Traverse City Record-Eagle

Business

December 5, 2013

Services send mystery boxes

NEW YORK (AP) — Sex toys. French films. Star Wars action figures. Erotic photos.

What do these things have in common? They're the gifts that keep on giving — about every month.

Dozens of online subscription businesses have popped up offering to ship boxes of different goodies within a given niche or theme, like makeup or travel, each month. Most often, the exact products remain a mystery until they're shipped.

These monthly subscriber services have gained fans among those who appreciate novelty and surprise. But as their popularity has grown, the list of products they offer has gone from ordinary (Think: hair products) to really niche (Think: black socks) to naughty (Think: vibrators.)

Overall, subscription services account for less than one percent of the nation's $231 billion online business, excluding the movie subscription service Netflix, Forrester Research estimates. But experts say they are poised to do well during the holiday season because there aren't a lot of must-have gifts on people's wish lists.

"There's so little that's new to buy for the holiday season," said Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a retail consultancy. "The idea of a subscription service is fun and exciting."

Of course, shoppers have long been able to order fruit, movies or wine through monthly services. But since online subscriber service Birchbox launched surprise makeup samples in 2010, there's been an explosion of these businesses that focus on nearly every desire imaginable.

Boinkboutique.com delivers vibrators and other sex toys and features plans like a $25 monthly "make out" box. Blacksocks.com, which has 60,000 subscribers, sends three pair of socks, including striped and colored versions, four times a year for $118 annually. And for $45 per box, Trytheworld.com ships hard-to-find food items like jams and fine teas and cultural finds from Paris, Tokyo and Rio.

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