What's Inside the Explosive Growth of Subscription Boxes?

For almost two decades, e-commerce has been changing the way Americans shop. What was once considered a fad has replaced long trips to malls, department stores and now even grocery stores, all in favor of a few steps to the front door to pick up the package you ordered online. With sustained market growth, subscription box companies have likewise proven to be more than just a fad in our e-commerce society. They're a fully established trend, winning customers with regular deliveries of everything from groceries and meal ingredients to beauty products and gift boxes.

Consumers love the simple, personalized deliveries of a big selection of hand-chosen products they receive from retail curators, and it shows: visits to subscription box sites have grown by more than 3,000 percent in the last three years. With the holiday season approaching, subscription box gifts are also on the rise – subscription box shoppers are now gifting additional subscriptions for friends and families.

To get an inside look at what makes the services so special for subscribers and what it takes to ensure that the boxes arrive on time and intact, we talked to Gaurav Kale, senior manager of packaging at Blue Apron, and Dana Aidekman, director of merchandising at Birchbox. The two companies deliver very different things — Blue Apron serves farm-fresh ingredients to prepare a full meal in each package, and Birchbox sends personalized makeup, haircare and skincare samples to its subscribers.

Yet both companies hear testimonial after testimonial from customers who say they look forward to their deliveries as much as they do to receiving a gift from a friend. They’re excited to try something new, or indulge in a healthy, creative experience, one that many describe as the only thing they do to treat themselves.

On the other hand, subscription box companies share many of the same challenges to ensure their customers receive their boxes in pristine condition. Their customers have evolving expectations of e-commerce companies. Some of those expanding expectations work directly against each other, like consumer demand for sustainability versus the realities of packaging and shipping fragile and perishable goods, because temperature control, space and protection are of course essential for any package. Regardless of consumer demand or cost, subscription box companies must use packaging that is tough enough to protect the contents from heat, cold and impact, and large enough to fit both the products and the components that protect them. But after the essentials, each company tailors their packaging to provide the best unboxing experience for their customers. Birchbox uses the packaging itself to enhance the aesthetic experience for the customer, designing colorful boxes decorated with happy, colorful art. The boxes are so beloved that customers often keep and reuse them.

Birchbox subscription boxes

“Visually, our brand is like the cool older sister or best friend who knows what beauty is and is showing you the way,” said Dana Aidekman, director of merchandising at Birchbox. “The happy side really shines through with our packaging. We have an incredible creative team that gets to design the new look for packaging each month.”

Blue Apron’s perishable foods present an extra challenge because their packaging must keep each ingredient fresh with the right levels of condensation and respiration for each food type, all while requiring a sophisticated system of categorization.

Blue Apron subscription boxes

“In a given month, we work with hundreds of ingredients for our menus, each of which have their own packaging needs to ensure safety and freshness,” said Gaurav Kale, senior manager of packaging at Blue Apron. “To maintain the quality and safety of our ingredients and ensure we’re managing our resources effectively, we categorize all ingredients into groups that require common packaging materials.”

Of course, when it comes to the reason for buying a subscription box as a gift or making it a mainstay of your lifestyle, the most important thing about the package is that it gets the contents where they need to go, in the way they were intended to arrive. Packaging can enable subscription box company growth by preserving the quality of their contents before the customer ever sets their eyes on the actual products.

And as subscription box companies continue to grow and become more integral to people’s lives, it’s the packaging that makes the first impression every time it hits their doorstep.