The Psychology of Subscriptions in Action. Breaking Down PLAY! by Sephora Experience

Competition in the world of retail is fierce, but some larger brands and retailers are trying a new way to build valuable connections with customers: subscriptions and memberships. When consumers sign up for a physical subscription from an established retailer, they open the door for that brand to provide an experience that extends beyond the retail storefront and the e-commerce shopping experience.

Physical subscription programs are becoming quite popular, especially among younger generations. According to McKinsey & Co., the market has increased by more than 100 percent each year for the past five years, bringing in billions of dollars mostly generated by direct-to-consumer startups. A potential reason for this popularity? Well-run subscription boxes hit many of what we call the 12 secret ingredients of subscription psychology: belonging, being known, anticipation, surprise, curation, exclusivity, discovery, convenience, portioning, compliance, replenishment, and value.

We wanted to experience the ways a large existing omnichannel retailer incorporated these elements of a physical subscription box into its overall business. So we signed up for one of the hottest beauty sample subscription boxes out there, PLAY! by Sephora. Sephora is one of the largest beauty retailers in the world, and it has invested heavily in its digital experience. CB Insights just released an amazing breakdown of Sephora’s overall business, focusing on the brand’s digital innovation and the success of the PLAY! box.

Each delivery in the PLAY! box includes five sample-size beauty products, a sheet of information and instructions related to those samples, access to video content on Sephora’s website, a PLAY! Pass loaded with 50 points to use for future purchases, and invitations for personalized in-store tutorials and other in-store events.

Sounds delightful, right? We thought so, too.

We signed up for the PLAY! service on April 26. The process was relatively simple: enter billing and shipping information, create an account, and complete a personalization quiz.



We answered the following questions in the quiz:

• What is your skin type?

• What is your skin tone?

• What are your skin care concerns?

• What is your hair color?

• What are your hair concerns?

• How would you describe your hair?

• What is your eye color?


We also ranked the importance of factors such as cost, brand and product assortment, and usefulness of mobile app when it comes to deciding among beauty retailers. From start to finish, the signup process took 20 minutes or less. 


The membership costs $10 per month, and we signed up in time to receive the May box. Immediately after completing the process, we received two welcome emails. The first was an email welcoming us to the PLAY! membership that included five tips we could use to make the most of our new membership.




Next, we received an email letting us know we were now part of the Beauty Insider program. The email detailed membership benefits and levels, and it encouraged us to visit the website for more information. It also included links to four best-selling items — none of which appeared to be tailored to the quiz we filled out.


From there, we received emails every few days with suggested products, information about sales, and examples of items we could “purchase” online or in-store using our Beauty Insider points.  There is definitely some overkill in terms of the email marketing between subscribing to the box, receiving our first box and even after.  We understand that this program is partially a marketing opportunity for Sephora but daily emails is a bit too much for us.  They may see some ROI from these promo emails and there was some level of personalization over time but if the Sephora PLAY! Box was your first interaction with the brands it would be a bit of overkill.

It’s worth noting that none of our “welcome” emails included information about when we should expect to receive our May box. We reached out to the Sephora support team early in the morning on May 9 to find out. Immediately after sending in our question, we received an email confirming that our inquiry had gone through.

computer-screenshot-12And about an hour after that, we received a detailed answer. The support team let us know that customers are billed during the first week of each month and that deliveries occur between the third and fourth weeks of the month. We were told to expect our package around May 20.


In the end, we didn’t have to wait much longer: We received an email on May 14 that recapped our order and let us know our box had shipped. It even provided a tracking number we could use to check the progress on our box which should be table stakes but it is surprising how many subscription box retailers don’t use this simple and helpful step..


And on May 16, we received our box! There is certainly room for improvement in the time between my order and the first box.  We realize it is part of the program of a monthly curated box but there is opportunity to get something in the hands of subscribers right away that would help with the excitement and onboarding.  Other boxes send a “Hero Box” right away so that anxious subscribers have a feeling of near instant gratification and then fall into the standard cadence.

Regardless of the timing when we received our first box we noticed that the packaging stood out from any other deliveries, and certainly from our weekly Amazon deliveries: The box was lined with black and white stripes reminiscent of Sephora’s in-store branding.

unboxing package 1

When we opened the lid, we found a PLAY! by Sephora drawstring bag containing our samples, a pamphlet with information about the samples on one side and a fun comic on the other side, a PLAY! Pass we could use to collect bonus points and other in-store benefits, and the following message: “Love tips, tricks, and beauty hacks? Sephora.com/play.”  This tie into the store is really where Sephora stands our compared to other similar programs and why we see them succeeding in the long term.

unboxing box 3

unboxing pamphlet 2

unboxing box 2

From there, we opened the drawstring bag to reveal the samples themselves. We received Marc Jacobs mascara, Benefit Cosmetics face primer, Drybar dry shampoo, Kat Von D liquid eyeliner, Sephora mud mask, and Yves Saint Laurent fragrance.  All of these are quality products and some were ones that we may have never purchased for ourselves so there is certainly a sense of discovery in this box.

unboxing samples 1

We were happy to see that our delivery was intact.  Since we were doing this as a test instead of just for ourselves we wanted to explore the cancellations experience.   So for our final task, we canceled our subscription. Just like the signup process, it was quick and easy. We were asked why we wanted to cancel, then just confirmed our decision. Our final email communication included a confirmation that our membership was canceled along with a call to action to continue shopping at Sephora and to resubscribe soon.

We did not automatically unsubscribe from Sephora’s email communications so our inbox was continually flooded with offers, discounts and promotions for the next 3 weeks until we could not take it anymore and unsubscribed from everything.  We did find it interesting that in the dozen or so emails we received none referenced trying to get us back as PLAY! member.  We were pretty much treated like any other Sephora shopper which we imagine has some level of personalization but not to the level of recognizing us as former PLAY! subscribers.


We were pleased with the experience our PLAY! by Sephora box created and probably would have kept subscribing, but we wanted to test the cancellation experience. Once we completed the process, we sat down to analyze the ways Sephora implemented each of the 12 elements of subscription psychology:

Belonging: The PLAY! experience does a great job of building a community for members to enjoy. When we wanted to subscribe initially, there was a “waiting list” that required us to enter our email for a chance to subscribe. We aren’t sure whether that was a marketing tactic or was simply based on supply and demand, but once we were let in, we felt like we were part of something special. The pamphlet we received with our first delivery included a cartoon that showed members applying masks and attending PLAY! Dates in groups, and the in-store events accessible with the PLAY! Pass allow members to meet one another and learn about beauty together.

Being known: Sephora offers a personalization quiz that helped us feel like the brand was interested in our preferences. We would have preferred to see some more detailed questions about our makeup use and current needs: What if a customer doesn’t use eyeliner but receives this box, for example? However, we selected oil and volume when asked about hair concerns, and we were happy to see the dry shampoo in the box as what seemed like a direct response. But for a company as large as Sephora, to include some personalized items shows an attempt to get to know us. We imagine that a longer membership would allow the company to gather more information on our likes and style, which it could use to increasingly personalize the digital and box experience over time.

Anticipation: Not knowing what’s in each box but knowing that the samples will be fun products from high-quality brands boosts anticipation for each month’s delivery. We eagerly awaited our first box and would look forward to the next one. However, because Sephora ships according to a set date instead of when we ordered, that anticipation could turn to frustration or, even worse, forgetting about the box. Perhaps getting that first shipment out the door right away would improve the experience.

Surprise: Right off the bat, we were pleasantly surprised that the packaging was much more interesting than a typical Amazon box and on par with other subscription beauty boxes such as Birchbox or Ipsy. In addition, the box contained a bonus perfume sample that we weren’t expecting.

Curation: This month was the second anniversary of the PLAY! by Sephora box, so the shipment included products and brands that have stood the test of time and have garnered cult followings. That means we know these products are the best of the best without having to do the research ourselves. Additionally, the products included were not all lipsticks or eye shadow palettes. This is a great example of Sephora curating products on the basis of two years of data about its members and the products they liked best.

Exclusivity: While it feels good to receive products from top-notch brands in a test size at a good price, it’s also hard to forget that this is a part of a nationwide experience, so we’re not the only ones with access to those products. Aside from the Sephora-branded products, we could get the other products from a number of online stores, department stores, and other beauty retailers if we wanted. So we would not classify this experience as having a high level of exclusive products. However, the wait list experience to get in whether real or marketing does add some element of being part of an overall program that is exclusive.

Discovery: This delivery introduced us to a wide range of beauty brands we hadn’t tried before such as Kat Von D and Marc Jacobs — and we didn’t have to scroll through dozens of identical eyeliner tubes online before choosing them. This is critical in the beauty industry especially, because both Sephora and the brands that provide the samples for the PLAY! box want members to try new products, fall in love, and purchase the full-size versions for a long time. Discovery is the one element that this program and other beauty program like it over-index in and are big reason why they are popular with both subscribers and the brands that partner with them for the products.

Portioning: Each sample is a small portion, so if we were to continue our membership, we’d likely run out of product before the next shipment. If we fell in love with a product, though, we’d have to buy a full-size version in the store or online because more won’t come in the next box. It’s important to note that some of the sample sizes aren’t just small, they’re mini. The primer, for example, is so small that we could get only two or three uses out of it. We definitely wouldn’t be able to make it last a whole month.

Compliance: The pamphlet we received in the box included instructions for how to use each product. The instructions ranged from how many times to brush on the mascara to how to open the bottle of perfume — it was tricky! We felt Sephora truly anticipated all the questions we’d have about how to use our samples, and we appreciated the answers.

Value: The samples come from awesome brands that likely cost quite a bit in full size. PLAY! by Sephora is a great way to try these brands for a low price to see whether they’re worth a full purchase.

Convenience: The samples were delivered right to our door, and we were able to conduct all customer service interactions via email. It doesn’t get better than that!

Replenishment: While the membership does provide new samples every month, it doesn’t send the same things in each delivery. If we used all the perfume sample in one month, there’s no guarantee the next month’s box would contain another fragrance to try. This membership doesn’t follow a true replenishment model.


Overall, the PLAY! by Sephora subscription model hits on just about every one of these elements on some level, helping to create an engaging experience for customers and opening the door for a valuable customer-brand relationship for Sephora.

Sephora also does an amazing job of integrating the PLAY! box experience with its overall e-commerce experience, in-store shopping experience, and its brand message and vision. The back-end technology and operations that go into creating a subscription experience within a larger retail model is a challenge, and Sephora should be commended for the time, thought, strategy, and resources it dedicated to this project.

Retailers who want to add a physical subscription program to their existing in-store or e-commerce elements should take a page out of Sephora’s playbook.

Want to learn how to integrate the psychology of subscriptions into your own physical subscription program? Check out our whitepaper on the topic or drop us a line today.