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Donna Barstow

Why Is It So Much Fun to Get a Box in the Mail?

There's no guarantee with surprises.

© Donna Barstow All Rights Reserved
Source: © Donna Barstow All Rights Reserved

My last cartoon was about looking for the right person to sleep with. One sign to avoid, others to look for.

To follow up on the cartoon, another way of being anonymous? Shopping online. And one of the most underrated and fast-growing businesses out there is subscription boxes. Maybe you have considered it yourself, or have noticed your neighbor getting boxes every month (or even daily, if it's a meal or food subscription.)

Fast Company interviewed the CEO of Cratejoy, who puts together some of these boxes, and he estimates that there are 10,000 boxes being offered now, selling everything from beauty to bullydog boxes, including boxes aimed towards nerds, collectors, gourmets, lazy people, and, yes, shoe buyers.

(Just an hour after I posted this, Shark Tank had a segment where an entrepreneur pitched his new...subscription box. It's a food one: Ice Age Meals.)

I fell down the rabbit hole of subscription boxes this summer, mostly with beauty boxes. They are a lot of fun and an inexpensive way to try new products. However, the fallout surprised me: wanting more, monthly bills, disappointment over "bad" boxes, and clutter.

Is shopping an addiction for you?

Who doesn't want to know, What's in the Box? Of course, getting monthly packages in the mail is just plain exciting. But for many buyers of subscription boxes, it can be an addictive way of life. One of the biggest review sites of these boxes is My Subscription Addiction. Their name seems to take a light-hearted look at the industry, but the forums are filled with stories and comments and complaints on how the buyers have tried to cut back on subscribing, but they just can't. "It's real," is a common lament.

From informal polls in sub box forums, I estimate that the average buyer gets 7 to 15 boxes. Many boxes are inexpensive: only $10 a month for the cheaper ones, with 4 or 5 products inside. But most boxes tend more towards $20, and $150 is common for lifestyle ones. (Lifestyle is a generalized word for any box that contains makeup AND accessories AND decor AND snacks, or anything you can think of, really.)

That can get pretty expensive for a monthly outlay. And it's not uncommon for folks to admit they get 40 or for every day of the month, and more.

Side effect: how to handle all that stuff

The other problem that coattails with subscription boxes (or any over-shopping) is where to store all of it. Can you really use up 3 or 4 mascaras every month? How about the beautiful bottles of nail polish (over 800 colors!) from Julep? Or the clothes, books and home items?

This all leads to that scary word: clutter. Your next problem is how to organize, or unload gifts on unsuspecting friends and relatives, and fast.

Sherrie Bourg Carter writes about clutter, and makes a good point:

Clutter distracts us by drawing our attention away from what our focus should be on.

Over-buying, perhaps.

How much of a gambler are you?

Another thing you might not know about subscription boxes is that the contents, for the most part, are kept a secret. Sure, some of them post some spoilers on social media, or leak them to bloggers, but most do not reveal all. In fact, Mystery Boxes are some of the biggest sellers!.

Curiosity isn't that bad, is it? There is a lot of research on this strong human drive, and How Stuff Works asks, is it internal or external? A strange sound at night might make you want to investigate it (state curiosity, external), but an urge to stay up late on the internet learning new stuff is trait curiosity, internal.

Both kinds of curiosity involve risk or possible failure. says curiosity in experiments is very strong even when the outcome might be unpleasant or unwanted. People search for answers (what's in the box?) as a way to end the anxiety of uncertainty.

FOMO is used a lot by box buyers: Fear of Missing Out. If the last box wasn't so great, might the next one be better? And what if the next one has a Holy Grail, and you weren't subscribed?...that would be bad, indeed.

Before you ask: I am only subscribed to 4 boxes at the moment, with an occasional sideswipe at the value-packed Target or Walmart boxes. Yum.

What boxes do you get, or are you thinking about? How is your online shopping different from going to the store?

All Rights Reserved. Content including cartoon © Donna Barstow Cartoons 2016. I upload new cartoons on Facebook, so please follow! Please contact me for usage rights and fees for cartoons in any of your projects or books.

And check out my books: Love Me or Go to Hell: True Love Cartoons, and What do Women Really Want? Chocolate!

About the Author

Donna Barstow is a cartoonist, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.