Subscription boxes: the name itself shouts packaging

An emerging form of retailing relies heavily on packaging.

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Any given consumer has interests, a truth that makes subscription boxes a viable retailing concept. For a monthly subscription fee, the subscriber is shipped a box loaded with products tailored to an expressed interest. Take, for example, a dog-lover. That person can go on-line and subscribe to an associated service.

Prior to the arrival of the box, its exact contents are not known by the consumer; however, it's not altogether a matter of blind trust. That's because the subscription box industry is under the constant reporting from an army of bloggers posting reviews.

But a subscription service helps its own cause most by soliciting relevant information from the consumer at the time of enrollment. From there, success hinges on the effectiveness of the service's curation--in short, the evaluation and selection of what to offer as contents of the subscription boxes. That's the essence of marketing: matching consumer wants with product/service characteristics, the objective being to establish a brand. Packaging is a proven marketing tool and brand-builder, and that's true for subscription boxes, too.

The boxes

Subscription boxes are corrugated constructions but in contrast to, say, a RSC (regular slotted container), a subscription box typically is of the mailer style. And whereas all shipping boxes must be sufficiently sturdy, this is especially important for subscription boxes because theirs is the parcel post environment, with all its drops, impacts, vibrations, and compressions.

To that brawn must be added the right amount of beauty. For subscription boxes, graphic design is just as important as structural design, not altogether surprising, given that it's the box that must instantly convey the personality and aura of the subscription service. Moreover, the graphic design should be thematic, representing the specific subscriber interest that the contents address. Depending on that interest, the graphics might bespeak femininity, masculinity, frivolity, indulgence, austerity, or any other from an endless variety of themes.

And designers are not limited to "thinking outside the box"-literally--because some subscription boxes also sport graphics on the inside. Such visual candy comes with added printing costs, and it's up to the subscription service to decide if it's cost-effective. Conceivably, a subscription service catering to consumers of relatively pricey items might go the outside-inside route; then, too, so might a service catering to children's items, for the visual stimulation it provides to the young recipients, in addition to later doubling as a storage container for a child's whimsical keepsakes. The point being made is that cost-effectiveness is case-specific.

Speaking more generally about costs, a subscription service always has options because at the heart of any type of packaging is the concept of trade-offs: stock or custom design; kraft or bleached liners; one or more colors; and, of course, quantities. As to the last mentioned, subscription services range from the highly-niched to the broader-based, with respective quantities ranging from modest to substantial.

The contents

Whatever the contents of a subscription box, it's a certainty that they will be examined carefully by the subscriber, motivated by anticipation, curiosity, and the hope of being enthralled; after all, the reason for subscribing in the first place was to receive previouslyunknown (or at least, untried) products related to a given interest. The contents will be contained in primary packaging (and maybe such secondary packaging as cartons) and should entice the subscriber as soon as the box is opened, the success of which might be reflected in something as simple but telling as the order in which the subscriber examines the contents.

Whereas the competition is not the same as that imposed by a brick-and-mortar retail environment in which the packaging has scant seconds to arrest the shopper's attention, the packaging of the contents should be impactful, nonetheless. The competition faced by the contents is different in another sense, in that it's unlikely to be intra-category. Returning to the previous example of a subscription box for a dog-lover, the contents will be for the subscriber's prized pooch but will come from different product categories, perhaps as diverse as toys, treats, grooming, healthcare, fashion, and even cosmetics (nail polish, for example). Whatever its category, every item should come in packaging that synergistically balances the functions of protection, communication, utility, and convenience. Anything less, and the brand-owner does not take full advantage of the marketing potential that stems from having been chosen for inclusion in a subscription box.

Something that the brand-owner and subscription service have to decide, together, is whether it's more practical for the packaging to be full-size or trial-size. Major factors are the size of the subscription box and the total number of items that a subscriber would reasonably expect to receive each month. Trial-size packaging is supposed to provide enough product for the subscriber to determine whether purchase of a full-size makes sense; however, that's not the whole of it. Even if the trial-size and full-size are different structural types (tube and pouch, for example), their graphics must unmistakably link the two, so that the subscriber can identify the product (for those available in stores).

The future

The subscription box industry has experienced impressive growth even in the face of its more ardent critics who attack the business model for being wasteful and not a good value for subscribers. The argument is that an inordinate amount of resources (most notably in the transportation realm) are consumed in getting a single box in the hands of a subscriber; furthermore, the contents of some boxes could be obtained elsewhere (for example, at stores) at less than the subscription fee. In addition to being generalities, such arguments overlook that the first criticism can be leveled at any service (such as Amazon) that relies on parcel post and the second criticism overlooks that the subscriber's reasons might include savings in time and effort.

Anyway, the defense of the subscription service industry is not the aim of this article; rather, it is to serve as further reminder that few disciplines are as versatile and potent as packaging. And that's a philosophy that brand-owners and retailers, alike, would do well to subscribe to.


Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging. His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center- P.O. Box 43176; Detroit, MI 48243; 313-531-1875 office; 313-531-1972 fax;;

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