Subscription boxes: Data’s newest frontier provides product-level stats you won't find elsewhere


Sure, subscription boxes distribute samples, but the benefit to product providers isn’t always tangible. Cairn is changing that.

Brands like Stanley and Joshua Tree say their partnerships with Cairn have yielded unparalleled consumer feedback. Photo courtesy of Cairn.

Brands like Stanley and Joshua Tree say their partnerships with Cairn have yielded unparalleled consumer feedback. Photo courtesy of Cairn.

These days, there’s a subscription box for everything.

You can sign up with Birchbox for cosmetics, Dollar Shave Club for regular razors, Bark Box for pet paraphernalia. The boxes are big business: Birchbox is valued at $70 million, and meal kit provider Blue Apron, $2 billion. Both companies have hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

Despite the popularity, subscription boxes have only recently appeared in the outdoor arena. At over 10,000 subscribers, Cairn is the biggest outdoor subscription box there is and by far the best known. Some others, including CampBox, and Runnerbox, stand back stage at under 2000 subscribers.

Cairn, named for the stacked stones that aid hikers keep track of elusive trails, helps consumers keep tabs on the outdoor retail scene. The company was founded in 2014 with just several hundred initial subscribers. It’s grown at least tenfold in two years.

How it works 

Like other subscription boxes, Cairn relies on brand partners, companies willing to take the scythe to wholesale prices to get their product in front of a target demographic. Cairn buys that product at or below production cost and promises brand exposure in exchange for the discount. Partners can also send out promotional cards in the boxes (for which they pay Cairn 25 cents a pop), another option common to most subscription services.

Jodi Scott, co-founder of Cairn box partner Sierra Sage, says she’s found it useful to to track coupon code redemption rates to gauge partnership effectiveness, but not everyone who buys additional product uses the coupon. When they do it can be up to six months later, according to Joshua Tree COO and Sales Director Jaime Anderson.

Therein lies the problem of subscription boxes: the benefit to brands is hard to quantify.
That’s where Cairn’s other services come in.

Through-the-roof review rates

Cairn starts by tracking subscribers’ demographic information, including their interests and favorite outdoor activities. Subscribers receive email surveys a month after the boxes ship, and Cairn curates future boxes for groups of subscribers based on their feedback.
That idea of a dynamic, collaborative subscription service was what drew the attention of Joshua Tree, one of Cairn’s first partners.
“The unique premise of Cairn was that they really wanted to create a collaboration with their subscribers and continually deliver relevant products to the people who might actually use them.” said Joshua Tree COO and Sales Director Jaime Anderson.

Rob Little, CEO and co-founder of Cairn, said their review rates are 30 to 40 times higher than what brands in the industry see when they collect data on their own. In addition, 60 percent of reviewers who take the time to rank their favorite products also write comments in the space Cairn includes at the bottom of every product survey.

These surveys tap into the same human desires that contributed to runaway success of recommendation engine and review platform Yelp. Yelp creators were happily surprised to find few people don’t want to play food critic or hotel connoisseur for a day. Among outdoorists, who doesn’t want to flatter themselves a gear tester?

“Part of the Cairn experience is you know going in that they’re giving you an insider’s look at new outdoor products at a great discount,” said Anderson. “So when they ask you to participate a little more, you feel like a member of a community.” To sweeten the deal, Cairn rewards survey answers with points that can be redeemed to purchase new boxes.

Reaping the benefits 

All these survey responses mean data. A lot of data.

Most of the time, companies who want product-level information — something more focused than sales counts or industry-wide trends — have to hire an outside agency to run a focus group. That can be pretty expensive. Plus, the focus group sample is rarely large enough for the results to be statistically significant, Little said.

Cairn’s surveys, on the other hand, provide thousands of data points very inexpensively. An executive summary tells brand partners how their products stack up against others in the industry or sector and how the products performed among different demographics and types of outdoorists.

“It tells us more than we ever hoped to know about our products,” Anderson said.

This is the type of information a brand partner would receive from Cairn after subscribers review their products. This sample data is not from an actual company or product. Data courtesy of Cairn.

This is the type of information a brand partner would receive from Cairn after subscribers review their products. This sample data is not from an actual company or product. Click the photo to see more sample data. Data courtesy of Cairn.

Joshua Tree, which has now participated in four Cairn box campaigns, hasn’t been able to replicate those response rates on their own website, and Anderson suspects it’s because customers come in with different expectations. They come to our site to exchange cash for product, and once the transaction is complete, customers don’t feel as though they owe anything else. The interaction ends there, and surveys go unanswered.

To some of Cairn’s partners, the data has been invaluable.

Joshua Tree tweaked the oil content and labeling of its Winterstick, a product that protects against chapping and windburn, solely because of subscriber feedback. Sierra Sage improved the dispensing system of a new deodorant. Stanley was able to diagnose the puzzlingly poor sales of its Classic Vacuum Pint. Through comments, Cairn reviewers revealed their confusion about the product’s use. Stanley’s subsequent change in labeling bettered consumer understanding and dramatically improved sell-through, according to Eric Shear, the director of global project management for Stanley.

Cairn data has also served as a critical marketing assist.

“After the latest feedback from Cairn we discovered yoga was an important market for us to direct funds to,” Anderson said. “This year [Cairn reviewer feedback] has probably directed between 20 and 30 percent of my marketing.”

A new frontier

In the next few years, Little hopes some of that data will be public-facing, though he isn’t sure when or what it will look like.

“Online customers can see feedback that’s been shared by the marketplace,” Little said. Little mentioned Amazon but said it doesn’t have the same reputation for outdoor product feedback as it does for book and movie reviews. “There isn’t a good central location for this information in the outdoor industry, and we think our database is becoming a strong platform for that information.”
In the meantime, data sharing remains a new frontier. And for the time being, there’s a Cairn to mark the way.



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