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Return To Sender – Subscription Services Reviewed

When I was in college, I was in the market for an authentic bike messenger bag. (This was back in the late 80’s before you could activate “One Think” buying on your Amazon account, daydream about an item, and have it show up at your house the next day.)


I wanted the one I had identified as the original, made by New York’s Manhattan Portage. Since I went to school in Buffalo and not New York City, there was no easy way to get it. My friend Ramon was from Brooklyn, so I asked him, on his next visit home, if he’d pick me up one. He said he would, but…wouldn’t I rather search it out myself, seek out the store, see what other little businesses were around it (remember, this was back before every other store in Manhattan was a Gap or Verizon), meet the guy selling running the place…have a little adventure?

Of course, he was right, and that’s exactly what I did, and now I have a memory that lives inside my bag (an amazing item by the way, rugged and waterproof and comfortable and voluminous and a broken-in functional beauty these decades later). Like all the best destinations, the journey there should be at least as important, but that philosophy has been soundly rejected by the onslaught of new subscription services promising to deliver a curated, cool, and sophisticated pack o’ style, right to your mailbox each and every month. This is even more spooky than my “One Think” Amazon idea, because you don’t even need to think about this stuff, there’s an algorithm for that!



I first started thinking about this whole idea as I, month after month, wished I could one day make my girlfriend as happy as did my mailman. What I mean by this (unless there’s something I don’t know) is when her shipment from Birchbox arrives each month, she is overwhelmed with a joy beyond words.

In case you’re not familiar, Birchbox in a subscription service where a beautiful gift-boxy box filled with five sample size “beauty products” (lotions and potions and such) is sent each month, and all for just $10, and that includes shipping. Not only is the box reusable for whatever you’d like to reuse a colorfully printed box, but my girlfriend has never received an item contained within that she didn’t either use or wish she used or dreamed of using or can’t believe she made it this far in her life without using!



All for ten bucks, about the price of a decent IPA. That’s a lot of bang for the buck, and she’d give up a lot before ever considering abandoning this modest indulgence. I wanted in on some of that action (maybe I’ll like fragrant salves and revitalizing tinctures too!), so I signed up for Birchbox Man (BM). After filling out an online Grooming Profile that was nearly as extensive as the paperwork accompanying the purchase of a home, I was hooked up.

Only for us guys, it’s $20 a month, because instead of five grooming products, we get four and some kind of thing…a gadget or socks or such. A stocking stuffer if you will. OK, whatevs, what’s a second missed IPA if it means I can be as giddy as she? When my first box arrived, I waited for the GF to get home so we could experience my elation together, and then tore into the outer box (but carefully, so as not to damage what I was sure was going to be as cool an inner box as she received), and from the moment I first laid eyes on it, wait for it, wait for it…meh.


Instead of a different designed box like she gets, Birchbox Men get the same old boring brown craft paper box every month. It’s constructed like a drawer, so I guess that’s something. (Just barely.) Over the four months I’ve been a subscriber, I’ve kept holding out that I’ll really love the next month’s, but it’s just not working.

I guess I just can’t get as excited as I thought I could about a mini bar of Keihl’s soap or a squat tube of moisturizer, with the active ingredient possessing some exotic provenance. I sense that BM is supposed to be all about the non-hygiene product, and what I’ve received thus far…some no-show socks, a cap with a reflective logo (for safely wearing a cap at night?), an iPhone battery charger and a pair of bracelets (brolets?)…have all been fine, though not that exciting. You know, stocking stuffers.

I’ve found that I’d really rather have those two IPAs (usually right after I open my BM, to drown the disappointment). So I quit, leaving the monthly glee to my GF alone, realizing that for me the hunt is still as much fun as the capture, whether it’s a new brand of denim, a cool new EDC, or even something that makes me clean/smell nice/ideally both. I’m likely preaching to the choir here, but hearing about something new on a site like this or having a friend turn you on to something he thinks you’ll really like (because he’s your friend and not a computer that thinks it’s identified your exact psychographic), or just plain stumbling on a little out of the way shop filled with delightful wares…those are the things and experiences I want to fill my pockets and cabinets and life with. And then share with a select few friends, and have them do the same.


Here are a few other subscription services; there are a ton out there (how far are we from being able to join a subscription service where each month you experience a new subscription service?) – not that I’ve personally tried (my IPA budget is now sacred), but that should you feel like giving one a test run or giving as a gift, I think you might like (I could be wrong; some fancy algorithm I’m not). Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to wait downstairs to make sure my mailman isn’t handsome…I ain’t taking any chances.

Birchbox Man – You’ve been warned.



“A stylist will handpick 5-6 different products, all yours to keep. Typical items will include ties, socks, pocket squares, grooming products & more.” These guys flip the Birchbox script, sending you just one grooming product and stocking stuffers for the remainder. And at $28 (though the items in each box are usually valued at over $100), this is two IPAs and a really nice tip, and either a bigger roll of the dice (we all like socks and pocket squares, but will you like their socks and pocket squares?) or a deck stacked in your favor.



“Themed boxes for guys who give a damn. Thoughtful collections of goods from small-batch brands, delivered monthly. Free to join, no commitments.” It may be free to join, but each box will cost you $45 (valued at over $70)…four IPAs and a crappy tip, though perhaps too drunk to sufficiently do the math. However, you can skip a month if you don’t like what’s coming, because you can preview the box before they send it. But really, who wants a peek at the stocking stuffers before Christmas morning? That being said, this seems like the best of the bunch.


Taster’s Club

“The Taster’s Club Team have worked hard to curate a list of ‘must have’, whiskeys, focusing on fabulous Scotch Whiskys and Bourbons. Each month, you can expect a new 750ml bottle of fantastic whiskey at your door that you wont forget. Part of what makes our clubs great is the surprise of getting a great bottle you’re not familiar with. Because of this, we do not pre-announce what the upcoming month’s bottle will be…” Lastly, here’s the Taster’s Club – please don’t get a DWS (drinking while subscribing). This starts at $55 a month, either a steal or a crime (if you get stuck with a bottle of Bunnahabhain Toiteach, a scotch with far too many b’s, n’s and h’s to be any good).

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