What to Consider Before Buying a Box Subscription

Box subscription services deliver a box of themed items, usually sample sized, to one’s home at regular intervals. These services have become a huge hit and are here to stay. Birchbox, which delivers beauty samples, has over a mil­lion subscribers, up from 600 in 2010. Blue Apron, which delivers the recipe to a home-cooked meal—complete with perfectly-portioned ingredients—to subscribers once a week, reports deliver­ing 3 million meals every month, a 300% increase in what it was selling nine months ago. The rising popularity of such services has seen the number of themes balloon as well. Now there is a box for whatever tickles your fancy.

The overwhelmed shopper can nav­igate through the labyrinth of options using the website My Subscription Ad­diction, which rates and reviews the ever expanding array of boxes. (A much needed service, as there are currently over 1,500 listings.) The seven most popular boxes to date are all under $50 and offer beauty or makeup products. This is not surprising, with the rate that new beauty products are churned out, the volatility of beauty trends, and the ease with which small samples can be used up.

But there are also boxes for dog dot­ers, needy nerds, food fanatics, and book buyers. There are ultra-expensive boxes and uber-affordable boxes. At the high end, luxury delivery service Subscription (current price $569 per box) will accom­modate no more than 10,000 subscribers in order to retain its image of exclusiv­ity. On the other end of the spectrum, Ipsy’s monthly bag of makeup—created by YouTube personality Michelle Phan—costs only $10 a month.

There are even celebrity-curated boxes for the fangirl/fanboy in all of us. Quarterly.co’s list of curators includes singer Pharrell Williams, science educa­tor Bill Nye of “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” and athlete Jeremy Lin. Each celebrity sends out his or her own unique blend of merchandise. Last October, Williams sent out artsy backpacks with matching pencils in his student-themed box while Nye sent out a planetarium kit and ge­ology-themed coasters. Lin, whose box is more expensive than Williams’ or Nye’s, sent out an inspirational Christian novel and his own basketball trading cards for his “game day” themed box last May.

So far I have subscribed to Bulu Box, Birch Box, Ipsy, and Book(ish). I love to try new things and receiving new sam­ples every month allows me to do this. I greatly dislike feeling like I’m “out of the loop,” so receiving types of makeup I’ve never heard of (lip primer?) makes me feel so trendy. But as an environmen­tal science major, I do worry about the sustainability of these services if they continue to rise in popularity. If you care about your contribution to the waste stream, here are some questions to consider before signing up for that subscription.


I prefer boxes that are packaged with cardboard and paper so that I can easily recycle them when I’m done. Birchbox is great about doing this. A major issue I have with Ipsy is that they send a cloth make-up bag every month, uses for which I quickly ran out of. Furthermore, I understand that most beauty products will come in plastic packaging, but the sizes are small. I avoid boxes that provide me with full size products (such as BoxyCharm and GlossyBox).

RECOMMENDATION: Most box sub­scription services are relatively small outfits in a very high-competition mar­ket. Consequently, pressure from cus­tomers is likely to be heard loud and clear. If a box’s packaging seems wasteful to you, ask for an option where samples are sent sans packaging. Keep an eye out for sustainability-minded boxes such as Honest Company, which sends parents non-toxic diapers and wipes, and Tagless Style, which deals in upcycled men’s wear.


Keep in mind that most of these box subscriptions are monthly affairs. Then ask yourself if you can use up most of the products sent in one box before the next box arrives. I had this problem with Bulu Box, a health & supplements ser­vice. They frequently sent me full-size bottles of one-a-day vitamins, amid other samples. Since I was in the habit of not opening a new box until I had completely used the contents of the last box, I ended up with a massive box pile-up. I ended up canceling the service until I got through all of my overstock. One box service is actually called “Phone Case of the Month,” and the sheer un­necessity of twelve phones cases a year makes me shudder.

RECOMMENDATION: While paying for a year up-front will save some mon­ey, assess whether you will use a year’s worth of products in a year. If you tend to use certain products sparingly or slowly, look at the 3-month or 6-month options, or perhaps consider purchasing one limited-edition box. Look for boxes whose contents will quickly be used, such as the Dollar Shave Club (razor refills) or the Barkbox (my dogs could eat/de­stroy everything in a Barkbox within a day if I let them).


Box subscriptions are simply not designed for the ultra-picky. You can only customize box contents so much—the entire point of a box subscription is to be surprised.

RECOMMENDATION: If you have a Polly Particular on your hands, purchase no more than one box at a time and look for the most customizable subscriptions. Subscription allows you to send back any items you don’t want. Ipsy encourages you to review each month’s bag, indicat­ing the products, formulas, and brands you love and the ones you never want to see again.


Carefully consider the type of items that will be sent in the box. Are they likely to be used and appreciated or set aside and accumulated? The joy of receiv­ing what is essentially a gift in the mail is the single biggest selling point of these boxes, but don’t let the getting overshad­ow the using.

RECOMMENDATION: Consider what you already use a lot of. Do you go through a ton of make-up, hair products, dog treats, or yarn? Look for boxes that offer these types of items and beware of boxes that send random bric-a-brac that will ultimately end up in the landfill.