Why I Quit Subscription Boxes (But Maybe You Shouldn’t)

I just almost did it again. I was thisclose to signing up for Yet Another Subscription Box.

I am the Queen of Suggestibility, apparently, or maybe just the Duchess of FOMO, because all it took was one Tweet (from someone I don’t even know!) to make me think maybe I should sign up for Sephora PLAY! after all.

Meanwhile, just last week, I swore off subscription boxes for good. Here’s why.

The element of surprise

Over the last six or seven years, I’ve been subscribed, at one point or another, to more “boxes” and “bags” and “fixes” than I can remember: BeautyFix. Birchbox. Little Black Bag (RIP). Julep Maven. Glamour Doll Eyes OTM. StitchFix. Beauty Army. Ipsy Glam Bag. Wantable. Fab Fit Fun. I’m sure I’m leaving some out.

In the beginning, when the subscription box craze was just taking off, it was a lot of fun. BeautyFix, the first subscription service I joined, was a bit of a train wreck, but I did find some products I really liked (I was on to that Skindinavia setting spray before Urban Decay was), and the good news/bad news situation was that the BeautyFix selection was so repetitive that I could just keep reordering things I liked. The concept of Little Black Bag was sheer brilliance: Take discount accessories that would otherwise end up on the rack at TJ Maxx and turn buying them into a social shopping experience that taps into every combat shopper’s fiercest competitive urges. Julep was just a small regional nail polish company when the Maven boxes launched, and now it’s a Sephora staple.

Birchbox was one of my longest subscription box relationships — around two years. I had empty Birchboxes stacked to the ceiling in my closet (they were great for wrapping small presents). Eventually, though, the thrill of opening my surprise box every month began to wear off (especially when they included things like granola bars and single-use foil packets of skincare products). It soon became clear that the beauty quiz I’d taken to “personalize” my boxes wasn’t really influencing my selections at all — a problem I’ve noticed with some other boxes as well. One of the other things that started souring me a bit on Birchbox was a blog post from the founders that I recall coming across as sort of scolding members for not using the service correctly — at least, that’s how I felt at the time. In going back to re-read it, I don’t get the same sense of being lectured, but it does stand as a reminder that the founders of Birchbox, I think, didn’t anticipate the subscription box boom or the way customers would perceive and interact with their boxes.

The way the Birchbox founders saw their business, at least according to the blog post, was that the sample service would drive sales of full-sized products from the shop. You can read the comments on that blog post to find out some of the reasons that wasn’t working out, but beyond the various issues there may have been with the early Birchbox shop, I don’t think that’s ultimately the kind of relationship most people want to have with their beauty subscription services. When you know you’ve got a new box coming every month — more than one, if you subscribe to multiple services — the subscription box experience is more like dating around than looking for a long-term relationship. Why order this moisturizer in a larger size when there’s probably another one coming next month? Why commit to that brand of hair oil when you’re bound to get a new one to try by the time it’s down to the last drop?

It’s not you; it’s me

At first I liked subscription boxes because of the element of surprise. In a beauty rut? Ipsy will introduce me to a new brand! Time to change up my style? StitchFix will send me some curated, calculated fashion risks!

Over time, though, I’ve come to realize that paying for surprises really isn’t the right choice for me. That realization hit home as I looked through my most recent Fab Fit Fun box.

Let me be perfectly clear: There is nothing wrong with Fab Fit Fun or the box I was sent! (Although a neighbor in my building got hers delivered a full week before mine. I saw it in the lobby. WTH?) But as I looked through the box, I realized that while there was nothing in it that I didn’t like… there also wasn’t a single thing in it that I needed or would have gone out of my way to buy.

A glass water bottle? Already got one. A scarf? Cute, but I’ve got scarves. A necklace that I like but would have preferred in a different color, a dry shampoo (I’ve got four different brands of dry shampoo in my cabinet), a sunscreen (you know this pale kid already has sunscreen), an eye cream (actually, I’m down with eye cream; these peepers aren’t 30 anymore), a bronzer (I have zero need for bronzer but I was happy to learn that Cargo is still in business), and the most disappointing item of all: a cheap craft canvas with some paint and a stencil (let me tell you about my closet full of craft supplies).

I want to reiterate for the sake of clarity: There is nothing wrong with Fab Fit Fun! They didn’t do anything but deliver exactly what they said they would.

The problem, I realized, is mine. I am not the right customer for subscription boxes. At least, not these subscription boxes.

Not my style

Here’s one thing I’ve learned from my subscription services experiences: I have a pretty strong sense of personal style. So when my most recent Wantable “edit” arrived and I found myself rolling my eyes yet again because I had received another box full of clothes I would never in a million years wear, I stopped and took a moment. All Wantable did was what they promised to do, which is send me clothes to try on. But as it turns out, I have strong ideas about what I do and don’t want to wear — so rather than spending $20 or more on a “styling fee” to have a stranger send me some things to try on, I’m better off dragging myself down to Nordstrom and picking some things off the rack.

Going to Nordstrom isn’t exactly getting outside my zone of fashion familiarity, but on the other hand, neither were these subscription services. One of the reasons I joined StitchFix and Wantable is that I wanted to try new brands I hadn’t heard of, but most of what they sent me was either pretty mainstream or private label, so it’s not like I was getting boutique picks from indie designers. If the point of a subscription service is to try new things, I was wasting my money.

And at this point, the same is largely true of the most popular beauty subscription boxes. I don’t need one more Peter Thomas Roth sample, NYX eye shadow trio, Bombshell mini, or Glam Glow mask. I’m interested in trying more indie brands, but they’re not the bulk of what goes out in subscription boxes; there are some, like Atomic Cosmetics and Glamour Doll Eyes, that do their own subscription services, but I haven’t seen an indie box that includes more than one brand (if there’s one out there, let me know!). Meanwhile, if I want to try a mainstream brand that’s carried in Sephora or Ulta, it’s easy for me to go to one of those stores in person (and try a color I’m actually interested in rather than whatever random shade pops up in my mailbox). I wasn’t feeling the joy of discovery when my Ipsy Glam Bag arrived; I was giving the brushes to my toddler to play with and feeling the fatigue of having to find a use for one more cosmetics pouch.

Surprises are great and trying new things is a lot of fun. For me, though, it seems that right now subscription boxes aren’t the kind of fun surprises on which I want to spend my money.

Quiz: Are subscription boxes for you?

I want to make really, really sure that this post doesn’t come across as an anti-subscription-box rant. I’m not anti-subscription boxes! I don’t think they’re a good use of money for me personally right now, but there are plenty of people who love them, and if you’re one of those people, I’m glad you’re having fun with your subscriptions.

If you’ve never tried one and you’re reading this wondering whether a beauty or style subscription service is something you should buy, I put together a little quiz to help you decide if a subscription box is right for you.

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Are you a subscription box fan? What’s your favorite subscription box discovery? Any great subscriptions you think are worth a try? Leave a comment!

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