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Consumer watch: Looking for a bit of mystery? Think inside the box

| Wednesday, April 17, 2013, 6:27 p.m.

Once, businesses would hand out free samples in malls or throw them in with other purchases.

Now, several businesses have sprouted up devoted to sending out a box of samples to customers once a month — and actually getting them to pay for it.

While wine- or steak-of-the-month clubs have been around forever, the box of mystery treats is a relatively new form of subscription sales. It has caught on fast.

Birchbox, one of the first such services and one of the biggest, offers five beauty product and makeup samples for women and men per month. It started in 2010 and now boasts 300,000 subscribers who pay $10 a month for the women's box or $20 a month for the men's box.

The model has caught on quickly, helped by social media sites where subscribers can show pictures of their boxes and rate the contents. Now you can get boxes full of every product you can imagine, from healthy snacks, dog treats and kids' toys all the way to tampons. The boxes come stuffed with samples or full-size products that marketers want you to try.

Even Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, started offering its own box of food samples, Goodies, in November.

But are these boxes really worth the money? Here are some things to consider if you're deciding to get yourself — or someone else — one of these monthly subscription boxes.

First of all, be skeptical, says Sheryl Garrett, founder of the Garrett Planning Network of financial planners.

“From a marketer's standpoint, it's a great way for them to separate us from our money,” she said. “While we think it's a treat.”

While it may be a good way to explore products you may not have heard of before, she said, you're probably going to spend more than you would have otherwise.

“If you pay $20 to get five snacks in a box,” she said, “they may be tasty and edible, but would you have gone to a specialty food shop and bought these four or five bags? Probably not.”

Another caution: there are usually only three- or six-month or yearly subscriptions available, so you can't cancel if you're disappointed after a month.

Still, if you want to try a sample service, one way to get more bang for your buck is to find services that are well-reviewed and closely match your tastes (or those of a friend or relative if you're giving them as a gift).

Gautam Gupta, CEO of Naturebox.com, which offers five snacks per box, said to take advantage of a company's presence on Facebook or Pinterest to evaluate the company.

“One of the things that give you a great sense of whether customers like the product or not is what they're saying,” he said. Naturebox.com, which offers monthly healthy snacks the company creates itself, has 300,000 Facebook fans, many commenting on what they received in their boxes each month. Other sites such as Instagram and Twitter are a wealth of information, too.

Next, check out the company's website to find out how the products are chosen, he said. Naturebox makes its snacks and gets them approved by nutritionists. But most sampling boxes work with other companies to procure samples.

“See if there is some criteria the company is putting forward that governs the way the products come in the box,” he said.

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