retail watch | Apr 7, 2023 |
Home brands want in on subscription mania. Will it work?

Subscription purchasing programs have become increasingly popular over the past few years. A trend that was already gaining momentum no doubt got a boost from the pandemic’s online buying bonanza, as shoppers signed up for regular deliveries of everything from toothpaste to luxury watches with only a click.

While health and beauty products seem to have achieved the greatest success in the subscription realm, the option is also available in the home world. There’s certainly no shortage of companies trying to make it work. New York magazine recently listed nearly a dozen services to sign up for, with a rotating selection of items from furniture to kitchen knives to candles. “Subscription” can mean very different things in different categories—for small items and consumables, it’s mostly about getting consumers hooked on a regular cadence. For furniture, the concept is more about helping a young, mobile workforce move in and move out of apartments without leaving a trail of dented Ikea in their wake. Whatever the details, the ongoing presence of home brands that offer a subscription in some form suggests a level of acceptance by consumers.

One of the newest retailers in the subscription sector is Magnolia, the Chip and Joanna Gaines juggernaut that includes physical stores, a direct-to-consumer business and all manner of media presences. Last year, Magnolia introduced a subscription program (its first and only so far) for its signature candles, offering three different scents in two sizes, all available for regular shipments at one- or three-month intervals. In typical Magnolia-speak, the company suggests that consumers “ensure your favorite scents are always there to welcome you home.” Prices range from $28 for the 9-ounce candle to $58 for the 26-ounce version.

Programs for larger home purchases, like furniture, are scattered throughout the marketplace. One such offering is Aloe, from the Canadian direct-to-consumer brand Article. “Our monthly furniture subscription allows you to enjoy, swap or move so you can find the perfect product for now and easily refresh your space again later,” the brand’s site reads. Article has not spoken publicly about the program, and it appears to be a smaller part of its overall DTC business.

Many other direct sellers have offered furniture subscription plans though rental programs, blurring the line between the two. Staging services along with model home and apartment companies have been regular customers of furniture rentals, which fit the needs of that sector. Nornorm is a Danish company that targets the office market for its subscription model, while other brands, like Los Angeles–based Fernish, target the home. (For a comprehensive list of furniture rental brands, check out BOH’s roundup of industry offerings here.)

One of the more unusual home product subscription plans recently introduced is from Outlines, a New York design brand founded in 2019 that offers a shower curtain liner that can be replaced at regular intervals depending on user habits and household size. The company provides a two-part product featuring a top that is permanently attached to the shower curtain rod and an interchangeable liner, called the “The Replen.” The initial $50 price for the two parts decreases to $25 for just the liner replacement, and used liners are recycled. Outlines, which won a 2022 Good Housekeeping Award in the cleaning and organizing category for the system, promotes its liner with horror stories that “the shower liner is the dirtiest surface in the bathroom”—apparently harboring 60 times more bacteria than a toilet seat. (There’s one catch: The product isn’t currently available. Several recent visits to the Outlines website have prompted consumers to input product color, size and frequency preferences, only to receive a sold-out response.)

Retailers that sell often-replaced products in other sectors seem to be well-entrenched with subscription plans, and the option to sign up for refills is a frequent sight on Amazon for many of its food, health, and beauty and wellness products. New York also touted subscription boxes as the perfect gift. Though it stumbled during the pandemic, fashion rentals like Rent the Runway found an eager audience both for special events and everyday wear. But will the subscription model succeed at scale in the home business? That remains another question entirely.

Homepage image: ©Mdbildes/Adobe Stock


Warren Shoulberg is the former editor in chief for several leading B2B publications. He has been a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business; received honors from the International Furnishings and Design Association and the Fashion Institute of Technology; and been cited by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other media as a leading industry expert. His Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights on major markets and product categories.

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