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A Brief History of How Subscription Boxes Changed The Way We Shop For Beauty Products

"It's all about putting beauty in the context of her life."
Birchbox's August box. Photo: Courtesy of Birchbox

Birchbox's August box. Photo: Courtesy of Birchbox

How do you discover new beauty products today? If you're reading this in 2016, then your answer is probably via some sort of social media platform, by reading articles on websites like this one or maybe through a friend with a seriously on-point red lipstick game. It's probably not by going to the department store beauty counter, and maybe not even by flipping through pages of a magazine.

You don't need us to tell you that with the advent of the Internet, we're more connected than ever, and have a wealth of information only a few touchscreen taps away. The beauty industry is no exception: Whether you look to YouTube beauty gurus for makeup advice or love scrolling through your Instagram feed for the latest must-have product, trying every new launch that catches your eye would be, well, a quick way to deplete your savings account. (Don't get us wrong — it would be *very* fun, but maybe not the most responsible way to spend a paycheck.)

Enter the beauty subscription box; for less than it would normally cost for a single full-size item, you could now try curated samples of several new products every month and then invest in the ones you love. Even though stores like Sephora usually backed your purchase with a generous return policy, when subscription services dropped, it changed how consumers experienced new products for the first time. Here, a brief history.

The Early Years

Birchbox, an indisputable OG of the beauty subscription box phenomenon, landed on the scene in 2010 and was founded by self-professed "non-beauty people" Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna, who met at business school and noticed that beauty retail was a largely unexplored territory on the Internet. "We wondered why it was so hard to find the best products," says Beauchamp. "If you don't obsess over beauty and don't enjoy researching the latest launches, you still deserve to get the best stuff." At the time, Barna's friend from college — who also happened to be a beauty editor — would pick out products for Barna to try out. "It was a lightbulb moment: if only we could all have a beauty editor best friend!" says Beauchamp. "So that inspired what the customer experience would look like."

The following year, Glossybox launched, priced at $21 per box (although with an annual subscription, each box ends up costing $17.50). Positioning themselves as connoisseurs of "niche, high-end and emerging brands", Glossybox included a mix of sample- and full-size products (hence the higher price point) and also offers boxes of exclusively full-size products, ideal for gifting and/or hoarding.

But now, there are more power players

The format clearly worked, which led to the proliferation of other established brands getting into the game; YouTube beauty vlogger Michelle Phan (one of the first to shape the online makeup tutorial community) eventually branched out to create her own cosmetics line, Em Cosmetics, in addition to a beauty subscription service called Ipsy.

Thus far, the subscription box format still catered to professed product junkies and beauty diehards. Taking it to the mass market level, Target debuted its own monthly box in 2013 with a more modest $7 price tag. (Note: It's not carried in stores.) Surrounding themes like "Back to College" and "Simply Radiant," each box includes a mix of sample and full-size products, just like Glossybox. And if you immediately fall in love with something in the box, you can access a direct purchase link for all the included samples on the Beauty Box landing page.

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Sephora, already a formidable player in the prestige beauty retailer space, launched its own monthly subscription service called Play! by Sephora nationwide earlier this year (although it was available in select markets September 2015). Drawing from the retailer's expansive selection of partners, Play! caters to those who take brand loyalty seriously — it's ideal for Sephora devotees, but is also great for those who want to expand their makeup skill set, since each box comes with a booklet that outlines how to get the most out of the month's selected products.

Two unique options from the publishing sphere, Allure magazine took its position as the "Beauty Authority" to a whole new level a few years ago with its monthly Allure Beauty Box, as did the editors at Essence, with a box addressing the beauty needs of women of color. With products that are editor-tested, editor-approved, you can be pretty confident that the stuff inside is the real deal. (Is there a more discerning customer than a beauty editor? Not likely.)

Birchbox's patterned boxes were designed to be repurposed. (So many possibilities!) Photo: Courtesy of Birchbox

Birchbox's patterned boxes were designed to be repurposed. (So many possibilities!) Photo: Courtesy of Birchbox

What to expect in the future

"It was never just about sending a monthly box," says Birchbox's Beauchamp. "Since day one, we’ve focused on offering customers a full and valuable discovery experience, introducing them to new brands and products they may not have discovered or experimented with on their own – whether that’s serum, red lipstick or dry shampoo — and then getting them to shop for their favorites on our site." 

Since its launch, Birchbox has expanded internationally, opened a brick-and-mortar space in SoHo, grown to carry more than 800 brands online and developed in-house lines for cosmetics and skin care, named LOC (Love of Color) and Arrow, respectively. (The company also just raised $15 million dollars in a recent wave of bridge financing.) 

Where is this all heading? Natural beauty subscription boxes, men's grooming boxes, ones for nail junkies and options for women with natural hair. Perhaps Beauchamp said it best: "It's all about putting beauty in the context of her life, not expecting that beauty is her life."

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