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13 top subscription boxes for gift giving

There's a simple idea behind each subscription box: to curate and deliver exclusive or unusual items to consumers with a passion.

Yet picking a subscription box isn't that simple, given there are more than 2,000 offerings that focus on everything from vegan snack foods to comic book heroes. In the last two years alone, about 1,000 new boxes have been introduced on top of more established boxes like Birchbox and meal-kit service Blue Apron, estimates Liz Cadman, the founder of My Subscription Addiction, a review site for subscription boxes.

"I'm not surprised that this rise in subscription boxes comes along at time when we see a decrease in bricks-and-mortar shopping," Cadman said. "You used to shop at a store and something might catch your eye. Now people say, 'I'll buy that one specific thing on Amazon.'"

"Subscription boxes fill in that sense of discovering products," Cadman added.

Aside from discovering unusual and charming items, subscription boxes also appeal to people who want to indulge in a "treat yourself" mentality for themselves or a friend or family member. Sending a box filled with the ingredients to whip up a gourmet meal can feel like a nice treat at the holidays, when time for planning or shopping is limited.

There's also a social aspect to subscription boxes, with "unboxing" videos and Instagram posts capturing that moment when customers open their newly arrived subscription box. One book box, OwlCrate, has a Facebook page with more than 16,000 fans, who post items about each month's book choice or literary-related topics.

The social side of the business "was definitely a big surprise," said Korrina Ede, co-founder of OwlCrate. "It grew to many thousands in a few weeks. It started as a way for OwlCrate subscribers to talk about the box in the book, but it grew into a thing of its own. They feel like they are a true community."

So how does one pick a box to give a gift? Value is a big draw for many consumers, who typically want to receive items that are worth more than the face value of the box.

"No one wants to feel like they paid more than the items they received in the box," Cadman said. "When you look at most popular boxes, they are offering a good value."

That's harder to pin down when it comes to meal kits, where the cost of the food items is often much lower than the box's sticker price. But in those cases, consumers are paying for convenience and the recipes developed by professional chefs.

Discount codes for boxes are often posted at Cadman's site, while Cratejoy, another subscription box review site, is planning a "Subscription Box Sunday" on Nov. 26, when some boxes will be discounted. The concept of Subscription Box Sunday was created by a marketing company called Fosina Marketing Group, which noted some shoppers like the appeal of gifts that are delivered every month.

Read on to learn about 13 top subscription boxes for every person on your holiday list, based on Cadman's recommendations and her site's "best of 2017" results from a reader survey. Subscription boxes, provided by the companies, were tested by CBS MoneyWatch.

Beauty: Birchbox, $10 per month

One of the earliest subscription boxes, Birchbox aims to provide a taste of new beauty products.

Customers receive a variety of sample-sized products, which they can test and then buy full-sized versions if they like them. The box relies on a mix of established and newer brands, such as Estee Lauder and Smashbox Cosmetics.

Each box includes a description of each item, as well as its full-sized cost. The package is more spare than some higher-priced boxes, but the product selection was both unusual and useful, such as a deep-cleaning vanilla and charcoal soap bar from Level Naturals.

Items in the box often have a value of about $30, according to My Subscription Addiction reviews.

Beauty: Sephora, $10 per month

Sephora has grown into a beauty behemoth by creating a fun in-store experience, a goal it seeks to replicate inside its monthly box. The company picks products that are popular at its stores, with five skin-care, makeup or hair care samples included in each box.

The products were packed in an attractive linen bag inside the box, and each order comes with Sephora beauty insider points. Since Sephora wants customers to stop in its stores, the points are activated once the subscriber buys an item in a brick-and-mortar location.

"It's super popular," Cadman said. "More big companies are seeing the value in the subscription box space."

Beauty: Glossybox, $21 per month

Glossybox is more than double the cost of Sephora Play! and Birchbox, but it provides full-sized products and more elaborate packaging -- such as tissue paper and a ribbon -- that makes it feel like a treat to unbox.

Each box includes five products, with a recent subscription including Evio Beauty's green tea primer and Nature Queen's herbal shampoo and conditioner. The value of the box is about $89, according to My Subscription Addiction.

Beauty: BirchboxMan: $10

Men who are interested in self-care have a number of boxes to choose from, such as BirchboxMan, which takes the same approach as its original version for women by sending about five sample-sized products.

Offerings of grooming products are sent every month, such as Gaffer & Child's face scrub and Brickell Men's Products' spicy citrus wash.

Books: Book of the Month, about $15 per month

Book of the Month is enjoying a resurgence after refashioning itself as a subscription box.

Book of the Month Club, founded in 1926, was once a household name, introducing millions of American households to literary works like "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger. But as its mail-order business dwindled, the company changed hands several times, eventually finding a new owner that's relaunched it as a subscription box.

The box is all about the book: customers pick one hard-cover book out of five choices each month. They can also skip a month if they're too busy to read or aren't interested in that month's selections. Recent book selections include Andy Weir's "Artemis" and Louise Erdich's "Future Home of the Living God."

Customers tend to be women between 25 to 34, as well as highly educated, said Jennifer Dwork, head of content and partnerships.

"We were really surprised at how young our membership is, especially because this is a legacy brand," she said. "It's the subscription model that people are familiar with -- and they need to unplug and get off their devices. We're tapping into those trends."

Books: OwlCrate, $29.99 per month

OwlCrate focuses on young adult novels and picks a theme for each month, such as "mythical creatures" or "wanderlust." In addition to a hardback novel, recipients receive book-related items that are tied to the theme.

The "wanderlust" theme included a "Lord of the Rings"-inspired bag as well as the novel "The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue," which tracks a young man's travels across Europe.

The box started in 2015 with about 250 subscribers, but now has more than 10,000 customers, said Robert Madden. He and his business partner Korrina Ede recently started a middle-grade version called OwlCrate Jr.

"I'm always trying to make sure our boxes have more retail value than you would pay for it in the store," said Corinna. "Everything is pretty exclusive, including the book, where we've added exclusive covers."

Gifts: GlobeIn, $48 per month

GlobeIn is designed for consumers who want to support craftspeople in developing countries. The box includes themed handmade products from around the world.

For instance, its "Cozy" box includes charcoal-colored scarfs woven by Thai workers, which GlobeIn says provided 840 hours of flexible work for 12 craftspeople in the country, the company said.

While the box is slightly more expensive than others, the products are more unusual than what consumers could find at a department store.

Gifts: FabFitFun, $49.99 per box

FabFitFun is a quarterly box filled with an eclectic mix of beauty, lifestyle and home products, with its winter box including aloe-infused "cozy socks" and Doucce Cosmetics' eye shadow palette.

Each box includes full-sized products worth more than $200, according to the company. That's one appeal to customers, as well as the unusual selection and a booklet of tips for how to use each item.

Snacks: Amazon Sweets, $18 per box

The online retail behemoth has entered the subscription space. Its Prime Surprise Sweets box works slightly differently than a traditional subscription box, however. Instead of signing up for a 3- or 6-month membership, customers receive a "Dash" button that they can press when they are ready to reorder a new box.

Each box has a selection of sweets, with a recent box including a rum cake and a bag of tart cherry and lime gummy pandas, among other treats.

Amazon also offers "sample boxes," which include several samples of specific types of product, such as sun care products or dog treats. They range in price from about $5 to $20, and provide a credit toward a future purchase of an item in the box, Amazon said.

Kids: Pusheen box, $44 per box

Cult favorite Pusheen, a sweet-faced rotund cat, is the subject of one popular quarterly box from CultureFly, a company that's focused on creating boxes for fan bases.

Pusheen fans receive a mix of branded products, which the company says have a retail value of more than $100. A recent box included a Pusheen sweatshirt, a figurine, a shower curtain and bathmat, among other items. CultureFly designs and manufactures each product since it wants to provide items that fans can't find elsewhere, said CEO Eddie Erani.

"When there is a box that says it has $100 worth of value, customers really calculate if they are getting that value," Erani said. "When you do everything yourself, you can tell a story. We can pack it the way we want to pack it, the way we want the customer to unbox it."

Kids: Animal Jam, $25 per box

Parents with elementary or pre-teen children may be familiar with Animal Jam, a popular online game. This quarterly box plays off the game, providing branded toys, notebooks and other kid-related items.

The box is also from CultureFly, which is dedicated to developing boxes based on niche fandoms. (It's also coming out with a "Game of Thrones" box this winter.) The Animal Jam box includes $60 worth of products, which also include codes for in-game digital gifts.

Meals: HelloFresh, about $60 per box

HelloFresh offers the choice between meat-based or vegetarian meals, as well as a family plan. The two-person meal plan costs about $60 for three meals, which the company says works out to about $9.99 per serving.

The recipes were easy to cook and tasty, with the ingredients for each meal packaged in a brown paper bag, easily stored in the fridge until it's time to cook. The recipes were easy to follow and included nutritional information, as well as suggestions for wine pairings.

Recent recipes include one-pan hearty pork chili and sizzling hoisin shrimp. Customers pick which day of the week they want their box to arrive, and HelloFresh allows subscribers to pause or change plans.

Meals: Plated, $47.80

Plated offers a number of choices when it comes to how many meals and services you want to get in a box, such as 2 servings a night for two meals ($47.80 per box) up to 4 servings a night for four meals ($159.20 per box.)

The service also offers about 20 new recipes every week, as well as the option to add on dessert. Current recipes include curried chicken meatballs with cranberry-orange chutney, roasted potatoes and sautéed kale and apricot-glazed turkey things with roasted sweet potato and brussels sprouts.

Like HelloFresh, the recipes were easy to make and delicious, although one box arrived without one ingredient. If that happens, customers should reach out via email or phone and the company will "make it right," according to a spokeswoman.

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