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

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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