Receiving mail can be a pleasure, especially when it’s a monthly delivery of cosmetics samples to test out or a rented designer dress. Since Warby Parker shook up the eyeglasses industry back in 2010, numerous direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies have cropped up. Many send items in beautiful boxes and envelopes that eliminate the need for you to do anything more than peel yourself off the couch and walk to the mailbox.
But would you be just as excited to open a box of cleaning supplies, razors or toothbrush heads? A crop of companies, including Quip (electric toothbrushes), Billie (razors), Grove Collaborative (cleaning products), Skura Style (kitchen sponges) and Chewy (pet supplies), deliver the more mundane necessities to your home.
Several come in colorful but minimalist packaging seemingly inspired by Glossier, the makeup and skin-care company whose simple aesthetic is often seen as the paragon of millennial-targeted advertising. The companies advertise on Instagram and podcasts popular with one of the global economy’s most valuable customer groups. Research from Accenture projects that spending by people between ages 20 and 40 will reach $1.4 trillion annually and will represent 30 percent of all retail sales in the United States by 2020. So what speaks to this demographic?
Some of the popular boxes are curated to suit the customer’s needs, while some — such as Quip, Skura Style and Billie — replenish items that need to be replaced regularly. (The American Dental Association recommends replacing toothbrushes and toothbrush heads every three to four months; the American Academy of Dermatology advises people change razor blades after five to seven shaves.)
Liz Cadman, founder of subscription box review company My Subscription Addiction, has seen an increase in the number of replenishment boxes on the market. Her team of reviewers assigns ratings to boxes of products ranging from underwear to cleaning supplies, based on factors such as price and ease of delivery. She says the boxes that typically draw high marks from reviewers and customers deliver these variables plus something extra.
“Customers want a good value, a brand they can trust, quality products, and some element of delight,” she said in an email. For example, Billie eliminates the “pink tax,” an added cost in some states to women’s care products such as tampons and razors, and Grove Collaborative sells only sustainably produced cleaning products made with plant-based ingredients.
However, Sucharita Kodali, an analyst at research firm Forrester, says that for products to survive competition, they generally have to perform as well as or better than the main competitors in their category at a similar price point. “Ultimately I think the challenge with these products are the same problem that Diane von Furstenberg had with her wrap dress. Everyone just starts to copy it,” she says. “Target or Walgreens can easily mimic the style attributes of these DTC companies in their private label offerings if they want to.”
Companies in the home industry have to overcome a major hurdle: Many of their products are similar in price and quality to their competitors, Kodali says.
“The pool of people who are in the market for toothbrushes is much bigger than the pool of people who are in the market for luggage at any point in time,” she says. “However, the challenge is, do you have a pain point right now that you’re experiencing in your soap or your toothbrush or any of these commodity purchases that demands that you go to this particular product?”
She adds that because most products in the home category are impulse purchases in physical stores, brands generally need to deliver extras such as free shipping, admirable company values or appealing packaging to initially entice customers. Because these items tend to be relatively cheap compared with other consumer goods, consumers might feel more at ease trying them.
“It’s the whole package of their offerings,” Kodali says. “People like to try new things and they often like the story, the quality of the product is decent, they have good customer service, they allow returns, so they take a lot of the friction out of buying. But are they the only brand that you will buy in that category again?”
Some brands have expanded into traditional retail stores. Alana Bracken, a 24-year-old writer who lives in Manhattan, heard about Quip through advertisements on social media but purchased her electric toothbrush when she saw it at Target for $30. She’d been using a manual toothbrush before and now gets refills from Quip delivered to her house every three months for about $5.
For Bracken, price is a major factor that influences her subscription choices. When she was in college, she received a Birchbox subscription as a gift, but she canceled it after about six months because she couldn’t justify the price point and “didn’t feel like it was improving my quality of life.” She’s had her Quip for nine months and said she will probably continue using it barring a major increase in price. “It’s frankly a great toothbrush and I feel like it cleans your mouth a little better than a manual, and I really like having two minutes counted out because I’m not going to sit there with a timer on my phone.”
She doesn’t see herself subscribing to a box for cleaning supplies, however, because it’s easy for her to run to the store when she needs to buy more. “Even if you’re barely adulting, you can go down to the drugstore and pick up a bottle of Windex when you run out,” she says. “With a toothbrush, you’re not keeping track on your calendar when the three months is up and it keeps me accountable to my oral health — whereas I don’t see the value for me with cleaning supplies.”
Shumaisa Ahmed, a 23-year-old consultant who lives in the District, subscribes to Billie. She wasn’t tied to a specific razor brand previously and would sort through the options at Target and CVS mostly based on what appeared to be high quality at a good price. She says she’d spend between $10 and $15 but wasn’t replacing her razors often and sometimes had trouble matching the reusable blades to the handles.
She signed up to get a refill every three months and has so far only received one round, but she’s happy with the product. “I like it and I think it’s a good razor, but I don’t think it’s revolutionary or anything,” she says. Although she heard about the product on a podcast, she says the company’s advertisements aren’t the main factor that drove her purchase and that she is aware of the brand’s marketing tactics. “I do think these are all part of a bucket of digitally-native brands that target millennials, and I don’t want to be manipulated by them,” she says. “Mainly I like it because it’s a good razor, it ships to me and it looks nice in my shower.”
Heather Comeau values the convenience that brands such as Chewy provide. The 48-year-old Alexandria, Virginia, resident pays $49 every two or three months to get cat litter delivered to her door (she adds other items such as cat food to reach the $49 minimum for free shipping). She pays about $9 for 20 pounds of Tidy Cats litter through Chewy — about the same as store price. Before becoming a Chewy customer, she bought litter for her two cats, Billy and Chirpy, mostly at Harris Teeter but had trouble lugging the bags up to her third-floor apartment. Now the delivery person does it. She says she wouldn’t continue the service if the company stopped delivering right to her door. She also likes a side benefit: “The box becomes a toy for the cats,” she says.
In many cases, Kodali says, what drives consumers to purchase goods comes back to the price. “There needs to be something that gives you a compelling reason to try it and that it’s at least priced similarly to what you’d get otherwise, or you at least get some feature like more refills that could be valuable.”