These companies are successfully combating ‘subscription fatigue’
When you check your credit card statements every month, there’s a good chance many of those charges are recurring: Netflix, HelloFresh, Disney Plus, Spotify…it adds up.
Existing companies are launching their own services all the time, often leaving customers thinking, “Wait, there’s a subscription service for that?”
In the last two years, the NBA partnered with sports startup Buzzer to sell viewership in 10-minute chunks for 99 cents a pop. Ring Alarm launched the Protect Pro plan—$20 per month for additional broadband and replay of recorded footage. BMW tacked on an $18 per month price tag for heated seats.
But these services haven’t always been slam dunks. You might remember (likely as a fever dream) Taco Bell’s subscription service, “The Taco Lover’s Pass,” which launched in January 2022. For ten dollars a month, subscribers were able to redeem “one of seven iconic tacos a day for 30 consecutive days.” While planned for an “extended limited time,” the program is now defunct.
Today, there are multiple apps developed for the sole purpose of helping customers cancel unwanted subscriptions, a sign that “subscription fatigue” is on the rise.
For many, that tide shift is a big enough indicator to stay out of the subscription market. But despite what might be interpreted as writing on the wall, some Utah companies have found that now is the perfect time to start billing monthly.
Goodbye Blue Apron, hello Crumbl
Take Crumbl Cookies, for example. In late 2022, Crumbl Cookies launched the Taste Weekly Subscription, an app-based subscription service. The program allows for a weekly or monthly recurring order featuring your choice of that week’s cookies. Those who use the subscription service can save up to 10 percent off each delivery or carry-out order.
“We seek to offer leading technology,” says Claire Modersitzki, Crumbl’s Utah relations PR strategist. “Our mission is to make the absolute best in-app experience that exists in the food and beverage industry. We work with tech-savvy customers who value ease and simplicity. As a result, this has been a goal to reach for some time for Crumbl.”
While talks of a subscription service have been ongoing since 2019, Modersitzki says the idea didn’t really get traction until late 2021. The hesitation wasn’t from a lack of demand but rather a commitment to deliver a perfect service.
“We wanted to hit that sweet spot of pushing our technology capabilities while delivering an incredible customer experience and supporting our franchises,” adds Jake Moncur, Crumbl’s VP of engineering. “The stars aligned for the Taste Weekly Subscription.”
While the team was building up to that “a-ha” moment, Modersitzki says customers have been asking for the subscription option for a long, long time. Crumbl’s business model already lends itself to that kind of service anyway, Moncur says.
“We knew it would be an interesting service given how unique our weekly offerings are,” Moncur says. “Weekly customers crave ways to make getting their cookies even more simple. Businesses love treating their employees to weekly cookies, and customers love sending their loved ones in faraway places a weekly gift.”
So, when their app technology was up to snuff, it was an easy decision to launch—even if the market was saturated.
“The idea of recurring food deliveries has been around for years,” Modersitzki says. “However, Crumbl entering the food subscription service is unique. Not many companies featuring subscriptions can say their app is top-ranked in the Food & Beverage [category] in the Apple app store.”
The app’s ratings seem to be reflective of customer satisfaction with the program overall. Moncur says thousands of people have signed up for Taste Weekly in the program’s first few weeks.
“It’s met and exceeded all our initial projections,” he says. “We look forward to measuring the longevity and success of this new program.”
And Taco Bell’s fate isn’t foreordained for every chain restaurant. Launched in April 2022, Panera’s “Unlimited Sip Club”—an $11.99 per month fee for unlimited “charged” lemonades, coffee, tea and fountain beverages—is poised to make it through the year.
Goodbye Spotify, hello Treads
The success and failure of subscription services have less to do with the method of delivery than the delivery itself. Zach Olson, a serial entrepreneur in the subscription space, believes subscriptions aren’t archaic—they’re the future.
“Personally, I think a subscription model could work in just about every industry,” he says. “I’m having a hard time thinking of a product or service that couldn’t work in that world.”
In 2013, Olson founded Bookly, a cash-basis accounting app, as a bookkeeping solution for small businesses. He raised capital from local Utah funds like Kickstart and Park City Angels, eventually selling the company to KPMG in 2018.
After the acquisition, he couldn’t get subscriptions off his mind.
“I have an affinity for recurring [revenue] business models,” Olson says. “Candidly, that project helped turn my focus to antiquated industries that could benefit from the shift that the subscription model provides.”
That’s what led him to launch Treads, his second subscription-based business model. With Treads, he’s not reinventing the wheel—just making it easier to get one delivered to your house.
"Systems like this democratize consumption. The access to good quality products skyrockets when you use a subscription service.”
Customers can choose from four different subscription plans priced at $30, $40, $60 and $80 per month. Each plan is what Olson calls “all-inclusive:” four brand new tires and tires for life, along with mobile tire rotations, damaged tire replacement and on-demand roadside assistance. The price point variations stem from tire quality. If you want a luxury tire, you’ll be paying a little more, but the services are the same.
There’s even a $10 per month option that offers services for customers who just want reliable rotations and emergency flat or damaged tire replacements.
“We’re a holistic subscription service,” Olson says. “It doesn’t matter what you’re driving—we have a subscription offer that will cover you, your car and your lifestyle.”
That’s the real draw of subscription services, Olson says—the opportunity to customize services to our individual lives.
“Systems like this democratize consumption,” he says. “The access to good quality products skyrockets when you use a subscription service.”
In the case of tires (or car maintenance in general), Olson posits that the average person isn’t in a financial situation strong enough to handle an unexpected charge in the thousands. If you pop a tire (or all four), you’re facing that immediate cost.
“A four-digit expense is scary enough,” Olson says. “But most households have more than one vehicle, so if you multiply that cost by two or three, you’re looking at huge barriers to necessary services.”
Olson says Treads gives back control to consumers by lowering those barriers and making the process more convenient.
“I’m not a mechanic, and I won’t ever claim to be one,” Olson laughs. “But I am a consumer. Scheduling maintenance, getting emergency assistance, choosing a tire type—it’s all done through our app, and that’s the ultimate peace of mind for me.”
Like Crumbl, Treads has seen success since its launch. Goodyear tires signed on as a distributor for their installation network, and funds like Convoi Ventures and Kickstart met Olson’s idea with millions of dollars.
Consumers are happy to be along for the ride.
“We’re growing rapidly, about 20 to 30 percent month over month,” Olson says.
While headquartered in Park City, Treads has 14 locations across the U.S. with hopes of hitting 79 by the end of next year.
“On the commercial side, airlines, bus and truck fleets use a lease program for tires very similar to what we’re now offering to consumers through Treads,” Olson says. “It’s a model that we know works and is successful. Why not let everyday people have the chance to experience it?”
Of course, even for consumers, Treads’ idea isn’t that new—at least not globally.
“There’s been a shift in what consumers are expecting,” Olson says. “They want options, customization, to break out of the status quo of how buying has always been. Other markets have tapped into this idea already. Companies in Europe started offering subscription services for tires a year before Treads in 2018. Now, we’re answering that same push from consumers in the U.S.”
Goodbye Netflix, hello book club
For some industries, 2018 is very recent history. Anne Holman and Calvin Crosby, co-owners of The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, had book clubs dating back to the late nineties. Back then, customers had to call the store to set one up.
The King’s English launched its First Edition Club after seeing other bookstores like Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, implement similar programs successfully.
The First Edition Club is a monthly subscription where booksellers select a just-published or about-to-be-released book. Initially, the subscription was sent to all kinds of audiences and offered mainly traditional literary fiction. Since its launch, the positive reception has been immediate and large enough to earn a profit—and warrant a few new additions.
Today, The King’s English has expanded from one to four First Edition Clubs—adults, young adults, middle grade and children’s illustrated are all categories—along with “Queenie Reads!,” a former bookseller’s own subscription box. Customers can buy a six-month First Edition subscription for $200 or a year-long subscription for $400, while Queenie Reads! is a little pricier at $225 and $425, respectively.
For The King’s English—and most other brick-and-mortar bookstores—getting the pricing right was make-or-break for the subscription boxes.
“One of the benefits of being a small, indie bookstore is that we know our customers,” Holman says. “Some of them have been participating in these subscription boxes for 10 to 15 years. We have a relationship with them, so we’re able to reach out and get honest feedback: ’What are you liking? What are you not a fan of?’ We’re able to buy new books that our audience probably doesn’t have and that they’ll love. That makes the boxes worth their money.”
In the earliest days of Covid, The King’s English—like thousands of other retailers—had to cancel bookstore meetups and events in favor of social distancing. Luckily, programs like the subscription box played well, especially during the “book boom” of the early pandemic, where The King’s English saw a spike in online orders.
“We’re always looking for ways to keep in touch with our customers,” Holman says. “Boxes like this remind them that we’re still here. We’re just 1,800 square feet, and subscriptions were—and still are—a way to expand our reach without needing to also expand our footprint.”
But subscriptions like the First Edition Club don’t just benefit the bookstore.
“It’s another way for authors to get their books in the right hands,” Holman says. “We’re creating relationships for them, fostering community even from a distance. If we can boost a new author and help them break out, we include their books in these boxes.”
There’s a major drawback to product-subscription models when you’re a smaller business, though: capacity.
“There are some bookstores that send individual books to individual people, but at this point, we just don’t have the bandwidth,” Crosby says.
If something was going to slow down their subscription boxes, the time-consuming nature would be the killer. Smaller retailers often have employees juggling multiple jobs. The First Edition Club is a shared burden.
“We’ve developed an assembly line system,” Crosby says. “Once the books come in, it’s all hands on deck—making the boxes, packing the books, writing the notes, mailing it out. But we get hundreds of orders, and it can end up taking hours and hours, even with everyone’s help.”
Still, the customer feedback has been so good for so long that The King’s English doesn’t plan on pausing their subscriptions anytime soon. In fact, they’re adding more.
“‘Rewriting the West’ is going to be a subcategory for all of our boxes that reflect native voices,” Crosby says.
Author Terry Tempest Williams will also debut her own curated subscription called “Unlikely Alliances,” where her hand-selected books can be delivered to your home monthly along with postcards and customized notes.
“We’re even thinking of revitalizing our puzzle club,” Holman says. “Every three, six or twelve months, you’d get a puzzle from us.”
Olson says that any subscription service can get that kind of long-term buy-in from customers.
“Whenever you do something radical in an industry, you’re going to be met with pushback, skepticism and unique roadblocks,” he says. “For a subscription service to survive, you must believe in what you’re doing and really market that potential. Consumers will always want these kinds of options, regardless of what industry your subscription is in.”