Beauty-box subscriptions: High-end cosmetics samples delivered to your door

A recent package from GlossyBox, which charges subscribers $15 a month for samples. GlossyBox
A recent package from GlossyBox, which charges subscribers $15 a month for samples. GlossyBox
Posted: April 04, 2012

Every month, Heather McCaulley spends about $50 on beauty supplies she's never slathered, sniffed, or seen - and she wishes she could spend more.

McCaulley has three beauty-box subscriptions, the latest trend in cosmetic marketing. Customers pay $10 to 20 a month to receive at least five samples of the latest body creams, eye shadows, and hair conditioners, all in a pretty little box.

Customers say they like getting a variety of handpicked, mostly high-end samples for less than the cost of a movie. The beauty companies get their products into the hands of their target audience, who often go on to make a regular purchase. Similar Netflix-type subscriptions are available for shoes, food, and men's products.

"I didn't sign up for them right away because I was kind of skeptical," said McCaulley, 30, an office manager who lives in Bensalem. "I thought you could buy your own products for that money, but then I tried them out and now I'm hooked."

There are more than a dozen cosmetic "box at your door" services. Julep ($20 a month) sends out two bottles of nail polish, usually before they are released to the public. Others like GlossyBox ($15), Birchbox ($10), and Beauty Army ($12) send out a mix of hair, face, skin, and other cosmetic samples that are just coming on the market. It gives customers a chance to try out new products without spending big dollars of a full-size item they might not like.

One Beauty Army box included Joico intensive hair repair, Weleda almond face lotion, Indie Lee body scrub, Shea Terra black soap facial cleanser, Befine night cream, and FX skin serum. The subscriptions attempt to personalize the experience by asking customers when they sign up about their skin type (dry/oily?), skin color, hair type, and age.

McCaulley, who writes a blog called "Behind the Lashes," is a member of Julep, MyGlam, and Birchbox - the last is her favorite because of its reward program. (Points are earned toward full-size products after referring friends or purchasing additional products from the website.) And she feels it's the best at sending products tailored to her preferences.

Katia Beauchamp, who cofounded Birchbox in September 2010, said she was unprepared for the popularity of the service. In less than two years, she and her business partner went from packaging subscription boxes in their apartment to hiring 60 employees to serve 100,000 subscribers. The company is focused on beauty products - a recent box included the new Stila Smudge Stick eyeliner, for example. But it sometimes throws in a surprise extra, such as the mini-carrot cake Larabar energy bar in January's box, to test customer interest in other products, Beauchamp said.

It's not as if people can't head to any department store and ask for a sample. But the boxes do the work for you. Lindsey Guest, founder of Beauty Army, handpicks items from the hundreds of samples she receives each month so customers get a box of her favorite brands. She also chooses items from new companies that might easily be overlooked in a crowded Sephora aisle by those unwilling to spend money on an unknown brand. Sometimes the sample can be worth more than the box - the Stila eyeliner alone sells for $20.

"If you're a very focused customer who already knows what you want, you're going to go out and get it," Beauchamp said. "But a lot of people like trying different products and seeing what's out there, and they like the constant change."

Beauty Army, GlossyBox, and Birchbox officials all said that the beauty companies send the thousands of samples free, but they declined to say whether these companies received any compensation for participating in the subscription service. They did point out that the monthly services make it easy for customers to buy the full-size product - either from their website or directly from manufacturers.

Several companies are already targeting specific markets. GlossyBox, which has subscription services in Africa, Germany, and Canada, among other places, offers a "men's box" in Canada. It is launching petiteBox in the United States this month with products specifically for pregnant women and mothers of young children.

"We have a calendar with themes planned out in advance - the whole point is to give people an experience and a surprise," said Lisa Kisber, the chief marketing officer of GlossyBox in Canada. A recent Valentine's Day box included an Oscar de la Renta Live in Love perfume, for example.

Yasmin Kalish, 37, is a mother of six who runs the product review site Zadidoll from her home in Washington state. She spends $100 to $200 on subscription boxes, including a $40 monthly shoe subscription.

"It's just a little fun treat to have every month," she said.

The biggest complaint Kalish said she sees on her website and other cosmetic review blogs is that companies include too many skin-care items and not enough makeup. Company officials say they tried to include a range of products.

McCaulley said she's enjoyed most of the samples, particularly the lip gloss and nail polish samples. But when MyGlam sent a $100 gift certificate toward a full-size product on its website, everything was so expensive that she ended up spending $125 (with the $100 gift certificate) toward a flat iron that she didn't really want.

"Not every product is my favorite - MyGlam sent out a roller glitter eye shadow that was falling all over the place," McCaulley said. "But Birchbox sent out a lip gloss that was specifically made for them and I've loved it. I knew once that sample was gone, I'm right on their website getting more."

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