Subscription boxes offer a fun way to try new products at a low price point, but for most consumers, it’s best to think outside of the box.
I get it — I really do. Instagram-worthy packaging, personalized touches, and a whole haul of fill-in-the-blank from trusted brands that you get to try out each and every month. From the latest in chic sartorial and single-origin coffee beans to treats just for your furry friend (hint: no dog needs 43 stuffed toys) and even Wiccan-themed goods for your friendly neighborhood witch, it seems subscription boxes are the latest retail rage.
The rise of subscription boxes should come as no surprise: the American economy is booming and today, more than half of consumer purchases are made online. In the last five years alone, subscription-based ecommerce has grown by more than 100%.
But I’m going to let you in on a little secret, all you custom-curated cosmetics lovers and Dollar Shave devotees: if you’re paying for a subscription box service:
Here are just a few reasons why a subscription box is an altogether unwise investment:
1. It’s all in the marketing.
Ultimately, subscription boxes are a testament to how clever marketers are. It’s all about presentation — the marketing teams behind subscription boxes are catering to their audience, which, according to Hitwise data, is primarily millennial, college-educated, liberal women with salaries over $100k.
Take Birchbox, for example, a service promising drool-inducing cosmetics and beauty products to monthly subscribers, all packaged in a beautiful box featuring a unique design each month:
While the boxes may be beautiful – and the products useful – subscription boxes’ number-one job is to sell more products. Brands often partner with subscription box companies like Birchbox to send products to millions of customers, knowing that the brand recognition the boxes create will ultimately lead to more sales. And even better, customers are paying for the opportunity to be marketed to.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – subscription boxes expose customers who’ve “opted-in” to new brands they may be interested in and help brands capture the attention of those customers with samples.
2. They’re an opportunity for brands to offload old product.
Like I said, marketers are the ones who are really getting the good deal here. They not only get you to pay for them to market their brand to you, but they also get to ditch their not-so-best-sellers in an easy, painless way. The lowest-rated goods from each season quickly decrease in value, so packaging them into subscription boxes offers a new revenue stream from otherwise poor-performing products.
Even if you don’t mind last season’s Glossier, with a subscription box, you really have little to no say over what you’re receiving. Let me back up: if your subscription box is a supply replenishment box that supplies you with critical commodities like diapers or razors, you may be off the hook for this one. I’m talking about those “curated” boxes — like Stitch Fix, Ipsy, and Blue Apron — services that cater to your stylistic, beauty, or dietary preferences and send you a bunch of stuff that’s supposed to *surprise* and *delight* you. These kinds of boxes account for 55% of all subscription box services.
When you subscribe to one of these, you’re trusting that some stylist or curator on the other end knows what you’ll like. And a lot of the time, they’ll probably be right. But why give up your agency for a bit of time saved at the mall or in the produce aisle?
The lack of choice afforded by curated subscription boxes here also tends to create cost losses. You pay “X” amount of dollars for a few balms and mascaras or a set of fresh ingredients — that are really just excess product the brand doesn’t need in order to profit — when you could hand-pick items you know you’ll love (either online or at a brick-and-mortar retailer) at a price tag that won’t break the bank.
3. They introduce an unnecessary overhead cost — which can breed lax spending habits.
A subscription is like paying rent. You’re giving your money away every single month for an amenity or service. But unlike rent, subscription boxes don’t ensure that a basic need (such as housing) is being met. Instead, you’re getting a bunch of stuff that you probably don’t need.
Although research shows that most subscription box customers are relatively well-off compared to the average consumer, that shouldn’t validate unnecessary expenditures. Don’t you have student loans to pay off like the rest of us? Or, like, couldn’t you splurge on something at least a bit more interesting than a monthly box of assorted chic office supplies? A vacation to Iceland maybe? I’ve heard that’s trending.
Plus, justifying this unnecessary cost could create a kind of slippery slope. If you’re okay spending between $20 and $50 a month on a smattering of new movies, pop culture collectibles, and video games à la Loot Crate, how big of a deal does one extra latte seem? Not so big. But this attitude can lead to mental justifications for almost any unnecessary expenditure and a general dearth of financial prudence.
If you really want to give yourself the gift that keeps on giving, ditch the subscription box and set up automated deposits to an IRA. And if you’re a diehard fan of unboxing (for your vlog, for the ‘gram, or for yourself), here’s a box of something we can all get behind: