When Adventure Comes in the Mail

Monthly ‘box’ subscription services are booming, with one major brand worth $2 billion. Can the trend flourish in the outdoor market? We test it.


Christmas has left the building and you’re left staring at a pile of gifts-the deluxe fondue maker, the “collectible” Best of Whitesnake box set, the Costco Valu-Pac of scented bath beads… At moments like this, you might find yourself wondering if your friends and family understand you at all. You may even come to the uncharitable conclusion that a complete stranger could cram stuff in a box-widgets you’ve never even heard of-and you’d be happier with the results. Well, there’s a flood of new companies founded on that very premise.

It works like this: For a monthly fee, these “subscription box services” deliver packages o’ products to your door every month that you may have never even heard of, but that you’ll love. That’s the promise, at least, and though it may sound an odd recipe for success, the surge in demand for those boxes suggests that subscription box services are delivering the goods, including outdoor gear.

Birchbox ignited the subscription box service in 2010 by selling $10 monthly boxes of free cosmetic samples. The outdoor industry  is now taking a page out of that playbook.

Birchbox ignited the subscription box service in 2010 by selling $10 monthly boxes of free cosmetic samples. The outdoor industry is now taking a page out of that playbook.

THE BOX BOOM
The subscription business model dates back to 1936, when a crafty farmer in Medford, Oregon, seeking to offload some extra pears devised the “Fruit of the Month Club” idea. That stroke of genius, in turn, birthed Harry and David-that produce titan of Christmas and Easter fruit basket fame. Subscription services, however, didn’t truly pick up steam until internet retailing hit its stride.

Every day, millions of consumers buy, well, everything with just a few quick keystrokes. The world is your oyster…now you simply have to figure out which of the millions of digital oysters out there are actually worth shucking. The sheer abundance of online choices can be overwhelming and that’s where subscription box services come into play; you sign up, give the service in question some idea of what you’re interested in, then they do the hard work of hunting down and sending you specially-curated boxes of stuff you’re likely to dig.

In the past five years, a number of subscription start-ups have morphed into retail powerhouses. Birchbox, for example, was founded in 2010 by two young Harvard Business grads peddling $10 boxes full of free cosmetic samples. Birchbox now has more than a million subscribers and rakes in an estimated $170 million per year. Similarly, Blue Apron sprang up just three years ago, sending their subscribers boxes of recipes and corresponding ingredients for dinners. Today Blue Apron delivers three million meals a week and was recently valued at $2 billion.

Clearly, there’s demand for what’s in those boxes.

The contents of Cairn's November `15 box: Ruffwear Quencher collapsible dog bowl, Aquamira Frontier Pro Ultralight water filter, Injinji toe socks, Little Red Wagon Geo coffee, Rip Van Wafel's Dark Chocolate and Sea Salt waffle.

The contents of Cairn’s November `15 box: Ruffwear Quencher collapsible dog bowl, Aquamira Frontier Pro Ultralight water filter, Injinji toe socks, Little Red Wagon Geo coffee, Rip Van Wafel’s Dark Chocolate and Sea Salt waffle.

ADVENTURE, COURTESY OF THE POSTAL SERVICE
How many subscription box services have emerged in the past few years? Hard numbers are difficult to pin down, but a quick search reveals hundreds of companies selling everything from monthly doomsday survival kits (the perfect gift for the “tactaholic” in your life) to custom assortments of Japanese candies. Vegan snacks, cured meats, sex toys, ammo for your automatic weapon…if there’s a niche, there’s a box service or two dozen filling it today.

That’s why it’s a bit surprising that it’s taken awhile for the subscription service boom to hit the outdoor adventure market. Sure, Mysterytacklebox has churned out largemouth bass buzz baits for years now and if you pine for that special Navy Seal Team-approved tactical knife, Battlebox always had your end-of-the-world needs covered for, but Cairn was arguably the first company to target people who yearn to be outside, but aren’t necessarily members of the hook, bullet and camo bedsheets brotherhood.

“Subscription box services have been around since the ’30s, but as an ardent outdoorsman, I was intrigued that I wasn’t seeing those same creative business principles applied to the outdoor industry,” says Rob Little, the CEO and founder of Cairn, which has been billed as the first-to-market outdoor subscription service.

“Sure, there were already sites selling products that had sat in inventory or on retailers shelves,” says Little, “but I wanted to be on the other end of the spectrum. I wanted to focus on new and innovative items. I saw Cairn as a way to help launch new products into the marketplace.”

Little founded Cairn in January of 2014, not long after receiving his MBA from Wharton. Today, the company is based out of Bend, Oregon, and claims to deliver wares to 10,000 monthly subscribers.

Cairn isn't the only outdoor subscription company. Isle Box offers monthly boxes. as well as this $350 "starter" box that includes a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, emergency medical kit, water filter, stove, etc., All told, the kit shaves 35 percent off the retail price.

Cairn isn’t the only outdoor subscription company. Isle Box offers monthly boxes. as well as this $350 “starter” box that includes a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, emergency medical kit, water filter, stove, etc., All told, the kit shaves 35 percent off the retail price.

WHAT IT’S WORTH
So what’s actually in those boxes? My first Cairn delivery arrived and I have to admit, I was impressed. The thing was loaded with cool items. Admittedly, none of it is stuff I’d have bought on my last trip through REI. Once in my hands, though, I’m glad I now own it. There was a carabiner key ring with a built-in compass, a weatherproof fire-starter, a facemask/doo-rag combo, black pepper barbecue pumpkin seeds, and more. Each month’s box typically contains four or five bits of gear, apparel, food, skincare, or emergency-medical widgets. It’s also worth noting that the market price of what sits in that box is clearly greater than the monthly $25 subscription fee.

“That’s certainly part of the draw,” says Little. “It varies from month to month, but the actual retail value of what’s in your monthly Cairn box is generally between $35 and $40. In other words, it’s a good deal, but people are also drawn to Cairn for the discovery element of the whole thing-that we’re able to expose them to brands and products that they might not have access to or may not have even been aware of.”

Just like Cairn and Isle Box,  Campbox delivers monthly outdoor gear boxes to subscribers. The market is growing.

Just like Cairn and Isle Box, Campbox delivers monthly outdoor gear boxes to subscribers. The market is growing.

ROOM TO GROW?
But how does Cairn actually know what to send you? Filling out a short survey when you sign up helps the company fine tune their offerings. Customer feedback is also a big part of their program. Cairn encourages subscribers to chime in-what did and didn’t you like? wow did the stuff perform out in the wild? Cairn subscribers who contribute to the site’s reviews are rewarded with points for each contribution, which they can redeem on the site for past Cairn offerings.

“The feedback is important to us-in terms of determining what we put in our boxes-and it’s invaluable to the brands we work with as well,” says Little. “But at the end of the day, we’re also creating a community that gets people excited and inspires them to go out there and have their next adventure.”

Fair enough. The flip side of any boom cycle, however, is the inevitable bust, the oversaturation and downturn. Will people tire of the product-in-a-box trend in the near future? Is there, for that matter, room in the adventure outdoor world for more companies like Cairn? There are a whole lot of us that hike, backpack, climb, ride, run and, simply, want to be out in nature. Cairn, in fact, is not alone. Backpackerbox, Campbox and Isle Box, for instance, all sprang up around the same time as Cairn and offer similar subscription services. The recent shuttering of Backpackerbox suggests, however, that running an adventure-sports subscription business isn’t necessarily a license to spin gold.

Rob Little, however, continues to be bullish on the box business. This past November, in fact, Little launched a new box brand, Obsidian, which takes the Cairn idea to a higher, pricier, level. Obsidian subscribers will pay $199 per quarter and receive quarterly shipments (worth about $300 apiece) of outdoor apparel, gear, food, and so forth. Think of it as Cairn, supersized.

“The demand for a wider range of products from both brands and consumers made it clear to us that everyone wanted more,” says Little. “Obsidian gives us the opportunity to really open up the possibilities.”

There might be something to all that. Within weeks of announcing the arrival of Obsidian, its founder had already sold out of the first-quarter collection and was taking pre-orders on Obsidian’s next box of goods.

Vernon Felton is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. He lives in Bellingham, Washington.
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Comments
  • Camper Sam
    Reply

    Can’t wait to get a tent-scent spray in my mailbox. How’s this for a starter: a small can (with propellant) with a scent of fart-in-a-sleeping-bag.

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