Some Thoughts on Subscription ‘Crates’ and Monthly Delivery Clubs

Connie writes in:

What are your thoughts on things like “coffee of the month” clubs or crates? Are they good gifts or do they just send junk?

This started as a mailbag question and, as my answer grew and grew, I realized that this question deserved its own separate post.

First of all, what is Connie asking about specifically? She wants to know about subscription services that send items in the mail on a regular basis – usually monthly – to the recipient. These have taken off in popularity recently as “crates,” which are often collections of small items centered around a theme like the Loot Crate, whereas the older style “X of the month club” sent you a single item or perhaps two items based on the theme, like the jelly of the month club.

I’ve received several of these subscriptions as gifts over the years, as has my wife, and we’ve contributed to buying subscription gifts for others, so I’ve experienced the contents of many different subscription boxes. In general, I would not recommend them as a gift, with some exceptions.

I’ve found that subscription clubs only really prove to be good gifts and provide reasonable value if a few factors are true.

First, the person has to be mildly interested in what the subscription club delivers, but not too big of a fan. For example, my wife has tried two different “coffee of the month” clubs in the past – Driftaway Coffee and Craft Coffee – and she enjoyed both of them. However, she’s a coffee fan and not a coffee fanatic. She uses a pretty ordinary drip coffee pot.

On the other hand, I have a good friend, David, who is a coffee fanatic. He has hundreds (possibly thousands) of dollars invested in his coffee equipment and is very meticulous about the exact types of beans that he wants. On the surface, you might think that a “coffee of the month” club might be a great gift for him, but it turns out that it’s actually a pretty poor gift, because he’s very selective about the beans he uses and he’d probably just give away most of the shipments because they weren’t the variety that he prefers.

The same thing is true with me and some of my key hobbies. I’m passionate about board games and about books, but I would not enjoy either a “board game of the month” club (like Board Game Bento) or a “book of the month” club. I’m fairly picky with regards to both types of items at this point because my passion for both reading and playing board games has driven me deep into the hobby.

In general, if you would be wary about picking out a specific item related to a person’s obvious interest, then a “crate” or a “X of the month” club isn’t a great gift.

Second, a more general interest crate tends to provide a bunch of items that the recipient doesn’t want, so they’re usually not worthwhile either. My prime example in this category is Loot Crate, which offers to deliver a monthly box of “geeky goodness,” but the problem with “geeky” is that it is so broad and covers so many more specific interests that most of the contents of the box fail to hit the mark with the recipient.

A friend of mine receives this and generally finds one or two items in the “crate” worthwhile each month, and it’s usually things that he wouldn’t buy himself and is of lesser value than the sticker price on the entire crate. The rest of the crate is either given away or becomes trash can fodder after a while.

So, crates and “monthly subscription services” tend to only hit the mark when they not too general and also when the recipient isn’t a “superfan.” What else?

Third, the stuff that’s delivered has to actually be quality stuff. Many crates and subscription bundles deliver boxes full of stuff that, frankly, mostly gets thrown away by almost everyone that receives it. Some of them are very good, but others? They’re really low quality, filled with things that are obviously being dumped at a discount price by the manufacturer because it’s not good or are blatantly inadequate samples.

The best approach to figuring out whether a crate or monthly subscription is worthwhile or not is to read lots of reviews and listings of the contents of various crates. You’ll often be surprised that many of the more well known and heavily promoted ones have awful contents because, clearly, the companies involved are spending their money on marketing and are trying to collect a nice profit.

(I’m trying very hard not to name names here, as I’m not in the business of trashing specific products, but you won’t have to look too hard through specific crate reviews to find ones that provide subpar stuff. I’d rather give space to things I actually find value in than space to things I think are poor.)

If you’re considering getting a subscription service or a “crate” subscription for someone as a gift, my advice to you is simple: do your homework, both on the person and on the service. I wouldn’t give a subscription to someone who is really picky or obsessive about a particular topic, nor would I just give someone a general-purpose subscription. I’d also do some homework on the subscription service itself to make sure that it ships quality goods.

In general, the best subscription boxes I’ve found were matched to a notable but not obsessive interest for the person (like my wife and her Driftaway Coffee) and consisted of quality items, which I found out through research.

If this sounds like a lot of effort, well, it is. There are a lot of landmines out there when buying a gift like this, as many services are junk and many others, while good, are just a poor fit.

A much better approach in many cases is to simply do some homework on the person and then find a gift that matches that specific person. You’re much more likely to find a specific item that the person would like and they’ll really appreciate the thought involved.

I would basically never buy such an item for myself. I would vastly prefer to pick out items on my own and bargain hunt for them. These services, in my opinion, work well as gifts when carefully matched to the recipient and researched for quality.

To close, I’m going to list the crates and subscription services that I personally have used and found to contain quality items that matched the recipient well, or services that have been used by my friends, along with who they would match, because I know I will receive some inevitable questions in that regard.

Both Driftaway Coffee and Craft Coffee are very good “coffee of the month” subscriptions, perfect for someone who appreciates good coffee but isn’t necessarily someone with a $1,000 coffee maker.

My children have greatly enjoyed a year’s worth of Tinker Crate, Doodle Crate, and Kiwi Crate. Each of these is effectively a “project in a box,” with the Tinker one focusing on engineering type projects, Doodle focusing on art projects, and Kiwi being appropriate for younger children. All three have been solid and enthusiastically enjoyed by our children; I’d rate Doodle Crate as the best of the lot as it is basically jumpstarted two hobbies for my daughter. These are solid children’s gifts, in my opinion.

A friend who is pretty much constantly sketching and drawing and she absolutely adores Artsnacks, which is a monthly subscription service that delivers art supplies. She’s basically the type who goes into an art supply store and is curious about everything in there, but is willing to sketch on anything with anything on hand. In other words, she’s pretty much the perfect match for a kit like this. She reports that the contents are almost always great quality and there’s always a variety, but some months it can feel like the contents of the box didn’t add up. She also reports that it’s only good if you work in a lot of different media, so if you’re specifically only into drawing with watercolor pencils or something, this won’t be good.

My father-in-law reports that the Craft Beer Club delivered a great product with lots of variety, but that it’s probably somewhat expensive compared to just picking out twelve bottles at a store and that it would only be enjoyed by people who enjoy pretty much every variety of craft beer; if you don’t like, say, porters or IPAs, those would go to waste. This seems like a somewhat expensive but fun gift for a craft beer fan who enjoys variety.

Quite honestly, every other subscription service I’ve tried or my friends have shown me – and I’ve seen quite a few – has not stood out to me as a real value in any way. So, I’ll go back to my final suggestion: Do your homework and lean toward picking out a specific item you discovered yourself rather than a subscription service. Only get a subscription service if you know it’s providing good quality stuff and you know it’ll be a hit; otherwise, you’re paying good money to have overpriced junk delivered to your friend.

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Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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