Subscription sample boxes shake up beauty routines

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CHICAGO (AP) — It's a beauty product fan's dream: a monthly box sent to the door filled with samples of lip glosses, face creams, hair treatments and nail polishes.

The trend started a few years ago with companies like Birch Box charging between $10 and $15 a month for subscriptions. But it's recently taken off with dozens of options. There are high-end boxes, fragrance-only boxes, even vegan boxes.

Here are five things to know about beauty boxes:

1. BEAUTY EXPERTS CONSIDER BIRCH BOX A PIONEER.

Birch Box started about 3 1/2 years ago when two Harvard Business School classmates had the idea to send consumers samples every month. Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp have grown that idea into a business that lets customers buy thousands of full-size products online — products those customers first tried in the sample size from their subscription. They've also just announced a storefront in New York. The service is available in France, the United Kingdom and Spain as well.

Beauchamp said Birch Box wants to change the way consumers discover and buy beauty products.

"We thought, 'This is a huge opportunity. We could create something that's really monumental,'" Beauchamp said. "We use the idea that everyone would love to have a beauty editor best friend who cuts through the clutter and knows you."

1. IT'S STILL AN EMERGING BUSINESS MODEL.

That has its positives and negatives. Allure magazine editor-in-chief Linda Wells says the biggest challenge for beauty-box companies is getting samples to fill the boxes.

"The big major companies aren't participating in a major way," she said. "It's smaller companies and companies that don't have a strong presence in department stores."

But, Wells says, "This is a way for consumers to get these products without going through the hunting and trickery you have to go through when you go to department stores."

3. ADVENTUROUS BEAUTY BUYERS GET TO TRY NEW PRODUCTS.

"This is a way for consumers to be exposed to new brands, lines and products they might not have gotten on their own and a way to try a product with lower financial downside," said Refinery 29 Beauty Director Megan McIntyre.

If you like a product, then you tried it and you know it, she said, and if you don't like it, then you didn't waste money on a full-size product. McIntyre calls it "a pain-free, no-downside way to really try things."

4. DO YOUR RESEARCH.

Make sure you subscribe to a box that offers the kinds of samples you want or are willing to try. No one wants a bottle of bright red glitter nail polish if that's not their style.

"The key thing is to try to personalize the products and the box better so you're getting things you have an interest in," Wells said. "As suppliers of these boxes get more information about their consumers, they can give people things that are more relevant."

Allure has its own beauty box, called Sample Society. Wells said they include a booklet with details about products, trends and how-to-use information. Birch Box offers a similar product card every month. Some beauty box companies have subscribers take a survey asking about their skin and hair types and makeup preferences.

5. TRADE SAMPLES ON ONLINE MARKETPLACES.

Sometimes you do end up with a sample that you just know won't work for you. McIntyre suggests your next step be to visit websites like edivv.com. That website describes itself as a place where users can "negotiate, barter and trade" beauty sample products.

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Follow Caryn Rousseau on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/carynrousseau

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