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Are subscription boxes really worth the money?

Jennifer Calonia is a personal finance journalist covering topics about banking, consumer savings, loans and debt. Her features and helpful savings tips encourage and empower households across America to achieve financial balance.

We put 4 popular subscription boxes to the test to see if they're worth the money

Recently made popular by services such as ShoeDazzle and Dollar Shave Club, modern subscription businesses have consumers digging into their wallets for monthly curated boxes of themed products. With as many as 191.1 million Americans shopping online in 2013, there's undoubtedly an audience for any and every niche, but the question remains: Are subscription boxes really worth their contents?

1. Stitch Fix

We put 4 popular subscription boxes to the test to see if they're worth the money

Not everyone has the Hollywood gravitas to merit — or afford — a personal stylist, but Stitch Fix is a fashion-friendly solution for women with a modest bankroll. The San Francisco-based subscription service requires subscribers to fill out a 40-question style profile, including measurements, personal style preferences, budget and lifestyle.

A dedicated Stitch Fix stylist then reviews your profile and selects clothing and accessories he or she thinks align with your size, style and price point.

Cost: $20 styling fee (applies as credit toward any purchase within the box) + balance of entire purchase (varies)

Frequency: By request, unless automatic monthly shipment option is activated

Inside the box: For my first box, I received a personalized note from my stylist about why she made the selections she did. She noted that the dress she picked out had a similar cut, color and look of an item I'd pinned (I knew exactly what she was referring to, so they do reference Pinterest boards). Here's what I received:

  • Pixley Perry Hammered Disc Layered Necklace in Gold, $42
  • TCEC Taira Faux Leather Jacket in Tan, $74
  • 41Hawthorn Franklin Striped Side Gathered Knit Shirt in Black, $58
  • Just Black Jimmy Ankle Length Skinny Jean in Navy, $88
  • 41Hawthorn Elaine 3/4 Pleat Waist Dress in Burgundy, $74

The merchandise total was $336, which is pretty steep considering I set all price preferences to "the cheaper, the better" in my profile. Stitch Fix does offer a 25 percent off discount when all five items in the box are purchased, so after applying my $20 styling fee credit, the total purchase price was $237 for everything in the box. Since I'm a bargain shopper at heart, I had to find out if another online store had a better price (Stitch Fix offers price matching if you find a better deal).

Many of the items in my box were difficult to find online and appeared to be made exclusively for Stitch Fix. However, I did find a different style faux leather jacket by the same brand for $54. I also found a nearly identical pair of jeans by the same label for $44.

Biggest perk(s): Stitch Fix offers a $25 referral credit to subscribers for every friend who opens a new account and orders her first box. The ability to include a link to Pinterest boards is a fun touch.

Is the box worth it? In terms of affordability, shoppers who have the patience to comb through sale racks and bins are likely to find cheaper garments at Nordstrom Rack, Macy's or T.J. Maxx. But ultimately, pricing isn't Stitch Fix's biggest sell — it relies heavily on subscribers who crave a more convenient shopping experience at home, women who are interested in exploring a new style but aren't quite sure where to start, or customers who find delight in opening a box and discovering what's inside — perhaps a combination of all three.

I decided to purchase two items from my first box, but moving forward, I plan on only ordering a box when a special occasion is on the horizon.

2. Yuzen

We put 4 popular subscription boxes to the test to see if they're worth the money

For those interested in a "do good, feel good" subscription box, Yuzen brings a spa-like experience straight to your doorstep in an eco-friendly and natural way. The company offers a seasonal box to subscribers featuring premium-size samples of wellness products from sustainable, environmentally-conscious companies. Some of the brands these boxes have featured include Dr. Hauschka, Tatcha and Jurlique.

Cost: $33 per subscription box

Frequency: Quarterly

Inside the box: As soon as I opened the shipping box, I immediately noticed how thoughtfully Yuzen boxes are packed. Everything about the composition of this subscription was considered, from the texture of the cardboard, the note card describing this season's product selections and even its signature Japanese Yuzen belly band that adds a deliberate touch. All products and samples are inside a semi-sheer bag, and every box is pleasantly fragrant. The box I received was its single gift-box offering, which included:

  • Acure Organics Radical Resurfacing Facial Treatment
  • Jurlique Rose Hand Cream
  • SpaRitual Golden Rule Lacquer
  • SpaRitual Cuti-Cocktail Pen & Pusher
  • Hugo Naturals Handcrafted Vanilla & Sweet Orange Soap
  • Eminence Wild Plum Eye Cream
  • Kneipp Balancing Lavender Herbal Bath
  • Sencha Naturals Pink Dragonfruit Mints

Pricing is tricky with many sample-size products; however, for comparison sake, the box contained a 15-milliliter tube of Jurlique Rose Hand Cream, which would cost shoppers as much as $25 to try the full-size, 40-milliliter version.

Biggest perk(s): There's a lot of variety in these boxes, from skin-care to pampering products like bath salts and nail polish. You also have the confidence of knowing that all the products you've received are good for your body and the earth.

3. BarkBox

We put 4 popular subscription boxes to the test to see if they're worth the money

Pet owners who find joy in making their furry companions jump with excitement can rely on BarkBox to do the trick. The subscription service provides a carefully compiled assortment of dog treats, toys and hygiene products. According to Subscription Commerce Insider, the company has gained approximately $1.7 million in venture capital funding. What's more, Jasmine Yi, public relations representative at BarkBox, estimates the service has more than 250,000 subscribers with happy (and spoiled) pets.

Cost: $29 per BarkBox and as low as $19 for a 12-month subscription (paid in full at checkout)

Frequency: Subscriptions can be purchased at one-, three-, six- and 12-month intervals.

Inside the box: Upon receiving a sample BarkBox, I noticed the dog treats were nicely varied and made in the U.S. (no costly vet bills due to recalled treats). The box contained a postcard with individual pricing and a brief explanation of each product within. Here's what the box held:

  • P.L.A.Y. Clam Toy, valued at $10
  • Loopies Corduroy Whale Toy, valued at $10
  • Think! Dog Louisiana Crab Jerky, valued at $7
  • Healthy Dogma Coconut Flavor Barkers, valued at $8
  • Hare of the Dog Rabbit with Aronia Berry Treats, valued at $9

Considering the price points, simple math suggested the box was worth more than it cost. For added reassurance, I ran a search of every product and found these items were generally priced higher online, with Hare of the Dog Rabbit treats and P.L.A.Y. Clam Toy on Amazon priced at $13.99 and $12.44 respectively.

Biggest perk(s): Ten percent of all profits go to support organizations like dog rescues and sanctuaries, city and county shelters, low-cost spray and neuter programs and other noble, dog-friendly causes. In fact, BarkBox donated $150,000 in 2013 alone. Aside from helping a dog in need, pet owners have the satisfaction of discovering new brands and know that treats in these boxes are all natural.

Is the box worth it? Based on price comparison alone, there's no doubt subscribers get a competitive price on carefully selected pet toys and treats. But I doubt my dog needs three new packages of treats a month, and if she received toys monthly, her collection would rival my 7-year-old brother's toy bin.

That said, there's no denying the thrill of opening a surprise box of goods that puts a smile on your dog's face; it's an indulgence I'd be willing to partake in a few times per year. To ensure you temper your spending (and your dog's weight), another option is to go all in for the 12-month subscription with four to six fellow pet owners and split the boxes among the group.

Related: 7 Ways to save money on pet care

4. Carnivore Club

We put 4 popular subscription boxes to the test to see if they're worth the money

The Carnivore Club is a subscription-box company serving the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Meat eaters can enjoy a variety of cured meat from local artisans, with each box featuring a new meat producer every month. A wood-grain printed box delivers four to six different cured meats, ranging from jerky to salami and more. Also included is a guide that overviews the products and how best to enjoy them, such as cooking recommendations and wine and cheese pairings.

Cost: $55 for one month; $50 for multiple-month subscriptions

Frequency: Carnivores can choose from a monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly cycle.

Inside the box: The Carnivore Club box I received featured Crested Duck Charcuterie, a Pittsburgh operation that handcrafts European-style cured meats, like prosciutto, coppa and pates. My assortment of cured meats was approximately 4 ounces each, except for the coppa ham which was 1.44 ounces. While the brochure included in the Carnivore Club box didn't include pricing, prices were easily accessible on the Crested Duck Charcuterie's website:

  • Mole Salami, valued at $6.50
  • Turkish Salami, valued at $6.25
  • Panchetta Americano, valued at $4.50
  • Duck Breast Prosciutto, valued at $12
  • Sweet Coppa, valued at $7.25

As a full-fledged meat enthusiast, this box gave me an exceptional experience. Since this type of meat is meant to be savored, I've found that a one-month supply is more than enough for snacking over two or three weeks.

Biggest perk(s): The Carnivore Club gives subscribers plenty of opportunity to get adventurous with exotic meats like duck, elk and buffalo.

Is the box worth it? I found the backgrounds of the artisans who produced the meats to be just as interesting as the flavors crafted into the meats. However, with only $36.50 in product for a $50-$55 box, the savings are not necessarily the draw; rather, it's an appreciation for handcrafted food. This subscription is best reserved for those most interested in trying new foods.

*Disclaimer: This overview is not sponsored by any of the aforementioned subscription services. Complimentary sample boxes were provided by BarkBox, The Carnivore Club and Yuzen for review purposes. All statements are the express opinion of the author.
*Images via: Jennifer Calonia for SheKnows


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