Never mind Netflix and Amazon Prime — you can now sign up to subscriptions for just about anything.
From gin to toilet paper and even dog treats, demand for subscription boxes – a package of specific goods delivered to your door on a regular basis – has boomed during lockdown.
One in five British households is now signed up to at least one subscription box service, according to research by Deloitte.
Boxing clever: Rosie Taylor with the goods she ordered from a variety of popular subscription services
Alcoholic drink subscriptions are the most popular, followed by shaving and grooming products, recipe boxes, fruit and vegetables boxes and coffee and tea deliveries.
The average subscriber spends more than £35 per month on their service, with one in ten spending more than £75, according to customer engagement specialists Emarsys.
But questions have been raised about whether they are worth the cost because fewer than 3 per cent of customers keep their subscription going for more than a year — and a third of those who cancel blame poor value.
For some customers, subscriptions are more than just a convenient way to receive things they need.
Retail expert Chris Godderidge says: ‘Price isn’t everything. You’re paying for an experience and for the luxury of a surprise gift delivered to your door each month.
The best retailers use subscriptions to really get to know their customers and to ensure the contents are personalised to your particular tastes and past purchases.
‘If you’re just looking to bulk buy, then subscription boxes aren’t the way to go, but if you’re looking to treat yourself on a regular basis, the value of these boxes goes way beyond the products inside.’
So, with physical shops now open again, is it still worth signing up to subscription box services?
Money Mail ordered some popular boxes to find out if customers really get what they pay for.
For £39 per month Bloombox will send you a plant in a ceramic pot and a leaflet about its benefits
Flower power to your door
Bloombox is a houseplant subscription that promises to improve your wellbeing by delivering plants which boost your physical and mental health.
For £39 per month, you get a plant in a ceramic pot and a leaflet about its benefits.
Every second or third month you also get a free gift ‘worth £15’, such as a mini glass spray bottle.
In my first package, I received an areca palm, which was shipped from the Netherlands. It was in great condition but I could have bought the same plant for as little as £12.99 from a British garden centre.
It came with a round cement plant pot, made by Dutch interiors company Mica. The design is now out of stock everywhere but you can buy the square version for £8.42 or the same shape in a ceramic finish for £7.29 via the website yablogerz.com.
Waitrose also sells areca palms in a ceramic pot for £28.98 (although they are currently sold out).
Bloombox says: ‘Unlike supermarket chains, our plants are delivered directly from our growers.
‘Our pots are of high quality and definitely worth the money that we sell them for . . . As a small company, we handpick and curate each item that goes into our boxes.’
Cost per month: £39.
If bought separately: £20.28 to £28.98.
The Sweet Club offers a large selection, from traditional boiled sweets to American candy
Tasty deals for a sweet tooth
For £11.95 a month or £10.95 a fortnight, The Sweet Club will send you eight 100g bags of assorted sweets.
You choose from a large selection, from traditional boiled sweets to American candy. My box arrived beautifully presented — and included a free giant cola bottle gummy sweet — but this is an expensive way to buy pick’n’mix.
It works out at around £1.49 per 100g, roughly three times the supermarket average price, and the sweets are cheap quality.
My selection included Jelly Babies and Liquorice Allsorts. But 190g bags of the Maynards Bassetts classics cost just £1 at Asda, equivalent to 53p per 100g.
Asda’s own rhubarb and custard boiled sweets cost just 32p per 100g, while its shrimps and banana foam sweets are 63p per 100g.
The subscription could be a good way of sourcing old-fashioned favourites, as I couldn’t find some of the classic sweets I received (like lemon bonbons and pear drops) at the supermarket.
The box could make a nice one-off gift but doesn’t make financial sense if you want a regular treat.
Cost per month: £11.95.
If bought separately: £4.24.
Top quality: Beauty product subscription service Birchbox costs up to £13.95 per month
This box is a real beauty
Beauty product subscription service Birchbox costs up to £13.95 per month (it’s cheaper if you commit to a longer deal).
I received a sample-size shampoo bar, two sample-size face serums, a mascara and a nail polish, as well as a ‘free gift’ of a reusable silicon bag.
The leaflet showed the recommended retail price (RRP) of each item, which suggested the contents were worth a total of £88.95 (plus the silicon bag, which sells for £12.99 on Amazon).
But the small print revealed those prices only applied to full-size products.
As three out of the five were tiny sample sizes, these would only be worth around £23.95 in total.
The full-size mascara (labelled as RRP £9) I found on sale at Superdrug for £6.95, while the Nails Inc polish (RRP £11) was no longer on sale but previously cost £10.
One of the serum samples had been included in last Christmas’s Birchbox advent calendar, which suggested it was an end-of-line product.
The box was still a bargain and the products seemed high quality. Birchbox says it includes RRP information so subscribers can buy full-size products if they want to.
Cost per month: Up to £13.95.
If bought separately: Around £53.89.
Saucy surprise: Fresh pasta kits from Pasta Evangelist
Fresh pasta that’s delivered in the post
These artisan fresh pasta kits from Pasta Evangelist claim to offer a restaurant experience at home – although you have to finish cooking the dish yourself.
You must order a minimum of two portions, at around £7 to £10 per portion, and sign up for a regular delivery (such as weekly, fortnightly or monthly), although you can cancel at any time.
For a total of £15.50, my order contained a black truffle macaroni cheese, weighing 385g (including the cardboard tray), and a wild boar ragu pappardelle, with 200g of fresh pasta and 188g of sauce (including plastic packaging).
Both dishes looked small and uninspiring when they arrived uncooked but they were delicious and so rich the portions were plenty big enough.
Supermarket fresh pasta is cheaper, if not as tasty. A two-person serving of fresh pappardelle and wild boar ragu sauce from Waitrose costs a total of £12.50 — equivalent to £1.64 per 100g — while the Pasta Evangelist version works out at around £1.93 per 100g.
And with restaurants now reopening, you could pay the same for similar dishes that you don’t have to cook yourself. Our local Italian sells takeaway hot fresh pasta dishes for £8, for example.
Cost per month: Around £15.50.
If bought separately: £12.50 (Waitrose) to £16 (local restaurant).
The Beautiful Book Company’s three-month baby books subscription costs £34.99
Book some regular reading material
I signed up to The Beautiful Book Company’s £34.99 three-month baby books subscription service for my one-year-old son.
Every month he received one book gift-wrapped in tissue paper. Each book only had an RRP of £6.99, so I could easily have bought it cheaper elsewhere, but it was exciting for him to get something new to unwrap every month.
Although I had entered my son’s age and requested cardboard books on the sign-up page, only one of the books that arrived was age-appropriate.
One was aimed at older children and the other had paper instead of cardboard pages.
Reviews from other customers suggest if I had provided more information about my son’s personality, likes and dislikes, I would have received more appropriate books.
The Beautiful Book Company says its personalised subscriptions are ‘individually selected and gift wrapped for each recipient based on information provided about their reading preferences, creating a uniquely tailored reading experience’.
Cost per month: £11.67 (minimum subscription three months).
If bought separately: £6.99.
Pong Cheese’s delivery service costs £22 a month
Get a slice of the cheese club
For £22 per month, Pong Cheese will send you a box with gourmet cheeses weighing 50g to 200g each.
My cheese box, which was nicely presented, contained an English cheddar, Welsh blue cheese, French soft cheese and an Italian goat’s cheese.
I found the two British cheeses on sale elsewhere for £6.95 and £3.95. The French and Italian cheeses were not available in the UK but foreign websites suggest they would sell for about £2.65 and £4.95 each.
Although the total value was only around £18.50, the real value was in getting interesting cheeses which are not on sale in this country.
Once you factor in the fact the subscription includes delivery to your door in a chilled box, the £22 price tag seems reasonable.
Cost per month: £22.
If bought separately: Around £18.50 (not all available in the UK).
Combination: The Snaffling Pig Company’s pork scratchings and cider
Pig out on pork scratchings
The Snaffling Pig Company’s gourmet subscription arrived in a huge box that was mainly full of cardboard packaging.
It contained four 150g packets of luxury mustard-flavoured pork crackling pieces and two bottles of rhubarb cider.
The pork was just like real crackling and intensely flavoured with mustard — much better than the average packet of scratchings.
If you bought the items separately from The Snaffling Pig, it would only cost £22 — but its website adds a £4.99 delivery charge, meaning the subscription does work out cheaper.
I felt £23.50 was still a heavy price tag for two drinks and some snacks and, with the pubs now reopening, I suspect you could get better value for money at your local.
The Snaffling Pig says: ‘We feel our box represents excellent value on the basis that there’s no delivery cost when you sign up for our subscriptions.’
Cost per month: £23.50.
If bought separately: £22 (plus £4.99 delivery).
Inspiration: The Spicery sends out packets of pre-mixed spices and recipe cards
Mixed spice and all things nice
For a minimum £26 three-month subscription, The Spicery sends out packets of pre-mixed spice and a recipe card so you can make your very own exotic meal.
In terms of the physical contents, you only receive a few grams of spices for your money – and you have to buy the rest of the recipe ingredients yourself.
In my lamb curry recipe box, I received mini plastic packets of mixed spices, containing ingredients including garam masala, cumin and turmeric, which weighed a total of 30g (including the packaging).
There was also a free 16g packet to make a bonus kebab recipe.
In total, the £8.67 box contained less than 46g of spice — equivalent to more than 19p per gram or £18.85 per 100g.
A packet of garam masala costs just £1.15 per 100g in supermarkets, so The Spicery’s spices are around 16 times more expensive.
But while I may have been able to buy the same spices more cheaply elsewhere, I’ve had them sitting on my kitchen shelf for years and never bothered to make a proper homemade curry.
So the real value in the subscription is the easy-to-follow recipes and the inspiration to cook something new.
The Spicery says its subscription service is normally bought as a gift and is ‘a way of sending someone a new experience every month where they can discover something completely new to cook’, with each recipe’s spices freshly ground and measured out.
Cost per month: £8.67.
If bought separately: 53p.
But you can save too
Some subscription services do give customers a much cheaper way to buy everyday or luxury items.
Gillette Shave Club
For £12.74 every two months, Gillette will send a four-pack of ProGlide razor blades . The same pack costs £14.99 in the shops, meaning shavers could save £13.50 per year.
The London Sock Company
For £30 for three months, you can send one pair of luxury socks per month as a gift. As they usually retail at £18 each, you will save £24.
Smol laundry capsules
Enter the number of washes you put on a week in its website and Smol will time when to send your next packet of eco-friendly laundry capsules.
For £4.50 for 24, they work out at less than 19p each, compared with 25p each for Fairy Non-Bio Pods.
Thornbridge Beer Club
Subscribers get a mixed box of different beers worth £50 for £40 each month. If you are a regular beer drinker, it makes financial sense to sign up.
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