Sample Boxes Are All the Rage, But Are They Worth the Cost?

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You can subscribe to just about anything these days, from bacon-of-the-month clubs to services that will send a different selection of cheese to your doorstep every month. Now, the beauty and fitness industries have arrived to put their own spin on the product-of-the-month trend.

So-called "beauty boxes" come stocked with myriad samples of cosmetics, lotions and soaps. Other services are more health-focused, offering up vitamins, healthy snacks and dietary supplements. Some offer a multitude of sample-size products in every box; others have a smaller number of goodies, but subscribers get full-sized beauty products and food items.

What they have in common, though, is a relatively modest price point. Most of the services we tried out cost between $10 and $20 per month. And they insist you'll get major bang for the buck, often claiming that subscribers receive upwards of $50 worth of merchandise in every box.

We decided to put those claims to the test.

The Test

I requested the latest sample boxes from three players in the industry.

One was KLUTCHclub, which distributes health, wellness and fitness boxes and has been in business since April of last year. While most in the beauty box business are focused exclusively on women, KLUTCHclub offers boxes for both women and men; I got one of each. (Still, company co-founder Julie Bashkin told us that the men's boxes aren't nearly as popular as the ones for women. "We find men not to be the decision makers when they're buying food and beverage products," she says.)

The second was Vitacost. An online seller of vitamins, supplements and skin products, it recently decided to start its own subscription service and just sent its first boxes in February. It has two options -- the Be Well Box, which includes products such as soaps, toothpastes and lotions, and the Be Fit Box, which focuses on diet products. I got the most recent shipment of each type. (A third option, Be Pretty Boxes, was just added to the lineup a few weeks ago, and wasn't considered here; Be Strong Boxes are coming soon.)

Finally there's Birchbox, which ships style and beauty products. Like KLUTCHclub, it has both boxes for both men and women. I decided to just get the latest Birchbox Man, because at this point my desk was getting cluttered with lotions and diet supplements.

I then went through each box and determined the price of each item by finding it at the online retailer selling it at the lowest price. In cases where the item was a sample size, I did my best to scale down the price accordingly. For instance, the Birchbox had a one-ounce sample of a cleansing gel; I found an 8.5-ounce bottle selling for $16.20, so I assigned a price of $1.78 to the sample.

In comparing the actual value to the claimed value, keep in mind that the company is likely calculating its estimate using the manufacturer's suggested retail price, whereas I was using the lowest price I could find at a reputable retailer. Also keep in mind that the price for each item doesn't include shipping; if you were to buy each item individually from different websites, the shipping costs would drive the price of the bundle even higher.

Here's how each box stacked up.

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Sample Boxes Are All the Rage, But Are They Worth the Cost?
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Sample Boxes Are All the Rage, But Are They Worth the Cost?
Monthly cost: $16 (annual subscription) or $18 (month-to-month)
Claimed value: $50

I priced the women's box out at $46.84. The biggest items here were a bag of healthy slim dietary supplements, which I found elsewhere for $10.85; and a fitness DVD, TurboFire Greatest HIITs, which sells for $22.39 on Amazon.

The Men's box offered comparable value, coming in at $53.46. The highlights here were a lentil and rice kit that we priced at $5.49, and a three-packet sample of Shakeology protein shakes, which we found for $26.95 on Amazon. There was also a $15 gift certificate to Khataland and a 15%-off coupon for Allergease; neither figured into the final tally.

While the workout DVD inflated the effective price of the women's box a bit -- $22.39 seems awfully steep for a 20-minute workout video -- on the whole I found both boxes to be good values. And KLUTCHClub also stands out for the size of its samples -- in fact, Bashkin says that the company avoids calling their offerings "sample boxes," due to the fact that subscribers generally get full-size items.

Monthly Cost: $14
Claimed Value: Up to $70 worth of products

The total value of the Be Well box came to just $14.63; the box was dominated by small samples of dental items and skin lotions.

The Be Fit box proved a much better value. The highlights were two diet supplements aimed at weight loss: a 30-pack of ReBody brand "hunger chews" that can be found on Drugstore.com for $30, and a 60-pill package of Fembody "veggie capsules" that I priced at $15.99. Also included were a two-pack of Atkins peanut butter cups and a couple of nutrition drinks.

VitaCost chief marketing officer David Zucker readily acknowledged that the Be Well Box didn't provide much value, and promised that future offerings would be up to snuff.

"The Be Well box from February was probably our weakest showing," he said, adding that the goal was to have the "perceived value" of every box to be over $50.

These were the first boxes VitaCost has shipped, so it's fair to assume that the company is still finding its footing when it comes to choosing the best product mix. And the boxes remain sold out on the site, so clearly customers like what they see so far.

Monthly Cost: $10 per month for the women's box, $20 for the men's box
Claimed Value: N/A

The men's Birchbox was the priciest of the boxes I reviewed, but it had good value: I priced the items out at $54.44. The highlights were a Birchbox-branded leather shoehorn that the site lists at $18 for individual purchases; and a nice pocket square priced at $25. The rest of the box consisted of personal care products like cologne and body wash.

I was impressed by the quality of the products, as well as the presentation (it came in a slim, sleekly designed box). But the product selection highlights one issue with subscribing to these services: If you don't like the products they send you, you're not getting much value. Because of Birchbox's emphasis on quality over quantity, the box had just six products; the two most valuable of these, the shoehorn and the pocket square, weren't of much interest to me.

Fortunately Birchbox provides a snapshot of the most recent box on the site, so you can take a look before signing up to get some sense of whether it's the sort of product lineup you'd like to receive every month. (Hint: If you're big on the sorts of fashion accessories and personal care products you see in GQ and Esquire, you're probably the target audience.)

So with a few exceptions, these boxes are giving you around $50 worth of product for less than $20 a month (shipping included). How can these services make any kind of profit?

In short, it's because they typically aren't paying anything for the products that go into the box. There's a reason these are frequently referred to as "sample boxes" -- even when the products inside are full-sized, the vendors are happy to give them away as a promotion. It's the same principle as the sample table at your grocery store, except with a national distribution network: A vitamin brand is happy to give away thousands of pills at a loss if it knows that thousands of consumers will be trying them for the first time and potentially becoming regular customers.

"The business model is very similar [for every service]," says Bashkin, of KLUTCHclub. "They want to be in the box for exposure."

That's especially true of smaller brands.

"It's a way for our partners who sell on our site to get in front of a much bigger audience," says Zucker. "Most of our brands are not P&G-sized brands. They're very concerned with [return-on-investment] on these."

It's a win-win-win: Brands get mass exposure, the sample-box company gets to sell subscriptions with huge operating margins, and consumers get to try a bunch of products without paying much money.

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Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.
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