Box it Up!

Anna Otieno, Head of Research, Strategy & Insights

Carli Gernot, Content Development Specialist

What’s Up

The idea of signing up for a monthly subscription to laundry soap, apparel items, contact lenses, or pet treats is an established consumer choice. The name “subscription box” reflects the physical delivery of products on a regular basis — often arriving in a box, but not always. There’s more to the category. Subscription boxes can be divided into three types:

  • Replenishment - These boxes cover essentials and products consumers buy regularly like razor blades, contact solution, toilet paper. Grocery services like Imperfect are considered replenishment boxes. Amazon’s “subscribe and save” option is another example.
  • Curation - Merchants create a selection around a theme or around product groups and send the curated box to customers. Boxes like StitchFix and BirchBox or meal kits like Blue Apron are curation boxes.
  • Access - Customers pay to use a service, including programing, free shipping, or gated content. Spotify, Netflix, and Amazon Prime are all examples of access subscription and often these subscriptions offer extra perks and lower prices as part of membership.

Overall, subscription services remain popular: the IMARC Group found that the global subscription box market was valued at USD $22.7 billion in 2021 and is set to grow to USD $65 billion by 2027, increasing at a CAGR of 18.3% over the five year period. Over half of these subscriptions (60%) are replenishment services, 30% are curation, and 10% are access plans. A March 2022 article from Kearny showed that a majority (54%) of subscription box customers would like to spend $50 or less on their plans while music/video subscriptions are the most common, with 92% of consumers reporting having at least one.

In May, Nordstrom announced the end of Trunk Club, the company’s apparel subscription service, as there just weren’t enough customers to keep it going. StitchFix shares fell to $7.78 in June — down from $68 the same month in 2021, the company laid off 15% of its salaried workers, and displayed a disappointing forecast for the company’s fiscal fourth quarter. With the end of Trunk Club and StitchFix’s recent financial struggles, it seems as though more consumers are experiencing “box fatigue” when it comes to apparel subscription box participation.

Nordstrom now focuses on its in-store styling services to engage consumers looking for guidance while StitchFix introduced a direct-buy option called “Freestyle.” Shoppers don’t need to subscribe to any service and clothing items can be recommended by StitchFix’s AI with the option to buy a single piece.

What it Means

Consumers remain interested in subscription boxes — let’s be clear. A 2021 survey from Attest found that 40% of consumers said they currently have one or more subscription box memberships. Food or drink boxes were the most popular with 37% of people subscribing to them followed by personal care/health & fitness (35%) then by pet products (32%). Further, 68% of consumers said that value for the money is most important when considering a subscription box.

The drop in popularity with apparel subscription boxes tracks with the dip in overall spending on apparel and non-essentials — Target posted huge losses in profits in the second quarter, Dillard’s reported a contracted retail gross margin, largely due to a drop in women’s apparel sales, and Walmart is lowering profit estimates due to apparel simply not selling. According to July 2022 Morning Consult data, 39% of consumers said they were not buying any apparel, shoes or accessories while 31% said they were buying fewer apparel items.

Apparel brands and retailers should focus on smaller sub-sections of consumers and niche down: Gwynnie Bea offers clothing rental services to plus sized women, Savage Fenty — Rihanna’s lingerie subscription service — features a widely inclusive range of “nude” colors to match diverse skin tones. Aim to thrive in the niche with goals to expand once consumer spending in apparel bounces back.

Partnerships can be fruitful as well, particularly when a brand is looking to boost diversity or sustainability cred. Fabletics teamed up with Lizzo to launch her shapeware line Yitty, which was created for “all body types,” and Beachly, a beach-inspired apparel box that partners with Heal the Bay, a California-based non-profit that hosts regular beach clean ups.

Inflation is impacting consumer spending habits in the apparel category and retailers are looking for ways to reinvigorate the subscription box space. Introducing expanded membership programs with boosted perks may be one way for brands to shore up relationships with shoppers who used to rely on their monthly or quarterly sub box deliveries. An important element to focus on is value — redefining value for shoppers or making clear why a particular subscription holds value will be key for brands. Another opportunity may be for retailers to partner with a brand outside its industry to offer exclusive benefits. It’s vital for brands and marketers to create and position products and services as being essential to cash-conscious consumers.

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