Subscription Box Tips - How to Protect Yourself from Shady Subscriptions
Subscription box services are more popular than ever, and with that popularity comes risk. More and more companies are popping up offering subscription boxes. Unfortunately, some of these services are too good to be. There have been several issues over the past two years, most notably Canadian boxes Glymm and Glossybox closing shop unexpectedly and leaving clients in the dark and out money. Other issues that can come up include unexplained shipping delays, paying for a box you never receive, receiving a box with less value or product that advertised, and poor or non-existent customer service. What can a consumer do to protect herself? Before handing over your hard earned money to a subscription box service, be sure to read these tips.
I started my subscription box journey nearly two years ago. In that time, I have only experienced two shady companies. The first was The Natural Beauty Box. You can read all about that fiasco here. I was also a victim of the Glossybox closure, subscribing less than a week before they shut down. The situation was documented here. Most recently, I had a nightmare experience with WhimseyBox, which you can read about here. These experiences, as well as reading about the experiences of others, helped me compile some tips and suggestions on how to pick a subscription service that is reputable and right for you.
How to Protect Yourself from Shady Subscriptions
1. Review subscription terms & cancellation policy. Know what you are signing up for before you register! Get your info directly from the source (company website TOS and FAQ). Blogs, forums, and chat groups are helpful, but do not always provide accurate information. Make sure you know how to cancel and cancellation deadlines. Glossybox, for example, makes it nearly impossible to cancel after your first month, forcing you to pay for a second month, even if you don't want it (read here). If your box offers the option to skip, make sure you review skipping deadlines so you aren’t charged unexpectedly. If your box is billed monthly, you should also know when to expect a charge and when your box is expected to ship. I keep a spread sheet listing all my subscriptions and their terms. It’s a handy way to keep all the information in one place so I don’t forget. Also be aware, free trials are not always free. Most free trials automatically sign you up for a recurring subscription, which bills you if not cancelled in time. Honest Company, for example, operates their subscription model in this way, and makes it very difficult to cancel (read here).
2. Learn your Credit Card company and Paypal dispute policies. If by chance you sign up for a dud company, know what recourse you have to get your money back. I have filed disputes with both Paypal and VISA with no issues. Amex was a little less accommodating. Disputes are more difficult when you pre-pay for a service (eg: 1 year subscription and only received 6 boxes), so I prefer to sign up for monthly, or at most 3-month terms.
3. If ever you have a customer service issue, reach out to the company by e-mail. Never use social media to make a complaint or account enquiry. If you don’t get a reply within a couple days, e-mail again. If you must resort to social media, only do so after e-mailing, in order to get their attention.
4. Keep records of all interactions with the company, including all e-mails and invoices. If you start to encounter issues, take screen shots of any social media interactions. This will help if you ever need to dispute a charge.
5. You have a limited time to file a dispute. For Paypal, it’s 45 days from the date of sale. Keep this in mind when you are dealing with a shady company. I had an experience where a box was never shipped. The company kept making excuses to customers and promising to ship “next week”. Next week would come and go, followed by the same excuses and promises. They were trying to stall so the 45 days would pass, leaving customers with no recourse. If you start getting the run around, your best bet is to put aside your faith in people and go straight for dispute resolution.
6. Search for customer reviews to read opinions & see previous boxes and products. This is the best way to see if a service is for you.
- Check the Makeup Talk forums. Here you will find honest, (mostly) unbiased comments from real, paying subscribers. The MUT forum users are very informative and helpful.
- Read comments on the company’s social media pages (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) and read comments left by customers. Look at customer feedback and see how the company responds to customer complaints and inquiries. Keep in mind, the company controls the content. For Facebook, if you don’t see ANY customer comments or wall posts, this is a bad sign and likely means the company has blocked customers from being able to post on their wall. Many box companies have been known to censor their Facebook and Instagram by deleting negative comments.Check to see how active the company is on social media. If they haven’t posted in several weeks or months, this is a red flag.
- Check Google for subscription box review blogs (like mine!) and YouTube channels. Keep in mind, some bloggers are offered free boxes for review (myself included). Do not rely solely on these opinions. Paying customers often have different experiences (good and bad) and different opinions. A blogger with overly positive reviews for every box is probably not being 100% honest. Be aware that some bloggers (myself included) earn commissions and referral credits by getting people to sign up for subscriptions, so positive reviews could mean more commission. By law, bloggers are required to disclose their affiliations and sponsorships. I always disclose my partnerships at the very top of my posts.
- Make sure you focus on box content, not just reviewer opinion. Check reviews over a span of several months so get an idea of what the box has to offer and see if the products suit you and your preferences.
7. Be cautious of new subscription box companies, especially ones that launch only on Facebook, with no standalone website. On the same note, be cautious of companies with very amateur-looking websites. If they aren’t putting money into the storefront, they probably aren’t putting much into the subscription service either.
8. Be cautious of companies that only use Paypal to process payments. While this doesn't always mean a company is shady, it's preferable if there are multiple payment options. On the plus side, Paypal has pretty good dispute terms and makes it very easy to cancel a recurring payment.
9. Be cautious of companies that do not have built in registration systems (ie: to sign up you get sent to Paypal – no personal information is provided to the box company directly). If they don’t have your e-mail address, they have no way to contact you or update you. I was once burned by a company who claimed Paypal had a “glitch” the day I signed up so they didn’t get my order information.
10. Along the same lines, make sure you have ways to contact them as well. Look for a customer service phone number and e-mail address. I don't like when companies only use a fill-able contact form as a way of communication. You should be able to know their e-mail address, phone number, city of operation (and preferably an address), and first names of those running the business. How can you trust a company if you know nothing about them and they operate behind a shade of anonymity?
11. Be cautious of new companies that offer very little information about what is inside their boxes and have no photos of sample boxes. You should know what you are signing up for before you register. This includes what type of products you will receive and the approximate value you will receive. Photos are nice too.
12. Be cautious of companies offering top brand products like MAC, Dior, Chanel, etc. These brands do not partner with re-sellers so it is highly unlikely a subscription box company would ever be able to get these products at an affordable rate so to be able to include them in a box. One such shady company obtained the products from Ebay, which likely means the products were counterfeits from Asia. There are always exceptions though.
These tips are the guidelines I follow when deciding whether or not to sign up for a subscription service. I call them "red flags". Of course not all companies that only accept Paypal for payment are shady. You have to look at the entire picture. If a company has multiple "red flags", then I would probably pass initially and treat it as a "wait and see" service. Subscription boxes are supposed to be fun and exciting, so be sure to protect yourself so you don't have to deal with the headache of a payment dispute with a shady company.
How do you protect yourself when purchasing online? Do you have any tips or suggestions to add?