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Subscription Boxes as Holiday Gifts:
A Great Gift Idea or More Trouble
Than They’re Worth?

A subscription box seems like such a perfect gift for everyone on your holiday shopping list. But before you sign up your loved ones, be sure you’re making the right decision. Membership Economy expert Robbie Kellman Baxter warns about the dark side of the trendy forever transaction that keeps on giving, and giving, and giving.

With the season of giving right around the corner, people everywhere are scrambling to find a great gift for their loved ones. Subscription boxes seem like the perfect holiday present and for good reason; subscription services are busy heavily marketing to consumers this time of year.

From personal care boxes loaded with fun new products, to monthly clothing deliveries, to frozen pasture-raised meat memberships, there’s an offering available for everyone on your shopping list. Subscription boxes are popular because they seem like such an easy, smart gift idea, but business consultant and Membership Economy expert Robbie Kellman Baxter offers a word of caution to would-be subscribers everywhere: Get the facts about subscription boxes before you sign up your best friend, your mom, your brother, and everyone else for a membership.

“Subscription boxes aren’t the no-fail holiday gift idea they’re cracked up to be,” says Baxter, author of The Membership Economy: Find Your Superusers, Master the Forever Transaction, and Build Recurring Revenue (McGraw-Hill Education, www.peninsulastrategies.com).

“In theory, they’re a great option. But often they’re not a perfect fit for every consumer. Further, subscription box companies know you need to get your friends and family something for the holidays, so they are marketing to that need right now. So before you sign somebody up for that razor subscription or coffee-of-the-month club, be sure you’re making the right choice.”

Baxter points out that with more than 9,000 subscription boxes promising curated selections optimized for specific interests, more and more people are prone to subscription fatigue. Consumers struggle to keep track of all their memberships while bemoaning the fact that many businesses are now forcing them to subscribe instead of buy. After a while, managing all those subscriptions becomes exhausting, overwhelming, and unnecessary.

“Your friends and family members could very well be delighted with a subscription box gift,” continues Baxter.

“But be sure to think carefully about which subscription you end up choosing, because there are a lot of options available, and unfortunately they are not all created equally.”

If you do decide to buy a subscription box package as a gift this year, you’ll likely be able to find a great one that will delight even the toughest-to-please person on your list. But first, ask these important questions:

Are they going to appreciate the subscription box model? Does the recipient enjoy frequently getting new stuff, or are they hard to shop for because they don’t really need or want much?

“Your recipient may not want a monthly subscription for more stuff,” says Baxter. “Does she really need a scent of the month each month? Or does he really need a series of new pocket squares? Probably not. If this is the case, make sure that whatever subscription you choose will truly resonate with the receiver. Otherwise, it could miss the mark horribly.”

Is it a product and community they really care about (and will use)? First of all, make sure that the items in the box are the kinds of things your recipient will actually use, advises Baxter. If your spouse loves milk chocolate, but the box contains chocolates of all varieties as well as chocolate-themed t-shirts, posters, and socks, they might not enjoy it as much. At that point, it’s just more unwanted and unneeded junk in the house.

But if the box contains new varieties of milk chocolate – you might hit a bull’s-eye!

Who is going to continue the payments – you or the recipient? “The tricky thing about subscription boxes is that someone will be dealing with a monthly charge,” says Baxter. “Unless you plan to pick up the tab forever, your gift receiver is going to wind up getting harassed to subscribe himself or herself. It’s important to think about this factor before you sign anyone up.”

Remember, your recipients have not given permission for the subscription box company to mail, bill, or otherwise contact them. So protect their inbox, mail, and phone by making sure all communications about billing go to you and not to them. If they like the box and want to subscribe after your gift runs out, you can always help them set it up later.

Do the quantities make sense? One shortfall among some subscription services is that they force you to receive more product than you can use in a month’s time. Certain companies have made a (bad) name for themselves by sending products faster than their customers can use up their previous shipments. Don’t sign your loved ones up for boxes that can’t be customized to suit their needs.

Does the company hide the cancel button? Many subscription box services make it difficult to unsubscribe by hiding the cancel button or the customer service contact information. Be sure to choose a highly rated service that makes it easy for your dad, your best friend, or your aunt to manage their subscriptions or cancel outright when the time comes.

“Companies should never build brand loyalty by making it hard for customers to manage their relationships or end those relationships when they aren’t working,” says Baxter.

“Before signing your friends and family members up, check out their cancellation policy. It should be very easy to unsubscribe or get in touch with customer service whenever there’s a problem. But if you can’t find the cancel button, steer clear!”

Is the company committed to keeping the customer at the center of its business? Baxter observes that many subscription boxes fall short on providing a well-curated product. A good subscription has a forever promise – that the company will “help you achieve your goal” and “treat you fairly and like a friend” in exchange for recurring revenue commitment. But too many of these companies either serve a goal you don’t really have or take advantage of your trust – and that gives memberships a bad name. “Subscription boxes look like a win-win gift solution at first blush, but the reality can be much trickier,” concludes Baxter. “Make sure that the subscriptions you choose for your loved ones really do suit their needs and lifestyles, and will continue to do so month after month. And remember that in the case of subscription boxes, a seemingly great forever subscription could end up being a big holiday headache that nobody really wants or needs.”

About the Author: Robbie Kellman Baxter is the author of The Membership Economy: Find Your Superusers, Master the Forever Transaction, and Build Recurring Revenue. She is the founder of Peninsula Strategies LLC, a consulting firm based in Menlo Park, CA, that helps companies excel in the Membership Economy.

Before starting Peninsula Strategies in 2001, Robbie served as a New York City Urban Fellow, a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, and a Silicon Valley product marketer. As a public speaker, Robbie has presented to thousands of people in corporations, associations, and universities. For more information, visit www.peninsulastrategies.com.

About the Book: The Membership Economy: Find Your Superusers, Master the Forever Transaction, and Build Recurring Revenue (McGraw-Hill Education, 2015, ISBN: 978-0-071-83932-7, $28.00, www.membershipeconomy.com) is available from major online booksellers.


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