From Avon to Weed: The Past, Present, and Future of the Subscription Box

Between 2014 and 2017, the number of visitors to subscription box websites increased 800 percent. In the United States alone, there’s an estimated 5.7 million subscription box shoppers. The business model is not a new one, but the relatively recent advances in ecommerce and delivery has substantially boosted its popularity. Though some say the “fad” has “peaked,” there are still around 500 types of subscription boxes to choose from. Where did the subscription box model spring from? And what does its future involve?

Beauty comes knocking

In New York City in 1886, Avon was “The Company for Women.” While men worked all day, women stayed back tending to their home and children. These women needed a means of feeling sexy and alive, and sweet-smelling perfumes made that happen. Though founder David H. McConnell wasn’t a woman, it didn’t take him long to understand that his side hustle beauty products were outselling the books he was hawking. The business has evolved over the last 130 years, but it started as the first personalized order company that allowed for recurring purchases of the same products from a single source. In this case, the local Avon representative.

Jumping forward to 1963 to the launch of Mary Kay, an addition to the beauty market allowed customers to view monthly catalogs and make orders with local representatives. Neither Avon nor Mary Kay established a subscription box, per se, but each sparked the idea that a variety of items can be delivered in a more personalized manner.

Box of surprises

The first true subscription boxes would arrive 50 years later in the form of Birchbox and Glossybox. Beginning in 2010 and 2011, respectively, both sent women and men an array of new makeup and grooming products. But instead of ordering a specific product, the receiver signed up for a surprise subscription box each month. The customer knew the type of products they were signing up for, but they didn’t have a clue what exactly they would be receiving each month. Whatever they loved the brand hoped they’d buy in stores. Thus, the concept of private ordering changed to channeled marketing. At the same time, companies began specifically aiming subscription boxes at men. What started with 2011’s Dollar Shave Club (sold to Unilever for $1 billion in 2016), has become a thriving industry. Cratejoy, a database of nearly every popular subscription box, lists more than 125 options just for men.

The subscription box model has caught the attention of big-box retailers, as well, as Target and Walmart have both released their own. At the other end of the spectrum, fine food purveyors and even coffee subscriptions are popping up, many from artisanal, one-of-a-kind brands now available in new areas. Naturally, high-end luxury goods boxes have arrived, like the one from 5th Avenue Style, which can run almost $500 per quarter.

Substance subscriptions

The future of subscription boxes looks to be about more than just eye shadows, perfume testers, wine tastings, and gourmet meal deliveries such as Blue Apron, which topped out and tumbled in 2017 with a 70 percent drop in stock prices soon after going public. Fitness and dietary supplement boxes are also increasing in sales, as now we have the most infamous alternative therapy, marijuana.

Weed is currently approved for medicinal or recreational use in 10 states as well as in Washington, D.C., and the THC-laden subscription box didn’t take long to get popular. According to Leafly, there are eight cannabis subscriptions currently available. Customers try different strains without purchasing a larger quantity of a type they find out later doesn’t agree with them. But subscription companies must take local laws and regulations into consideration, which often provide great detail into how much cannabis a person can possess legally. For instance, Colorado marijuana growing laws don’t cover subscription box marketing, and it’s still unclear how other recreational states like Maine, Alaska, California, or Oregon will regulate sales across state lines.

In the near future, it’s pretty safe to say, a variety of marijuana flavors will arrive at your door just like the mixed-topping pizza has for decades.