The first time best friends Janice Shah and Himanshi Vora had to fend for themselves in the kitchen was when they attended business schools in the UK in 2007 and 2009, respectively. The clueless first-time cooks didn’t know how to shop for groceries or what to do with them. But it didn’t take long before whole weekends and study breaks were dedicated to hunting for new and interesting ingredients in hypermarkets.

When Shah and Vora realized their weekends back home in Mumbai also involved long queues outside brand new restaurants and shopping at speciality food shops, they launched TheGourmetBox.in, a monthly subscription service that offers themed food hampers, in June. “We remember that overwhelming feeling you get when you see aisles and aisles of new and exotic ingredients," says Vora, “So you simply leave with what you always shop for."

Designed to help budding gourmands discover, decode and pair exotic grocery finds, The Gourmet Box, priced at 1,250, comes with ingredients for a complete meal for four along with easy-to-follow tips, tricks and recipes. The inaugural “Breakfast Special" box included an Orgran Apple and Cinnamon Pancake Mix, Litchi Honey from Under the Mango Tree and the newly-launched Chai Diaries Blood Orange Tea, Sweet Chilli Jam by Pico, Dryden & Palmer’s Rock Candy Swizzle Sticks and cereal bars by Mumbai-based Chocotella. Next up are themes based on different cuisines and boxes curated by local celebrity chefs and bloggers.

The Gourmet Box Breakfast edition. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Founders Hayley Barna and Katia Beuachamp made news when they cracked the code for selling beauty products online: Birchbox offered women a chance to sample a handful of premium skincare, make-up and hair products for $10 (around 600) before making full-size purchases, just as they would at a retail cosmetics store.

Little did they know that their subscription commerce model would kick off a dizzying array of of-the-month speciality clubs around the world that now offer everything under the sun: from fresh baked goods, organic baby food and hand-churned ice cream to Swedish kitchen equipment, stationery, sex toys, lighters and underwear.

All based on the simple thrill of receiving a box full of surprise goodies each month—almost as a present you buy for yourself.

In March, I signed up for a club that’s topped nearly every list of the wackiest online subscription services, Candyjapan.com. Finnish expat Bemmu Sepponen scours Japanese supermarkets and candy marts to send out packets of his most bizarre and whimsical finds twice a month for $25. My packets arrived as belated birthday presents with Gokigen Yogurt, thin slices of frozen yogurt-flavoured jelly, and Choco Neri, a DIY kit for making chocolate rice-puff lollipops.

Indian businesses have only begun to warm up to the idea of subscription commerce, with beauty, food and children’s craft and activity boxes (see below) being the most popular and successful.

Bpbweekend.com’s June Dessert Box. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Poddar explained the Dessert Box (priced at 750 per month for a minimum of three months) is also a cool way for the online lifestyle website to move into an influencer space. Rather than just informing readers about their new favourite baker or bakery in Mumbai, each month Poddar, along with her team, stuffs the Dessert Boxes with up to six desserts (a stack of cookies counts as one dessert, says Poddar) from home bakers, celebrity chefs, local cafés and five-star hotel patisseries like The Leela, Pooja Dhingra’s Le 15 Pâtisserie and Country of Origin.

Delhi’s Bake Box ( 850 per month for home deliveries or 750 for pick-ups) too was launched last August. Both boxes claim to service 100-odd customers every month. They function in a similar manner, but instead of six bakers, every month Bakebox.in selects just one home baker to showcase their signature dishes. Monthly themes so far have included B.Sweet’s frosting-free healthy bakes, Cupcake & Co.’s Parisian-themed box with macaroons and madelines and High Tea by Confectionately Seerat’s. “We felt home bakers are still perceived as old aunties baking plain vanilla cakes for their kids," says Mansi Sharma, creative director of Bake Box and Bake Mela, an online directory and community forum of home bakers in India. “But already the bakers who have participated with us have gained celebrity status, including Hanisha Singh of My Little Food Company, who was recently made the brand ambassador of American home appliances brand KitchenAid."

If all goes to plan, the Bpb team will take their Dessert Box to Delhi shortly and Bake Mela will launch a subscription club for unusual and hard-to-find baking equipment and supplies.

Irrespective of the product category a speciality club deals with, most sampling subscription businesses get free products to send out to subscribers from interested brands that in turn treat the sampling process as a targeted research tool.

That’s why beauty boxes (from 399) like first-time entrepreneur and Ghaziabad-based Suruchi Bamba’s Enchantess.com and Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, alumni Kaushik Mukherjee and Vineeta Singh’s Vellvette.com are seen as viable business models by investors. Mukherjee says most international brands are happy to use platforms like Vellvette.com to test the waters but they need to get to at least 10,000 subscribers by the end of the year to attract a wider range of brands. On Vellvette.com, subscribers fill in a comprehensive questionnaire on skincare, haircare and make-up preferences, compiled by their in-house beauty adviser Rima J. Pundir, former beauty editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. A sophisticated algorithm helps the website send out beauty samples in over 100 combinations to best suit the subscriber. Enchantess.com too makes regular customer-care calls to ensure subscribers are always happy with what they get and will soon launch a feature that allows women to select their own beauty samples.

Unlike beauty and food, online fashion websites have been slow to take on the subscription challenge. Faballey.com’s co-founder Tanvi Malik says that even though they would love to launch subscription services for women’s apparel and shoes, sizing is already a nightmare when it comes to women’s online shopping habits.

For now the website offers a Jewel Box which comes with three limited-edition fashion jewellery accessories each month for 1,000, in four categories: Boho, Casual, Classic and Glam. Malik says that so far the contents of the box (often collar chains, knuckle rings and ear cuffs) need to be revealed on the website but as women get accustomed to jewellery subscriptions, they’ll introduce surprise boxes.

Seat14a.com’s The Valley look

Also launching soon is Tee20.com, a Chennai-based menswear e-commerce site that will send out one brand new T-shirt to subscribers every Thursday, just in time for casual Fridays at work.

If you’re thinking, do I really need a stranger on the Internet picking out my office wardrobe or a quick-fix meal on a weeknight, remember the subscription industry (now also defined as “discovery commerce") feeds on convenience and novelty. Just when I had sworn off the Japanese candy club, Candyjapan.com’s Sepponen uploaded a video of a June shipment I had missed: Moko Moko Mokoretto, a cola-flavoured liquid candy that you drink out of a plastic toy commode. I’m now signed on for four more packets of the kooky treats.

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Little packs

A round-up of the best monthly boxes for children.

u Mom-Dom

The Mom-Dom box is designed to help little children learn values and good manners that go beyond just “please" and “thank you". Five main components make up each box: “Build" is all about art and craft projects, “Discover" encourages closer observation of everyday habits, “Tell a Tale" and “Connect to Your Roots" include stories to be read by children and parents together, and “Affirm" provides mementos like posters and fridge magnets.

Sign up at www.mom-dom.com; starting from 2,000 a month for the Mom-Dom Box; from 1,200 for Mom-Dom Trunkies (mini versions); and from 500 for the digital edition. For ages 3-8.

u Traveller Kids

Children can embark on a round-the-world tour with Traveller Kids’ mascot Atlas—The Travelling Mouse. We recommend getting the starter kit that comes with a passport, a non-tear world map and an adorable immigration date stamp to mark the arrival and completion of a new box each month. Each box has a visa sticker, two games and two craft projects inspired by traditional arts and crafts, an activity book filled with cultural trivia, and a souvenir. Boxes are also designed as keepsakes—the India Box transforms into an ornate cupboard and the French box turns into an easel.

The Small Brown Box keeps children busy
The Small Brown Box keeps children busy
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