Sample Size Me: The 5 Best Beauty Sample Box Subscriptions

There's more than just Birchbox.
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There's more than just Birchbox.
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If copying is the sincerest form of flattery, then the inventor of the beauty subscription box should be very, very flattered. Every day it seems like a new beauty subscription box appears on the market, promising to hand-curate products specific to your hair, skin, and beauty profile. While we certainly understand the need for a service to help make sense of the saturated beauty market, the proliferation of beauty subscription boxes makes it hard to see how one box differs from the other.

So with that in mind, we tested our favorite beauty boxes, interviewed their executives, learned about the “haul” you can expect each month, and the “success stories” that beauty companies have had after participating in these services. (It’s a little-known fact that in providing samples, beauty subscription boxes assist beauty companies with some of their most difficult tasks: Acquiring new customers, convincing them to try new products, and converting them to full-size paying customers.)

Just in time for the holidays--because a lot of these are at price points that make the perfect gifts--click through to discover the tiny-sized world of beauty subscription boxes.

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Birchbox

What: Birchbox is the OG of beauty subscription boxes. While it’s up for debate about whether Birchbox pioneered the beauty subscription model, their name is ubiquitous enough that start-up guys say it’s “Birchbox for _____” when pitching other subscription models to Venture Capitalists.

Differentiation Points (in their own words): Co-founders Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna told us: “Birchbox is a discovery retail platform. We are redefining the retail process by offering consumers a personalized way to discover, learn about, and purchase the best beauty, grooming, and lifestyle products. Before Birchbox, there was no easy way to discover new brands and purchase products with confidence online.”

Products/Perks: A little bit of everything. You’ll find high-end beauty brands (like Kerastase), middle market (like Stila), and emerging niche brands. Previous boxes have also included non-beauty items like hair ties (TwistBands), earbuds, granola bars, and stationery. Depending upon the beauty profile you fill out as a subscriber, Birchbox puts together somewhere between 30 to 50 different types of their boxes each month, prompting some people to subscribe to more than one box! They also do themed boxes, such as their previous partnerships with Gossip Girl, Glamour, and most recently, GOOP. They even have a men’s box and are launching a home box. Birchbox also has a strong editorial component–a blog, video how-tos, and trend pieces are all updated regularly. You also earn points that you can use for buying full size products directly from the site.

Subscriber base: As of January 2012 (their last announced subscriber base), it was 100,000. They have since surpassed that number.

Brand Success Stories: “When Color Club first started working with us in March 2012, 94% of the people we sampled to were new customers. Now we are one of their biggest online retailers,” the Birchbox ladies told us. “We are very data driven and follow up all campaigns with reports detailing brand exposure as well as sales results in our e-commerce shop.”

Future Plans: Earlier this year, Birchbox acquired JolieBox, a European competitor. We asked them what this meant: “By acquiring JolieBox, we are now able to work with our international brand partners on global marketing initiatives. Simply put, it means we’ll be introducing even more top brands from around the world to our subscribers.”

Cost: $10/month or $110 for a full year; $20/month for a men’s subscription

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Glossybox

What: The Samwer brothers, a duo who takes effective U.S. technology start-ups and replicates them in other markets, created Glossybox, which began as the European copycat of Birchbox. However, far from being a mere replica, Glossybox has transformed itself with an exclusive focus on luxury. Glossybox CEO, Susan Naci, a Vanity Fair alum, explains, “Glossybox provides our subscriber with an advanced, insider look into the international world of luxury through a specially, curated box of prestige beauty items.”

Differentiation Points (in their own words): “The box sets the tone for the luxe experience. It’s larger than any other box on the market. Our goal is to expose our customer base to the best beauty products in the world. When I travel, I like to see what they have in [drugstores,]…like an amazing lotion that is made from something organic to that part of the world that you can’t find anywhere else. We [curate] that sensibility for our box.”

Products/Perks: Glossybox has over 400 brands, focused on more high-end and niche products. Naci explains that the products selected are chosen because they are new product lines, new launches from established brands, and beauty products from overseas that are notable due to efficacy, luxury factor, exclusivity, and innovation. In one of my Glossyboxes, I received a sample of MissHa, a Korean BB cream you can only find in Korea along with a KohGenDo cleansing water. There are also themed boxes, and Naci mentioned that a La Mer box launched in China and a Harrods box for UK customers. Products are travel-size, not sample size.

Subscriber Base: “Affluent, high-end, in the know.” 220,000 in 17 countries around the world. The U.S division launched in May.

Brand Success Stories: Although Glossybox does not have an e-commerce site, box customers report feedback using a GlossyDot survey. Completing the survey gives them points they can use towards redeeming a “Bonus” box, and acts as market research for brands. They can help brands solicit specific feedback from consumers, such as, “How do you feel about that applicator? Would you recommend it? If there was something you wanted to see more of, what would it be?” They also add their own findings, to come up with recommendations for brand marketing. Naci calls it, “What sampling really should be.”

Future Plans: As they just launched in the U.S, they hope to expand more of their base here.

Cost: $21/month, or $220 for a full year. They also have three and six month options.

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Ipsy

What: Ipsy is an online beauty community platform, with a subscription service called GlamBag, featuring Michelle Phan and other YouTube beauty sensations as “stylists.”

Differentiation Points (in their own words): Jennifer Goldfarb, Ipsy President and Bare Escentuals Alum: “What is really special is the products themselves–the curation, the bags, and the experience of getting them in the mail, [chosen by] our ‘stylists,’ who are influential women in the YouTube space. We ship out the bags and the stylists create a video with exclusive content showing how to create the look from the bags. Every month, we encourage [our customers] to engage with the product and tell us what they think. [Sometimes that means] creating a video, [or] taking a picture and sharing on Instagram and Pinterest. It’s about rallying people, to connect with other women, who share their experiences.”

Products/Perks: Boxes are curated by the team, with themed months. For example, this past October was “Hello, Bombshell.” Products are mostly domestic brands, with some international beauty products, including color cosmetics, skincare, nailcare, and fragrance.

Brand Success Stories: Brands get qualitative feedback from Ipsy.com and their Facebook page. Each product has a page on Ipsy.com, where women can go in and leave comments. Although GlamBag doesn’t have e-commerce, they provide consumers with the link to purchase on a brand partner’s website. All leads and conversions are tracked, so the brands get a sense of how productive it is and how many people converted from Ipsy to purchasers. For being part of the community, consumers are typically offered some kind of discount or bonus offers to purchase full-size products.

Subscriber Base: The community is from all over the world; Goldfarb defines them as a “pretty global customer base.”

Future Plans: “Our primary focus is on creating an amazing beauty community. A place with a very positive environment where you can constantly discover the amazing thing in beauty, based on recommendations from friends and people you have connected with through the Ipsy platform. We are building a world-class subscription business that scales…and continuing to roll out additional ways to customize the bag every month.”

Cost: $10/month

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Beauty Army

What: BeautyArmy, a beauty subscription service that lets you do the choosing—you get to hand-pick your samples online after filling out an online beauty questionnaire.

Differentiation Points (in their own words): CEO Lindsey Guest says, “We think of ourselves as Match.com for the beauty industry. Our customer has control over what they receive. We help them cut through the [beauty] clutter and test things that they want. There is a lot of technology involved in what we do. Our technology officer worked at NASA, he’s literally a rocket scientist.” Unlike other beauty subscription companies, Guest stresses that she doesn’t see BeautyArmy as a discovery platform, although there are elements of discovery. “We think of ourselves quite different. The waste element in the discovery platform is too big. We believe more in the opt-in model...working with the individual woman on their needs. [Although], there are definitely discovery elements in trying new product.”

Products: “We partner generally with high-end and niche brands. Brands have to apply [to be part of BeautyArmy], we try and test out all the products. If we love it, we will let it in.” Brands have included Jonathan Product, StriVectin, Shea Terra Organics, and Egyptian Magic. There is usually at least one full size in every month. Guest asserts, “percentage-wise, [it’s] 40% full size” and the rest a smaller sample size. After completing a questionnaire with a few questions and then selecting the type of samples you want to receive, the site’s algorithm directs you to nine picks. You select six of these picks to make up your box. The samples change each month and if you don’t like any of the selections, you can either change the answers to your beauty questionnaire to yield a different result or skip a subscription month.

Subscriber Base: Despite being only a year old, BeautyArmy is growing by 50% each month.

Brand Success Stories: “We think of ourselves as a marketing platform for the brand. Samples are never wasted, [and] every single person who receives it is more likely to buy the full size. One brand that did really well was Shea Terra [which uses products sourced from Africa]. We really put them on the map. They were just in InStyle two months ago and featured on TV segments. One of our main goals is to work with these small-end brands and increase their exposure.”

Future Plans: “We want to be number one in beauty. We want to help all the women, and save them time and money and the frustration of picking through the thousands of products online and in brick-and-mortar.”

Cost: $12/month, with a current holiday promotion of 3 subscriptions for $30.

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Goodebox

What: Goodebox, a subscription service focused on "healthy," more sustainable beauty products.

Differentiation Points (in their own words): “Goodebox helps shorten [the] learning curve, doing the legwork for you on [green] ingredients, brand ethics, and performance, then allowing you to give it a try before committing to a full size product. Members also receive exclusive offers, giveaways, sneak peeks at upcoming products, members only opportunities for product giveaways, practical tips and more.”

Products: Each month, an expert curates a selection of six to seven trial-size green products. Goodebox identified “people with authentic experience and first hand knowledge and expertise when it comes to healthy beauty, wellness and more sustainable living. They are journalists, editors and book authors, professional make-up artists, green living experts and beauty & wellness practitioners.” They look to third party resources like the EWGs Cosmetics Database, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, GoodGuide, a variety of books on the topic (No More Dirty Looks, Not Just a Pretty Face) among others, to determine “greenness.” My first Goodebox was a fashion-themed survival box, curated by eco-stylist Greta Eagan. It included a poker chip-size "just add" water bamboo towel, a green apple Juice Beauty moisturizer, erbaviva organic deodorant, bamford geranium body lotion, Zosimos lip gloss, and La Bella Figura eye repair serum.

[Ed. Note: Goodebox declined to give us more information on their subscriber base or future plans.]

Cost: $16/month