Jane Bradley: Snack-in-a-box has to offer us a surprise

We have an appetite for treats arriving by post but too much of a good thing sees the thrill wear off, says Jane Bradley
As the frequency of letter-sending declines, online shopping has kept the postal service busy by sparking an increase in the number of parcels delivered.As the frequency of letter-sending declines, online shopping has kept the postal service busy by sparking an increase in the number of parcels delivered.
As the frequency of letter-sending declines, online shopping has kept the postal service busy by sparking an increase in the number of parcels delivered.

I still love getting post. The excitement when something pops through the letterbox and it has your name on it – your actual name – hasn’t changed since childhood.

Even a bank statement or mobile phone bill still gives me a slight frisson, although if there’s a handwritten envelope which might contain an old fashioned letter – or even a card or invitation – I actually do a 
little dance of delight.

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Post is nostalgic these days. And in most areas of life, redundant.

Banking is done online; even wedding invitations sometimes arrive by email.

Yet, there is one aspect of post which, suddenly, we can not get enough of: subscription boxes. A modern incarnation of the magazine gift subscription and the vegetable box scheme, the trend for receiving little brown cardboard boxes through the post, containing a selection of exciting goodies, is rocketing.

This is, of course, good news for the beleagured postal industry.

While the volumes of letters posted within the UK are slowly falling – the Royal Mail’s last set of financial results showed a slump of 3 per cent for the year to the end of March – parcels are on the increase, by 3 per cent over the same period.

And I would wager that they are set to grow further, helped by the subscription box market.

In the US, the subscription box is already a billion dollar industry, although they have been slightly slower to catch on here in the UK.

But now, the number of subscription boxes available here has rocketed in recent months as more consumers choose to buy suscriptions - costing between £5 and £40 a month depending on the products – either for themselves or as a gift.

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I first came across this phenomenum last year, when my cousin from the US came to visit. Everyone in her whole family is signed up to subscription boxes, she explained.

But, they all admit, while the contents of the boxes are a treat in themselves, it is mainly the fact they are posted, arriving through the door with a pleasing thump, that appeals and makes them so exciting.

She and her brother both get a recipe version, where the ingredients are sent to them in tiny little quantities – a few specks of cinnamon, a couple of individual cardamon pods – so they can make a particular dish for two without having to buy in bulk and potentially waste huge quantities of food. In the UK, Mindful Chef has cornered the market, having recently raised £400,000 in crowdfunding with support from Scots tennis star Andy Murray and Olympic cycling medalist Victoria Pendleton.

My other cousin has a personal shopper version – where clothes are picked out for her according to preferences she has filled in online. A few sample items are sent to her every month for a small fee – and if she likes them and chooses to keep them, the fee is deducted from the cost of the clothing.

One of them received a subscription to a beauty box as a gift, where tiny, sample-sized products are sent, often wrapped in ornate paper and with delicate cards attached. Heaven.

But that is not all. The range of what is on offer does not stop there. There are boxes containing posh stationery and gift cards; others that are aimed at children, mothers-to-be or even tiny babies.

Some offer cheese or bacon (the logistics of which I’ve not quite got my head around), while one offering, the Scottie Box, provides a care package for homesick ex-pat Scots craving their Irn-Bru, Tunnocks teacakes or Highland Toffee. And there are geek boxes supplying sloganed and branded t-shirts, coffee mugs and gadgets to self-confessed nerds.

Edinburgh boasts a personalised book selection service in the form of Glenogle & Bell, where award-winning book sellers hand-pick a volume to send you every month.

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There are even versions of subscription boxes which offer practicality, rather than glamour and luxury, such as options to have baby essential supplies sent through the post on a monthly basis, in a bid to avoid that 4am “just run out of nappies” panic.

Years ago, I signed up for what was, in essence, a subscription box, although no-one was calling it that then. It was 2011, just after market leader and pioneer – beauty subscription service Birchbox – had been born on the other side of the Atlantic, but its UK cousin was nothing more than a twinkle in its founders’ eye.

What I got was a box of snack treats which arrived once a week to my desk, the idea being that you spread the four individual snacks throughout the week.

At the beginning, I loved it. Half of my colleagues signed up for it too. Thursday became “Graze box day” in Scotsman Towers.

Then, gradually, after six months or so, the novelty wore off. The treats got left and began to stack up on our desks, eschewed in favour of something different – an over-sweet and slightly sickly Bounty bar from the canteen, perhaps, or a packet of crisps.

It wasn’t that the box snacks weren’t nice – they were. Made up of delicious combinations of seeds, nuts, savoury treats, dried fruit and even the occasional hint of dark chocolate, they were far preferable in themselves to the canteen alternative.

It also wasn’t that they lacked variety – they changed every week with the recipient able to tick preferences online, or select foods they didn’t like. It was perfectly designed.

No, it was just that the excitement had gone. We were spoiled by receiving the treats every single week.

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It was too much. To create an adrenaline kick, the treat needed to be delivered less often. Once a month, perhaps. Or once a fortnight.

And that is the beauty of most of the subscription boxes currently on the market, and why they are becoming so popular – most are monthly, infrequent enough that people see them as something to look forward to.

And not getting quite enough of something is always the best way to keep the consumer’s appetite whetted.