A subscription, at its base, is simply a schedule of recurring fees that gives consumers continual access to goods or services. A car lease is a subscription, but so is your gym membership and the way you use Microsoft Office. Subscription creep dates to at least 2007, when Amazon launched Subscribe & Save, a service that lets shoppers pre-authorize periodic charges for thousands of consumable goods, such as sandwich bags or face wash (or toilet paper), usually at a slight discount over individual purchases. Then, in 2010, came Birchbox, which provides women with miniature portions of beauty products on a monthly basis for $15. At its peak, the company was valued at more than $500 million.
Both Amazon’s and Birchbox’s models have been widely copied, and their success underscores the appeal of subscriptions to businesses and consumers alike, according to Utpal Dholakia, a marketing professor at Rice University. “The pain of payment and the friction of how a person is going to pay is totally gone,” he says. Consumers receive things they need or want without having to make any decisions, and that creates more stable and predictable revenue streams for the businesses they patronize.