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.