Birchbox Canada launches officially this week! But let's be clear: Birchbox is not a sampling program. Yes, the company has a comprehensive Try-Before-You-Buy edict. But Birchbox is not about charging you a monthly fee merely so they can ship you a box of random minis that may or may not suit your skin, hair, taste or interests. Got that? I'm not a fan of those monthly sample-box subscriptions you pay for (SampleSource is free -- love). But Birchbox and Birchbox Canada get two thumbs up.
birchbox canada: the backstory
Online shopping isn't usually considered a career-making pastime. But in the 2000s, combined with a keen interest in a changing business landscape, it sparked a new idea in Harvard business-school students Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp. Above: Tocca Crema Quintette ($39 at birchbox.ca and $32 at birchbox.com)
"We both loved the Internet, shopping online, buying books, music, clothes, shoes -- retailers made it so easy, and dangerously so," says Hayley. "But we didn't see that same sort of excitement and new model happening for beauty. It was really just replenishment -- people were comfortable buying that same Clinique moisturizer for the 10th time, but it was too risky to buy something online for the first time. And as you know, the beauty industry is built on launches. That's what's exciting, the new application methods, the new colours, trends for the season. Beauty was missing out." Above: Whish Three Wishes Body Butter Trio ($16 at birchbox.ca and $15 at birchbox.com)
Also key to this new business idea was Hayley's roommate from her pre-biz-school days in New York City. Mollie Chen was a beauty editor at a Condé Nast travel magazine. She had access to a beauty closet. "When Mollie needed to give me a gift or cheer me up, she'd pick out products that she knew would suit me, and teach me how to use them because I was a total newbie in the beauty category -- I grew up as a tomboy," explains Hayley. "Along with the newly launched fragrance from Fresh, she'd give me a cool bronzer palette and she'd say, 'Hayley, this is the brush you use and here's where you put it, and here's how.'" Above: ModelCo Party Proof Lip Trio ($25 at birchbox.ca and $24 at birchbox.com)
Department-store beauty counters with pushy sales people and a dizzying number of options had made Hayley "opt out," she says. But having an in-the-know friend select high-end items just for her, then show her how to use them was... life-changing, it turns out. "In our second year at business school, Katia noticed I had all these great products and wondered where they'd come from, and I'd answer again and again, 'my beauty-editor friend Mollie gave it to me.'" Above: Amika Glambox of travel-size dry shampoo, texture spray, hair spray and nourishing mask ($49.50 at birchbox.ca) US readers, try the Amika Let's Have a Hair Party Set of blowout spray, texture spray, texture gel creme and hair oil ($28 at birchbox.com)
There it was, the birth of the idea that became Birchbox. Haley and Katia knew what they wanted to do: "Make shopping for beauty online fun and exciting by giving everyone a beauty-editor best friend who would cut through the clutter with the right products for you," says Hayley. "She'd bring context, information on how to use everything, articles on ingredients, video tutorials, backgrounds of the brands and their founders -- exciting stuff that makes a product more than just goo in a tube." And getting the right samples into the right hands was one of the first steps toward making online beauty shopping a friendlier, more positive experience. Above: Gorjana Chloe Studs ($35 at birchbox.ca and $35 at birchbox.com)
birchbox is not a sampling program
In 2009, while still at Harvard, Hayley and Katia cold-emailed covetable beauty brands such as Kiehl's, Nars and Benefit. "We guessed at the email addresses of CEOs -- first name dot last name, then first initial and last name," Hayley remembers. "And it worked. We got email replies, and phone calls and meetings. We told them we were going to change beauty e-commerce, and we asked them for enough samples to test whether consumers would pay for them. No one was paying for samples then." Above: Cynthia Rowley Beauty The Game Face Eyeshadow Palette ($46 at birchbox.ca and $40 at birchbox.com)
In an era of standard gifts-with-purchase, up-selling and loyalty programs for existing customers only, the overwhelming response to the duo's pitch was nice try, girls, we hope it works -- *shrug*. But that verbal pat on the head came with a bonus give-it-a-try plus 200 samples and permission to put those covetable brand logos on their test site. And Hayley and Katia ran with it. They graduated and launched Birchbox in September of 2010.
Four years later, Birchbox Canada is the sixth in a global company that includes Birchbox Belgium, France, Spain, and the UK. (Business-genius alert: Birchbox got France, Spain and the UK in one move when they bought out a wannabe-copycat samples-of-the-month outfit that had the infrastructure to serve those regions. The founders are now valued members of the Birchbox team.)
Still, despite the number of times "samples" appears in this story, Birchbox is not a sampling program like all the copycats that followed. Rather, it's a "Try, Learn and Buy" concept, says Hayley. Birchbox is first and foremost a beauty e-tailer, one that plays matchmaker between consumer and samples so customers can feel safe exploring a carefully edited stock of premium and up-and-coming brands for items they'll really use, love and purchase. The fancy term for this approach to online retail is "discovery commerce." Above: Cynthia Rowley Beauty Eyeliners ($18 at birchbox.ca and $16 at birchbox.com), Creamy Lipstain in Dahlia and Heartthrob ($23 each at birchbox.caand $20 each at birchbox.com), and Liquid Liner ($21 each at birchbox.ca and $18 at birchbox.com)
Detailed profiles include the usual hair- and skin-type info, specific categories of interest, as well as style descriptors such as low-maintenance, classic, and trendy. Personalized boxes contain five samples -- hair, skin, makeup, nails and fragrance -- a mix of hero items and buzz-worthy launches. And the website features an online magazine with seasonal trend stories and how-tos (Hayley's beauty-editor best friend Mollie Chen was the first hire; she's the Birchbox editorial director). Above: Cynthia Rowley Beauty Liquid Eyeliner in Cobalt, Dark Grey and Navy ($21 each at birchbox.ca and $18 at birchbox.com)
birchbox canada open for business
Canadians -- including many of you, I know -- have been clamouring for access since Birchbox launched in the US. This Wednesday November 12th, Birchbox Canada makes its official debut. Birchbox.ca brands will include international names (such as Cynthia Rowley Beauty, Harvey Prince fragrances and Color Club nail colour, which aren't well known this side of the border), as well as homegrown lines such as Vasanti (which is already quite successful in the US, and on birchbox.com).
This is one of the first Birchbox Canada boxes. Set to ship in December, it includes samples of Amika Nourishing Mask for hair; Vasanti Brighten Up! facial exfoliant; Harvey Prince Hello, a citrussy floral scent; Benefit High Beam; and Color Club nail colour. Items available for purchase will include holiday gift sets and special items (including accessories) as per the images in this post.
Birchbox Canada sample subscriptions (giftworthy!) break down as follows:
1 month= $15 flat, including shipping and taxes
3 months = $44.85 incl. shipping/taxes
6 months = bonus free month + $79.50 incl. shipping/taxes
12 months = bonus 2 free months + $159.40 incl. shipping/taxes
So whatcha gonna do? Have you already signed up at birchbox.ca? Have you tried any of those sample-only programs in the past couple of years? US-based beautygeeks, are any of you current birchbox.com subscribers? Tell us everything!
One more question: would you buy a full-sized product if you like the sample, or is it enough just to get new samples to try every month?