Online, subscription-based services continue to multiply. Whether beauty products, snack food, pet supplies or fashion, more and more keep launching, confident they’re offering something the others aren’t. “Subscription” sold as curated convenience has become a buzzword of which it seems we can’t get enough. But the ones who have captured the most attention (and investor funding) as of late, are the meal kits. The promise of convenience, fresh gourmet deliciousness and ease all delivered in a tidy package on your doorstep.
There are no shortage of brands in th the kit space: Blue Apron, Hello Fresh!, Plated, Home Chef, Chef’d and many more. And it seems there is no end to the food industry’s appetite to tout the model as a game changer. But, amid all the chatter, the fact remains that even the segment leader, Blue Apron, has struggled with long-term viability. When Blue Apron went public it was sold at $10 per share, after originally hoping to command $15 -$17 per share. By early December, it was trading at $2.99 per share, its founder was stepping aside as CEO, and statistics regarding a customer retention rate of less than 15% caused even more market concern.
Great concept…in theory. Let’s take a closer look.
Products I would have to visit a store to purchase, arrive on my doorstep. I can easily view and manage the details of my order and account on my phone. I can pause, customize, and cancel orders as I wish. I’m charged and my products ship automatically. I receive alerts when my order has shipped and when it’s arrived at my house. The recipes get me to try new dishes and new ingredients I wouldn’t buy otherwise.
So why do I, and apparently nearly 85% of other subscribers, cancel after the first-time promotional offer?
- It’s not replenishing something I need, the products I receive feel “in addition to” my weekly staples. They are inconveniently convenient.
- For the most part, these subscriptions are really expensive. There’s no “and save” involved in this “subscribe.” So it’s a fun splurge for me, not a sustainable solution for meals.
- While I’m cooking with new ingredients, the recipes don’t allow for the same product and brand discovery that something like Birchbox does.
- Likewise, if Blue Apron gets me to fall in love with butternut squash, they don’t make any money on my future butternut squash purchases nor have they made it easier for me to find it elsewhere.
- Finally there are too many competitors in the market vying for the same customer and making it simple to switch to the next deal if the first one doesn’t completely live up to my expectations. It seems most of them are willing to lose money on my first purchase or two to gain my trial. Since I haven’t established a strong loyalty, I’m happy to oblige.
Brands like Blue Apron continue to spend aggressively against customer acquisition. Some estimate as much as $94 per customer while they have yet to solve retention. They simply can’t rely on the novelty of a subscription alone, or the desire of consumer to cook more meals at home, to retain customers. If they continue to do so, the churn will eventually be their demise.
There are a lot of brands who can solve this same “convenient cooking” need including traditional retailers like Albertsons who has invested in the kit game. And rumors have started to swirl around WalMart “saving” Blue Apron from its current financial misery. For that reason, it’s critical for meal kit brands to have razor-sharp focus around targeting the right customer with a truly differentiated offering. To succeed these companies don’t need a million customers, they need fewer, loyal ones and a solid plan to keep adding value to their lives beyond what the next competitor, or the grocery retailer down the street can do. It’s the part of the equation that Birchbox figured out years ago and the part that is yet to be solved by the subscription meal kit brands.
Birchbox has continued to be successful for two primary reasons. First, they’ve defined their target customer and are able to retain her. Intuitively, it would make sense if Birchbox’s customers were those really interested in beauty products, but in fact it’s the opposite. By focusing on the women who are NOT interested in beauty products, they’ve increased retention and opened the door to 80% of female consumers who don’t feel the beauty industry is talking to them. Second, the subscription aspect of the business is a revenue stream, not THE revenue stream. It’s not their business model.
Meal subscriptions are around every corner, but they seem to be trying to create a subscription solely based on convenience and novelty that’s seemingly relevant to everyone but doesn’t retain most. What if they took a harder look at understanding what it is about their brands that resonates with the 15% of the consumers they retain and then built a more differentiated value proposition from there? What if they gave consumers a reason to stick around for several months with a promise of teaching you how to cook a particular way (paleo, low carb, Thai, French, pressure cooking, etc) that aligned with a lifestyle or personal goal? What if they embraced a relationship with CPG brands or with traditional retailers that would create potential cost-sharing leading to more value for the consumer as well?
Bottom line, there are dozens of ways to tweak the model to improve upon retention. The brands that shift their focus to delivering long-term meaning and away from short-term acquisition through discounting are the ones that will weather the storm and change the game.