Subscription shopping: Think without the box

Sometime during the past year, fashion subscription boxes took off. These companies send a box of new clothes and/or accessories every month or two. You sign on, provide some info about preferences, pay a fee, and your box arrives.  You can subscribe for boxes of decor, cookware, French-themed tchotchkes, pet treats, even a box that "summons the Muse". I'm focusing on apparel-oriented boxes.

Apparel boxes differ from those of cosmetics or fragrance (e.g., BirchBox), in that you return what you don't want. Most are set up so that you buy what you to keep, but a few, like Rent the Runway, operate on a rental model.

According to a McKinsey study of the US market, growth for subscription boxes has doubled for each of the past five years, with about 15% of online shoppers signing up for one or more. The majority of subscribers are mid-20s to 44, with $50k-$100k incomes.

Apparently box-shopping can get out of hand; there's a site called mysubscriptionaddiction.

Left to right, boxes from fabletics, Le Tote and GwynnieB

Fashion boxes are hailed as a boon to busy workers, the aesthetically-challenged, or those who like having someone else choose (wasn't this once Mom?)  Up-front "styling fees" range from $20 or $30 to over $165 per box, and this fee is deducted from your purchase.

The majority deliver the same mass-market clothes carried by the average department store, but some services promise exclusive goods or special discounts.  Subscribers either pick pieces from their web site, or stylists "get you out of your rut" by choosing for you, based on your profile.

I'm leery of them for the same reason that I wouldn't join Jenny Craig: in order to run our lives (or at least the part we can direct), we need proficiency in making choices. Packaged selections excise work, but also ability. Since few women will get everything from the box, they will still shop, so the subscription only augments their buying.

Think of all the learning that's sidestepped: how to budget, assess value and quality, and choose. The more we outsource, the more we de-skill ourselves.

The promise of "trendy and stylish clothing delivered to your door at least once a month" promotes passivity and the belief that one "needs new things", moving the fast-fashion store's monthly changeover right into your home. Vendors say "Wear the things as many times as you want, to try them out", but the majority permit only a two or three-week window for returns. It's easy to miss the deadline, and the tendency is to stick them in the closet.

Boxes might contain good values, and deliver the predictable frisson of a prettily-packed box dropped on the doorstep. Though I see the fun, subscription shopping is an intravenous drip of unconsidered spending. Unlike the store you might visit once or twice a season, the delivery service builds a much stickier relationship. Subscribers talk about the pleasure of receiving a selection curated just for her.

Nordstrom's Trunk Club
Some struggling bricks-and-mortar chains have entered partnerships with wardrobe delivery services, who are essentially resellers, while others started their own, such as Ann Taylor Infinite Style and Nordstrom's Trunk Club.

The vendor has data for what is kept and returned, so offerings become better targeted over the months, and surprise—more is bought.

The sales woman who saw that you were short-waisted or did not like large prints has been replaced by an algorithm, and the department store floor is often absent any staff save a cashier.

Have you tried the fashion subscription box? I don't trust my willpower enough to conduct an experiment, so tell us about your experience.


Laura J said…
Timely and astute comments. These boxes seem like mindless acquisition of stuff and more stuff! Erosion not only of skills but also a social element— chatting with a sales person or a friend. And indeed who needs something new all the time? The boxes of accessories or “lovely” things for the home seem most bizarre— allowing another to spend your money on stuff that then is in your space ; I want to choose!! Great post !
LauraH said…
Very informative post. I agree with Laura Janet, seems like just another channel to get people to buy regularly. Why would anyone need to do that?
JohnInWI said…
My sister is doing one of the clothing subscription boxes. She doesn't like to shop and isn't much interested in, or up on, what's in fashion. IMO the stuff is over-priced junk. You are incentivized to buy the whole box. It is mostly not what she asked for, but surprisingly does fit. I don't buy anything unless I can see the actual color, feel the fabric and try it on. To believe that you are getting your very own personal stylist for that kind of money is ludicrous. I'm with LauraJ, I want to choose, indeed! -Lily
Duchesse said…
LauraH: See Lily’s comment below, there is an alluring offer of professional help, and you don’t have to go anywhere. But the repetitive cycle of buying is the poison pill.

Someone I know is a time-starved, sleep-deprived mother who just got a big new job. She too likes the boxes but told her mother she will unsubscribe after three or four months, once she has enough for requirements of job.

But for others, I suspect same reasons I have overshopped atr times in my life: seemed kind of fun, filled a void, or was easilt led to « needing » something new.

Lily: Let’s hope she learns from the suggestions, builds confidence and then unsubscribes.
Ms. Liz said…
I agree with Laura J. Laura H. and Lily. Subscription boxes are just another way for us to shop for stuff that we don't need. If we needed it or wanted it we would make time to shop for it. I want to buy and bring into my home things or clothing that I am in love with or spark within me that certain something or excitement - I guess that would be pleasure. I suppose receiving a subscription box on its own sparks a certain amount of pleasure. I think most people probably end up keeping the stuff, even if they don't like it so much, as it is too much trouble to send it back. I have decided that I will only buy and keep items that I really and truly love. I am not purchasing something just because it will make do or it is a terrific bargain.
royleen said…
When I first moved to a more casual environment , I tried StitchFix. What a failure! I told my "stylist" that I had plenty of work clothes and play clothes, plenty of workout clothes. What I needed was "nice casual." I often found myself too "business-dressed" for a dinner out with my husband, or the opposite, too casual. I went into a lot of detail about lifestyle, my age, my preferences. What arrived was mass market junk, most of it styled for a 25 year old, not a 70 year old!

Why did I bother? I am not a good shopper; I am a buyer though, and often bought the wrong things, just because they fit me. In addition, we just moved to a new location that didn't have the same diversity of shops as the old neighborhood. I was attempting something new. I chalked it up as a good learning experience, and returned the lot. As someone said above, if you really need it, you'll find a way to obtain it -- in person or from a trusted online source.
Living in a VERY rural area...WalMart is 30 minutes away and that’s the only “clothing” store besides the farm and tractor supply...I subscribed to Stitch Fix. I got about 4 boxes, sent most of everything back but did end up with one GREAT maxi skirt that I would never have bought for myself (my daughters have since absconded with it) and an even better wool dress coat. Otherwise everything looked a little too outdated. The first couple of boxes were pretty good and then that stylist disappeared. Subsequent boxes seemed to send me things that I had specifically said “do not send”. So I see the advantage if, like me, you live where the nearest real clothing store is 2 hours away. They could be the answer. But, I also felt that much of it was overpriced junk (all of the jewelry which I had said I did not want in the first place) and you need to have a Pinterest page for them to study or Something.
My verdict: hit or miss, could fill a need.
materfamilias said…
An ad came up on my Social Media feed somewhere or other a few days ago, and it was advertising a Subscription Box that was apparently filled with Green and/or Ethical products. Never mind that the most Eco move we could all make would be to Buy Less! Sometimes, don't you just feel like giving up? Kidding, and posts like yours are good for making consumers think twice. . . But Sheesh!! ;-)
In Vancouver, Materfamilias should have NO problem finding green and/or ethical products; perhaps could even walk to the shops that have them.

Mater and Pater have doubtless purged their cupboards and drawers before the big move, but divesting oneself of clothing items one doesn't wear is both eco and kind, if they can suit someone else.

Unfortunately, one can not always buy things that "spark joy". Sometimes one has to make do, sadly...

Shipping is very polluting, ESPECIALLY shipping boxes like these with a high number of returns.

P.S., a shameless plug for "Socks for Bubbly" (Des bas pour des bulles), asking people to take warm socks to participating restaurants in Montréal and Toronto to prevent foot diseases and conditions among homeless people. This initiative was started by the owner of a local restaurant here and has greatly expanded:
Duchesse said…
Royleen: You and Nelson Bartley (below) have tried it with different results. Since they depend on algorithms, I suspect there are not too many 70 year olds in. the sample and so your box skewed young.

Nelson Bartley: Thanks so much for your firsthand account. I had not thought of the distance factor. I suspect that in the uh, old days a skilled saleswoman could have suggested you try a midi skirt. But now that you know you can rock one, you can order on your own.

I just read a long New Yorker piece on "Rent the Runway" and I have to admit, I would just love to try it for two months for the experience (but they do not serve Canada.) A high school principal acquaintance her rents ALL her work clothes. It's a whole different mind set. I'm sitting here writing in a 7 yr old navy sweater that still looks fine, and the women who Rent the Runway often get over 150 different items for a short period, in one year. Basically it's like living in a dorm and swapping clothes with all the women there, and paying about $2,000/year to do that.

materfamilias: Oho! What a perfect example of justifying mindless consumption.

lagatta: materfamilias does not say she cannot easily •get• green or ethically-made products (after all, she lives in Van!), she is pointing out the dissonance involved in offering eco-conscious products in a •subscription box•.

There is a nice, wide continuum between "make do" and "sparks joy. Not everything needs to spark joy.—Marie Kondo set a very, very high bar. What might we call these intermediate levels: "pretty good", and "just fine", and "good but not great?"? For clothing, when I've bought at"making do" it has resulted in waste because then I didn't wear the thing, but for other items it is sensible. For example we made do with some rickety outdoor chairs for past 7 years!

Shipping: The article about Rent the Runway in the New Yorker says 10,000 items a day are returned to the NJ warehouse and an equal number go out. Another warehouse is on line for TX. They are also the biggest drycleaner in N. American and they think probably the world.

Go right ahead and plug those socks!
materfamilias said…
Yes, you’ve got it in one, Duchesse. Lagatta and I seem actually to be on the same page here, although she may have missed my point because I was being a bit flip (eye-rolling, even). I’m assuming an inevitable waste in any subscription box, and waste isn’t eco. But warm clean socks for the homeless is a very good way to spend money!
Jean Shaw said…
I also read that NYTimes article on Rent the Runway--if I felt the need, I might consider it. That's a big IF, though.

I do know one person who does StitchFix but haven't heard any feedback.
Frugal Scholar said…
As a second-hand shopper, I see clothing after it has passed through its first buyer. A surprising proportion of new with tags/nearly new clothing is from Home Shopping Network/QVC and, more recently, Stitch Fix. The quality is poor for items sold at inflated retail prices. I checked out Subscriptionaddiction--it is not a 12-step program but an encourager of addiction! The blogger has the usual blurb: I am compensated when you sign up, but all opinions are my own and honest.

IF I were starting out and in a business environment, i might try the items from MMLafleur. That is totally fantasy though. At almost 65, I am trying to wear my nicer clothes to work so I can get my cost per wear down before retirement.
When my daughter was getting married, she did Rent the Runway for her dresses for the bridal shower and rehearsal dinner. She rented three outfits and sent two back right away after she tried them on. She convinced me to rent a pair of drop dead gorgeous, large earrings that I would never have an occasion to wear again, and a designer evening bag for the wedding. The items were very well made and the transaction was inexpensive.

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