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Nicole Winhoffer curated the first Avenue A subscription box.


Whatever your shopping preferences, it seems these days that there's a subscription box to cater to them. Birchbox, which peddles a monthly box of curated beauty samples, was an early player in a trendy format that has grown to include everything from healthy snacks to pet treats to proudly nerdy selections of action figures and other collectibles. There's even one called BattlBox that peddles survival and tactical gear. ("This is NOT your girlfriend's box!" the website declares.)

And now Adidas is a player in the subscription-box game, having joined with the hope that the move will help it appeal to female shoppers - and in doing so grab back market share from high-flying rivals Nike and Under Armour.

The service is called Avenue A, and subscribers will receive a quarterly delivery of a curated box of sneakers, apparel and other workout gear. The mix and style of the items will always be a surprise, with Adidas promising only that the pieces will be seasonally appropriate. Some items will be exclusive or limited edition and others will be widely sold retail fare.

It's not terribly hard to see why Adidas is giving this a go: The "athleisure" trend is still booming, and there has been plenty of shopper interest in the bumper crop of subscription-box start-ups. One such company, Fabletics, already offers workout gear on a subscription basis to young, fashion-conscious shoppers.

In four years, the market has exploded from fewer than 200 subscription services to more than 2,000, according to Liz Cadman, founder of the directory and review site My Subscription Addiction.

Adidas's customer research found that such an offering could have particular appeal to time-starved female athletes.

"They're so busy. Their lives are pulling them in so many different directions," said Chris Brewer, Adidas's category director for running. "They would rather actually be working out than going to shop for their workout gear."

But the details of Adidas's strategy might make it hard for Avenue A to gain traction. And its move raises the question of whether the buzzy subscription-box trend has the shelf life or the kind of broad application that its enthusiasts imagine.

Adidas says it imagines the core subscriber will be a woman who has running at the heart of her fitness routine but also regularly incorporates other activities such as Pilates or barre class.

Avenue A boxes cost $150 each, so that means a subscriber is spending $600 a year on workout clothes. Surely there are women out there who drop that much money annually on exercise attire. But it stands to reason that if someone is spending that much, she's not casual about her gym routine. More likely, she is a bona fide fitness junkie, someone who competes in triathalons or starts every day with a visit to the CrossFit box.

In other words, this person is probably someone who has specific performance needs and preferences for her gym attire. It's an open question: Is she going trust that Avenue A will consistently deliver a running shoe that is ideal for her gait? Or leggings that have the precise level of compression that she likes?

The woman who exercises more casually might be more open to this kind of serendipity around her gym clothes, and she might place more value on having a revolving array of looks. But if she isn't an exercise obsessive, it's hard to imagine she's spending $600 a year for these goods. In fact, that may be more than she spends on her overall wardrobe in a given year.

So it's hard to imagine who the customer is for Avenue A.

In weighing the subscription service's prospects, it's also instructive to consider Adidas's policy surrounding what happens if you're not happy with an item in your Avenue A box. You can exchange a defective item or swap something for a different size. But you can't simply return something you don't like.

This is a key difference with some existing subscription boxes: At Trunk Club and Stitch Fix, boxes can easily cost hundreds of dollars, but there is an option to return pieces for any reason. It's a significant financial outlay, but with a safety net.

Birchbox, on the other hand, doesn't allow returns on its $10-per-month boxes, but the purchase feels less risky. It's cheaper, and with beauty samples the shopper is inherently expecting that the products are disposable.

With Avenue A, Adidas is asking shoppers to incur both a fairly high risk and a fairly high cost.

"That could be a major issue, especially as you get to styling that is more modern or progressive, which seems to be where Adidas is going," said Andrew Billings, a retail strategist at consultancy North Highland.

That Adidas appears to be straining so hard to make this model work is an illustration of how eager brands are to experiment with new sales formats, especially those that have a spirit of discovery and curation.

Brewer said that the feedback Adidas has gotten from women about Avenue A has often been: "We want serendipity. We want surprise and delight."

And, indeed, Adidas may very well end up getting the formula right: Shilpa Rosenberry, a retail strategist at consultancy Daymon Worldwide, said Avenue A has a good shot of taking off and driving "excitement to the brand."

But the puzzle of who its customer might be and the potentially frustrating return policy suggest that the subscription-box business, for all its hype, simply might be bumping against its limits. It might not make sense for all retailing categories and price points.

Even among some of the more established subscription-box players, there are signs of a shift in the perceived market potential for this format. Fabletics, for example, is planning to open 75 to 100 brick-and-mortar stores in the next several years. Although store workers reportedly will still aim to sign up subscribers, the emphasis on stores would seem to suggest the company is looking to drum up more a la carte sales.

Birchbox, which recently laid off 15 percent of its workforce and shuttered its Canadian operation, is also pushing into stores and is developing a private-label line of beauty products. Its expansion into other lines of business might be an indication that executives are finding that subscription boxes alone can't deliver the kind of growth and profitability the brand is hoping to achieve over the long term.

Given how fast the subscription-box trend has blossomed, its hard not to wonder whether there are similarities to other digital-age retailing novelties that experienced a boom and then ultimately a slow fizzle. LivingSocial's and Groupon's daily-deals model once seemed poised to transform retailing. Now, both companies have slashed their workforces and are trying to shift their business models. And flash-sale sites such as Gilt and Zulily, which promised designer goods at bargain-basement prices, have also lost some luster. Gilt has been acquired for a fraction of its earlier valuation, and Zulily was scooped up by QVC's parent company after its stock price nosedived from its post-IPO high.

Anita Bhappu, a professor who studies retailing at University of Arizona, said she thinks those are different cases.

"The flash sales and even the Groupons of the world were about simply promotions," Bhappu said. "You're not talking about loyalty. You're talking about price sensitivity."

Subscription boxes, she says, are more about deepening connections with loyal customers.

But Rosenberry says she does see in the subscription-box trend parallels with the recent boomlet of flash-sale sites.

When more and more competitors enter the business, "it does have the potential to become noise," Rosenberry said. "So I predict that as more of these models emerge, only a few will be left standing."

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