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Subscriptions have long been used to sell books, CDs, wine and diapers — and now a number of startups are using the concept to market apparel, grooming and lifestyle products specifically to men. The rationale is that many guys don’t enjoy shopping via traditional retail formats and delivering new clothes and toiletries to their doorsteps on a regular basis makes the shopping process easy, accessible and habit forming.

This story first appeared in the December 27, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“It’s for guys who have to buy clothes but clothing isn’t their passion. We wanted to make shopping for clothes a solved problem,” said Bernie Yoo, cofounder of Bombfell, a year-old site that sends subscribers a carefully chosen sportswear item from brands like Ben Sherman, French Connection and Original Penguin once a month for a flat rate of $69. “What’s interesting is that we are tapping wallet share of guys who normally don’t buy clothes very often. Our customer tells us that his favorite place to shop is Costco. We are removing the hurdle to shopping for clothes by making it simple and automated.”

That notion is the similar conceit of recently launched subscription services like Manpacks, Birchbox Man, Bespoke Post, 12Society and Svbscription, which focus on various fashion and grooming categories. Their methods differ from service to service, but the common strategy is to keep men hooked on a monthly or quarterly basis with regular, planned deliveries to their homes.

Birchbox Man is the male offshoot of the successful Birchbox women’s site that dispatches monthly samples of beauty products. The men’s service made its debut in April and signed up a slew of prominent brands, including Cartier, Bulgari, Kiehl’s, Malin + Goetz, Jonathan Adler, Molton Brown, Nickel, Anthony Logistics for Men, C.O. Bigelow, Jack Black, John Allan’s and The Art of Shaving.

“There aren’t as many retail options for men and very few that are dedicated to a men’s experience where they can discover new brands and products,” said Katia Beauchamp, cofounder of Birchbox, of the company’s segue into the men’s market.

Each men’s Birchbox delivery is $20 and includes grooming, lifestyle and technology items, such as pocket squares, ties and earphones. Because of the added lifestyle element, the men’s service is double the price charged to women, who receive only beauty samples for $10 a month.

The company decided to offer accessories in the men’s service because there are fewer grooming and beauty options for guys to fill up the monthly boxes (which are cardboard, not birch, by the way). “We didn’t want fatigue to set in by sending them similar products every month,” said Beauchamp. “We also wanted them to be comfortable talking about their items with friends — they might not want to discuss the new exfoliator they tried, but they will talk about the new earbuds they got from Birchbox.”

Together, the men’s and women’s services have signed up more than 300,000 subscribers. The participating companies provide deluxe, sample-size product without charge to Birchbox. “It’s a marketing tool for them,” said Beauchamp of the arrangement with vendors. “We find it to be a very effective way for brands to acquire new customers.”

Birchbox deliveries are customized to each subscriber based on data points collected via brief online surveys. “We want to expose you to new things but we also want to provide a tailored experience. We need to know if you have hair or don’t have hair, for example,” said Beauchamp.

Every sample product that is sent in a Birchbox can later be purchased on the Birchbox e-commerce site. A loyalty points program encourages the purchase from Birchbox rather than competing sites. More than 50 percent of Birchbox subscribers have made a purchase on the e-commerce site, said Beauchamp. While the company does not release sales figures, she said 2012 revenue was up 500 percent over the previous year.

The subscription model is not without hurdles, chief among them the reluctance of some consumers to commit to recurring billing. “There can be up-front resistance to subscribing. Some people remember being burned by other subscription services,” admitted Ken Johnson, cofounder and customer experience officer of Manpacks, which offers regular deliveries of male essentials like underwear, razors and soap. “But once people become a member, we get a lot of positive feedback. It really provides a useful service to them. It’s our challenge as a startup to show people we’re different and we’re very up front about how we operate.”

A similar service to Manpacks, called Guyhaus, launched last year but the Web site has since gone dark. Manpacks is not yet profitable, said Johnson, but is posting linear growth every month and now has about 5,000 subscribers. “Generally, our customer is the single, male iPad owner,” he explained, although about 15 percent of accounts are set up by women for the men in their lives.

Black boxer briefs by Calvin Klein and Saxx are the best selling items on Manpacks, followed by Champion and Hanes athletic socks and shaving products and soaps. “Our concept has been to use best in class brands like Hanes and Calvin Klein — ones that people already have an affinity for. But we also want to work with small brands that people haven’t heard of because we get to bring a cool story to our customers about products we really like,” said Johnson. “Grooming Lounge has been gaining traction in grooming products, and BR4SS, a small Los Angeles-based underwear company has very quickly become a hot seller for us.”

Manpacks customers create their first pack themselves, which ships immediately. Subsequent shipments go out every three months but recipients can rush or “snooze” shipments when necessary. Subscribers receive reminder e-mails a week prior to their quarterly shipment and can make changes to it via their personal dashboard.

Returns are free but Johnson says less than 1 percent of shipments are returned. “I think there’s an ‘oh well’ factor where they know these are basics they will use at some point,” he pointed out. Further, sizing issues are minimal as most people know their underwear and T-shirt sizes.

A number of sites now offer guys the chance to access an array of curated fashion and lifestyle products chosen by tastemakers rather than themselves — sort of like receiving a surprise gift in the mail each month. The Web site 12Society launched in June, offering subscribers lifestyle products chosen each month by sports stars and celebrities like Nick Cannon, Blake Griffin, Michael Strahan and Nas. The service costs $39 a month and includes fashion, grooming, sports and technology products.

Bespoke Post takes a similar approach with its so-called “Box of Awesome” packages costing $45 each. A recent “weekend” themed box, for example, contained a canvas duffel, travel grooming kit from Aesop and an American Airlines executive lounge pass. The site partnered with Details magazine earlier this year to create three special boxes that shipped in June, October and December.

A luxury angle sets Svbscription apart, with the site offering parcels stocked with designer and limited-edition goods. The first one, which came nailed shut in an elaborate wooden box, shipped in July and the third shipped this month. The high-concept deliveries have included Bespoken silk pocket squares, a lapel pin from Henson, a suede folio from Loden Dager and a Kawako fountain pen. The first two boxes cost subscribers $300 and had estimated retail values of $348 and $488, respectively, while the third box cost $330 and had a value of $546. All the parcels sold out two weeks prior to delivery, with 100 editions of the first box, 150 of the second and 200 of the third.

Subscribers are taking a bit of a gamble because they pay for their orders without knowing what they will receive in each box — and no refunds are issued. “We have had six or seven people who have been disappointed with the parcel, for various reasons. We recommend they regift the contents to someone else. We don’t take back returns,” said Svbscription cofounder Andrew Apostola, who reasons that surprise is central to the company’s mission. “It’s hard to buy genuine surprise in life. Even having a baby, you know the sex before it’s born. We’re tapping into this sentiment that you want to explore and extend your style but don’t know where to start. It’s not a sampling service; we are providing the actual product.”

Frank & Oak, a Montreal-based vertical e-commerce site that markets its own brand of affordably priced sportswear, takes a soft-sell approach to the subscription model. Rather than shipping actual clothes on a regularly timed basis, the site sends out monthly e-mails to customers with a group of suggested items in the format of a digital magazine — and the customer decides what to order from the recommendations.

The company’s cofounder, Ethan Song, said he wanted to avoid the high return rates that can afflict subscription services but to incorporate the concept’s recurrent business model. “We wanted to work on a monthly model because guys are rational. If it’s October, they understand they may need a corduroy jacket,” he explained. “We talk to guys in a format they can understand: ‘What do I need this month?’”

As with subscription models, Frank & Oak customers fill out questionnaires at sign-up on data points like age and lifestyle, which allows a computerized algorithm, with an assist from a stylist, to make monthly recommendations. The company has about 300,000 people in its e-mail database and receives 15,000 orders a month, with close to two items per order on average. It is adding about 60,000 new members a month, said Song.

Unlike at Frank & Oak, choice is largely eliminated from the shopping process at Bombfell, intentionally. “We use an accept-or-reject model. We are consciously not giving people too many choices. Our hypothesis is that choice is more of a burden for this customer. They just want a pair of good jeans, they don’t want a hundred options of jeans,” explained Yoo, who founded the company with Jason Kim, his roommate at Harvard University, and Sarah Lee, a stylist.

Each month, Bombfell subscribers receive an e-mail with a single suggested item that is shipped within 48 hours, unless the user rejects the item. Once an item is shipped to a user, he is billed after having it for 10 days at home to test it out — and returns are free. “The customer thinks of it as a monthly budget, like a lease payment on a car. It frees them up to think about other things besides clothes,” reasoned Yoo.


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