SMALL BUSINESS GROWTH   |   9 minute read

How to turn whatever you sell into an eCommerce subscription

Willing to think outside the litter box?

If so you’ll discover what’s known as the subscription economy- a beautiful place where products and services never before imagined as being prime subscription candidates are providing high-growth eCommerce brands with predictable recurring revenue.

Kitty litter is proof.

Don’t pinch or look down your nose at it, but kitty litter- historically purchased in bulk and exclusively from brick and mortar stores- has become a multi-million dollar online business fueled, in part, by the trend toward subscriptions.

If it can be done with cat litter, you too can turn almost anything you sell into a subscription offering that will help your business scale faster.

Here’s how...

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The subscription boom

Subscription offerings solve a myriad of business problems.

Besides smoothing cash flow lumpiness- which kills 25% of small businesses- subscriptions can help eCommerce merchants reduce abandoned cart rates and lift conversions. It’s why entire business models have been built around subscriptions; think Dollar Shave Club, Blue Apron, and Birchbox.


The subscription eCommerce market has grown at a compound annual rate of 100-percent for the past five years with the largest players notching $2.6 billion in revenue in 2016. With clothing, alcohol, and food topping the list of the most popular subscription offerings, this accelerated growth has attracted retail behemoths like Walmart to offer subscriptions.

While research indicates just 15-percent of online shoppers have subscribed to an eCommerce service in the last year, the data can be misleading as it often doesn’t account for streaming subscription services like Netflix, which has 130-million subscribers, or Amazon, which now has 100-million Prime members.

Despite warnings of ‘subscription fatigue’ or even a ‘bubble about to burst’, you too can creatively convert whatever it is you sell into lucrative subscriptions.

PrettyLitter (1)Surprise! Whatever you sell will work

Worried it’s too late to grab your piece of the subscription economy?

Then consider 35-percent of consumers currently subscribe to three or more services. Broken down further, 18-percent of men and 7-percent of women have six or more subscriptions. Now consider that items never before considered to be subscription-worthy are generating millions of dollars in sales:

  • Bulky Items- In just three years, PrettyLitter, which sells cat litter that changes color indicating a cat’s health, has built a multi-million dollar company by highlighting the convenience that subscriptions offer to shoppers who’d ordinarily lug bulky bags of litter home from brick & mortar stores.  
  • Items that don’t need to be regularly replaced- Instead settling for one-off purchases, BlenderBottle, a maker of shaker cups that ensure protein, fiber, and meal replacement shakes are lump-free, engineers longer term demand with its “shaker of the month” subscription box- selling more than it otherwise might.
  • Items that traditionally are not immediately replenished- Since nail polish consumers often switch colors before running out, Candy Coat, which sells nail color to individuals and salons, offers subscription boxes with a variety colors that are automatically delivered monthly, whether or not customers have run out.

Next, appropriately package your subscription offering and tout its value by...

Choosing your subscription category

With traffic to subscription box websites up nearly 3,000-percent to more than 21-million visitors in just three years, not only does the industry understand what types of subscriptions work but also how to highlight the value your subscription adds.

When considering how to position your subscription offering, understand there are three categories with unique value propositions:

Category #1: Replenishment

Replenishments comprise approximately 32-percent of subscriptions. The value proposition here is helping the consumer save time and money, and never running out of something at a crucial moment. Items are automatically replenished on a predetermined cadence.

Research suggests replenishment subscriptions work well for commodities like razors or vitamins.

Category #2: Curation

Curations comprise approximately 55-percent of subscriptions. The value proposition here is to surprise customers with variety or the unexpected. Use your access to distinctive products to offer collections that differentiate you, illustrate your expertise, or highlight your access to a unique supply of stock.

Research suggests curation subscriptions work well for apparel, food, and beauty products.

Beauty Cosmetics Industry Category #3: VIP Access

VIP access comprises approximately 13-percent of subscriptions. The value proposition here is offering consumers exclusive access to something they can’t get otherwise. These subscriptions often take the form of memberships and offer VIP perks.

Research suggests VIP access subscriptions work well for apparel, food, or consulting and educational services.

Automating your subscriptions

To make your subscription a success- and provide real customer value in the form of convenience- the order, billing, and fulfillment processes must be automated. Specifically, you’ll need to integrate your eCommerce site with a recurring billing management system, and a payment gateway to process customer transactions.

You might consider the following recurring billing solutions:

  • Zuora- subscription platform for large enterprises
  • Bold Commerce- designed to scale and easily integrate
  • Chargify- offers a breadth of elastic billing or subscription permutations
  • Recurly- enterprise platform maximizes revenue by preventing credit card declines

Importantly, the solution you select should also automatically notify customers when their credit card on file is about expire. Otherwise, the customer won’t receive the package they’re expecting and you’ll leave money on the table.FoodDeliverySubscription

Retaining your subscribers

Remember that your subscription customers are expecting you to deliver on time and without fail. It’s why accurately predicting demand is crucial. Running out of inventory- especially after charging the customer for the month- erodes trust, ruins the customer experience, and requires that you instigate tedious refund or crediting processes.

It becomes even more complicated to forecast demand when subscriptions are simply one part of a multi-channel growth strategy that spans both the digital and physical worlds. To achieve operational excellence- and incorporate subscriptions into your business model:

Not only can a robust order and inventory management system achieve this, it can also send subscribers automated email confirmations and follow ups that allow them to track the packages they’re anticipating.

Turning whatever it is you sell into an eCommerce subscription is the easy part.

How you operate afterward determines if you can keep the subscribers keeping you in business.

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