Friday, October 07, 2016

A natural subscriber who just doesn’t see the point

I’m a subscriber.

Since I could first read, I’ve had magazine subscriptions. This has taken me through Jack and Jill and Calling All Girls, to Ramparts, MS, and The Village Voice, to my current list, which includes (but is not limited to) The New Yorker, The Economist, and The Atlantic.

Many years ago, I had book club subscriptions. And for a couple of years, I got a quarterly bundle of books from Kenny’s Bookstore in Ireland, hand selected for me based on the writers I liked and things about Ireland I was interested in. (Can’t remember why I stopped this service – book backlog developing, no doubt – but I may re-up. I’ll be in Galway, where Kenny’s is located, next spring, but, alas, Kenny’s has long since moved their retail operation to the outskirts of the city. It used to be right there, front and center, on High Street. Now I take it they’re largely online.)

Over the years, I’ve given people magazine subscriptions, and, when my mother was still alive, I considered the idea of fruit or the month or flowers of the month. These seemed like the types of items that someone might quite reasonably want to see every month, and take some quite reasonable pleasure and get some quite reasonable utility from.

So you might even say that I’m a natural subscriber kind of gal. But am I really?

Today, of course, you can subscribe to pretty much anything: undies, meals (complete or a box of ingredients and instructions), athletic wear, razors, makeup, snacks – because it’s way too hard to figure out how to take care of your own snacks…

There are a ton of these subscription services out there. But no one knows for sure just how many there are and what they’re worth:

Because these companies are largely privately held, it’s hard to gauge how big the market really is, but Cratejoy, a subscription marketplace, estimates subscription commerce generated $5 billion in revenue in 2014.

But these days, a record number of boxes are looking for a slice of the same pie, as more consumers seeking monthly joy log onto for their regular box of stuff (the e-commerce site offers recurring delivery, in which you customize your cart and pay as the items ship). It’s unclear exactly how many box services there are–box review site My Subscription Addiction lists more than 2,000 in its database. And more, like Robb Vices, continue to appear, despite the industry being plagued with layoffs, slow growth, and a capricious public. Monthly visits to various websites of online subscription companies did total more than 21 million in January, up 3,000 percent from three years earlier, according to a study by Hitwise. (Source: Bloomberg)

Ah, Robb Vices, brought to us by our friends at the 1 percenter – more likely 1 percenter wannabes – Robb Report, which, when I glanced their way, had one article on the things you need to consider when you’re going to invest in your own personal aircraft, and another on how “Glenfiddich Dresses the Modern Whisky Drinker.”

What would I have in common with someone who wants to learn how Glenfiddich dresses its drinkers?

The answer, not surprisingly, is nada.

Anyway,  Robb Vices is a monthly subscription service that sends you a goody box each month. For a monthly fee that ranges from $60 to $75, you get a “unique set of items” that they have “curated” for you. (Curate is rapidly replacing “passion” on my list of least-liked corporate buzzwords.)

Although Robb has a magazine, Robb Vices takes something of a post-verbal approach to conveying info. To see what’s in the goody box this month, they show an un-narrated video of a cutesy urban wall- and rock-climbing couple going about their wall- and rock-climbing day. It’s pretty clear that the box contains a small bottle of sake and a jar of something that looks like granola. But there may be a power bar of some kind in there, too, as the couple takes a wall- and rock-climbing break to power up. Then they keep showing a camera. For $75 a month, that camera is probably not included. But is the clip they use to attach the camera to scaffolding (him) and belt (her) part of the deal? If I were a curator of quirky Robb Vices items, I would use my words. But we’re in the world of the infographic, the pictogram, the video. Who has time these days to read even an acronym, let alone a sentence or two about a product.

Good luck to Robb Vices.

I don’t think the wind is exactly to their backs if all you get for $75 a month is a bottle of sake and a titanium clip, however carefully it’s curated.

For a couple of years there, subscription boxes were the next great thing, the potential unicorn, the disrupter. And VC’s curated $1.6B into investment boxes.

Alas for those with a light bulb going off over their heads – hmmmm, subscription light bulbs? - suggesting a new killer subscription box:

“I have worries that we’re coming to a peak,” said Josh Goldman, a general partner at Norwest Venture Partners…He has looked into investing in many subscription box services in recent years but never pulled the trigger. Boxes have spread into categories that aren’t appropriate, he said—throwaway novelties that shoppers don't stick with. The model can work only for certain kinds of goods–essentially things that shoppers need replenished (household products), or items they are willing to buy frequently anyway (clothes, makeup).

Nope. Doesn’t bode well for Robb Vices. How often do you buy sake or wooden sunglasses (an item from an earlier box)?

Subscription boxers – the folks who run these outfits, not boxer shorts that come in a subscription box (although I’m sure this service is available) – don’t, however, see their business as a played-out fad.

“It is the natural evolution of e-commerce in a marketplace that is increasingly fragmented and confusing for the consumer,” [Birchbox co-founder Katia Beauchamp] wrote [in  recent piece on Medium]. She did concede, however, that not every subscription box will survive.

I’ll tell you what’s confusing to me as a consumer. The idea of all these subscription boxes.

Magazines and books are one thing. Fruit and flowers are another. But clips and granola are in a category all by their lonesome. I’m no market forecaster, that’s for sure. Nonetheless, I would NOT be investing in a subscription box service, no matter how well-curated it was going to be.

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