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Michigan subscription boxes aim to disrupt retail market

From left: Chris George, John Haji, Paul Chambers of Gentleman's Box

Michigan entrepreneurs Chris George, Paul Chambers, and John Haji combined business savvy in 2014 to form Royal Oak-based Gentleman’s Box. The $25 monthly curated box features four to six essentials with an average total value of $100. With a subscriber base in the "high five digits," the box makes its way to 40 countries, according to George.
Each box is built around one real or fictional gentleman, like Ernest Hemingway, James Bond, or Frank Sinatra, which adds a unique element.
"What’s cool is it's fun—not just a bunch of random products thrown in a box, but we're building a lifestyle around our products," George says. "A Gentleman's Post goes inside the box and shows subscribers how to tie a bowtie or lift their style to make them look better."
There's a higher purpose too. “We focus on bringing back gentlemanly qualities as well," George says. "More than just getting items, but about being a better man."
Consumers seeking first-glimpse new product discovery and the thrill of surprise in their mailbox are looking to subscription boxes such as Gentleman's Box for their fixes. There are boxes for those who love bakingLego-buildingcamping and adventuremealsorganic produceexotic snacksdate nightpooches, and much more. So much so that Detroit this year hosted the Subscription Box Summit, which brought founders, industry leaders, and fans from across the nation to discuss everything subscription boxes.
Birchbox launched the trend in 2010 with monthly $10 beauty product boxes, and it soon had company. The industry has grown at a rate of 200% each year since 2011, generating $5 billion in revenue in 2014.
Feel good, be happy
"We know our clients are seeking to be happy from the inside out, and we have learned that personal growth is their path to a happier life," says Michael Broukhim, co-CEO of California-based quarterly lifestyle box FabFitFun. Relationships, purpose, and novelty rank high with his female demographic.
"We want to put that novelty piece of the pyramid on autopilot, and create that New Year's Eve excitement four times a year," he says, adding that standouts from the fall box included ModCloth blanket scarves, custom crowdsourced coloring books, and pencil boxes, a collaboration with featured nonprofit, Pencils of Promise.
Box companies typically are in constant negotiation with vendors to get products into the hands of customers.
The typical customer is a woman looking for essentials, luxury fashion, and home decor items, gets a boost from the element of surprise and wants to know someone thought about what went in her box, says Liz Cadman, founder of Pittsburgh-based My Subscription Addiction, a review and community website that conducted a reader survey this year.
"She wants to feel like she gets a good return on investment," Cadman says, meaning a box's value must exceed its cost. "Fitness was at the top of the list for what people want. It's something we’re seeing more and more. Adidas has a quarterly box that's a runaway hit. We're all obsessed with it."
More in Michigan
Aspiring Detroit-based boxes don't necessarily follow the typical beauty/fitness/fashion model. In 2017, watch for a box by Motor City STEAM designed to get science, tech, engineering, art, and math projects into the hands of kids, and one called B-Side Box that features books, art, and music by artists of color. Established early childhood development company Simply Smart Kids is also planning a future box launch.
Westland-based Fresh N Healthy entered the DIY meal box market in the spring with a key difference. "Everything is super fresh and nutritious and we deliver it all completely prepared," founder Stephanie Cosby says. "Pop it in the fridge, heat, and enjoy. Currently delivered in Metro Detroit, the 10-person company is building corporate and local farmer relationships, and provides meals to about 85 customers each week.
The Michigan Made box by Detroit-based Pactz features small-batch products like Shurms candies and Benjamin Twiggs chocolate-covered cherries. "We send one out for every Pure Michigan season, and we also serve the corporate side," owner Nathan Kunst says. "I've never gotten a bad review."
Similarly, Mitten Crate fills monthly subscribers with Kaleamazoo Chips, roasted lentils from SimpleSuppleFoods, and caffeinated cookies from Get Up and Go. The company has also partnered with the Hopeful Harvest incubator program for fulfillment. The company launched in August 2013 and has a core subscriber base of more than 300.
“We take pride that we donate the equivalent of three meals to Gleaners for every Crate," says principal Cory Wright. "That’s more than 100,000 meals since we started. They get a donation for every single box we package."
Seeking influencers
Innovation thrives with out-of-the-box marketing, so box companies don't use traditional advertising.
"The future of marketing needs to be about content, not clutter," says Ryan Schram, COO of Izea, an Orlando, Florida-based social media sponsorship company, asserting that consumers actively avoid online and traditional advertising, even spending money on ad-blocking software and premium services, sans ads. "A consumer is more likely to survive a plane crash than intentionally click on a banner ad," he says, quoting company research.
Box companies instead establish relationships with influencers, or YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter celebs, and compensate them to talk up their products to their followers, often in very significant numbers. YouTube box "reveals" by authentic web assets boost staying power and can be significant in gaining new subscribers.
Chow Down Detroit, for example, has 72,500 followers lapping up his every posted meal. This serves as valuable narrowed-market exposure, especially for food-related Michigan box entrepreneurs, though research shows that word of mouth endorsement, often provided by these same influencers, is still critically important.
Creative longevity
Keeping customers interested for the long haul is a challenge many boxes face, and entrepreneurs are working to provide added value to subscribers to keep them on board.
"More boxes are shipping quarterly rather than monthly, like the pricier Rachel Zoe Box of Style," Cadman says. "It's $100, but a customer can justify that. Quarterly is a smart trend, and can help prevent product overload or fatigue."
Constant innovation is critical in this market. George and his team are testing a concept he says "excites people and has a ton of potential" to disrupt the subscription world. The details are top secret, but "really awesome," he says. We await the big reveal.
Claire Charlton is a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Connect with her on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.
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