The Six “P”s of Subscription Box Creation – Tips For Creating a Successful Subscription Box
I recently received a box to review from a nice lady who was offering demo boxes to bloggers. I have to say, I was disappointed and I felt horrible making my reveal video, which I have chosen not to post. Why? Because I truly believe this lady can do better, and I hope she will. And while some may think I owe it to my readers to help them avoid what I think is a sub-par box, I just couldn’t in good conscience post it.
I could see the effort that went into what was sent. I am a crafter and creator myself. I saw the heart she put into what she made. It was a failure based on, what I believe, is truly not knowing better rather than not caring or trying to get away with not doing her best, as some boxes might do. So, I sent her a long email and explained my position. I’ve only just sent it, so I don’t know yet how she’ll take it. I hope she takes it in the spirit it’s intended. I do think with a few tweaks and a little extra effort she can produce a much better and more desirable box. And I hope I will be fortunate enough to see that happen.
But it has made me think. I get emails and Tweets a lot from people asking me questions about starting subscription boxes. Honestly, I’m not sure why people ask me. I don’t run a subscription box myself. But I suppose I subscribe to enough of them to know what works and what doesn’t. I did work for a company for 2 years representing independent artists at celebrity gift lounges in Los Angeles, and I did work with many of them to improve their packaging and presentation.
I have come up with what I feel is a good rule of thumb: The Three Ps of Subscription Box Creation: Presentation, Packaging and Pricing. (** Actually now the Six Ps – the other 3 will follow at the end)
Presentation: To me, this is one of the most vital parts of a subscription box. Yes, obviously, the content of the box is the most important part, but packaging is the 2nd. Unless you purchase custom shipping boxes like the ones PopSugar, Loot Crate, Marvel Collectors Corp and Nerd Block use, you really need to make sure you are packaging your products inside some sort of container before you put them into your shipping box or envelope.
Many companies purchase boxes from suppliers and customize them with a label. You can print the labels at home or get them from a company like Vistaprint. If you really want to make an impression, you can get custom printed or embossed packaging, which, obviously makes a great impression, but it’s not necessary.
Now, not every outer packaging needs to be expensive or custom. For example, Ipsy, a monthly cosmetic subscription, puts all its products into a small cosmetic pouch every month and then ships in a fun, hot pink bubble wrap envelope. The cosmetic pouch is part of your monthly subscription, but it holds everything together and protects items during shipping, plus makes a fun reveal. And every month when that hot pink bubble wrap envelope comes, I know my Ipsy bag has arrived!
Packaging: Is closely tied to presentation. Presentation goes beyond the outer packaging. Once your customer opens that box or bag, what do they see? Is everything tossed in willy-nilly? Are your individual products packaged? Now, naturally, depending on your items and packaging, you might not be able to arrange things nicely. Or perhaps you can, but by the time they arrive at their destination they are all jumbled. Customers understand the difference between those packages which could have been organized and those that will shift around no matter what. And some items won’t have additional packaging. For instance, lip stick and lip glosses usually come as is. So do nail polishes. But other items, especially items that you received in packaging originally, should be packaged when going to your customer. If you purchase something in bulk to divide up amongst your subscription boxes, make sure you create packaging for them. Customers know when something that should be wrapped up isn’t and it doesn’t sit well.
If you have a lot of items to send, or items that you can’t arrange nicely, consider a bag. E.L.F Cosmetics send their items in a nice black box, but when you open that box, there is a big, black, drawstring bag with their logo on it. You get to reach into that bag and take your treasures out one by one – or dump it all on the table if that’s your preference. It’s like Christmas! Consider your items and your customer and what will make the best reveal for them.
Also, if you create products to go into your box, or you curate items from creatives, insist on professional packaging. No cardboard cut outs. No slips of home printer paper. No zip lock baggies or brown paper lunch bags. The internet is full of sources to package products. Whatever you put in your subscription box should look like it’s ready to be put on display in a retail store. If you wouldn’t want to see something in a retail store packaged like that – don’t put it in your box.
Scented items: Most of us love a nice scented candle or other scented item. They’re lovely. But items with an odor, no matter how pleasant, can leach into other items in the box. If you have an item that has an odor or will absorb and odor (like a cloth item), please make sure to package it, even it if is not normally packaged. No one wants to get a lovely eternity scarf that smells like the eucalyptus foot balm that came in the same box.
Pricing: Most boxes promise a retail value of a certain amount or range. This is one of the draws of subscription boxes: Getting a deal on items you might not otherwise have tried or even known about. But you must be realistic and honest about your pricing.
Of course, if you obtain your products from known retail channels, people can see for themselves what the retail value is and you are covered. But if you include hand crafted items, please take the time to research the items on various channels, such as Etsy and eBay. Just because an artisan you are considering including tells you their item is worth $20 doesn’t mean it really is. If you look around and similar items are selling on various markets for only $12, you need to have a serious talk with this vendor. Your customers are savvy. They know what they are getting and they know if you are valuing it too high. Sadly, in the world of hand-crafted, far too many people aren’t willing to pay what an item is truly worth to begin with, which is unfortunate, and can, understandably lead to the temptation to inflate a value. After all, if an artist can say his or her work was featured in a subscription box with a value of $20 and now they are offering it to you on sale for $18, you should think you’re getting a deal, even though in reality you can buy similar items from other vendors for $12.
Ask yourself: If I saw this in a store for this price, would I buy it? And be completely honest with yourself. If the answer is “no”, don’t include it, or reduce the value to a more reasonable and realistic value.
If you are getting products from retailers and you want to include luxury products, make sure your customers know you are working with luxury brands. If a customer is expecting $40 worth of product for their $20 investment and you send them 2 items and say 1 of them is worth $35 and it’s some tiny sample size of some big luxury line, that customer might not feel they got their money’s worth, even if that really is what the vendor charges for that trial size. Perception is everything. Your customer needs to be prepared for the idea that they could get such items, so if you work with luxury products or high ticket items, make sure it’s clear to your subscribers.
The other Three Ps: Paperwork, Perspective, Philanthropy.
Paperwork. I recently received a box from someone with no paperwork inside. The return address was a shipping warehouse. I have no idea who sent it to me. It’s not something I subscribed to. I have had several people say they are going to send me a box to review, but they don’t always follow through. So…. I have no idea who sent this box. None.
Also, I have received boxes where the list of items or other info was on regular printer paper. Look people, even if you take the time to trim the edges with fancy scissors, it’s still basic printer paper and looks cheap and unprofessional. No one wants to subscribe to any box that gives an impression other than being 100% professional. Avery and others offer postcards, business cards, rack cards etc, that you can print at home. Invest in some. Or use Vistaprint – but invest in putting your best foot forward. A subscription box that comes across as someone’s home hobby does not instill confidence.
Perspective: What your customers perceive your box is about versus what they actually receive, and the perceived value of those items is paramount to the success of your subscription service. You must make sure your box is clearly defined. I got a box that is literarily called a “fashion box” – it’s in its title – that contained a can of coconut water. Huh? What was I supposed to do – put it on a cord after I drank it and wear it around my neck? How is that a fashion item?
Do not deviate from the niche you have designated for your product. You have given your customers a certain expectation and you need to meet it. If at any time you decide you want to broaden the scope of your company, you need to either offer additional box options or redefine your box and give our customers ample time to decide if they want to stay with you or not. Don’t pull the rug out from under them and say “surprise, we’re becoming a lifestyle box! Here’s your latest box!” You need to give them at least one billing cylcle’s notice.
Perspective also comes into play with your products. As I discussed in the Pricing section, the concept of luxury is subjective. If you claim to offer luxury products, make sure your items are something your customers can easily verify as luxury. Now, if you are Nina Garcia or Rachel Zoe and you include an item in your box from an up an coming designer or artist and call it luxury, you have an established reputation to back up your claim. Customers acknowledge not only your years of experience and hard work in your field that have earned you that reputation, but that you are putting that reputation at risk when you back a new horse. If you aren’t famous or well-known, you don’t have the clout to support your claims of newly discovered sources. So what do you do? Stick to brands and designers that can be found and verified by your customers, or do not refer to items by new sources as ‘luxury’ if you aren’t 110% certain there is evidence to support your claim. It’s going to take a long while for your word to mean something. I know that’s hard for some of you to take, especially if you’ve got an education and job experience that you believe qualifies you to make these decisions. And perhaps you are qualified and you are right – but, unfortunately, it comes down to Perspective, and you are going to have to earn your customers’ trust first.
Not just with luxury products, but with all products. Don’t fill out your box with items from Oriental Trading Company and places like that. If it looks or feels like it could come from the Dollar Tree or the dollar bin at Target – leave it out. You might think it’s cute, but your customers are expecting a perceived value and you have to meet it. No skimping, no cutting corners and no simply pleasing your own self. You must always consider it from the perspective of the people who have paid you for their subscription.
Philanthropy: This is a tough one. To donate or not to donate? It may be cynical, but a lot of customers will say “oh isn’t that great, part of the subscription price goes to charity”, but what they are thinking is “why do I have to pay more so you get a big tax write off at the end of the year?” Does that mean everyone thinks that? No. Of course not. There are some customers who will like the idea of a donation going to some organization or other. But they will be the exception, not the rule – on most boxes. There are exceptions to this rule too.
So, what do you do if there is a cause dear to your heart and you were hoping to make a difference with your subscription boxes? You have to make a choice. Do you want to be in the subscription box business or do you want to be in the fund raising business? If your main goal is to raise funds for charity, a subscription box service is probably not the best choice. But if your main objective is a subscription box business, consider other avenues for the charity. Put links on your website. Offer special items or limited edition boxes for sale where the proceeds go to that charity. Enclose info about your charity with your boxes. You can even offer a choice to opt in for an extra charge for a donation per box. But let your customer decide if and when they want to contribute.
The exceptions: Some boxes may be in so specific a niche that having the price raised slightly to include donations might be a plus. For example: If you offer a food box that is all non-GMO and part of the subscription price goes towards lobbying for GMO labeling and other causes that matter to the type of people who would subscribe to your box, then that is probably actually a selling point. But it’s only in niche boxes where things are very specific that involuntary charitable donations would be a fairly universal plus to your customers.
Bottom line: Competition is fierce in the subscription box industry. You only get one chance to make a first impression. Make sure you are always putting your best foot forward every time a box goes into the mail. Always ask yourself if you can do better, look for ways to improve and offer your customer a better experience. Remember, you are creating these boxes for your customers, not for yourself, so put yourself in their shoes. Even Wantable, one of the leading subscription box companies, recently made a change to its packaging for its accessory box for a better experience for customers.
I hope some of you who have subscription boxes or are looking to start subscription services find this helpful.
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