Thinking inside the box: Retail subscriptions gain following in Charleston

This sea salt, harvested from the water at Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge, comes from Bulls Bay Saltworks in McClellanville. It was among the local products included in this month's subscription box from Charleston Epicurean.

An online retail trend that has thousands of consumers essentially sending themselves gift baskets each month has arrived on the Lowcountry's doorstep.

Subscription boxes, which are packages of various goods that consumers can sign up to receive monthly for a recurring fee, have become one of the most popular business models in Internet commerce.

Consumers seem to enjoy the surprise element involved, and the subscription model means companies can rely on a consistent revenue stream. Hundreds of online companies have launched subscription boxes in recent years to cater to seemingly every niche imaginable, such as pet owners, fashionistas and health enthusiasts.

Now, there's an entire category of boxes that centers on artisan goods from Southern cities. Kentucky has the Local Box, Georgia Crafted showcases products made in the Peach State, and Charleston Epicurean and Batch Charleston are offering artisan foods and culinary products from around the Lowcountry.

"I think people want things from certain Southern cities, and Charleston is definitely one of those," said Sam Davidson, co-founder and chief executive officer of Batch Box, which is launching Batch Charleston next month.

The company started last year with a subscription box focused on culinary goods made in Nashville, and it has since added a box for Memphis.

"As soon as we launched this in Nashville last year, people said, 'You gotta do this in Charleston,' " Davidson said. "People are very curious about what's coming out of Charleston right now."

Laura Angermeier, a Folly Beach resident, launched Charleston Epicurean earlier this year. As a subscriber to several types of boxes, she said, she saw a lot of potential for a box that centered on Charleston-made goods.

"There was a box for just about everything, but there wasn't a box for Charleston," she said. "I have been to all the different farmers markets in town and I've found all these cool things. We needed this service to expose people to that stuff that's around here."

Charleston Epicurean recently sent out the August box - its fourth so far - to about 100 subscribers. It featured locally made products such as dried okra chips from Charleston Sweet Gourmet, pecan "sandies" from Olde Colony Bakery and cheese grits from Palmetto Farms.

Charleston Epicurean charges $35 per month, and Batch Charleston will charge $30 per month- fees that both companies said are equal to or less than the retail value of each box's contents. Shipping is included in the prices.

Liz Cadman, who writes reviews of subscription boxes on her blog,, said a major draw for consumers to sign up for a monthly box is their perception of value.

"There's the retail value, and then there's the value to you. One of the most popular subscription boxes is Pop Sugar. It's $40, one of the more expensive boxes out there, but it's worth more than $150 of really high-end (cosmetics). The value there is obvious," she said. "Then there's the aspect of discovering new products, and if that's something that's valuable to you, that adds to the perk."

Subscribers of locally centered boxes such as Batch are typically more concerned with quality rather than cost, Cadman added.

"It's a popular trend, and I think people are more willing to accept that cost to know they're supporting local makers in that region and that they are getting highly unique items," she said. "I actually just got a Batch Memphis box, and those are really fun and unique because the food products are things I'm not even going to find at Whole Foods. I can probably find them online, but I wouldn't know to look them up. I think that's the value for these boxes."

In that regard, boxes like Charleston Epicurean can function as a sort of marketing tool, which is why they may be an especially good deal for the makers of local goods.

"It can be great exposure for some of these companies as well," Angermeier said. "Some of them don't have much of a web presence, so many of the items you really and truly would have to be in Charleston to be able to purchase."

Davidson explained that subscription boxes like Batch Charleston are tailor-made for cities with robust tourism industries.

"We focus on cities that people regularly travel to, whether it's for business meetings or vacations, because then they come back with some sort of affinity for that city. They know they can't necessarily fly there every month, but for a price, they can get things sent to them from that city," Davidson said. "It definitely leverages cities that are tourism hotbeds."

Plus, since the subscription boxes are closely related to gift baskets, they can be marketed to destination wedding groups in Charleston, vacation rental owners and other tourism-related businesses, Davidson said.

"We're seeing these boxes being used in more than just the subscription format," he said. "The subscription is important, it matters, but the bulk-ordering and curated gift side of it is where we're focusing on growing."

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail