Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Subscription Box Model

A MM. Lafleur bento via Crain's.

EDIT 11/22: Though not one of the subscription services discussed here, Adore Me, a lingerie startup with a subscription component, recently settled with the FTC for $1.3 million due to questionable practices surrounding their subscription service. As r/femalefashionadvice commenters noted, they are hardly the only ones with dubious cancellation practices, so buyer beware!

One quick initial note: I suspect that this topic is only of direct relevance to those based in the US. I'm not familiar with any international subscription box-based shopping or rental services (something like Rent the Runway ("RTR") Unlimited, Rocksbox, MM. Lafleur's Bentos, LeTote, or Stitch Fix). As far as I can tell, Americans' reliance on e-commerce and the liberal availability of free shipping is something that's rather unique to here, so subscription shopping services would be less likely to take off elsewhere.

Conceptually, it always seemed to me that subscription-based shopping or rental services, whether for clothes or beauty, must be rather... un-frugal and maybe inherently likely to lead to waste. The customer is essentially paying to accumulate unwanted and unnecessary items (particularly in the beauty box context such as with Birchbox or Ipsy, where samples can't be returned). Of course, it's possible to price it in a way that's "worth it" for some customers. Birchbox used to have a generous points system that allowed easy redemptions for full-size products. Back when I first started this blog, when I still wore costume jewelry frequently, I might have thought Rocksbox was worth it (currently ~$21/month to rent three pieces from the Gorjana or Kendra Scott price point, with $21 credit/month to apply to a purchase). Regardless of whether it's "worth it", however, it's still a monthly delivery of items one didn't specifically shop for or pick out, so by definition, nothing in the delivery is going to be a well planned and carefully thought out purchase, even if with most of the clothing services, one can return unwanted things or things that don't fit.  

Barely two days after I mentioned how much my fellow college alums and I were complaining about Ann Taylor, they released a new subscription/rental service called Infinite Style. It's more in the RTR Unlimited model than the Stitchfix model, though, well, if you weren't happy with Ann Taylor's offerings before, this service certainly doesn't address that. Infinite Style costs $95/month for three items at a time, with as many returns as you like, and they'll dry clean items you ship back, as well as provide a discount if you want to keep something. (RTR Unlimited is $159/month for four items at a time, switched for new things whenever, which isn't really that much more for a higher end "closet" to choose from, though I don't think you can "buy" from there.)

Honestly, and I've also thought this on the rare occasions where I've considered standard RTR to rent a gown for a formal occasion (which would have cost at least $140 per rental for anything I liked), clothing rentals are really expensive, especially when compared to how much I actually spend  on shopping for keeps. $95/month is $1140/year to keep one's closet awash in Ann Taylor which just seems... wacky. I'm really not sure what the target audience is, especially with the recent design and quality woes. Especially since it'd likely cost less than half the yearly price to build a sufficient Ann Taylor and Loft work wardrobe you can keep (without adding in suiting, at least).

As for shopping subscription services like the MM. Lafleur Bentos or Stitch Fix, I've always been weirded out by their marketing, the idea that one might pay a company to pick out items for you, and that's somehow helpful or meaningfully time-saving. MM. LaFleur's tagline of being for women with "Better Things to Do" than shop, for instance, doesn't resonate with me, even though I definitely work too much and have very little extra time or mental energy left for other things, including cleaning my apartment or regularly cooking my meals. I probably derive significantly more enjoyment from the act of shopping than the average person (it's part of why all previous shopping fast attempts failed spectacularly in incredibly short order). I probably also spend a lot more time thinking about my personal style and what items work for me than most consumers. So shopping isn't hard or stressful in the least for me, and, in fact, I probably rely on it overmuch as a form of stress relief.

I do get exasperated when my "safe bet" brands start deteriorating in quality and utility, and it does make shopping significantly more annoying, but, well, I don't think most of the subscription shopping services deliver excellent value for one's money either. (Stitchfix always struck me as sending along overpriced lower-end Nordstrom-reject type stuff and MM. LaFleur is just really expensive.)

Anyway, I recently went to a MM. LaFleur showroom and will have some separate thoughts about that in an upcoming post (spoiler alert, I made two purchases, but it was maybe a little "too much, too soon" in terms of moving to a higher price point than I'm used to for workwear, so I'm not confident I made the best shopping decisions). For now, I will say that, for my body shape and given what MM. LaFleur generally offers, a lot of unlined dresses and no petite sizing, particularly after taking into account the extremely substantial-for-me price point, I'd probably have an extremely low Bento box success rate.

How do you feel about subscription boxes or shopping services, or clothing rental services? Any past experiences with them*, either good or bad?

*My only actual subscription box experience was with Julep, back when I had a nail polish phase in law school. It was a total waste of money, and also a massive pain and a half to cancel. Back then, they required calling in to cancel, and often still charged for boxes after a Julep representative confirmed the cancellation by phone. In the end, I had to get a chargeback from the bank, though Julep also refunded the charge a week or two later. The whole thing was incredibly sloppy at best, actually shady at worst. It probably left me predisposed to being very anti-subscription service. 

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