What is a Subscription Box? (2020) Beginner’s Guide

It can be really confusing when you are new to the subscription box, so we are here to help! In this article, we will be covering:

Table of Contents

So, what is subscription box? Basically, a company sends a box containing products you preferred to you in a routine.

Here comes the long answer.

A short history of the subscription box trend

Subscription box or subscription box service is a new trending business model that rises from 2011.

Many companies have tried this business model but could not see the result and profit from it. 

However, it’s the Dollar Shave Club (men’s shaving and grooming), BarkBox (dog food), and HelloFresh (meal kit) who started their subscription box business in 2011, followed by Ipsy (beauty) and BlueApron (meal kit) in 2012.

These companies have grown rapidly and landed with huge successes, which still remain to be the most successful subscription box companies in 2020.

Clarify subscription box

People might get confused with all the different business concepts out there, but we are here to give you a better understanding of what it is!


Many companies nowadays offer a “subscription” service. It can be a digital product and a physical product.

It is no brainer that digital products like online courses and online services cannot be considered as a subscription box, cause subscription box literally means there will be a physical box!


The service is automatically renewed for the plan you have chosen, such as weekly, monthly or quarterly, and deducted from PayPal or other payment options that you have linked to.

You do not need any additional actions after the initial set up, regarding what you will be receiving. Unless you would like to adjust the preference a little to suit you in a better way. 

Surprise? Not really

You might have read many bloggers or posts that said how exciting it is to open the box and get surprised by the products that you did not know what you will be receiving.
This kind of statement is true and false. It’s more like uncertain.

“Surprise” is usually used for a positive outcome of a result, but in subscription boxes, sometimes you just can’t get what you want and feel disappointed.
However, you can log in to their website and adjust your preference, or simply contact them to let them know the products you don’t like, avoid receiving them again.

In addition to that, not all companies will surprise you. In fact, many of those are pretty consistent with what they are sending to you every time, and it is quite predictable.

What products do they offer?

Subscription box companies offer almost ALL categories in FMCG (Fast-moving consumer goods) and some in the non-FMCG market. 

We have listed out the categories just to show you how much and broad the business reaches.

Subscription Box Product Categories
Subscription Box Product Categories

And the list goes on…

Food & Beverage, pet food, beauty and fashion are the most popular categories among all others.

What are the 3 types of subscription box?

According to Mckinsey & Company’s report, 99.9% of the subscription boxes fall into these three categories: Curation, Replenishment, and Access. Each of them accounts for providing different values to customers.


Curation type subscription accounts for over half of the market, it gives customers surprises, or uncertainty.

Customers will not be 100% sure what is inside the box until they open it. However, the products are filtered and guided by preferences that customers select at the initial set up or plans.
It means the customer will have a broad idea of what they might receive, but not for certain.
The typical products for curation type subscription are food, beauty, and fashion.


This is the type of subscription box that aims to provide convenience and time saving for customers.

The boxes usually don’t come with surprises, customers know what is in the box, and they are pretty much the same or similar items every time
And it has the highest “long-term” subscribed rate among the other two.

The popular products for replenishment type subscription are pet food, shaving products, household consumptions (like toilet roll and detergent). 


This means that a customer will need to subscribe to the box to get an exclusive offer or other “VIP” benefit

Access type subscription is very common in digital products and services already, such as getting exclusive movies/episodes, discount offers, articles, etc.
However, it is still quite tepid for the “box” market, and it only accounts for the smallest amount of companies and subscribers in the industry.
The primary categories for access type subscription is similar to curation type, which are food, beauty, and fashion.

How do I choose from these different types?

It depends on the products that you are looking for. Companies with the same product categories usually run the same type of subscription, and by looking at the product, you can already guess what type of subscription they are running, from the examples given above.
If you want to receive something surprising with product varieties or wish to have a new style of the online shopping experience, curation will be the one to go with.
The users of curation type subscription also lean toward the younger generation, as they are more adaptable to new styles and experiences.

If you are struggling to manage your time properly or are a forgetful person, or perhaps you are just too lazy to shop for the same things in stores over and over again, replenishment will be the one for you!
The users of replenishment type subscription have a broader audience in terms of age, since it is solving customer problems, compared to the curation type.

Unless you are an advanced “player” in the subscription box market, we DO NOT recommend trying access type subscription for your first box experience.
They are usually more expensive, and the product range could be narrower due to the exclusive offers.

However, if you have already tried the subscription box and found it enjoyable. Then definitely try the access type subscription for a more premium experience and exclusive offers.

So how do I start my subscription box journey?

Now you have a general understanding of subscription box, but still confused, how does this all work and where you should start?

Here are the steps that walk you through the process for your first subscription box!

Step 1: Find a product

First, identify your category, from your interests and needs.

From your interest

  • Fashion
  • Cooking
  • Makeup
  • Book
  • Etc.

From your needs

  • Shaving & Grooming
  • Facial care
  • Pet food
  • Household supplement
  • Etc.

Step 2: Preference

Once you have selected your category and Googled the brand you like, you will start to customize your preference on their website, so you will not receive something too unexpected.

Every brand differs. Generally, the website will guide you through all the process.

Here are some examples that you may see when you are customizing your preferences.

  • How long would you like the period to be receiving a box?
  • What is the breed of your pet? (Pet product)
  • What tone is your skin? (Beauty product)
  • What cuisine do you like? (Food box)
  • How hairy are you? (Shaving & Grooming product)

Step 3: Terms and conditions

When you have finished your preferences and filled out your payment details, DO NOT click the “order” button just yet!

It’s always good to scan through their “Terms and conditions” and check how their subscription system works in terms of recurring payment.

Usually, I mean almost all famous and known company charges you weekly, monthly or quarterly, you pay as what you are getting for, and there is no lock-in contract which you might get charged additional fee to unsubscribe from the service, and you don’t usually pay an annual price for a monthly subscription.

However, they might be some small or just starting up companies that try to trick you into, so just pay extra attention before submitting your payment details.

Step 4: Receive and open the box!

Step 5: Adjust preference

It is likely that you may not like what is inside the box, or there might be one or two products that you don’t like, it’s very common.

Don’t be disappointed or frustrated just yet. You can always adjust your preference, or simply contact the customer support, most of the brands will try their best to avoid putting the same or similar products into your box again.

And now you have it!

Still unsure about whether you should subscribe your first box? Check out this pros and cons article about subscribing to one of them, it will defentlty help you to make a better decision.

If you start your subscription box journey because of this article, please generously share with us! We like to hear from you! And do you have any questions or there is anything you want to add? Please leave a comment below!

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