The Subscription Convenience Myth

Subscription retail is sold as something that delivers many benefits. It offers access to products unavailable elsewhere. It saves time and money. It means never running out of life’s necessities or the things that matter most to us. Crucially it offers convenience.

Amazon’s Subscribe and Save promises people that they will never be without the things they need. It’s an ‘outboard brain’ that saves them remembering to buy life’s essentials. Subscribe and Save takes care of the stuff that matters to people. We found that what matters to people varies. For Peter it’s the Kenco coffee pods he takes to work. For Lena it’s having a supply of nappies and for Michelle it’s about a regular supply of toothbrush heads. Whatever the product Subscribe and Save delivers.

But does it tick the convenience box? We spoke directly with consumers to find out.

In our ethnographic sessions with consumers, we found that subscription services don’t always live up to expectation. Products either arrive before they are needed – creating a mountain of toilet paper to store in a small apartment…or deliveries arrive too late. People are left without the one product they thought they could rely on.

We identified four areas where people are questioning the promise of convenience:

1// Subscribers must establish what their typical product usage will be, and this requires mental gymnastics. How long will 40 rolls of toilet paper last? How quickly will I burn through 40 dishwasher tablets? Will I use more this week than last week? Managing this process is a real project.

2// Different products have different ‘doses’, and require different types of planning. Peter takes a single coffee pod to work each day. He knows exactly how long each order will last him. For Lena and Michelle, products like kitchen roll and nappies are more uncertain to estimate. Their use is much more variable.

3// Single people with single products are best positioned for Subscribe and Save replenishment. Jay’s daily vitamins are regular and consistent. Families with many members and lots of moving parts can make forecasting much more challenging. What if my nieces spill coffee and a whole kitchen roll is gone? – Responding to this challenge, companies like London’s Pact Coffee offer subscribers a ‘forecaster tool’ where delivery frequency is based on the typical number of coffees consumed per day.

4// ‘Subscribe and Save’ depends on storage. With roots in the world of Cash and Carry, where bulk buying is normal, Subscribe and Save works for those with garages and large homes. However, people living in flats and flat shares are forced to stash excess toilet paper under the bed when their cupboards overflow.

The Unpacking the Convenience Myth

The net result is that the everyday logistics required for subscription services can render them less than convenient. These services can become another thing to worry about and manage. Subscription can shift from ‘something that is taken care of’ to ‘another thing that I must take care of’.

Running a household is complicated. It doesn’t take care of itself. People already manage a series of different ‘supply chains’ into their home. Subscription services can become one more supplier to take care of. Managing a home is now starting to involve subscription management.

Subscription services can make shoppers feel like procurement managers

While many people we spoke to use services like Subscribe and Save monthly, they link of it less as ‘going shopping’ and more as a home product supply chain. People move from ‘shopper’ to ‘supply chain manager’ of their own home. Sometimes, Subscribe and Save – which appears to take its design cues from an Enterprise SAP system – can make shopping feel like work. Providing the right products for the home instead feels like running a logistical marathon.

We can usefully think two types of shopping: Going Shopping: experiential, a leisure activity and pleasure) and… Doing the Shopping: a chore, provisioning, the essentials not the luxuries Subscription services promise to make ‘doing’ the shopping easier. This allows people can get on with their lives, but for consumers, this promise is not always kept. Subscription services can create more labour and demand more headspace. Instead of an easier life they result in extra logins and more mouse clicks.

The clear message: Don’t just deliver the goods people ordered. Deliver the convenience they expect as well.