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From Birchbox to Bulu Box: customers love the thrill of monthly surprises

A box of fashions from Stitch Fix.
A box of fashions from Stitch Fix. Stitch Fix

When it comes to shopping, Andrea Garcia likes to think out of the box. Literally.

Garcia, a Kansas City marketing professional, is one of the millions of Americans who receive monthly subscription boxes in the mail.

Garcia subscribes to three — Birchbox ($10 a month), which features hair and makeup products; Stitch Fix ($20 a month), containing clothing selected by a personal stylist that Garcia can purchase or return; and FabFitFun ($50 per quarter), which offers a variety of beauty, fitness and wellness items from TV personality Giuliana Rancic.

“They’re really fun to open,” she said. “I like the surprise of it, and getting a product that I might not have known about, or tried, that ended up working really well.”

These boxes go far beyond the old Harry & David Fruit of the Month Club. And they aren’t just a present for the holidays: Subscribers often buy them for themselves. In the last several years, “small-box retailing” has exploded in ways no one could have imagined.

“Everyone I know, girl-wise, either gets a subscription box or asks me about them when I talk or post about them on social media,” Garcia said. “So I think it’s something that is really going to continue to grow.”

The renaissance started in 2011 with Birchbox, created by two Harvard business school graduates. Its success inspired a tsunami of imitators. Today, said Liz Cadman, a Pennsylvania woman who founded the hobby blog mysubscriptionaddiction.com, more than 600 companies offer subscription boxes with cosmetics, clothing, Japanese candy, dog toys and much more.

An increasing number of boxes for men feature razors, ties, grooming products, sports and fitness equipment and fishing gear.

Experts say the success is hurting traditional stores. That’s why Target and others have started offering their own monthly boxes.

For Garcia, 29, the beauty of the boxes is in their convenience.

“The boxes free me up,” she said. “Especially Stitch Fix. Every piece of clothing comes with a style card. It will say what kind of shoes or pants or jewelry goes with that piece, so you can either dress it up or dress it down. It does a lot of the work for me.”

The items, in varying prices, are chosen by a stylist based on the customer’s personal preferences. “I normally get two tops, a dress, a pair of pants and an accessory, such as earrings or a purse,” Garcia said.

Customers can either buy the clothes or send them back in a prepaid envelope. “You just leave it on the porch for the mailman,” Garcia said.

The $20 monthly charge is a “styling fee” applied toward the cost of whatever Garcia buys. Buying the whole box gets you a 20 percent discount.

Recently Garcia bought a black-and-beige dress, which has become one of her favorites.

“They just nailed it for me,” she said. Her other boxes hit the mark, too.

“With Birchbox they’ll ask you if you are a classic (makeup) minimalist, (or if) you prefer something a little more fun and edgy,” she said. “And they do a great job with hair care specifically. You fill out your hair profile, and if you have curly hair you get products that are more targeted for that.”

She gets a FabFitFun box four times a year.

“One of the best things I received in my last box is a water infuser. It’s a full-sized water bottle with a core that you can drop fruit into. I drop blueberries in the night before. Then you have a nice blueberry-flavored water that’s a nice alternative to pop. I was going to buy one, but I held off. Then it showed up on my doorstep, which is even better.”

She previously subscribed to Nature Box, which contains healthy snacks, but canceled it when the food began to pile up.

“I just don’t snack enough,” she said.

Small-box marketing is smart for companies and consumers, says Kelsey Jones of Olathe, who owns a marketing agency.

“It’s a good opportunity for new companies, or companies that have new products, to get exposure,” she said. In return, customers can get good deals.

The 28-year-old subscribes to Bulu Box ($50 a year with an online discount), which contains samples of supplements and vitamins, and Pop Sugar Must Have ($40 a month), containing a variety of clothing, entertainment, beauty products and other favorites from Lisa Sugar, editor of PopSugar.com.

The latter is her favorite: “I’ve gotten scarves that I love,” Jones said. “I think the retail value was over $100.”

When she gets items she doesn’t want, she trades them on Liz Cadman’s blog.

“Let’s say I get a jump rope, but I would never use it,” Jones said. “I could list that on my profile, and then if somebody else has something I want that’s about the same value, we can trade. She calls it a swap. And then you can review that user. It’s kind of like eBay in that regard.”

Recently she traded a makeup case for eye shadow and a sparkly face lotion.

Lacy Carpenter, also of Olathe, subscribes to Citrus Lane ($34 a month), which sends products for babies and young children. She customizes those boxes so they’re age-appropriate for her 2-year-old son, Bodhi.

“Usually what I will get is some kind of toy,” said the 27-year-old, who is working on her master’s in mental health counseling. “His toy this month was a little teapot and teacups. I was kind of disappointed when I saw it, because he’s a boy. But he loves it.”

Other boxes contained books and alphabet flash cards.

“And sometimes it will have some kind of eating ware,” she said. “That’s how I discovered these really cool plates that are oven safe, microwave safe, freezer safe and dishwasher safe, portioned into perfect sizes for toddlers.”

For her husband’s birthday, Carpenter ordered a subscription to Skoshbox ($12 a month), which offers a variety of Japanese snacks. Her husband taught English in Japan for three years, and got to like the candy.

As a blogger, Cadman has seen her share of unique boxes. She subscribes to more than 80 and posts reviews on her site.

Even her dog gets his own subscription: “The funny thing about BarkBox is our cairn terrier, Buckles, likes to open the boxes with me,” she said. “Now he thinks every box is for him.”

One of her favorite boxes is Quarterly Co. from Nina Garcia, an editor at Marie Claire and a judge on “Project Runway.” It costs $100 a quarter but offers great value, Cadman said.

“It’s a really cool box for discovering high-end designers, or new and upcoming trends,” she said.

The most expensive box she’s gotten is called Svbscription. Yes, with a “V.”

“It’s a super high-end box,” she said, “$400 a quarter. They sent me a box to review. It was cool but kind of weird. It’s the kind of box you’d spend money on if money was no object. The first thing I pulled out was a golden hatchet.… My husband and I had to laugh at that.”

To reach James A. Fussell, call 816-234-4460, or email jfussell@kcstar.com.

THE BIG FIVE

The most popular subscription boxes, according to blogger Liz Cadman (mysubscriptionaddiction.com):

▪ Birchbox: Makeup and hair care, Birchbox.com

▪ Ipsy: Makeup and skin care, ipsy.com

▪ Glossy Box: Beauty products, glossybox.com

▪ Pop Sugar Must Have: Fashion, beauty, entertainment and more, musthave.popsugar.com

▪ BarkBox: Items for dogs, barkbox.com

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