprise, it’s really more fun to me to pick out the exact colors and content that I want. I completely get why you buy her monthly club offering, and I agree that it’s nice stuff!

  • kgal1298

    I did a couple of them for about 3 months. Then I got bored. Most of the products end up not being usable. They can’t determine your skin type that well and most of the products are sample sizes that you could get for free if you asked the brand I’m sure. Also the consistency is poor. They totally work off the emotions of the subscriber to want a surprise each month it can make you happy, but not for that long and then you realize how much money you are wasting during a year especially if you do more than one service. I find it annoying. If they could be consistent in quality then maybe I’d go for it, but until then…nope.

  • ksgirl73

    I tried PopSugar’s must have box for probably about 4 months. it was kind of hit and miss. I kept very few of the items, gave a few away as gifts, and sold a few on ebay. Some of the items you got were scaled down versions of luxury items sold elsewhere. Very few of the items I really used. It was fun to get a box of surprises in the mail, but after about 4 months I realized it wasn’t worth it. You are better off taking the $20 and going out and buying something you really want and will use.

  • Eleave

    I only subscribe to Birchbox, but I think it’s a great deal. I have a yearly membership, so I pay $9/month, which is pretty much nothing unless you’re really financially hurting. Birchbox also gives points for reviews, which you can then use to order products. I have never paid for a full-sized product from Birchbox though I have ordered many, because I use points to buy them. That’s a much better deal than I would get anywhere else… I can’t speak for the other subscription boxes, but for me, Birchbox is a keeper. They also have amazing customer support and will bend over backwards for requests. (Way more than Sephora even!)

    • Mad Dubs

      I totally agree. I don’t even care so much to get the samples, but the points for reviews mean that I can stay fully stocked in my favorite products for a fraction of the price. Definitely a sound investment!

  • Amy Grainger

    I subscribe to Ipsy, Glossybox, and Graze. As a beauty blogger & Esthetician it gives me new items to write about and try expensive products without having to spend a lot of money like I otherwise would have without these subscriptions.

  • pamb

    There first subscription box was probably Test Tube from New Beauty. I don’t know how my husband discovered it, but he did, and he bought me a subscription about 10 years ago. At the time it was around $40, and it came 3 times a year. I loved it, but you had no say in the products you received (I know some boxes now allow you to choose) and since I was buying products anyway, I just had too much stuff.

    That’s why I don’t subscribe anymore (although $10/Birchbox sounds easy to do)

  • LoveBeautyNGlam

    I have subscribed to many boxes over the past year, especially around black Friday I took advantage of some sales. I am super addicted to subscription boxes however I agree with most of the points made in this article. My main subscriptions that I have had for almost a year without cancelling are Ipsy and LovewithFood. Ipsy is $10/month and Love with Food is $12/month. Occasionally there are things in the Ipsy bag I don’t like or wouldn’t use but they send a lot of full size products and for me, the value of the products I get that I WILL use is always equal to or greater than the $10 I spend on the subscription. My 10 year old daughter enjoys opening (and eatting) the LWF box each month and we always have a good time writing reviews for it as well.

    Others I’m currently subscribed to: Hatchery, ColormeMonthly, Julep(I skip most of the time, exactly the reason stated in this article) and BeautyArmy

  • LoveBeautyNGlam

    Oh and that link you gave to “hundreds of subscription boxes” is my go to site for sub box reviews and deals. There is also a swap section on that site for unwanted items. I am a super fan of the owner Liz.

  • frankenmint

    I can totally appreciate this read. I’ve known of boxes for a while and many times they seem tempting, but at the end of the day, NONE of them seem appealing. Its like I’ll spend to only be satisfied with 30% of what is offered. Someone offered a mexican candy box subscription – I would have probably paid if it was half the price they offered – but instead they offer $15 per month for 1/3rd a pound of candy – which seems crazy as I could just buy them myself for $5 a month at that quantity. I then looked around and see whats available – the boxes are lazy and filled with free samples, and the majority of people on the internet don’t care to know any better and just buy these up.