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Unboxing Subscription Boxes

Photo courtesy of Hello Fresh

Welcome to the future of retail.

If you’re on Facebook or Instagram a lot, you’re probably already familiar with subscription box services, even if you haven’t participated in the phenomenon. An unexpected combination of old-timey snail mail, marketing algorithms, and social media, subscription boxes are the new trend in shopping.

Modern subscription box services are much different from those Book of the Month or EMI “clubs” that used to lure people into getting free books or CDs if they agreed to buy a certain amount in the coming year. First of all, those were kind of a scam. You had to actively opt-out of getting a box every month, or you’d  wind up paying more than you needed to for things you didn’t want. Most subscription boxes today allow you to cancel anytime, offer free shipping, and are up-front about how much you’re going to pay.

Secondly, those “clubs” were selling (or off-loading, as the case might have been) product. Even though today’s subscriptions boxes do contain STUFF, the most successful recognize that they’re not retailers. As Zach Frechette, the founder of Quarterly–a quarterly box service that offers curated boxes from experts and celebs like Nina Garcia and Wil Wheaton–puts it, “We’re really nothing like a store… What we’re offering is an experience.”

This is what’s essential to understand about subscription box services and their appeal: you’re not buying a product. You can buy product on Amazon. What you’re buying is the chance to expand your interests and try something new by letting other people pick out stuff for you. It’s like Christmas morning meets Facebook personality quizzes.

Social media plays a big role, too: posting pics of your #unboxing to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is part of the deal, and many subscription box services integrate with Instagram in creative ways. Ipsy, for example, offers the chance to win a year’s worth of mailings if you post pictures of your monthly bag with the hashtags #ipsy and #glambag. Rocks Box, a subscription jewelry service, lets you #wishlist any item they post with a simple IG comment.

Today, there are thousands of subscription boxes out there, most focusing on either fashion or food, though there are several catering to specific hobbies and interests. Curious about which ones to try? Here’s a run-down of some of the most popular:

FASHION & BEAUTY

Ipsy (www.ipsy.com)

What you get: Makeup and beauty products

Price: $10/month, shipping included

The Deal: A quick style quiz gets you a personalized monthly Glam Bag with a unique clutch and 4-5 beauty products. Rate what you get every month to refine future Glam Bags for your needs and wants.

Experience: Ipsy’s probably one of the best subscription mailings out there. First of all, at $10 it’s very affordable and a bargain to boot–most of the items you get in each bag are worth between $5-10 on their own. Secondly, the quizzes actually do work to make each Glam Bag better. Add in a very active community on Instagram (if you have absolutely no use for an item, you can usually arrange an exchange with a fellow “Ipster” on IG using the hashtags), and this is a must-try for anyone who wears makeup.

Stitch Fix (www.stitchfix.com)

What you get: Clothes

Price: Depends on the items, but averages to $250 per box. Shipping and returns are free; frequency is up to you.

The Deal: After a quick style and fit quiz, a personal stylist picks out five pieces of clothing just for you. You try them on in the comfort of your own home and send back the things you don’t like. Rate each clothing item to improve future boxes.

Experience: I’m one of those people that hates shopping for clothes because I can never find anything that fits me and blah blah blah. So I was crazy impressed by how perfectly every item in my Stitch Fix fit, without the stylist ever having seen me! Stitch Fix works best when you’re very specific about what you need. I.e., an outfit for an event or shirts to show off a baby bump, etc. If you don’t give the stylists direction, you can wind up with a bag that feels very random. Even with that, however, the experience is really fun, like when you’re a kid and your mom buys you new school clothes. And while it may seem expensive, it saves a lot of time, gas, and brain power, especially if clothes shopping is not your favorite.

Photo courtesy of StitchFix.
Photo courtesy of Stitch Fix.

Rocks Box (www.rocksbox.com)

What you get: Jewelry

Price: $19/month, free shipping both ways

The Deal: Following yet another style quiz (love quizzes, LOVE THEM), a stylist picks out three jewelry items and sends them to you. You keep them for as long as you like and send them back (or buy them, if you like) when you’re ready for another box o’jewelry. Rate each item online to improve your next box.

Experience: Rocks Box is kind like of Stitch Fix meets Netflix. You’re only renting the jewelry, not buying it, but for $19 a month you can try out a lot of jewelry. Like Stitch Fix, Rocks Box benefits from specificity. Even if you don’t have a specific event or reason for ordering jewelry, however, the stylists are fantastic and eerily prescient about what pieces are “totally you.” You might start wondering if they’re internet stalking you. Overall a very fun experience with a high value in what you get for your money.

Zockster (www.zockster.com/)

What you get: Socks

Price: $14-$16, depending on subscription, free shipping

The Deal: Zockster sends you their brand of bamboo dress socks, which are soft, antibacterial, moisture-wicking, and safer for the environment than traditional socks.

Experience: Who doesn’t like socks, amirite? A subscription box service for socks is a great idea, because you know you’re going to need them. I would have liked socks with a quirkier design aesthetic, but that’s just my personal style. The socks from Zockster are very comfortable and soft, like silk or cashmere, and luxurious. They might not last a super-long time, but hey, that’s what the subscription’s for.

FOOD

Try the World (www.trytheworld.com/)

What you get: Food from another country.

Price: $33-39 every other month, free shipping.

The Deal: Local chefs curate boxes that capture the flavors of another country or culture, giving you a chance to travel the world through food.

Experience: My favorite thing about Try the World was the packaging. Very pretty shipping box printed on the inside, and a high-quality green gift box to hold the food items. As for the box itself, there were some fantastic items and some that weren’t so hot. I was also annoyed that they charged my card, then never let me know when my box would ship. Getting a response from customer service took DAYS. Considering all that, not quite worth the price.

Hello Fresh (www.hellofresh.com/)

What you get: Ingredients to make three meals for two to four people.

Price: $69-$129 per box, shipping included

The Deal: Hello Fresh sends seasonal, fresh ingredients along with recipes to create healthy and balanced meals. Vegetarian options available.

Experience: I know what you’re thinking: this box is for people who don’t know how to cook or are too lazy/busy to go grocery shopping. In fact, that’s not true (although beginner cooks can definitely use it, too, and it would be a great gift for someone just learning how to cook). Hello Fresh is actually for anyone who enjoys cooking and learning new recipes. The recipe cards are very clear and easy to follow, the meals are crowd-pleasers (even for a family with picky eaters), and Hello Fresh delivers on their promise to send super-fresh, quality ingredients. Also, cleanup is a breeze, something that’s much appreciated. A very fun and delicious experience from start to finish.

Photo courtesy of Hello Fresh
Photo courtesy of Hello Fresh

Mistobox (one.mistobox.com)

What you get: Coffee

Price: $18-30 per shipment

The Deal: After filling out a coffee profile, you get a shipment of personally curated coffees from artisan coffee makers who only use sustainably farmed, free trade coffee beans.

Experience: If you’re one of those people who’s totally fine with grabbing a bag of ground Folger’s for your drip coffee maker every morning, this is probably not the service for you. All the bags I received were whole bean (something I wish they’d warned me about), so I had to go out and buy a coffee grinder. As for using a French press, come on. No one’s got time for that. BUT, even using the drip coffee maker, the coffees Mistobox sent were sublime–bold, smooth, flavorful, and delicious. If you treat coffee like oenophiles treat wine, you need to try this box service.

Nature Box (naturebox.com)

What you get: Snacks

Price: $16.95-19.95/month, free shipping

The Deal: Choose up to five unique, healthy snacks to be sent to your home or office every month.

Bonus: For every box sent, Nature Box donates one meal to Feeding America.

Experience: Nature Box offers a ton of very unique snacks you can’t get anywhere else, like Jalapeño White Cheddar Popcorn, Guacamole Bites, Flat Fortune Cookies, and Santa Fe Corn Stix. You can also find more typical snacks, such as pretzels, chips, and cookies, but without hydrogenated oils or artificial colors and sweeteners. Every bag has enough to share, and while not every snack is a guaranteed hit, it’s fun to try some of the stranger ones. If you like trying new snacks and have a bunch of people to share them with, this is definitely the snack box for you.

Love with Food (lovewithfood.com)

What you get: Snacky snacks

Price: $10-24.95/month, free shipping

The Deal: Curated snack boxes are sent to your home or office every month.

Bonus: For every box sent, Love with Food donates meals to hungry children in America through various food banks.

Experience: Love with Food has two significant differences to Nature Box. First of all, the snacks are single-serving, probably a good option if you’re planning on enjoying them all by your lonesome. Second of all, each box is “curated” by various foodies, nutritionists, chefs, etc. You don’t get to choose what goes in it, beyond a gluten free option. The problem with curated boxes like this is that if the theme isn’t cohesive or specific, it feels like you’ve been sent a bunch of random stuff. Unfortunately my box leaned more toward the random side. I was also extremely unimpressed with the “healthy snack” selection. It could just be the box curator for that month, but taste of the snacks ranged from meh to blech and ptooie. If these are healthy snacks, give me Cheetos or give me death.

GEAR

Loot Crate (www.lootcrate.com/)

What you get: Geek and gamer gear

Price: $11.95-13.95, plus $6 shipping

The Deal: Every month you get a “comic con in a box,” with themed boxes geared toward gamers and pop culture geeks.

Experience: I am completely and absolutely in love with this box. First of all, the box itself unfolded into a game board!!!11!! Genius, I tells ye. And the game (all pieces were included) was actually fun. Secondly, the box included several items that were worth the whole price of the box by themselves. Loot Crate provides their subscribers with exclusive card games, an exclusive die set, and an exclusive MMORPG that you can play online. A magazine containing articles, information on all the items in the Loot Crate box, and LC’s exclusive comic series is included. This subscription box is soooooo worth it.

Bark Box (barkbox.com)

What you get: Dog gear

Price: $19-29/month, free shipping

The Deal: Bark Box sends you dog treats, toys, and gifts every month based on the size of your pet.

Bonus: Bark Box donates 10 percent of its profits to dog rescues, shelters, training, and spay/neuter programs.

Experience: Getting a subscription box for your dog might seem pretty silly. “Dogs don’t care!” you might be saying to yourself. Yeah, but YOU probably like having fun with your dogs, and that’s what Bark Box provides dog lovers: fun in a box. No other box service on this list is so well-themed or so clearly focused on providing an experience by way of a product. The boxes are soooooo much fun and provide hours of entertainment. Personally, my dogs love all the treats and toys they get in their boxes. For $19, Bark Box seems a bit pricey but is by far the most addictive box subscription service on this list.

Photo courtesy of Bark Box
Photo courtesy of Bark Box

Bulu Box (www.bulubox.com/)

What you get: Health nut gear

Price: $9.17-10/month, free shipping

The Deal: Receive curated samples of exclusive health supplements based on your personal profile, then buy the ones you love in full-size.

Review: Much better than expected! As with Bark Box, Bulu Box is impressively themed, and you get a lot of value for your ten bucks. And like Ipsy, Bulu is the type of service where if you don’t like one or two items it’s okay, because the rest of the stuff is probably worth the price of the box on its own. You don’t just get health supplements, either, but a card tracking your wellness and health tips from experts. If you love GNC, this is the box service for you.

Pro Tips

  • Do not sign up for a box service that doesn’t let you cancel at any time, whether you prepaid or not. Do you really want to be tied down to another monthly bill? No. You want to be able to pull that plug at a moment’s notice.
  • Speaking of pulling the plug, if you need or want to cancel be prepared for the hard sell. Most subscription services will try to convince you to stay on by offering you a discount on future boxes or a chance to pause the service for several months. Whether or not these enticements are worth sticking with the subscription or not is up to you.
  • Communication is key! Take the lesson Whimseybox (an art supply box that went out of business) subscribers learned first hand: if a box service is charging your credit card and not giving you an idea of when to expect your items, or not sending them at all, email them. If they don’t respond in three business days, call your credit card company to dispute the charges. A company that’s not communicating with you is not a company you should be doing business with.

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Tasha Brandstatter is a freelance arts and culture writer with a master's degree in art history, three scotties, and more books than she knows what to do with. You can find her work in History Colorado, Book Riot, Western Passages, ArtiSpectrum, and Cocktail Paparazzi, among other publications.

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