Subscription Boxes 101

For those who have never purchased a subscription box before, or don’t know where to start, here’s a list of some things to consider:

1. The Subscription Model(s)

Most companies will offer 1-month/3-month/6-month/12-month subscriptions that automatically renew every 1, 3, 6, or 12-month period, depending on what you subscribe for.

So if you’re not a fan of automatic renewals (which most companies seem to be doing nowadays, by the way, and I personally find this incredibly stressful since I don’t always want to renew things monthly or yearly or what have you), then you will want to be careful about this.

A caveat to the above seems to be if you buy a gift subscription for someone, then theoretically they shouldn’t charge your credit card annually, although this may require you to be more diligent in some cases (more on this towards the end).

Depending on who the company is, however, their subscription lengths may be completely different.  An example of this is one of Loot Crate’s subscription boxes, the Sanrio Small Gift Box, which is a quarterly subscription (meaning only 4 boxes/yr., maximum).  So be sure to read the details on the website carefully to make sure you know what you’re committing to before you buy.

2. Cost vs. Quality

This depends on what one considers to be “worth the price,” so to speak.  On a personal note, here, I find a majority of subscription boxes to be garbage for what they charge you.  In a lot of cases, it seems like you’re paying anywhere between $15 – $100+ for usually less than 10 items per box, and the resale value for a lot of these items (assuming you don’t want to keep an item or two, because they just don’t resonate with you) oftentimes doesn’t even come close to helping you recoup what you’ve essentially “lost” on the box, or even getting some return beyond what the box initially cost.

Some subscription boxes, however, might seem worth it.  Like Loot Crate’s Sanrio Crate, for example, are actually pretty promising for anyone who likes Sanrio, because from the looks of it, they’re providing pretty decent things.   Maybe it’s because they have an agreement with Sanrio, but I think it also is because it’s a quarterly crate and not monthly.  (I only say this because I look at Loot Crate’s other offerings, even the Marvel-themed crates—which are supposedly through licensing agreement with Marvel—and honestly?  Even as a fan of Marvel, I don’t find them all that impressive compared to something I could find myself at a convention or specialty store.   Anyway, I digress.)

A great place to start before purchasing a box, is seeing what previous boxes contained.  There are many ways to do this.  I actually did months and months of research through YouTube unboxing videos people have posted, reading blogs focused on subscription boxes, and doing price checks by searching on Amazon and eBay.

Personally, if a subscription box item is not available on Amazon, I tend to take that as a good sign, as that could mean the item is more difficult to find, at least for people living in the States, at any rate.  And eBay can be a good indicator of how “in demand” something is, because generally the higher the item is priced by a third-party vendor, the more likely it’s both difficult for people to find and higher in demand.

In my opinion though, most subscription boxes are generally low value in terms of quality but high in cost.  I’m the type of consumer who would rather get quality items for what I’m paying over the experience of getting a “surprise” in the mail each month.  This does seem to be an appeal for some consumers out there, where despite a majority of the items being unappealing, they still subscribe because they enjoy having that monthly experience.

3. Cancellation Concerns

Like with any business, there are definitely some horror stories out there.  Lost boxes, people still being charged for subscriptions even after they’ve canceled within the proper window, poor communication with customer service, etc.  These are all things to bear in mind before purchasing, and here are some ways to protect yourself:

  • Use a credit card company that is very pro-consumer.  American Express, from my personal experience, is great for this.  If you’re being charged for something that you either didn’t receive, or you returned and should have gotten a refund for, then you’re going to want a company that will do a thorough investigation, and provided you’ve given them enough proof that you did all the right things as a consumer, then your credit card company should have your back and reverse the charge.  (Also block any other charges if the subscription box company tries to charge you again.)
  • Use PayPal.  I often consider PayPal to be a barrier of sorts, especially for subscriptions that are supposed to automatically repeat.  After you’ve canceled on the subscription box website, go to your funding sources in PayPal and find where you authorize “pre-approved” payments.  There, you should see whatever crate you signed up for as “active.”  Deactivate it.  That should prevent them from being able to charge your card again, if they try to.
  • Try using one of those gift card credit cards.  I haven’t done this myself for subscription boxes, but I’ve used this for other things where there was a repeating subscription or I was worried a site might charge me again, if I was questioning its reputation.  This way, they don’t have your main funding source information, and can greatly reduce the headache.

4. Do Your Research Before You Buy

And when in doubt, ask questions!  There’s no right way to research something before you buy, but as someone who does 99.9% of their purchases through the Internet (I tend to shy away from malls and other crowded places in general), I have a set method for certain things, depending on what it is.

For those curious, here was my research method for subscription boxes (again, there’s no “correct” way to go about this):

Step One: Check the website.

First thing I do is look at the website, find out what their subscription model looks like (1/3/12-month, etc.), and read all the fine print.  In my opinion, a good website should tell you how much things cost, give some pictures and a list of items from previous boxes, and be up front and accurate about how long it’s going to take a box to get to you (this is particularly important for overseas subscription boxes).

Step Two: Decide if the value of the box is worth the money.

I mostly do this by taking notes on what was in previous crates, and then searching the items (or finding something similar) on sites like Amazon and eBay.  If, say, I’m paying $40 for a box a month, then I want to be sure that the value I’m getting is at least $40 or more, and not less.  Never less.

There are consumers out there who might be okay with it, because the boxes are exposing them to products they would not have known about, or otherwise would have purchased.  This is not the type of consumer I am, however, so I make sure to do the math before I commit to something.

Step Three: Read the reviews.

I immediately go to YouTube first for this.  There are plenty of people doing unboxing videos.  I just type in the crate I’m considering, and see if I find an unboxer who resonates with me (preferably one that’s responsive to questions when viewers post comments), and see what they have to say.

There’s also plenty of blogs and bloggers out there who post subscription box reviews (and spoilers, in most cases, of what will be contained in the following month’s box).  From my experience, bloggers are generally less responsive to questions, although a few will take the time to respond to questions.  This is why my first go-to is YouTube; I’ve found they generally have a much better response rate.

Step Four: Not sure what to buy?  Overwhelmed?  There are definitely resources out there.  Here’s a few.

Aside from YouTube and the general Google search, there are a couple blogs I follow that are my go-tos for subscription box reviews.  They don’t have every box, but they do have reviews of most boxes on their website.

I recommend either Hello Subscription or My Subscription Addiction, for preliminary research.  I think both sites used to be a smaller gig (at least, for some reason that’s how I remember them), with just one blogger, and then they later grew into much larger things with now several people contributing to the site.  Personally, I feel that both sites have served me pretty well.  They also sometimes give out coupons.  There are also YouTubers out there who give out coupons as well, presumably provided by the companies they subscribe to.

And if all else fails, there’s always Crate Joy.  I honestly can’t tell if it’s a middle-man of sorts for all subscription boxes out there, or if they’re just an ever-growing directory, but they seem to be a one-stop shop for information on all the different kinds of subscription boxes you can buy.  (The layout honestly reminds me of Amazon.)

Step Five: Check and see if there are any coupons codes out there.

Living Social and/or Groupon sometimes have them.  Sometimes a traditional Google search can turn up something useful, as well.


And that’s pretty much it!  If anyone’s got any questions that I haven’t covered in this post, feel free to ask me in the comments, and I’ll be more than happy to respond if I’ve got an answer for you!  Thanks for stopping by.

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