By now nearly every type of subscription box concept has been launched, and every clichéd idiom from “Think Outside the Box” to “Boxing Game” has been used to market them. When it comes to retailers getting in on the category, we’ve seen versions from Target, QVC, Walmart, Barneys New York and Selfridges. Most recently, in September, beauty’s most formidable retailer, Sephora, jumped in on the action with Play!, a curated beauty box that promises to bring the hands-on, educational, in-store shopping experience to consumers in the comfort of their homes.
According to Deborah Yeh, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Branding at Sephora, initial results from Sephora’s first box have been “encouraging” and international expansion is on the horizon. “We certainly see Sephora as a leader from a sampling standpoint, so Play! is an extension of our products-to-client experience, to trust and try and explore, which is inherent to the Sephora brand,” said Deborah. “We are very confident in Sephora’s differentiation based on what we’ve seen from our existing client base. We know our client is a ravenous beauty client who loves to try new things.”
With a strategic launch plan that includes a limited release of 10,000 boxes followed by international expansion over the next two years, Sephora seems to be cautiously optimistic when it comes to Play!. “We want to ensure that our clients are having a great experience through Play!,” said Deborah.
But what could the introduction of the Sephora box mean to the now teeming beauty box industry, which experts believe is patronized monthly by 3 million to 4 million women? Consumers may be excited, but according to some box executives, Sephora’s entry will without a doubt affect sample allocations, causing more duplicated products and a shortage of samples for less established box players.
“[Sephora] may be more strict on brands not to compete with external boxes,” said one executive, who stressed that exclusivity in terms of the box experience is becoming an issue as more boxes continue to pop up, especially for those that directly compete for e-commerce and retail samples.
One effect of increased competition is an emphasis on value, especially as consumers become more savvy shoppers and product resellers. With more choice and increased pre-sale information on what a box will sample, consumers are price comparing more than ever. Subscription box bloggers, who are finely tuned into each company’s product previews, scrutinize product sizes and retail prices, sharing with their millions of followers which are the best buys each month. To wit, the subscription cancellation rate, or churn, is becoming more of an issue for box companies, and box loyalty is less common.
“As more and more boxes continue to pop up and it’s harder to retain users, we see that two out of five products women get, they don’t necessarily love or need,” said Casey Casterline, founder of recently-launched beauty product trading and reselling website, Edivv. “I love the concept of beauty boxes but as much as I love it I don’t think the evolution of the concept is complete without a platform like us,” which she said is valued at more than $2.6 billion on ebay.
Inspired to launch her business after witnessing that women were digitally swapping and selling subscription-procured products in forums like ebay with no security or community, Casey’s peer-to-peer, user-generated site lets customers decide on prices for their products. She said certain boxes on the market, namely those that offer a unique point of view and unique products, like Memebox, make more of a splash, while those that feature oft-replicated, commonly sampled items generate less excitement, and less money for users. Memebox, for example, is particularly covetable since it features artfully packaged Korean brands not found other boxes on the market.
In late 2015, Casey said she’ll partner with one of the “biggest beauty box players,” who is looking to Edivv to more effectively source boxes by analyzing the products women are reselling. According to Casey, the collaboration involves “creating a cross-population of users and information to help the subscription box firm better retain subscribers by using real life data on what is happening on the secondary market.” Casey, who reveals the most traded items on her site are lipsticks and nail polishes, surmised, “they see the value for consumer retention rate, so we are playing off each other.”
On the brand side, complaints about the box model range from “ROI is hard to gauge” to “I can’t tell the difference among boxes” to concern about positioning for luxury brands from top executives at color, skin care and fragrance brands. Clearly, there’s a collective feeling of dilution, as the model continues to amble forward.
“There’s a lot of waste in this industry as brands continue to sample,” said Casey. “With Sephora launching, I think it will definitely cut into the larger box players, especially those at the same price point. People have limited budgets and cabinet space. Smaller box companies will have to pivot to innovate quickly.”
To stay relevant, and subscribed to month to month, box companies are acutely honed in on differentiation, with more and more iterations launching that cater to specific niches of various industries, such as DIY skin care, international beauty or ethically sourced products.
“For 90 percent of the boxes, there is no differentiation and value is king,” said Melissa Crounse, whose subscription box, Globein, features artisinal products made by women’s cooperatives throughout the world. She added that those boxes filled with items that aren’t consumable, such as tech accessories or pet supplies, are becoming more difficult to make a case for the consumer to purchase.
“In this world of shopping and entertainment only the ones with soul or that provide a successful service will survive and everything else will become a novelty really quickly,” she said, adding that her biggest fear for her brand would be adding more unnecessary “stuff” to a woman’s life. “A lot of these boxes can feel a little soulless. Without much thought or story behind it, it’s just a bunch of things in box.”
Meanwhile, other box company executives said Sephora’s entry into the market won’t change things too much. “The market is not limited to Sephora, so at the end of the day brands can’t be limited to creating marketing experiences with one retailer,” said this representative. “Sampling in the Sephora box for many of these brands is marketing to their existing database, but not increasing it. Sephora doesn’t sell all the brands on the market, and isn’t the number one destination for hair care and body, for example. For the Sephora box to have the number of subscribers that Birchbox or Ipsy has, they have a long way to go.”
Industry sources said both Birchbox and Ipsy exceed one million subscribers.
Either way, with Sephora entering the fray, the box landscape is certainly becoming more nuanced, not to mention more complex.