Give Me What You Want

Subscription boxes are like a Spotify for things

“People don’t buy products, they buy better versions of themselves.” So goes the marketing maxim that increasingly defines the modern retail economy: Companies don’t sell objects so much as they sell an idealized lifestyle, an opportunity for consumers to improve themselves by participating in the belief system that a brand evokes.

This maxim has informed the rise of direct-to-consumer retail enterprises, which bypass the traditional distribution pipeline of department stores and boutiques to sell straight to buyers through their own e-commerce sites. For example, luggage brand Away consciously targets users who treat international travel as a coveted, performative status symbol, and eyewear brand Warby Parker sells David Bowie books and haiku compilations alongside glasses in its brick-and-mortar showrooms.

But the most extreme expression of the strategic shift from products to belief systems may be retail subscription boxes, which aggregate and deliver a selection of clothing, makeup, food, or other items to customers’ doors. A recent article in Self lists “21 Subscription Boxes That’ll Make Your Life a Million Times Easier,” including everything from wine clubs and meal kits to athletic wear boxes, candle boxes, dental care boxes, and dog accessory boxes. The review site My Subscription Addiction has turned into a lucrative business, with a six-figure Instagram following and at least 18 full- and part-time staff.

Outsourcing taste becomes intertwined with precarious employment: We begin to depend more and more on the time that outsourcing supposedly saves

If these subscription boxes are the bastion of direct-to-consumer retail, what exactly is the “better version of ourselves” that these companies are selling and that their customers want? While the mechanics of each subscription box vary somewhat, distinct patterns have emerged in customers’ motivations to pay. Some are simply searching for better deals and discounts, particularly on more luxurious items like wines. Others may suffer from social anxiety or decision fatigue and want to avoid spending too much time sampling products in public or researching them in private. Still others say they are looking to reclaim the sense of surprise that some believe is lost in the online shopping experience. In fact, several box services are designing packaging explicitly to maximize the purported pleasure of opening them, sponsoring a vast ecosystem of unboxing videos on YouTube. This creates what Alex Nichols described at the Outline as “a hellish feedback loop in which consumers purchase goods for the express purpose of giving a company free advertising.”

But above all, the main benefit subscription boxes seem to offer is convenience, promising a better self by expediting and automating consumption. Venture capitalists have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into what might be understood as the Spotification of retail: Consumers pay by the month to receive a stream of algorithmically chosen goods. The term Spotification has been used in contexts as far-ranging as real estate, automobiles, banking, and book publishing to refer to a commercial logic that prioritizes access over ownership, breadth over depth of consumption, and instant ease of use over more deliberate exploration as a prerequisite for enjoyment.

One of the defining tenets of Spotification is what digital anthropologist Lane DeNicola calls a “shift from commodity ownership to commodified experience.” Paid subscribers to Spotify are not buying a bounded physical or digital item, writes DeNicola, but rather “a predetermined amount of time during which they have access to the entirety of the vast online library of music.” These subscribers are also buying limited-time, on-demand access to black-boxed algorithmic curation systems, which allows platform logic to take precedence over record companies’ conventional A&R concerns in the formation of taste and culture. Engagement with the wider platform and its algorithms replaces engagement with particular artists or songs as consumers seek to further develop their tastes, the better versions of themselves.

Spotify’s perceived superiority in the tech world has prompted other digital-distribution platforms to adopt a similar rhetoric of ultra-personalization and the promise of perpetual discovery. And the same data-driven recommendation and outsourced tastemaking that streaming and social-media platforms have pioneered are now being brought to bear not merely on media products but on all kinds of material commodities. Fashion subscription service Stitch Fix, which was founded in 2011 and went public in 2017, offers a good example: The company recently launched an algorithmically designed clothing line Hybrid Design that some commentators have deemed “the Netflix of fashion.” “Fit and taste are just a bunch of attributes: waist, inseam, material, color, weight, durability, and pattern,” CEO Katrina Lake wrote in an essay for Harvard Business Review. “It’s all just data.” In this view, you express yourself not by choosing particular clothing; you do it by trusting the data that predicts what you will wear. If authenticity in fashion can be boiled down to the ability of an item to reflect a person’s ethos accurately and convincingly, Lake argues that authenticity is not only preserved but maximized when data-fied. As with Spotify, the ideal user experience for services like Stitch Fix does not require users to understand the decision-making algorithms to benefit from them; rather their complexity serves as an implicit guarantee of authenticity such that a customer can still end up with something that feels “right” without having to choose or think about it.

This ties back to the wider concept of Spotification, which extols expedited shortcuts to experiences that users can nonetheless identify as true to themselves. As it continues to chase scale, Spotify actively positions itself as a utility, emphasizing convenience and “lean-back listening” as its key differentiators in the crowded streaming landscape. Similarly, subscription services across the board tend to revolve their core business around the perceived benefit of checked-out convenience and data-driven taste ascription, rather than the items in the boxes themselves.

But as this principle of subscribing to “commodified experience” and paying to “lean back” begins to structure more material and intimate realms of the economy, the alleged convenience of outsourcing taste becomes intertwined with the demands of precarious employment: We begin to depend more and more on the time that outsourcing supposedly saves.

The recurring subscription-box model exacerbates this feeling that the process of acquiring the means to live a “comfortable” and “optimal” life never ends

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild explored this in her 2012 book The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us, in which she argued that prolonged, unstable work conditions both create and perpetuate the need for outsourcing. Stressed human beings, seeking more free and “personal” time, become the upper management for their own fleet of contractors; in Hochschild’s words, “the most intuitive and emotional of human acts … become work for hire.” This triggers a slippery-slope effect. “To finance these extra services, we work longer hours,” Hochschild explained in an op-ed for the New York Times. “This leaves less time to spend with family, friends and neighbors; we become less likely to call on them for help, and they on us. And, the more we rely on the market, the more hooked we become on its promises.” The more people outsource their personal and emotional labor, the more the nebulous benchmarks of mental and emotional freedom — and of convenience as an end in itself — become unreachable.

This is also the logic of algorithmic, personalized recommendation in media: While one can make progress with, say, music discovery, one is never truly “done.” Systems like Spotify’s Discover Weekly urge users to work toward a nonexistent finish line week after week. The recurring subscription-box model too exacerbates this feeling that the process of acquiring the means to live a “comfortable” and “optimal” life never ends: Every month or quarter, a new selection of products will arrive with the tantalizing, if dubious, promise of freeing up your decision-making time and therefore making you slightly “better” than you currently are. Yet this newfound flexibility ultimately becomes infiltrated by further anxiety over the vast opportunities that remain to become even “better,” in the pursuit of peak performance. Outsourcing as many decisions as possible seems like one of the most desirable shortcuts in the quest for self-optimization — even if the underlying goal of “freedom” is inherently unobtainable.

In a strange twist of terminology, burnout is now a “culture” rather than an ailment, as Anne Helen Peterson described in her widely discussed essay for BuzzFeed. Erin Griffith’s parallel piece in the New York Times reported on how young professionals feel more pressure to perform their workaholism, to frame their most personal passions and activities simply as “inspiration that leads back to the desk.” It’s no coincidence that the #ThankGodItsMonday generation of working millennials and Gen-Zers also happens to be the primary target group for subscription-box companies. To preserve energy to remain competitive at work, one must try to withdraw from what consumerism historian Juliet Schor has called competitive consumption — even as the skills and cultural capital required to “win” such competitions become more economically valuable and in-demand from employers.

As long as the subscription-box market successfully positions passivity as the ultimate convenience, its belief system will encourage customers to detach themselves from their own tastes

Implicit in the act of outsourcing taste is an overarching brand apathy that is steadily growing in value: a company called Brandless recently racked up over $300 million in funding, and a members-only shop selling luxury goods without their logos currently touts a 100,000-person waitlist. Subscription boxes that incorporate an element of randomization — often referred to as “mystery boxes,” akin to the controversial loot boxes in many video games — also appeal to a consumer’s desire to acquire cultural capital or perform workaholism by rejecting brand consumerism rather than by mastering its ins and outs.

This brand apathy is also reflected in gestures toward commercial impermanence: Pop-up merchandise shops are all the rage for celebrity musicians like The Weeknd, Arctic Monkeys, and Frank Ocean. Instagrammable pop-up museums encourage visitors to record digital “unboxing” videos of their visiting experience, which helps fuel the locations’ virality. Subscription-box logic and pop-up-site logic are two sides of the same coin: Both promise devotees ultimate temporal control and freedom from the traditional rhythms of brand marketing, but instead lure them into yet another ongoing rhythm of consumption, defined by a relationship with a transitory moment rather than with the usefulness of a particular product.

Ironically, the immediate material repercussions of the subscription-box belief system are far from impermanent: Some of the phenomenon’s biggest critics point out that too many boxes renders the clutter in one’s life physical rather than mental. Yet in a world where Marie Kondo is a Netflix star, this rising physical clutter becomes a ripe canvas for staging a performance of one’s minimizing emotional attachment to consumerism. One can easily imagine a scenario in which someone subscribes to seven home-delivered boxes (which is reportedly the industry average), amasses a shelf’s worth of products in a manner of weeks, then enlists the KonMari method to sift through the mess and decide which items to return or throw away.

The subscription-box movement and the KonMari craze are intertwined by the same class politics that positions the decluttering of unpleasant items and emotions as a privilege that the upper middle class has the means to accomplish. Most of the main characters in Hochschild’s 2012 book are wealthy suburban parents who contribute directly to the formation of a new underclass of workers to whom their personal labor is outsourced. Similarly, subscription boxes serve as passkeys to signifying a particular status, since only those with more spare cash (perhaps obtained through performative workaholism) can comfortably afford to outsource their purchasing decisions, let alone get rid of the dissatisfactory results. As journalist and former domestic cleaner Stephanie Land wrote in 2016, “minimalism is a virtue only when it’s a choice.” In this vein, subscription retail may be a symptom of a larger disease in the beauty and fashion industries: that of aggregating “tips and tricks” only from wealthy influencers and presenting them as universally authoritative, without considering alternative perspectives from poorer populations.

In an essay about how algorithms are shaping the future of fashion, Kyle Chayka has suggested, with appropriate ambiguity, that “maybe taste is the last thing separating us from the Singularity; maybe it’s the first thing we should get rid of.” As long as the subscription-box market successfully positions passivity as the ultimate convenience, its belief system will encourage customers to detach themselves from their own tastes and from consumerism at large and rechannel their newfound energy into becoming allegedly better, more productive human beings. Yet instead of liberating us from these supposedly wasteful competitions over taste and status, subscription boxes will have only intensified the cutthroat management and marketing of these attributes. Rather than rendering taste irrelevant, they will have reinscribed competitive taste as inescapably human.

Cherie Hu is a freelance journalist focusing on the intersection of music and technology. She writes regular columns for BillboardForbes and Music Business Worldwide, with additional bylines in publications including PitchforkVarietyRolling StoneGoldthread and the Columbia Journalism Review.