Seeking a solution, one tiny tube at a time

Candice Rainey / New York Times News Service /

Last year, Liz Corry, a product manager for an e-commerce site who lives in Pittsburgh, realized she needed to do something about her sprawling stockpile of beauty samples. She emptied two drawers in her bedroom dresser and transplanted roughly 600 Lilliputian tubes of moisturizers, eye serums, lip glosses and other miniature promises of reinvention.

“I had to go to Ikea and buy organizers just to keep them in place,” said Corry, 27, who spends around $200 a month on beauty-sample subscription services like Birchbox, GlossyBox and Julep (which specializes in nail polish), and reviews each tissue-swaddled package delivered to her to doorstep on her hobby blog, My Subscription Addiction. “I totally got hooked.”

The sample, by design, is meant to leave the customer wanting more. It is why Estee Lauder herself often slipped miniature sizes of silky lotions and creams to strangers, trusting her product to be the most persuasive marketing strategy.

Now an increasing number of subscription services have cut out the awkward dance of approaching makeup-counter personnel for a freebie. And some customers are getting carried away.

Corry started with Birchbox, the New York-based beauty club with more than 100,000 members who have filled out a questionnaire to determine what kind of samples are best suited for their skin type, hair color and “level of beauty knowledge.”

“When I realized they have variations they send out every month, I was jealous about the samples other people were getting,” she said. “So I signed up for my second subscription with them.”

She is also a fan of GlossyBox, which at $21 a month is one of the more expensive services, distributing “deluxe travel size” and even full-size products from international cosmetic and skin-care companies including Illamasqua, Phyto and Burberry Beauty. Evelyn Nguyen, 25, a part-time adviser for a consumer advice company, who lives in Manchester, England, can relate. She once subscribed to five beauty-of-the-month clubs but reluctantly scaled back to two (JolieBox and Amarya, which is focused on organic products) when she decided to pursue a degree in environmental science. “It’s very addictive,” said Nguyen, who stores her haul in a Wonder Woman lunchbox whose lid she can’t shut. “If I had a full-time job, I would be very tempted to keep up with the five.”

Sybil Yang, 36, an assistant professor of hospitality and tourism management at San Francisco State University, subscribes to three sample services and has found herself awash in “not quite a hundred” samples,” she said. “Half the things I get I’m not going to use because I’m not a lipstick or makeup person, really,” she said. “For me, it’s the variety you get. There’s no way I’m going to be buying five bottles of $200 moisturizer.

Birchbox was started in 2010 by two graduates of Harvard Business School, Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna. “We feel attached to the small miniature element of it,” Beauchamp said. “You get to engage and interact with the product without committing, and it’s really delightful.”

But she said the company’s ultimate goal was to persuade sample-happy customers to buy full-size products from its website, which doles out points for reviews.

“Fifty percent of our subscribers have shopped with us for a full-size product, so a lot of people are transacting,” Beauchamp said. “Of course there’s going to be different people who use the service for different reasons.”

Indeed, many women have become so preoccupied with cultivating their collections that they have taken to the Internet to set up swaps with other subscribers. “It’s a big community at the moment,” said Nguyen, a member of the Facebook group Beauty Box Swaps.

“I really don’t use a lot of makeup stuff, so I try to trade it away,” said Yang, who occasionally uses the chat forum MakeupTalk.com, a popular site for the sample hungry who gush or complain about their subscription boxes, share woes about delayed shipping and set up trades with other subscribers. “It’s kind of a way to try even more products. I had very little to lose except for postage, which is two bucks.”

Linda Hoare, 26, a nurse’s assistant who lives in Bremer, Wash., and maintains four subscriptions, has mailed out 68 swaps since May. “If I get one of my boxes and there’s a product or something that I really like but I want to do more road-testing, I try to trade for it,” she said. “I found this deep conditioner that I like, and I did a swap with a girl, and she ended up sending me, like, eight packages.”

Hoare, a moderator for MakeupTalk.com, has also joined in more intricate “circular” swaps: a sort of Sisterhood of the Traveling Samples. Overseen by volunteers and arranged on chat forum threads, a swap begins with a box starter, who inaugurates the package with 20 to 30 beauty samples and mails it to the next participant. Upon receiving the migrating goody bag, she can take anything she likes as long as she replaces it with samples she is looking to unload, and so on down the list. Hoare said it was like the thrill of a chain letter, only “you’re doing it with a box of beauty products.”