Subscription Boxes, Curiosity, Convenience, and Expertise

In May Amazon announced a new a new product called Prime Book Box, a subscription box service for children’s hardback books. Subscribers pay $23 per month to receive the box with four board books or two picture books or novels every one, two, or three months. The service includes options for children ages baby-two years, three-five years, six-eight years, and nine-twelve years. (See Tech Crunch’s "Amazon launches Prime Book Box, a $23 kids’ book selection, in its first physical Prime book service" for a nice summary of the service and what this might mean for Amazon.)

Amazon's move follows a growing trend toward subscription box services. U.S. customer visits to subscription box sites have risen nearly tenfold over the past four years, with 41.7 million visits to subscription box sites in April 2018, according to data from online-traffic tracker Hitwise reported in Forbes (“The Subscription Box Industry Is Getting More Crowded Than Ever”). The subscription box market now includes offerings for food, beauty, fashion, grooming, pet products, and even cleaning products.

Subscription boxes take advantage of consumer curiosity, allowing customers to sample and be surprised by a range of products of niche interest to them. And the trend trades on convenience, with meal kits and other services delivered straight to subscribers’ doors, eliminating the need for trips to the grocery store, drug store, or mall. But several recent developments, including Albertson’s purchase of the meal-kit company Plated and Costco's experiment selling Blue Apron meal kits in some of its stores, may test another selling point – expertise. If the boxes can become a sustained service in brick-and-mortar stores, they will prove to be about more than just convenience or niche consumerism. They will have to appeal to consumers’ sense that the packaged content provides an expert assemblage that they simply could not create or curate on their own.    

Amazon certainly markets the importance of expertise in their promotion of Prime Book Box, highlighting the inclusion of "hidden gems that our Editors couldn’t put down." For a category like children's literature, where parents recognize the importance of quality but may not themselves be experts, this is a key selling point. Blue apron promotes the expertise of gourmet recipes - and the expertise of their partner farmers who provide the highest-quality ingredients. Beauty service Birchbox promotes the value-add of their B team through their online Magazine featuring tutorials, product reviews, advice columns, and human interest stories.

Are subscription boxes the future? They are certainly part of a future, even if they are not the future. And they definitely tell us something valuable about the future.

Expertise is important. In an increasingly competitive field, the subscription services that survive will likely be those that appeal to consumers with an expertise that delivers something truly exceptional. Expertise is nothing new to library professionals. It’s one of the values we provide to communities, through the curation of collections, programs, and services that anticipate the needs of users.

So it isn’t surprising to see some libraries and librarians leverage their skills to the subscription service model. In 2016 Purdue University librarian Jamillah Gabriel launched Call Number, a $35 per month literature subscription box designed to promote black literature, especially by lesser-known black authors (Lafayette Journal & Courier "Purdue librarian founds first black literature box"). In Illinois, the Hinsdale Public Library's Teen Book Box and the Eisenhower Public Library District’s Ya’ll Read? Teen Subscription Box have both adapted subscription box services to a more traditional library model, checking books out to subscribers with the expectation that they will return the material (some additional goodies are theirs to keep) when their lending period ends.  

Even as we emphasize human expertise, it will be important to keep an eye on the ways that technology seeks to replicate and replace expertise through data-driven personalization and recommendation. Clothing subscription services like Stitch Fix have users fill out an initial style profile and then continue to tailor that profile as users keep or return suggested merchandise. That level of data collection and exploitation might challenge some of our professional values for privacy and intellectual freedom. For now, and given some recent experiences with data manipulation and exploitation, the human touch might spark more of the delight and surprise that we want to provide to patrons.