by Richard Kestenbaum
In the month of April 2017, subscription company websites had about 37 million visitors. Since 2014, that number has grown by over 800%.
What are subscription businesses, who are these companies and why are they so popular?
A subscription business is a company that sends you a package, usually once a month, of items they've picked out for you. The subscription companies in the chart below from Hitwise got more visitors than any others in the month of April this year:
If you're not familiar with them, Ipsy and Birchbox sell beauty products for women, Blue Apron and Home Chef deliver a box of ingredients for a complete meal that you cook at home, Dollar Shave Club sells men's shaving products, Stitch Fix sells fashion. Success in subscription does not depend on what's being sold, it's a new way of selling products regardless of the product category.
The chart below shows the subscription website categories with the most visits in the month of April 2017. These are not new types of products, they’re categories that consumers already know. Subscription companies don’t create new types of products, they are a new way to sell existing types of products. Subscriptions don't change what consumers want, subscriptions get consumers to look at existing products in a new way.
Why Is This Happening?
With all the changes happening at retail, it is tempting to say that it’s because of technology. And it’s true that subscription businesses have adapted to mobile far faster and ahead of other retailers and that facilitates the growth of the subscription industry. Adam Goldenberg, CEO of TechStyle told me, "the last billion-dollar fashion brand to be created was Lululemon in 1999, before social media and before the smartphone. We said there has to be a better way to create and launch digitally first, as opposed to the way it was done in retail previously. We've reimagined many parts of the fashion business and the fashion industry."
But technology is not the underlying reason why subscription businesses are growing, technology is a catalyst. The use of technology in the explosion of subscription businesses is only a reflection of demographics of the customer base it's attracting.
There are about 5.7 million subscription box shoppers in the US today according to Hitwise. They overindex for:
Household income exceeding $100 thousand
Children ages 3-5 in the household
That's not to say that all or even most subscription customers fit the above demographics but it does mean that people who fit those demographics are much more likely to be subscription customers.
The most important reason for subscription companies' growth is that retail tastes have changed. It's not enough anymore just to give consumers what they're looking for, if they know what they want they can get it with a click any time. To get a consumer excited, you have to offer something they're not expecting and subscriptions are an ideal instrument for surprise.
Nadia Boujarwah, Co-Founder of subscription company Dia & Co., told me a subscription company has to remember that it's not just about numbers and data. "Sometimes what gets lost in personalization is the person," she says. "To succeed long term, you must remember your customers are humans, driven by deep needs and desires. While data is critical, it's most important that our work is rooted in the psychographics of our customer and the emotional arc of her experience. Ultimately, the most powerful customer experiences are rarely functional. The products we love most are those that have a real emotional benefit we come to depend on."
To find out what will work for customers, you have to know what they want and technology helps do that. John Fetto of Hitwise, who presented at the recent Subscription Summit in Austin says, "Personalization is key. Don't be afraid to ask for information from your consumer to help you deliver a more curated experience." To be successful in a curated product business, you have to do something retailers have struggled to do for a long time — ask consumers what they want, listen to the answer and act on it. Consumers will give up personal information if they think they'll get a better experience for it. Successful subscription boxes are adapting and personalizing their boxes to each individual consumer. It's an example of what internet retail has been talking about for a long time: mass customization. If a company can make a subscription box with pleasant surprises, they will continue to sell through as long as the customer maintains an interest in discovering new products. Once that phase ends, the subscription company needs a non-subscription business plan to give consumers while they want until they get back into discovery mode again.
How It Works
There are many different types of products being sold by subscription. Some products are simply replenishment, like soap, pet food or shaving cream, things you buy all the time on a regular schedule. Those products rely on the convenience of letting consumers not have to remember their replenishment chore. Other types of subscriptions are inspirational, like fashion and food. Those companies have a lot more risk built into their business because they have to get the consumer to want what they're offering. In order to get subscribers to start, they have to make it very low risk for the consumer, offering free returns and no commitment to buy on the consumer's part and personalization is critical to success in that part of the subscription business. Usually, subscriptions can be canceled at any time so only companies selling products that inspire consumers to buy can succeed. Some of the most popular search terms used by consumers looking for subscriptions on Google are:
There are many different types of subscription models. Most are very straightforward, you get a monthly box and choose which products you keep and send back the ones you don’t want. Often, there's a price incentive to keep everything in the box. Some will tell you what's in the box before it's shipped so you can opt in or out beforehand. Others are rental sites, like the way Netflix worked when it only had DVD's: you choose what you want and they send it to you after you send back the last things you rented. Goldenberg of Techstyle says that like a lot of companies referred to as subscription businesses, they have their own variation on the business. "We don't call it subscription, we call it membership because consumers can decide if they want to opt-out. We also pick products with recommendations based on data and that lets the customer pick the items they want, when they want." Techstyle's strategy seems to be working — the Company has over 4 million members.
Subscriptions don't go on forever, eventually consumers end them. The key to enhanced profitability for subscription businesses is selling products that are good enough to lengthen the life of the average subscription. Subscription companies are always trying to replace the subscribers that leave and increase their subscriber base. The cost of doing that, what's called Customer Acquisition Costs, is one of the most important keys to a subscription company's profitability and success. Google search is the biggest source of customers for subscription companies and social media is second. Social media is a more important source of customers for subscription businesses than it is for other types of retailers. Consumers who are subscribers are at least four times more likely to subscribe to multiple boxes in different classes of product than other consumers.
Where Are Subscriptions Going?
The subscription market is hardly settled. We are seeing a lot of volatility within various categories. For example, in the beauty business, the chart below shows that IPSY is the leading company in the category but their site visits over the last year are down by 31%. FabFitFun is moving up fast, and the men's site Dr. Squatch is now the 10th largest in the category, growing by over 300% per year. Another beauty site called Lola (focused on organic products for feminine hygiene) is also coming up very quickly.
Subscription companies also face a big threat: existing retailers, especially online direct-to-consumer retailers. According to John Fetto of Hitwise, “[When a retailer sees] a model that’s doing well, they have the inventory to do it themselves... We saw that very clearly when Amazon filed for a meal delivery service trademark a few weeks ago right after acquiring Whole Foods and right before Blue Apron went public. Investors now worry that Amazon will kill or seriously wound Blue Apron. Sephora with their Play service could also become a threat to Birchbox and Ipsy. Likewise, PetSmart could effectively kill the pure-play pet boxes by launching their own.”
The data indicate that winners and losers are not yet chosen, the market is wide open right now for anyone with a better idea and better execution to develop their business and become a leader. This market will likely follow the pattern of the flash sale market where a new idea took root, consumers adopted it, valuations exploded and then the market became mature and consolidated. Right now is a time of volatility and the players who can move faster and better will win.