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8 top subscription boxes

Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Birchbox

Who doesn't love to get, or give, a holiday gift? And even better, a gift -- or a whole box full of them -- that keeps coming regularly in the mail? That's what you'll get or give if you sign up with a subscription box service, of which a dizzying number are now vying for your business.

Indeed, giving a subscription box as a holiday gift may seem like a great idea, until the research begins. "There are over 1,500 boxes that we have listed on our site. There's really something for everyone," said Liz Cadman, the founder of My Subscription Addiction, a review site for subscription boxes. "If you have a vegan friend, there are vegan-specific boxes, and there are book-lovers boxes."

Why have these boxes become so popular? It's partly the "treat yourself" mentality of wanting to provide a bit of luxury or pampering for yourself or a friend. It's not dissimilar to receiving a care package at camp, but instead of licorice and bug spray, the box might be filled with high-end cosmetics or the ingredients to make a gourmet meal.

And then there's the experience of unwrapping the box, which has become a social media phenomenon, thanks to "unboxing" videos and Instagram snapshots shared with friends.

Providing a memorable unboxing experience prompted GlossyBox, a beauty-focused subscription box, to tweak its packaging last year, said Carlos Soares Moreira, the head of business development for beauty subscription box GlossyBox.

"We invest a lot in the experience," he said. "Last year we changed the box, so that it takes 0.8 more seconds to open. So, to open GlossyBox, you have to take the lid of the box, then untie the ribbon, then take the seal off and take the tissue off."

But one of the big questions that gift-givers have about subscription boxes is whether they provide value. That depends on the type of box, as well as the company's goal, My Subscription Addiction's Cadman said.

Food boxes are the least likely to provide value -- meaning the contents aren't likely to be worth more than what you paid for -- partly because the economics of shipping food. Some boxes are aimed at giving consumers a sample of something, whether that's a new cosmetic product or a snack food, so they can decide whether to buy the full-size product.

"It's more about discovering new brands and trying out food samples before you get the full size," Cadman said. "There's a value to not buying something unless you know you really want it."

The benefit of giving a subscription box to a friend or family member is that "every time they get it, they think of you," Cadman added.

Venture investors are clearly seeing the opportunity as well: Birchbox, for one, has raised more than $70 million from backers including Accel and Lerer Hippeau Ventures. Meal-kit company Blue Apron has raised $135 million, giving it a $2 billion valuation.

Read on to learn about eight of the top subscription boxes this holiday season, based on Cadman's recommendations and subscription boxes provided by the companies and tested by CBS MoneyWatch.

Glossybox: $21 per month


This beauty box company provides two options: monthly subscription boxes and one-time limited-edition boxes, said Glossybox's Soares Moreira. The monthly box costs about $21 per month, and includes five beauty products, which can be either full- or travel-size, with a retail value of about $65 to $85. The limited-edition boxes cost $40, and the products retail for between $175 to $225, he said.

Even though the company promises more value than the sticker price, Soares Moreira noted that Glossybox "is a luxury and prestige player. We don't position ourselves as a value product. We promise a great experience targeted to your beauty profile."

The Glossybox is indeed fun to open, with nicely packaged products tucked inside a beautifully wrapped box. Also inside is a primer on how to use the products, which in one Paris-themed box included red lipgloss inspired by the Moulin Rouge and a rose-petal exfoliating gel.

"The unboxing is really important," said Cadman. "Glossybox does have beautiful wrapping, and lot of our users keep their boxes as keepsakes."

Birchbox: $10 per month


One of the best-known beauty boxes, Birchbox was founded five years ago to provide a way for people to try out beauty products before buying them.

Birchbox items tend to be sample-size, with the idea that if a customer likes a product, she can buy the full-size item (from Birchbox's site, natch) after running out of the sample. One recent box included mascara from W3ll People and a Gradual Tan in Shower Lotion from St. Tropez. Overall, the box was nicely packaged, although it was simpler than Glossybox's ribbon-and-seal wrapping.

Makeup lovers like Birchbox because its sample selections allow them to find new products, said Cadman. The cost is also on the lower end for subscription boxes, which may appeal to the budget-minded. The value of the samples often adds up to between $25 to $30 per month, according to estimates from My Subscription Addiction.

Birchbox also offers an option for men, which costs $20 per month. The men's boxes include samples as well as one full-size product like a bar tool.

Bespoke Post: $45 per month

Bespoke Post

This manly subscription service could appeal equally to a Ron Swanson from "Parks and Recreation" or a Brooklyn hipster. The products are geared to men with passions for carefully cultivated beards, writing with fountain pens or searing ribeye steaks over a block of pink Himalayan salt.

The service works slightly differently from other subscriptions, which typically send the same box to all their customers each month. Bespoke curates boxes around themes, such as "distilled" (cocktails) or "barber" (billed as "old-school shaving meets new-school tech").

After subscribing, customers pick which theme they want to send as a gift or receive themselves, which allows customers to skip boxes they aren't interested in.

Bespoke "is my favorite for men," said Cadman. "The value is at least double the cost of the box."

One box called "jet set," for instance, came with understated brown packaging and was filled with useful items for a man who travels: a portable charger, a leather passport holder and a set of grooming products. It also came with a letter describing the items, as well as "airport style hacks" for maintaining comfort while traveling (hint: wear loafers to get through security easily).

PopSugar MustHave: $40 per month


This box provides a novel mix of products, including beauty products, fashion accessories and home goods.

"I pretty much send PopSugar to every woman on my list," Cadman said. "I know they will find a few things they enjoy."

The value of the items inside the PopSugar MustHave boxes are typically over $100, according to the company. While it's a little pricer than some other boxes, "it has that value promise," Cadman said.

PopSugar MustHave also creates special-edition boxes, which cost $100. The company has two $100 boxes for the holidays, with one geared for women and the other to men. A third holiday option, at $250, is a Neiman Marcus-themed box.

A recent box included a crystal necklace, Tatcha classic rice enzyme powder for skin and porcelain coasters, among other items. The collection included full-size cosmetics, and the products' high quality and the eclectic mix of items made the box stand out.

OwlCrate: $29.99 per month


Many book-based subscription boxes are on the market, but Cadman said one of her favorites is OwlCrate, which focuses on young adult books.

"They always have really cute themes," Cadman said. For instance, December's is "Get Inspired," although its contents are still under wraps. Co-founder Korrina Ede said the company aims to keep its newest boxes a surprise until the recipients receive them in the mail.

OwlCrate's October box had the theme of "Leading Ladies" and included the young adult novel "Dumplin'" by Julie Murphy, which is about a zaftig young woman who enters a beauty pageant.

Other items in the box included an arrow necklace inspired by Katniss of "The Hunger Games," a keychain featuring Daenerys Targaryen from "Game of Thrones" and art prints of Hermoine Granger from the "Harry Potter" books. The box would likely appeal to either young readers or those who are young at heart.

Blue Apron: $59.94 per week

Blue Apron

The idea behind Blue Apron is to help busy people create delicious, home-cooked meals. Co-founder Matt Wadiak told Fortune he believes "the best food, ultimately, is made at home."

Subscribers get a weekly box filled with ingredients that are premeasured, and recipes provide simple instructions on how to put them all together. Generally, the meals are easy to cook and tasty.

Unlike makeup boxes, food-subscription boxes don't offer the same type of value because the ingredients inside the box could all be bought for a fraction of what Blue Apron charges. Instead, subscribers are paying for convenience: No need to go to the supermarket; all ingredients except for salt and oil are included. Which means no stress about what to cook for dinner.

The two-person meal option costs $59.94 per week for three meals, while the four-person plan costs $69.92 per week. Customers can also choose their dietary preferences, such as for vegetarian dishes or meals that don't include fish.

Purple Carrot: $68 per week

Aya Brackett

This meal-subscription box has been generating buzz since The New York Times food writer Mark Bittman recently joined the company. As the author of the "How to Cook Everything" book series, Bittman has helped many Americans become more proficient in the kitchen, but his new mission is to get people to eat more plant-based foods.

Purple Carrot provides vegan meals in a kit, based on recipes created by Bittman, who describes himself as a "part-time vegan." While that might not be everyone's cup of tea, the recipes were easy to follow and quick to cook. The results were delicious.

Given that these boxes don't contain fish or meat, some might feel the price is too high. But fans of Bittman and those who follow a plant-based diet or want to try it would likely enjoy this meal kit.

Club W: $39 per month

Club W

Another popular type of subscription service picks out wines for customers. Club W asks subscribers what types of flavors they like and then curates a box of three wines each month based on the customer's "palate profile."

"They do a good job of picking out the right wine for your taste," Cadman said. The service costs $39 per month for three bottles of wine, with a $6 flat-rate shipping fee. Because Club W buys directly from vineyards, its wines cost about half of what they would in a store, according to the company.

The service is also offering Thanksgiving-themed boxes, such as a 12 pack for $176, which includes a mix of whites and reds.

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