You’ve got retail: The online subscription service

Bensimon Byrne's Max Valiquette looks at why marketers shouldn't ignore the shopping method, which will soon enter the Canadian market.

By Max Valiquette

The latest consumer trend isn’t one that we’ve investigated through our Consumerology research because it’s one that doesn’t really exist in Canada yet (or at least not to the extent that it does in the U.S.). It’s the newest extension of online shopping: the online subscription service. And Canadian retailers and retail marketers should be worried – or at least, should be paying attention.

Online subscription services are essentially regular delivery services that send a buyer a group of products. Sometimes, it’s a specific series of items that you’ve chosen to have delivered to your door on a regular schedule (such as diapers, wipes and baby powder every month). Amazon’s Subscribe and Save is probably the best example of this, but increasingly, there are others that send a curated group of items to subscribers, often on a monthly basis. This is where it starts to get really interesting, in that so many of these services are built around tailoring what is sent to you, based on your needs, their expertise or both.

Birchbox is one of the oldest of these services, sending out sample-sized cosmetics and hygiene products to women for $10 a month. But there are plenty of others on the rise: Foodzie sends artisanal food products; Mantry specializes in foods men should have in their pantries; and Citrus Lane sends boxes of the things parents of newborns need every month, changing what’s delivered to suit the age of your children as they grow up.

There are lots of reasons shopper marketers should take notice. For those of us in Canada, it is important to remember that these are primarily U.S. companies and shipping costs here, as it stands, mean that these sites haven’t taken off the same way yet. But that will change: like every other digital delivery business that started in the U.S. – be it Amazon, Netflix or iTunes – eventually it’ll expand up north, or Canadians will find a way to replicate it for our market. These services will have to be a part of your sampling strategy, if not your overall distribution strategy.

But there’s a bigger reason to pay attention: in an era of seemingly infinite choice in pretty much every category, these services offer a terrific way to introduce new (or less well-known) products to consumers in a customized, targeted fashion. It can be difficult to even locate a new product at the retail level – we’re busier so we’re in a hurry, we shop at bigger stores that carry more and more products, and the only way to deal with what can be an overwhelming number of brands or products is to go right for what we know we like and move on.

We, as marketers, have thought about cutting through the media clutter for a while now; it’s time to recognize that there’s a commensurate amount of clutter at the retail level as well. And similarly, the best way to cut through it might be to use an entirely different channel.

That’s exactly what an online subscription service does: it bypasses the traditional retail pipeline to directly deliver the sorts of new products that consumers might otherwise not be able to discover.

Most of these sites offer follow-up (like one of these products? We’ll send you more!) making the process of re-selling even easier. But most importantly, these services are curated and specific, offering the sort of personalization and direct contact big box retail can’t provide. Eco-friendly products; kids’ arts and crafts projects; Paleo-diet friendly snacks; pretty much everything is available for subscription already, with a specific enough focus that they feel tremendously personal.

It’s only a matter of time before the majority of these are available here in Canada.

Soon, your customers will no longer discover products in-store – instead, they’ll discover them at home. If you can, try to get aligned with a subscription service right now – or maybe even think about inventing one. These may never replace traditional retail stores for the bulk of our shopping, but increasingly, I think, it’s how we’ll try new things.

Max Valiquette is the managing director of intellectual property and content development at Bensimon Byrne. For more information on Consumerology, or to download a copy, go to