What are subscription boxes?

An introductory guide to subscription boxes

Whenever I hear the doorbell go, I wonder what delivery I can expect next. This is the life of a subscription box addict! But what exactly is a subscription box? How do you subscribe to one? This guide to subscription boxes will tell you everything you need to know about them, and by the end of it, maybe you’ll be addicted too!

What are subscription boxes? A brief overview

A subscription box is a package of products sent directly to you on a recurring basis – automatically, for as along as the subscription lasts. They can cost from a few to hundreds of dollars and be shipped weekly, monthly or quarterly, and even on demand.

“Subscription boxes are a fun and affordable way to get products delivered to your door.”

Most companies offer a surprise box that changes every time, but with the products always around a central theme. For instance, a beauty box may have delivery several different beauty products to you every month, or a healthy box will have a range of healthy products every month.

Some boxes allow for additional customisation and preferences – so you can tell a pet subscription box that you have a cat (so don’t send dog chews!), or you can tell a fashion box that you want clothing in a Size 8, and don’t like red.

What are subscription boxes?

Either way, with each box being curated for you, the surprise element to the delivery allows you to discover new products that maybe you would not have seen or purchased otherwise.

Other boxes offer the same product every time, giving you a reliable supply of top quality products at a great price, and always delivered to you before you realise you need them. This is especially useful for commodity items, like socks, coffee, and razors – items that you always need but you always seem to forget to buy!

This guide to subscription boxes covers everything we think is important to get you started:

Table of Contents

History of subscription commerce

Subscription commerce is nothing new – paperboys have been around since 1833 delivering daily newspapers, the first milk was delivered in glass bottles around 1890, and magazines have been delivered through the post every month since 1920. For hundreds of years, subscriptions have been part of our lives, but for some reason, it took until 2010 for subscriptions to move in to other products – and since then, it doesn’t look like it will stop!

The subscription box trend kicked off in 2010 with the launch of Birchbox – a monthly beauty sample subscription service. Each month, BirchBox sent their subscribers 4-5 new beauty samples to try out for $10. The business idea behind this was that people would want more of a product after the sample, so BirchBox could up-sell via traditional ecommerce. The founders of BirchBox said

“The idea was to leverage the subscription model to be part of the product discovery process,we wanted to transform e-commerce from a flat, two-dimensional world by giving it texture and reality.”

However, it quickly became apparent that customers receiving the samples and going through them, discovering new things, being surprised, reviewing the products they got, was more exciting for the customers – people were writing blogs, sharing with friends, making YouTube videos… The main event and reason for subscribing was the surprise and wonder of getting a box – and thus subscription boxes were born!

An early (the first?) BirchBox YouTube video from a happy customer (this is possibly the first subscription box unboxing video on the internet)

By 2011, more subscription boxes entered the market targeting different demographics – BarkBox for dogs, Citrus Lane for parents and babies, Beachmint for jewellery, ShoeDazzle for shoes – all of them quickly gaining lots of customers. Many of them raised millions of dollars of venture capital, allowing them to advertise more and spread the subscription box word to all corners of the world.

In 2012, the subscription box market started to really take off, as companies saw the success of the market leaders, dozens of copycat and similar businesses popped up, experimenting with the subscription box model, with new boxes launching every week.

By 2013, an ecosystem started to form around the subscription box industry. Subscription box directories emerged to keep track of all the new services (like this one!). Ecommerce platforms designed specifically for the needs of subscription box businesses were created. Payment systems improved to deal with recurring payments.

Now in 2016, at the last count there are over 1,000 subscription box companies, covering United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and more, catering for every whim and desire, with thousands of entrepreneurs running many small, and some much larger, subscription box services – like Dollar Shave Club.

Consumer interest in subscription boxes continues to grow, as many report:

subscription box trends

Google Trends shows a surge for subscription boxes after 2010

The subscription box industry is now seeing a growing ecosystem of supporting products and services geared towards subscriptions, such as Shopify, CrateJoy, Subbly, Stripe Recurring, Kill Bill and many more. With the barriers to starting a subscription box business continuing to fall, expect to see many entrepreneurs launching new twists on this successful model, pushing it in creative new directions and into new markets around the world.

CNBC analysing trends in subscription box companies

Types of subscription boxes

Subscription commerce falls into two categories: discovery and convenience.

Discovery is for customers who are looking to try something new. Discovery commerce allows customers to enjoy discovering a new product by experiencing surprise and delight, by not knowing what to expect, by having someone else make their decisions. This can lead to the customer discovering new products that they may have otherwise never tried.

Convenience subscriptions cater to customers who want a specific product regularly and enjoy having it delivered – they don’t want any surprises, they just want a convenient way to get products they love regularly and easily delivered. This can save time, save money, provide better, fresher product, or just have it delivered purely for convenience.

So there are two main types of subscription boxes, but there must be lots of advantages and disadvantages of both – lets run through them:

Benefits of subscription boxes

We’ve counted 8 – yes eight – advantages of subscription boxes – what do you think?

1) Subscription boxes are fun!

I think the number one reason that subscription boxes work so well is that everyone loves to get mail! And everyone loves the process of opening something that they are not sure what it includes – its why a Lucky Dip at the fairground is still a popular game! People love to gamble, get a surprise, maybe get a deal.

One subscription box customer describes the experience of receiving a monthly Loot Crate:

“I never go look online at what’s coming, it’s always a surprise, and we (my wife and I) open it together. I always give her one of the toys, or something from it, and we genuinely just enjoy getting it. It may not be something we can list as a ‘wise investment’ but I put it under the heading ‘entertainment’ and it’s less money than we would spend on a trip to the movies”.

Check out how much fun this guy is having opening his boxes:

2) Affordability – a subscription box for everyone

Many subscription boxes are offered in tiered levels of value as well as frequency of delivery – this allows subscription boxes to be affordable to a wider range of customers. With convenience subscriptions available from just a few dollars (like Pact Coffee), or discover boxes of items available for just $10 (like GlossyBox), boxes are entertainment and convenience affordable by everyone.

3) Discounts on products

You will often receive discounts on products by buying them through subscription boxes – they often have products in them that are of greater value than the subscription. So maybe 3 x $10 items in a box delivered for $15 – so you ineffect save $15. However if you only like one item in the box, you’ve only really spent an additional $5 to get two extra items! Spare items can be resold (there are now dedicated subscription box marketplaces) or even given as gifts to people you love. A subscription box allows customers to save money on products they already know they enjoy as well as try new products without having to risk spending as much on a product they may not enjoy.

4) Discovery of new products

Getting a surprise box of treats every month allows you to discover products you may not have known about or tried otherwise. This allows you to try more products and brands, without much element of risk, as the item is already “discounted” and now its in your hands, not in its packaging. The increased exposure to new products helps customers discover optimal products for their preferences and needs. Gousto is a great example of encouraging people to try cooking new meals, as all the ingredients are provided that you may have never purchased together otherwise.

Gousto is a great way to try cooking new meals without worrying about ingredients

Gousto is a great way to try cooking new meals without worrying about ingredients

Sure, you can always browse local shops or go online and order things yourself – but chances are that one store won’t stock everything, or you’ll get bored experimenting or returning items. Subscription boxes have expert curators who speed up the whole process and save you time – and their expertise is well worth the cost. It’s worth noting that some boxes, especially fashion subscriptions, allow you to return or swap clothes if they don’t fit you.

5) With subscriptions there is No Need To Think!

We love this element of subscription boxes – and this is what gave us our name. Subscription services means there is no need to think – which saves mental capacity, time and money. We love the 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris – the ability to live a streamlined life. Imagine never need to go to a shopping mall ever again – well that is achievable with subscription commerce. Sign up once, never worry about something again.

Not only in your day to day life, but with subscription service options, choices are minimised which prevents them from becoming paralysed with choice – do you want this? Yes or No. There are no multitude of options. Because subscriptions are automated after activation, continuing to receive the product and maintain the subscription takes minimal effort. Everyone is happier when the purchasing process requires less work.

6) Convenience

And this moves us on to convenience. Save time by never needing to travel to a physical store to purchase something. Never go to the cupboard and realise you have run out of coffee again. Never get undressed with a new partner and wish you had made that trip to the underwear store! Never wake up Monday morning for a big meeting and realise you’ve run out of razors. OK, so maybe the subscription box may be a few dollars more than what you could pay on an item in a discount superstore – but how much is your time worth? How much is the convenience of never running out worth?

For instance, if you hate buying birth control products, it would be better (and definitely cheaper in the long term!) to subscribe to a service that delivers them. Perhaps you love a speciality coffee, but the nearest coffee roaster to you is a 1 hour drive. Why deprive yourself of great coffee when a subscription service can deliver it to you fresh every week?

7) Access to unusual items

Linked to the convenience of specialty products, curators of subscription boxes have better access to rare items due to economies of scale. Nerd Block may acquire a bulk shipment of impossible to get toys. Graze Box may include fruits from a country that you’ve never heard of just so you can snack on them. You may be missing a taste of home – you can get boxes that specialise in American chocolate bars, Japanese food, South American treats and much more. What about a handmade scarf from a small village in Asia? I’m pretty sure Costco doesn’t sell those. What about a particular roasted coffee from Vietnam? I’m pretty sure the plantation starts exporting at 1,000 Kgs minimum order! This access to items for niche groups makes subscription boxes amazing for bringing together communities regardless of where they are.

Japanese Candy Box

Japanese Candy Box – because the local store just doesn’t sell it!

8) A gift to yourself every month!

Indulgence. Yes, I said it! Subscription boxes are a gift to yourself every month for a minimal cost – aren’t you the best person to buy a gift for yourself?! A lot of subscription boxes are sold on the promise that the items in the box will make us feel better. Candy, chocolate, flowers, perfumes, toys – sometimes there’s no reason other than that we just want to indulge in some way.

gift-to-yourself

Birchbox is a great example of a gift for yourself. Professional makeup and perfume can be expensive, but BirchBox gives you little tasters of joy for a reasonable price – letting you boost your self-esteem, make you happy, create a talking point, be the first to wear something and much more. That sounds like a great boost to your life for very little investment.

If there are items in your box that you don’t like, chances are someone else you know will like them, so subscription boxes are also a great way to find quirky birthday and Christmas gifts for your loved ones – and getting a fresh delivery every month means you’ll always have them to hand!

Disadvantages of subscription boxes

With every up there is a down, so we want to make you aware of a few disadvantages of subscription boxes too! We’ve come up with 6 disadvantages of subscription boxes.

1) Poor value subscription boxes

What are you actually paying for when you buy a subscription box? A subscription business expenses breakdown is typically – the cost of goods in the box, packaging, shipping, advertising and then a profit margin. Packaging and shipping are surprisingly expensive – someone had to be paid to pick and pack those items, that crate paper in the box or fancy wrapping is part of the cost you pay for, as is the UPS courier. You could avoid that cost by shopping locally.

Sometimes the items in the box may not appear to be good value – for instance, you may never dream of paying more than a few dollars for a mug, but the mug is a limited edition so the subscription gives it a $20 value. The rest of the items don’t add up to much and you feel cheated.

bad-deal

In order to decide if a particular box is worthwhile, you have to take all of that into consideration and compare it against how much you’d end up paying if you went out and compiled a similar box yourself. In most cases, the DIY option is far cheaper.

To get around this, many “experts” in the subscription industry say you should look at previous boxes to see what you are likely to expect – but we think this isn’t great advice – a box is only as good as the box that is delivered! Its up to the box curator to ensure a good box every time.

2) You may not like everything in the box

Even if a box is tailored to your tastes, you may not like every item in every subscription box that you receive, and this can cause you to think a box is poor value, doesn’t understand you (so you want to cancel), or just gives a negative perception of the brand. We think getting bad items has a little value, as the excitement of getting an item you really love is then much higher.

For items you don’t like, most items have a resale value – so listing them on eBay or Amazon is a good idea. Otherwise, there are now dedicated marketplaces for subscription boxes – so maybe someone forgot to subscribe this month, and will happily pay full price for the item they missed.

3) Uncertainty of long subscriptions

Many subscription boxes offer annual memberships as an alternative to monthly subscriptions and the annual price usually includes a very tempting discount. But that problem may end up costing you!

The problem with a lot of boxes is that after the first few months the ideas from the curator sometimes dry up, so you get last minute or desperate items.

After a few more months, the business may not be scaling the way the owner wants, and they shut down – so there may be a risk of you losing some of your annual subscription.

changed-my-mind

Maybe you end up hating the kinds of food that come with a certain snack box – diets change often! Maybe you find a source of items that are cheaper locally that outweighs the convenience factor. Maybe you just don’t like the box anymore. Or maybe, like Loot Crate or Supply Pod, the contents change massively every month, so you can never be sure whether or not you’ll like the next box that gets shipped your way.

Don’t buy an annual membership unless you’re absolutely sure that you want it for an entire year. Cancellation is usually a tough hassle for subscription box services.

4) Subscription lock in

Connected to your ability to cancel, subscription lock in is a real pain if you are locked into a subscription until a time period has elapsed. Some subscription box companies make it a hassle to cancel a subscription. Companies may do this by not allowing a customer to cancel the subscription online and instead require the customer to cancel the subscription over the phone. Some companies charge early termination fees. This hassle can benefit subscription box providers, because for some customers, the hassle can be enough to keep them subscribed.

Make sure you read subscription box reviews on our site for real customer experiences with cancelling – and take reviews from bloggers with a pinch of salt; they most likely got the box for free which can impact their review!

file-a-complaint

5) Not always suited to single box purchases

Since subscriptions are often frustrating to cancel and sometimes require a minimal subscription period, subscription boxes are not always suitable for single box purchases. This makes testing a box, or trying a box difficult, so if you want to just buy as a gift or to try one box, make sure this is what you are getting when you buy. Do not assume that you can sign up, get a box and then immediately cancel. The lead times for getting a box can sometimes be a few weeks, so by the time you get the box, the next payment may have already been taken.

If you want to buy one box, look for places offering single box, no contract, no subscription – a great example of this is Glossybox who make it clear that signing up for just 1 month is absolutely OK!

6) Environmental concerns and impact of subscription boxes

Shipping items for no reason, an abundance of packaging and inner wrapping, pressures on the mailing service, the gas, mileage and environmental impact of delivering an item, unwanted items, wastage and much more – subscription boxes do have an environment impact. Why get coffee shipped to you when there is good coffee already in your local supermarket? Why get food delivered to you when you should be buying and supporting local growers? Perhaps a subscription is more eco-friendly as items are distributed directly instead of deteriorating on shelves in stores. The impact on the environment may outweigh even the friendliest of earth-saving, vegan boxes with multi-transport routes and non-recyclable packaging. You need to weigh up if this is a big concern for you – or even if it factors in to how you purchase.

If you’re already thinking subscription boxes could be bad for you, maybe this video would gel with you!

Subscription boxes as gifts

Subscription boxes can be awesome gifts for friends and family. As a subscription box is delivered to the receiver, it can be given as a gift as a last minute present without having to have it in your hand. This means its great as a last minute gift idea. Not only this, a multi-period subscription will allow the received to experience the joy of getting a gift every month from you! So every time they get the delivery, they think of you.

Giving a quarterly or yearly subscription means that your cost is spread across the months – $30 every month is easier to budget than a $300 gift in one lump – and the receiver gets 12x the enjoyment!

love-surprises

Six classic subscription boxes

These subscription boxes are some of the biggest names in subscriptions and some of the originators of new ways of offering subscription products:

1) BirchBox

birchbox

The company that started it all – if these guys weren’t mentioned here, something would be wrong! Every month, BirchBox deliver 5 beauty samples to your door – they are tailored to you around your skin type and preferences. They’ve now introduced a Mens range, and even made it easy to buy the box as a gift for someone. We think they’re great!
BirchBox – From $10 / £10 – visit website.

2) Graze

main-graze

Graze invented snacking in a box, and allows you to keep a healthy lifestyle and snack to hands without having to think about it. A UK company, they have now expanded heavily in to the US market, and now deliver a wide-range of over 100 snacks, delivered in handy little boxes.
Graze Box – from $12 / £4 – visit website.

3) BarkBox

barkbox-header

Dog toys and treats delivered every month – keeps your canine friends happy, as well as fitter, stronger and healthier. BarkBox plays on the fact that people love their pets, but often buying treats for them is hard to do – the pet shop smells funny and never has what you want. BarkBox stops all that, and delivered a big box of treats to you every month. Your pup will never be bored again!
BarkBox – from $19 – visit website.

4) Pact Coffee

main-pact
Pact are on a mission to get the UK drinking better coffee by making incredible, freshly roasted coffee accessible to everyone. They have twisted subscription commerce on its head, by not only shipping weekly, but also shipping on demand if you happen to run out. Their super simple website and user experience means that pausing deliveries, cancelling your account or getting help is all super easy – something that other subscriptions boxes could take note of!
Pact Coffee – from £7 – visit website.

5) Amazon Subscribe and Save

amazon subscribe & save

Amazon had to get in on subscription boxes – but they have amped it up by making almost anything they stock in to a convenience subscription service. Food items, beauty products, health items, all can be set up to be delivered once every month, with up to 15% discount applied. You lose the curation element and surprise of subscription boxes, but for price beating and customer service its hard to beat Amazon.
Amazon Subscribe and Save – From $5 / £5 – visit website.

6) Dollar Shave Club

Dollar Shave Club
Select a blade, pay only for the cost of your blades, and Dollar Shave Club send them to your door every month. No more blunt cuts, no more forgot to buy, but just a few dollars per month. Blades are so small they ship super easily and no need to sign for them most of the time. Dollar Shave Club took their marketing to the next level with fun and quirky adverts, they got a ton of customers, and just got acquired by Unilever for a $1 billion dollars (insert Dr Evil joke here).
Dollar Shave Club – from $3 – visit website.

Choosing the best monthly boxes

Picking the best monthly boxes is easy with our directory of subscription boxes. Navigate to the type of subscription box you are looking for, such as a food box or a beauty box, and you can view pictures, descriptions and review scores for the different boxes available. Read reviews to help guide you to your best purchase!

Using our massive customer reviews database, we can also show you the 30 Most Popular Subscription Boxes right now. Any of these will be a great starting point to start getting deliveries!

Why we started No Need To Think

We got in to subscription boxes a few years back, subscribing to Fancy, Graze and BarkBox amongst others. We are busy people who want the best, most interesting products delivered to us with minimal fuss, and at a great price. And we found that subscription boxes give us just that!

But we found that we faced 2 main problems when wanting to buy a subscription – one is discovery of boxes we want, there are very few subscription box directories. But the main problem we had was knowing which boxes were good or bad – very often the items pale in significance to bad customer service, inadequate support, or a company that is no longer in business.

We started looking at blogger review of boxes, but very often they reviewed a box they had never had to pay for – so of course it is a favourable review! And the reviewers never dealt with customer service issues in their reviews, as they never paid for the box! It seemed broken to us. We also realised that typical places to leave reviews for products – Amazon.com and Yell – don’t cover subscription boxes as they are not products and not places. So we started No Need To Think – subscription box directory and reviews website.

noneedtothink

Our directory allows real customers to leave subscription box reviews, as well as find new subscription boxes to try. Everything on the website is a subscription box, so you can get anything delivered to your door. No Need To Think!

What you will find on No Need To Think

1) Genuine reviews

No fake reviews, no paid-for reviews, no freebies – all the reviews on our site are from genuine customers – we manually check every review!

2) New Subscription Boxes

At least one new subscription box launches every week. We keep track of all of them for you!

3) Subscription Box Coupons and Deals

We share every great deal and offer we find on subscription boxes

4) Box Spoilers

If you’re curious about what’s in an upcoming box – we sometimes have behind-the-scenes spoilers on our blog, to help you make an informed choice on your subscription choices.

5) Box News

We cover all the latest news on subscription box industry and new announcements.

Take the next step!
Get started with Subscription Boxes

So you’ve read the good and the bad, you’re ready to take the next step – well here’s some choices to start your subscription box addiction!

The 30 Best Subscription Boxes
The Most Reviewed Subscription Boxes
Best Subscription Boxes as Gifts

Want even more info before you subscribe to a box?

Subscription Box FAQs

Quickfire random questions about subscription boxes:

How often will I receive a subscription box?

Typically, subscription boxes are sent out once a month, however some boxes are sent more or less frequently.

How much do subscription boxes cost?

The price of monthly subscription boxes typically range from around $10 to upwards of $40 per box. The most expensive we have seen is $100. If you purchase monthly subscriptions for 3, 6, or 12 months, there is usually a discount on the box price.

In the box, will it just contain small freebie tester products?

Most boxes provide a mix of sample-sized and full-sized sample products. Sample sized products are usually deluxe-sized – so are not usually the small freebies you often find on other sample websites or in stores. There are some monthly boxes that deliver full-sized products every month. These typically have a higher cost and a higher retail value.

How many products will be in my subscription box?

The number of products in each box varies with each subscription box service. The majority of boxes deliver 4-7 products per box.

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