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In my right hand I have a mug of Brazilian coffee (Fruit and Nut Espresso).

The coffee was delivered through my letter box yesterday, courtesy of Pact Coffee, one of many coffee subscription services.

However, Pact doesn't like to think of itself as a subscription service. Its founder, Stephen Rapoport, believes many subscription services work for the business but not for the customer.

So, if the model is often abused, just what makes a good subscription service?

1. Habit

It seems obvious when it's said aloud, but it's something overlooked by too many businesses that decide upon a subscription model - subscription models should reinforce a habit in the consumer.

Companies need a great product, but it means nothing without the consumer's habit.

Drinking coffee is, for many, a defining habit (how many cups did I have today?) but remember, too, that habits can change (news consumption is the obvious example here; I don't enjoy a paper newspaper anywhere near as often as I used to).

In order to reinforce habits, subscription services need to cater to customers as diligently as possible (doing everything else in this list, to ensure a customer keeps on enjoying the service).



2. Flexibility

This is another obvious one. Pact allows me to suspend my coffee for 30 days, change the delivery day, choose another coffee or expedite it for next day delivery.

Increasingly there are subscription services that don't tie us into minimum contracts or make us choose only one flavour of service.

Spotify and Netflix have given users experience of a flexible subscription, and they want it everywhere else.

The accountants may not be able to plot recurring revenue as surely (actually, there's probably a fairly steady rate of cancellation), but the customer is happy.

3. UX

It's a constant source of frustration to me that I can't control or view my Citroën finance plan easily online.

I had the same frustration when I was a gym member, having to call or go into the gym to book classes or cancel etc.

When I moved house, I had to do a lot of offline leg work to move all my subscriptions to a new address.

At a minimum, consumers expect to be able to quickly and easily view the particulars of a subscription. Aside from changing payment and address details, maybe the platform could offer tips on how to get the best out of your service.

The point is that ease of use is paramount. There's no point in offering flexibility if the customer has to sit on hold for 15 minutes before they can make a request.

Subscriptions are designed to make the regular purchase of products easier, not more frustrating. As such, online interfaces should be fun to use, and perhaps eventually updates may be integrated into more popular messaging apps.

NOW TV's account page offering no-hassle cancellation

now tv 

4. Personalisation

We have to hat-tip to Spotify and Netflix again, here. Recommending songs and movies based on play history was a game changer for streaming media, helping to initiate the uninitiated.

It's this personalisation that helps to attenuate the habit we talked about above.

Pact allows me to rate the coffees I receive, and future deliveries will be better tailored to my tastes.

The subscription is the perfect way to build a relationship with a customer, beyond a one-off purchase.

Just as a local butcher would remember what cut you had last week, so must the subscription service.

pact coffee

5. Communication

This is another side of UX. Subscriptions of the past have tended to get your payment details, press the green button on the service, then disappear into the background and hope that if you don't like it, you'll forget to cancel.

What companies should really be doing is communicating with the customer (perhaps by email, post or two-way on social media).

This communication should be designed to inform the consumer, either practically ('your delivery has been dispatched') or playfully (perhaps an interview with a coffee farmer). 

6. Added value

In summation I'll quote Rapoport from an article he wrote for Virgin.

..the subscription has become something of a mosquito. They’re universally irritating, but regularly tolerated because they sit between the customer and the thing they want; in a mosquito’s case, the holiday.

Gym memberships are a good example of people putting up with the monthly payments because there’s no alternative - and likewise the business couldn’t run without it.

So, a better gym subscription might be one that added value by doing more to get you to visit, and guiding you through a long-term lifestyle plan.

The point is that the subscription has to add some extra value to the transaction (e.g. bonus content from a publisher) - convenience may be enough, but often it's not.

So, what shouldn't be on subscription then. Well, condoms for one. Believe it or not, there's more than one service that will send you condoms every month.

Having sex could be described as habitual (compulsive?), but condoms are a product you buy when you need them, require little storage and don't need to be fresh.

Why subscribe to three a month from rubberclub.com when you could buy 50 from Amazon? There's little value to be added, other than the novelty if given as a gift.

Perhaps this is the wrong note to end on, but I welcome your thoughts below.

rubber club

Ben Davis

Published 29 January, 2016 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is a senior writer at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (4)

John Galavan

John Galavan, Sales at Juice

But can you actually get off the service? From painful experience, I have found that a subscription provider really has no interest in letting you go. Certainly, no one blames them but they drag their feet and moan and whine and you complain and get madder and then finally you're free. Solve this... then such a service would be excellent and even better than excellent if it did even half of what you suggest.

9 months ago

Guy Hatton

Guy Hatton, Director at Clinic

The biggest problem with a subscription model is that it is in the provider's commercial interest to spend less on their product in order to maximise profit(or even just break even).
This can end up being a race to the bottom on quality and price as soon as the subscription is no longer perceived as being of premium value.
Unfortunately the standard perception of subscriptions is that they need to deliver extra value at a lower price. This is an inherent flaw in any subscription model.

9 months ago


Michael Edwards, Marketing Manager at Red Technology

Have a look at Hotel Chocolat's Tasting Club. It allows you to manage your subscription online, choose what chocolates you want, individually score each chocolate that comprises your subscription and see what other members have scored the same chocolates (apparently they use this information for future product development), add extra boxes, select preferences as well as being given recommendations for future subscriptions. You can even cancel it without any problems. You'll get some begging letters to rejoin but its no hassle if you want to quit.

9 months ago


Philip Wilkinson, co-founder at Keynoir

Work looking at a more comprehensive piece on subscription models from an eConsultancy post last year: https://econsultancy.com/blog/66034-the-pros-and-cons-of-subscription-ecommerce-models/

9 months ago

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