6 Places to Source Products for Subscription Boxes

Finding products just got a lot easier. Here are our favorite 6 ways to find and source products for your subscription box.

Procurement Subscritpion Boxes

One of the most common questions behind starting a subscription business is this: where do I find the products I include in my monthly box? 

It’s a question about product sourcing, also called “procurement”, and it’s this operation that often determines subscriber happiness, loyalty, and likelihood of referrals.

WATCH: 60-minute webinar on Product Sourcing for Subscription Boxes

Needless to say, sourcing high-quality, targeted products for your niche is critical to your business’ success. To help with just that, below we’ve laid out 6 places where you can source products for your subscription box.

Before You Start: Free or Paid?

Before you start procuring your first box, you need to decide between two purchasing models behind subscription boxes: sourcing free products or sourcing products you pay for. 

The difference is significant, and not just for your business’ pocket book:

Free product sourcing means:

  • Improved inherent margins for your subscription business (no cost of products)
  • Pitching your vendor partners on other value outside of monetary compensation
  • Potentially impacted product offering. Free sourcing usually works best with small, sample or trial sized items.
  • Potentially drives your price down (depends on the quantity/quality of items – or samples – included)
  • Requires the vendor to eat the cost of ingredients and packaging

Purchasing product means:

  • Potentially lower margins or higher price for customers
  • Usually faster & easier negotiations with vendors
  • Works with both sample and full sized items

Once you know if you’re purchasing items or sourcing them for free, you’re ready to start targeting your vendor partners. (And remember, you could do both!)

Number 1. Local Stores

Local stores are great starting places to get inspiration for the types of products you want to include. While they may not be the vendors you buy from, finding a targeted local store within your niche will provide a treasure trove of items you can physically test inside your box.

Some examples might be walking into your local Whole Foods, Bass Pro Shops, Crate & Barrel, or Hot Topic. The idea is to go to a store that represents your niche – something that attracts the same demographic your business looks for.

Tips:

  • In addition to using the stores for inspiration, using them for mock-box products. Buy the items you’re considering reaching out to, and place them in your box to get a sense of how they’d affect packing configuration.
  • Use Evernote or other tools to take pictures and track which products work with your box
  • In some cases, you may be able to work with the owner of a local store if they produce their own goods (ie. a local candle shop, bath & body good store, or craft/clothing vendor).

Number 2. Google (or your search engine of choice)

Google/search engines are the supermarket of the Internet when it comes to sourcing for your subscription box. The downside is you have tons to go through.

Because of the sheer volume of results, the best strategy is to narrow your searches and keep track of which sites/businesses you’ve already found. The goal should be to not only find the right businesses, but also to save yourself time in doing that – the fewer the results, the better.

Tips:

  • Use Boolean search terms & useful search operators. By using quotation marks, the words “and,” “or,” and “not”, and narrowing your search to specific sites or including wild card terms, you can trim off vast amount of search “junk” – those results that aren’t exactly what you’re looking for.
  • Use Evernote’s web clipper extension. This allows you to save sites with notes in a particular folder. Plus, because this extension integrates with Google, next time you’re surfing for ideas, you can actually see your notes on the right side of your search from Evernote.

Number 3. Niche E-Commerce Websites

Niche e-commerce websites have a similar use as local stores – they’re massive depositories of niche products that could work for your brand.

Say, for example, you’re looking for healthy, natural products for your next box. Using something like Directeats.com, you can search by category and find the best items that fit your theme, from food to beauty to diet & lifestyle good:

Direct Eats Example

The best part – there are niche ecommerce websites for basically all niches that you see with subscription boxes:

Note: Remember, you don’t contact these sites directly. You use them as a source of leads, then reach out to the companies individually. 

Number 4. Etsy

Etsy is a marketplace for mostly small/medium sized businesses that often service handcrafted, vintage, and small-batch style goods. Don’t let that fool you though – Etsy’s robust categories of beauty, home goods, and even foods can mean a lengthy source of new vendors to work with for almost any subscription box.

Plus, Etsy offers great ways to narrow your searches and shop by specific categories. This can speed things up when you’re looking for something specific:

Etsy Product Sourcing

Tips:

  • Etsy’s ability to allow you to narrow your search based on state, cities, and countries, means you can target more local businesses. That means lower shipping costs to you.
  • Be diligent. Etsy’s demographic skews far more toward novice/beginner when it comes to vendor business acumen compared to what you’re find pre-vetted in chain stores or curated niche sites. That’s okay – just understand you might need to do a bit more handholding than with an established vendor.

Number 5. Alibaba/Indiamart

Alibaba, Indiamart and other global marketplaces offer extraordinary low costs for bulk goods. And yes, this can include pre-made items that you can place in your boxes.

But this can depend a lot on which niche you service. What’s more, these marketplaces usually service non-distinguishable products better than branded, American-consumer ready items –think packaging (bottles, jars, bags), lite outdoor equipment, accessories, glasses & mugs, etc.

Tips:

  • Be prepared for large minimums. If you’re looking for glass bottles, try to project several projects with them, then order enough to hold you over. Most of these marketplaces aren’t useful for small orders (less than 500 units).
  • Be wary. Look for buyer protection. If there is none, remember that Paypal offers buyer protection (if it’s within Terms of Use), but you only have 45 days from the sale to claim. That might not even be enough time to receive the shipment.
  • Make sure you are order the correct case/quantity amounts. Items are listed with differing amounts, and long processing/shipping times can mean no time to rush extras.

Note: If you’re looking for American manufacturing, MakersRow offers a database of leads.

Number 6. Encourage Vendors to Contact YOU

Making it easy for vendors to offer submissions can be an easy way to generate warm leads for yourself. This usually becomes an option only after you’ve launched and established a presence, but once that has happened, you’ll likely find yourself fielding a few vendor requests each week.

Tips:

  • Create a custom vendor-request form or contact page and add a link to your site’s footer.
  • Make downloading/accessing resources about you easy. Have a media kit or brand invitation available through a download link on your vendor contact page, or have it send out automatically once someone reaches out to the specific email you use to field requests (ie. brands@yourcompany.com)
  • Get active on Facebook groups or online communities full of targeted vendors. Finding where you vendors spend time online networking with each other, and posting there, can be an easy way to generate tons of leads. Consider doing a Facebook group search for your targeted vendor type, like “Etsy stores”

Facebook Example

Subscription Box Product Sourcing

Sourcing products doesn’t need to stop with these approaches; in fact, there are several other ways to find brand partners, like trade shows & conventions, using distributors catalogues, and even being the source of your own products. Whatever the approach used, the goal is the same: give yourself exposure and access to brand partners that will resonate with your target demographic and make sure a superior customer experience.

Now that you’ve got your products sourced, make sure you have a box to put them in! Check out the options from Cratejoy!

Which methods do you use for product sourcing, and what challenges have you face? Let us know in the comments below.

Cratejoy includes all the tools you need run a subscription box business: secure checkout, shipping tools, analytics, marketing, and listings optimized to bring you sales.

How useful did you find this article?

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (8 votes, average: 4.00 out of 5)

About Jesse Richardson

Jesse Richardson is an author, educator and co-founder of several successful subscription businesses. He focuses on building engaging communities and has been described as "insanely customer centric." Find him in the Subscription School group or at his blog.

57 Responses

  1. Davine Bright

    Good Morning Jesse,

    Hello, my name is Davine Bright. I am in the process of opening a monthly subscription company with the focus of Cheerleading bows and cheerleaders in mind. What I am looking for is the correct verbage to write a letter/email to companies to source products? Is this something that you would be willing to help me with? I am just not sure what is the correct way to ask for samples or products.

    Thank you,
    Davine Bright

    1. Jennifer

      Hi there,
      I know your question was last year, are you still searching for answers? And did you move further with your company? I’m a former all star gym owner of 15 years.

  2. Jessica

    Hi Jesse,
    I’m currently doing a feasibility project at school and I was wondering.. for subscription box companies, are there different suppliers for each box each month? If so, isn’t that very difficult to keep track of inventory?

    Our idea is to start-up a children’s toy box company with the idea of a travel box… with coloring books, post-cards, stickers, etc. But each box would contain different goodies, so would the suppliers be different for each box?

    Thanks so much,
    Jessica

  3. Long Le

    If I’m ordering from vendors, what is the MOQ usually? Does that depend on the vendor? I’m coming from an Alibaba experience and 500 is usually their MOQ.

    Thanks

  4. Frankie mayes

    I want to start a subscription box geared towards black owned businesses. Each month I would introduce you to 5 different items from a new business but how do I get them to want to give me their products should I pay for them or try to work a deal

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Hi Frankie,

      I would recommend having a budget to help these business owners offset the cost of producing their goods. While you can always ask from donations, it can be hard for smaller businesses to see the value of working with a newer subscription box – especially if you don’t yet have a large number of subscribers or followers on social. Have you thought about what you’d like to charge for this box yet? That will help you sort out your budget for purchasing product.

      Best,

      Felicity

  5. Chrissy

    Should you contact vendors before the launch of you subscription business? I’m in the beginning stages of starting my monthly subscription box service. I would like to know if I should contact vendors now to get their account for when I launch my business? Or, should i wait until I officially launch? I don’t want to launch and have no products. What’s a good time frame to contact vendors/distributors before the launch of your business?

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Chrissy,

      I would go ahead and start reaching out a couple months prior to your prelaunch but, I’d make sure that you have some marketing materials to share with your potential vendors ready. Having a website and social up is also key – these folks are going to want to vet you. Timing however, really depends on a ton of variables – are these handmade items? Are you ordering from overseas? What lead times do your vendors have? Could the items potentially get held in customs if coming from overseas? You have to keep these things in mind.

      With regard to the marketing materials, I’d make sure you had a media kit that displays your branding and target market, etc. and that you have a list of the basic marketing that you’ll be offering these vendors as a part of their feature – like how many social posts you’ll make and on what platform(s) – will some of your boxes go to influencers? What will they be posting for you?

      Best, Felicity

      1. Jane

        I’m a little confused, how can I get my website and social media ready before a prelaunch? I thought my initial website would be my prelaunch? If vendors want a website and social media status, then should I just have one available without promoting it yet?

        1. Kenneth Ng

          If you’ve already decided on a name for your business, you can set up a launch page and not a full-fledged website. Included in this launch page will be your logo and company name and a link for vendors to access the media kit that Felicity mentioned that will give vendors more information, such as who you are, what will you be offering the vendor for joining your business, contact info, shipping info, etc.

  6. Kathryn Streiff

    Hi. I am interested in starting a subscription box that would have a book along with items that related to that book. Do you know of a source for books at a wholesale price? How hard is it to market a subscription box that would cost me $15 to 25 to create?? Thank you, Kathryn

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Kathryn,

      Sounds like a fun box! I don’t actually know of any sources but, I would look at which publishers are currently working with other book-themed subscription boxes and go from there! If you have $15 – $25 to spend per box, I have no doubt you can put a great box together! Just keep in mind that shipping costs, materials, etc. have to come out of that budget along with the products you’re actually including.

      Best,

      Felicity

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Hi Lauren,

      I would start searching sub. boxes that fit your brand and reaching out. However, you should be prepared to work with most boxes at or around your cost of goods – not wholesale. Think of sub. boxes like a free marketing avenue – you break even on your COG and get free marketing in return!

      Best,

      Felicity

  7. Lucy braines

    Hi, I’m looking to start a monthly subscription box and am looking for information about buying and selling branded products from say amazon to start. What are the rules on buying branded products and advertising the box on social media?
    This is not a long term thing, it’s to get a prototype and as an example to send to suppliers when looking for prices.

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Lucy,

      So you’re just using these branded items to pitch other vendors to get their products in your box? or are you trying to get subscribers using pictures of these brands in your box?

      Best,

      Felicity

  8. Kimber

    Hello,

    My company is currently considering starting a sub. box. Are there any companies that you know of that would be capable of housing and putting together these boxes- almost like a Shopify for Sub boxes?

    Or is the only way to get each product individually, put them together by hand, and then ship them out?

    Any help would be fantastic!

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Kimber,

      There are quite a few fulfillment companies that specialize in the sub. box business. There are some listed in the resources page on this blog and you can also google them. I would recommend finding someone in the middle of the country so that your shipping costs are lower.

      Best,

      Felicity

  9. Hi there, I have been approached by a new subscription box service. Before I reply I would like to know if it is industry standard for vendors such as myself to be compensated for their product at wholesale pricing?

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Hi Andrea,

      In my experience, no, it’s not standard practice for sub. boxes to purchase at wholesale pricing. Typically, they’re looking for somewhere around cost + shipping. The idea is that sub. boxes are a marketing service for your brand and as such, they’re hoping to source at a competitive price so that their margins are good as well. I recommend making sure that your brand aligns with their target customer and that they have good social followings and a good marketing program. If you like all of those things, figure out what pricing works for you and go from there! You can always ask for extra marketing opportunities in exchange for selling to them below wholesale.

      Best,

      Felicity

  10. Sam

    Hi! Just wondering how you convince big beauty brands to make mini size products that they don’t offer for sale usually? Unless you’re a huge service, it doesn’t seem like it would be attractive to them…

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      The answer when I was at Beauty Box 5 was that we had enough subscribers to make the minimum order for a run of our very own – and in reality, we typically had full size product. Sample items cost almost as much as full size in the makeup world so we typically always went full size because it was what our subscribers wanted and because we were one of the only boxes doing it. …unless you’re Sephora, Birchbox, or Ipsy, it’s also VERY hard to get the bigger makeup brands to work with you. There are tons of great new brands out there to work with.

  11. Sarah

    How do you gain inventory? Do the makeup companies make you pay wholesale for products or do they offer a limited amount of products for free since you are advertising the other company and its products? Also is there a rough estimate of how much one has to invest to get a subscription service started? Thank you

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Hi Sarah,

      When it comes to makeup, you’re looking at a VERY saturated market with very little room for new boxes. Brands like Birchbox, Sephora Play and Ipsy have the corner on the marketing and, overall, the brands they work with are not interested in working with smaller boxes. Free product is also hard to come by. I hate to bed a downer but, if you’re looking at launching a beauty sub. box, I’d re-thing your plan – it’s VERY difficult to enter this space. With regard to start-up costs, it really depends on the subject of your box.

      Hope that helps!

      Best,

      Felicity

  12. Angela

    I’m starting a subscription box for mommies. I’ve contacted business. They’re offering 40-50% off of MSRP (wholesale price)I’ve contacted approx 50 companies (I’m in the beginning phase). My question. What is the standard “discount”? should I be negotiating?

      1. Felicity Fromholz

        You need to leverage the concept of being a marketing tool for these folks, not just a retailer. If they’re not use to working with subscription boxes, this can be hard.

  13. Hi Jesse,
    I’m interested in starting an art therapy box monthly subscription service but there is already sketch box for $25.00 per month. How would I compete with them if my upfront costs of having a subscription and fulfillment center per month alone are $50? I would have to sell my art box for $70 per month 🙁
    How would I get Michaels’ or Hobby Lobby involved in partnering or sponsoring me to reduce the costs?

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Hey Golda,

      You would have to sell your box for more to make your margins but you’d no longer be competitive. Your best bet is going directly to the manufacturers of these items, not the retailers, and getting product at or below wholesale to included in your sub. box. Getting deals with folks like Hobby Lobby or Michaels is pretty difficult.

      Best,

      Felicity

  14. Catherine E Peacher

    So if I wanted to buy say a certain companies yarn in bulk from a local craft store and then put it in my subscription box. But I need their permission first to sell their item in my subscriptionbox?

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Not necessarily – this usually just goes for big name brands who have exclusive deals as far as retail partnerships. For example, if I bought a ton of Urban Decay cosmetics and put them in a box and started promoting that box online with their product in it, they might reach out to me with a cease and desist because they have exclusive deals with specific retailers to sell their product. You just have to be careful – some brands are VERY specific about their branding and might not like what you’re doing with their product(s).

  15. Saj

    Hi, Jesse,

    I am interested in starting a subscription box company. I checked out direct eats and saw that there are 1000s of combinations for my company. However I have only enough cash to incorporate. Are most companies going to want me to buy their product when I partner with them? Is there a resource online that could be helpful?

    Thanks,

    Saj

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Hi Saj,

      Yes, most business will expect you to purchase their products – some at wholesale pricing. You’re going to want a budget for those things. When you speak of resources, do you mean places you can find a vendors? …or just advice?

  16. ski

    If you are taking the purchasing route to source products is it still necessary to notify companies that you will be utilising their products in a subscription box company?

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      If you’re purchasing at wholesale, no. Though, I would let them know that you’re going to be marketing for them, as part of being in your subscription box, and that in return it would be great if they could work with you below wholesale.

  17. zoua alley vue

    Hi. I am also looking into starting a subscription box in honor of my Daughter who lost her fight to cancer. I would
    Like to introduce something that would be a great alternative source for parents who are looking to use products that does not have so much chemicals in it. Simple and affordable that parents can always purschase. 50% of it would go towards cancer research. I could use some help . Thank you .

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Hi Zoua,

      I’m sorry to hear about your daughter. A box like this would be a beautiful way to remember her! I’d recommend look at which vendors sell thru places like Whole Foods or other natural stores and reaching out to them directly. I’d make sure to mention that you’re donating to charity and to tell the story of why you’ve decided to start your box. I think you’d get a lot of traction and be doing a beautiful thing for your daughter.

      Best of luck,

      Felicity

  18. I want to thank the Cratejoy Team for all this knowledge. I write for http://www.micajitapr.com which is the only website in spanish that reviews boxes (aimed at the Puerto Rico market). As a marketing graduated, this strategy fascinates me, and Im on the research stage for opening a marketing business solely on this topic. This series have being great! Thank you so much!

  19. GB

    Ought one to try to develop relationships with particular vendors so that different products of theirs will appear in the box a few times a year, or something like that? Having to bring in new vendors (who are not actually making much or anything from the deal, except promotion) every month seems difficult.

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      That’s exactly right! I recommend offering quarterly features to your best vendors – especially the ones who get great reviews from your subscribers! However, you do need to mix up the brands a bit or subscribers tend to get bored.

  20. Nathalie C.

    Hi! I’m working on a book sub box from Canada and I’m wondering what the procedure would be if I wanted to buy the books at a store like Indigo (like Barnes and Nobles). Would I be allowed to do that?
    Thanks!

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Hey Nathalie,

      You can totally do that but you’d be paying retail and you’d eliminate your margins. I recommend buying wholesale if you can or making partners with a publisher.

      Best,

      Felicity

  21. Samantha

    Hi! I was wondering, is it legal to resell products you’ve purchased locally? I’m interested on gift boxes. My main idea was to buy products at a local store and create a beautiful gift box with about 5 products in it and sell the box at a higher price.

    Thanks!

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Hi Samantha,

      Traditionally, you’ll want to purchase at wholesale vs. retail because people are rarely willing to buy a box at a price that’s higher than the actual retail cost of the items included – the notion is that, with a subscription box, you get a “deal” on the products. I’d recommend reaching out to the brands your interested in working with to see if you can get a wholesale account.

      Best,

      Felicity

  22. Simone T.

    When it comes to your boxes and products, do you have people pre-order their boxes and then order the products & boxes with that money? If you order the boxes and products first, do you only buy a specific amount for the month and just sell until you sell out?

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Your goal should be to order product BEFORE you cut off subscription for the month, not after all the $ has been collected. This is for a few reasons: 1) Shipping delays can cause your product to be late and delay your shipments – and late boxes = higher churn and, 2) the longer the shipping window (time between when people pay or renew and when they receive their box) the higher your month 1 churn will be. This does mean you’ll have to come out of pocket on the initial order but, it’s worth it!

  23. Tori Hall

    Hi Felicity,

    I have a unique question. I already have a handbag business and would like to offer pre-packaged essentials as an accessory to the bags. These would be items such as headphones, beauty and hygiene products. Things that we ladies normally collect over time and keep in our bags for everyday use. To start, I’d like to offer three different pre packaged essential packs, that would be geared toward different types of customers. For instance, one pack would be geared toward the customer who works out, so more hygiene products would be included in that pack. Right now, these products won’t change from month to month but the contents would be refillable via my website.

    I’m wondering if you have suggestions on how to source products for this type of model.

    Tori

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Hey Tori,

      I would start on Alibaba for things like the headphones, workout headbands etc. – it would be awesome to have them branded with your business name! As for hygiene products, I’d suggest reaching out to existing vendors and see if they’d be willing to work with you. If not, you might have to purchase retail for some of those smaller disposable items.

      Good luck!

      Felicity

  24. Bianca. S

    Hi, I am very interested in contacting suppliers for perfume/cologne subscription boxes in Australia. I need some guidance as I have researched American subscription boxes offering 200+ scents. How do they obtain such a broad range and are you able to help in pointing me in the right direction? Thanks

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Great question, Bianca!

      These boxes could have 1) relationships with fragrance distributors or 2) are making their own fragrances. I would recommend on reaching out to the smaller fragrance brands or independent makers first. It can be difficult to make relationships with the bigger guys when you’re small and don’t have a ton of exposure yet.

      Best of luck!

      Felicity

  25. Angela McKee

    Hello, it has always been a goal to start a book box with fun related objects. My question is: if a local store, like Michaels, is having an awesome sale and i find an object that will work in my box for really cheap, can I buy it and put it in the boxes? Or must I first get permission from the store/brand. Thanks for all of the help!

    1. Felicity Fromholz

      Great question, Angela! You can totally do that. You’re not reselling it and you paid tax on it so you should be fine!

Leave a Reply