Trending now – automate your spending with subscription shopping

A few years ago1, a young-adult daughter of some friends posted on Facebook about one of the delights of her office routine that made the experience of work bearable – “Look at all these yummy treats in my Grazebox, oh my,” with obligatory pic of the contents. I remember thinking at the time that this was wrong on so many levels, starting with the fact that sedentary office workers don’t really need to ‘reimagine snacking’.

“Imagine having taste experts on hand to select snacks for you! With a graze subscription you’ll do exactly that, all you had to do is tell us what you like and we’ll tailor the flavours of each box to suit you.” It’s a packed lunch, FFS. Just say no to mindless shopping and consumption. If you want office snacks, go get em, but make the effort

You sign up with Graze, they mail you snack-sized boxes weekly at £4 a box, so you are paying £20 a week for your packs of mixed nuts. Tesco will sell you a 250g bag of mixed nuts for £1.50. Estimating your graze box is about 100g, you’re paying £17 a week for the privilege of not having to think about the office snacks aspects of your shopping 😉 That’s about £900 a year, a sizable chunk of a typical starter wage.

The Grauniad tells me that this is a special case of subscription shopping – a new up-and-coming trend

Welcome to the shopless shop, where customers pay for decisions to be taken out of their hands. Since 2014 the number of visitors to subscription shopping websites has grown by 800%. Customers receive a “curated box” of items of beauty products, clothes for work, even toys for their pets.

This sort of thing should really come with a whacking great link to MSE’s Demotivator tool, to help you compute just how many extra hours you are working to save yourself the effort of thinking about what you’re about to shovel into your piehole on a workday. It’s getting on for 4% of your take-home pay if you are on the average UK full-time wage of ~£27k. Let’s hear it from the Demotivator2

At least with the latte factor 3652days took us to task for being miserable gits you can’t forget it at home, with the graze box you still get to brown-bag your lunch.

We do not need more mindless consumption

I did my fair share of mindless consumption, the purchase of this that and the other that would make me better at something.

For guys it’s often gear of some sort – take photography and cameras – a better camera makes better pictures, natch. The reality rarely meets with the hype, although you do need a minimum standard of camera somewhat north of a smartphone but nothing too special to take really good pictures3.

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire. I didn’t get here that often when working at The Firm, although it so happens I was on a video shoot when I took this.

The tragedy is that once you have got that far, the trick is to get out there in front of interesting things, people and situations to take pictures of, with an added bonus for getting out there is decent light – if you are missing your dinner you are probably doing something right with the latter 😉

There’s a general principle here – to become a better [insert skill here] you don’t normally need better gear. You need to practice, to learn from masters. Easier for a retiree with the time and mid-level kit than my working self tooled up with the best but with no time to become proficient.

My mindless spending wasn’t as mindless as subscription shopping, although it lacked critical thinking along the lines of WTF am I actually trying to achieve here? Subscription shopping isn’t actually new, although historically it improved your mind a bit more – we used to have book clubs and record clubs, and then there’s the long history of the Franklin Mint producing oxymoronic ‘mass produced collectables’. I have to admire the new focus on consumables like food and fashion, there was presumably a limit to the number of books and records people could accommodate in their houses.

Shopping should always have some friction in it for the sake of your wallet

One of the simple things I used to reduce my mindless shopping was the simple addition fo a wait loop. Identify the desired item and supplier, but wait at least 24 hours from then to buy it. It’s surprising how many must-haves aren’t must-haves when the ad and novelty buzzes have died down. If it was over £100 I used to wait a week, but to be honest most of the win is in the first 24 hours.

Advertisers and vendors know this, so they always try and jolly you along a bit with time limited offers and pretending there’s an impending shortage. Subscription shopping is another way they try and reduce friction, and RIT introduced me to another one with his delightfully curmudgeonly post on the Amazon dash button. This seems to be an overcomplicated attempt to match an old analogue technology known as the paper shopping list under a fridge magnet.

There’s an aspect to subscription shopping that worried me that capitalism is eating itself, however. It’s given away in the Graunad’s throwaway line

The companies’ success (in the US they’re booming) lies in the surprise.

Their customers seem desperately short of meaning or novelty in their lives if they are paying several times over for a little everyday workday surprise selected by a robot. I take 3652 days point about the latte factor, but any distance you can put between yourself and automated spending is A Good Thing in my book. It’s savings you want to automate, not spending 😉

 


  1. Graze.com’s press kit tells me they launched in 2007 and I was an office droid idly dreaming about freedom sometime in 2018 when I read her post. How time flies in the office, eh? 
  2. The Demotivator was a bit aggressive as it nailed the entire £4 a working day cost of your Grazebox nuts as gratuitous spending. Tesco would charge you about £100 for the mixed nuts, but the Demotivator si a blunt instrument 
  3. some people can take decent pictures with smartphones, but it helps if you are in California where there’s loads of light, and you need to ace composition in camera. Retiring is a way to take better pictures, because you have more time to go to places worth taking pictures of. 
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44 thoughts on “Trending now – automate your spending with subscription shopping”

  1. I was chatting to a wedding photographer on the weekend and he said the very best camera out there is the smartphone, the reason being you always have it when the great picture opportunity presents itself. Strong comment I thought based on the large array of very high end cameras he had.

    I’m in a constant inner-battle resisting the urge to buy more (expensive) bikes. I know that 95% is legs/lungs and yet still I’m ever tempted. On the flip-side, the way the human body works means that a small (1-2%) gain via the bike can have a monumental effect in the real world if you’re at the aerobic/anaerobic threshold, difference between holding on and getting unceremoniously dropped. Garage is already a bit full though, and its all extra maintenance. I think I’ll resist for now..

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    1. LOL – the pull of new bike bits is hard to resist. My best bike has an Ultegra 6600 groupset I got s/h for £220 off ebay years ago. I keep eyeing up the latest Ultegra 11-speed, but I know it won’t make me go any faster so I haven’t gone there.

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      1. I have a suspicion a better road bike would make me go faster, but only a bit, say 5% tops. Its very tempting. My current best bike was an ebay special too, genesis equilibrium for 250 notes – its a great bike, but not a race bike.

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    2. I agree with that photographer. I own a digital SLR and a top end smartphone and the phone is used for at least 90% of my photos. Even though the phone is actually more expensive than the SLR it is a lot less conspicuous when taking photos in third world cities as smartphones are now ubiquitous in even the poorest countries. A bulky SLR is too intrusive when taking pictures of people and street scenes. I use the SLR for landscape photos when hiking mainly.

      The other advantage of the phone is the convenience of the internet access and apps for sending pictures.

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  2. Personally I’m a big fan of all these new subscription services. They all have amazingly generous signup offers which give you the first delivery at far below cost and with no cancellation charge. I’ve managed to pick up some absoloute bargains on food, booze and razors. Their entire business model depends on people being lazy, so those of us willing to take the 20 seconds to hit that cancellation button can snipe off some great value.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The only one I bother with is the Spotify 3-months premium for £9.99 deal. I’ve signed up for that and cancelled after 3 months 3 times now, they seem to repeat the deal every 6 months.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yeah, it’s madness that the numerically challenged walk past the supermarket each day then pay to get this delivered.

    But on the other hand, they are fueling the economy and creating new demands, so I shall only judge silently with a disapproving look.

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  4. Ah yes, the good old Franklin Library, and Easton Press, too 🙂 And let’s not forget the encyclopaedia – wasting space in people’s homes since …. whenever it was.
    I dislike subscriptions, don’t even use Spotify nor Netflix, which makes me v. unhip, though I did plump for Amazon Prime a couple of years ago, and find their video and music offering adequate for the amount of screen time I have. Free delivery is also great, albeit I haven’t used it for a while now. Y’know, due to trying to not buy stuff this year.
    I never understood Graze, btw. Are the snacks aimed at folk with eating disorders who need an external party to ration it? I won’t say anything about curated boxes of wine for fear of coming across like a snob, but ffs, if you don’t have enough taste to pick your drink, it’s much cheaper to get it at Sainsbury’s.

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    1. ‘ffs, if you don’t have enough taste to pick your drink, it’s much cheaper to get it at Sainsbury’s’

      Like I said, it was a good deal back then, I did run the numbers, but more importantly I can actually taste, because my family’s background is from a generations-long wine cultural heritage. So, like you, I’ll risk ‘fear of coming across like a snob’ and happily state that unlike the vast majority, my knowledge is not limited to red vs white, nor the alcohol percentage 🙂

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    2. I’m gonna push back on the encyclopedia. When I was a nipper, my mother scrounged a copy of 1949 EB for us from a lady who had travelled widely but was getting on in years. I used to read that, in the 1960’s. These were times before Google and wikipedia. I did wonder why everyithing about electronics have vacuum tubes in it, but the writing was great, and I spent many hours learning shit about all sorts. I am a fan of Encyclopedia Britannica 😉

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      1. Agree with you on EB. Growing up I wanted a set of EB in the worst way but never got it. When my daughter bought her house in 2007, the 85-year-old lady who lived there for 40 years left her family’s 1954 EB behind. Daughter was unimpressed but I brought it home.
        The 50s were a steampunk and slide rule decade, but the articles on history are still good reading today.

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      2. > but the articles on history are still good reading today

        Britannica was surprisingly well-written, too. History hasn’t changed much, but oddly enough prehistory has – the bristlecone pine C14 recalibration changed a lot in the 1960s.

        It’s sobering to think that less separated that 1949 edition from my schoolchild reading 1970s than say a 1980 copy from now, both chronologically and culturally 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Speaking of time separation. I was reading encyclopedias in the 50s and early 60s and my home based set was the British International 1906. That was truly obsolete. The most recent conflict was the Russo Japanese War. The Cloth Hall was still standing in Ypres. The concept of atomic structure hadn’t even got to the Bohr model yet.

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      4. Similar story here, Harmsworth’s universal from just after the First World War, growing up in the 1980’s. In the days before the internet you could find so much just digging through – of course it helped once you memorised the 9 volumes – A-BAN, BAN-CAV, etc etc

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  5. My culpability here is with my Laithwaites wine club involvement for a few years, it was a good deal in the early years as they built up their brand and their slick marketing spiel was mostly true, while their customer service was the real USP. I admit I fell for the cheap psychology in the thrill of the surprise case offer, but it was back in the bait phase of them getting sales over profit, so it was still excusable. But then the supermarkets got wise to the threat and used their muscle to bully their own suppliers into giving them a better deal, the novelty was over and the value evaporated.

    At my last corporate, comprising 2 buildings with about 100 employees about 7 years ago, I watched Graze’s entry with great interest as a wannabe enterpreneur. There was a lot of clever psychology going on, I knew that people were highly suggestable and trapped on a soulless industrial estate with only a couple of sandwich vans around if they couldn’t/wouldn’t do their own lunches and couldn’t get away to nearby eateries. Most staff desks had snacks and headache pills in the top draw (telling about the stress) so a good snack sell was a sure thing and Graze was clever in that it was designed to fit in the standard mail-slot in cheap packaging, lowering their mailing costs too.

    The real surprise is that the novelty hasn’t worn off, what with the ficklety of the average office drone, but perhaps that’s the whole point in that someone so easily attracted to the convenience and getting happiness from the surprise aspect is exactly infantilised enough to lack the discipline to realise it’s a rip-off vs DIY.

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  6. It would have been useless for me when I was still working. I needed exercise at lunchtime, either a walk or a cycle: it didn’t need to be far but it did need to happen. If I just stayed at my desk for lunch, or had lunch at a meeting, then I needed to get out for a toddle in the afternoon. And that was when I already exercised a little twice a day, in the sense of cycling to and from work.

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  7. Your point still holds completely, but a £4 box contains four snacks; not one. So it is £4/week not £20 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your views, it is appreciated and enjoyable.

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    1. You have more willpower than I and my erstwhile office mates. If it was there, it got eaten 😉 Looking at a grazebox, it wouldn’t last 4 days with us. And why not 5 compartments, FFS, to fit a working week?

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  8. “Curated” should be deprecated. Museum curators curate. Making a list is not curating.

    “Taste experts” on hand to select snacks for you? Guess who my favourite taste expert is?

    And the one I agree with: your smartphone is the best phone because you always have it with you. The prehistoric version of that was “the ideal camera settings?” f/8 and be there.

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    1. But, but, graze.com’s “taste experts” scour the world to bring you the finest exemplars of the world’s snacking experiences, in a similar way to the British Museum selected the Rosetta Stone from their vast array of artefacts?

      Nah, it’s still just a list of choices…

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  9. I’ve never gone for any of these subscription box thingys – and, as you have identified, there are masses of them out there covering a very wide range of stuff. But I actually think they are designed to appeal to something a bit deeper and more complex than simply convenience. I reckon that what the marketeers are trying to tap into is our “inner child” or whatever you want to call it, which secretly yearns to be looked after and sent presents. That’s what a lot of these boxes seem to feel like to the recipients, who appear to mentally edit out the fact that the boxes only arrive because of a recurring debit on their bank account.

    The only subscription I have is for a monthly publication. It’s cheaper if you subscribe, which was my initial motivation, but I must admit to getting a tiny warm feeling when I see it drop through the letterbox. So much more satisfying than just chucking it in my trolley once a month on my way round the supermarket! So the marketeers could well be onto something ;).

    Jane

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    1. Rereading the Grauniad’s article very much supports your ‘inner child’ hypothesis – a nuance I had entirely missed the first time round because I was thinking “this is absolutely barking, never mind the personal finace angle, how do you not end up with loads of crap you don’t want?”

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    1. hehe – they demand I log in, it appears. Well, at least FB pretends not to know who I am in this particular browser profile, though I’m sure they really do!

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  10. I did subscribe to Graze but many years ago when I had a load of 50% off vouchers from somewhere so was using those up. Like @EarlyRetirementGuy, I sign up to get freebies and just remember to cancel before the free period is up.

    Currently, I don’t pay for any subscriptions, except for my BBC iPlayer subscription (aka the TV licence!).

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  11. I grant you that one can get pretty good pics with a smartphone and from the look of the photogs in the crowd at the Royal Wedding carriage tour most people were doing just that. However, it won’t happen with me.
    I don’t have a smartphone (my wife has one.) If I did have one, it would be a cheapie and you need the highest end models to get a good camera.
    So I make do with two actual cameras. One is a travel megazoom (Lumix) that gets lots of use – light and portable. The other is a Nikon DSLR that I use for family occasions and serious image making.
    These cameras are not new, but the later models are just better at video – which I am not interested in at all.
    I still have bouts of GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) though. Recently I got a cheap TTL flash unit and some rechargeable batteries, and these helped a lot at my granddaughter’s first communion party.

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    1. I hated pretty much every single picture I took with a smartphone, to the extent I have almost weaned myself off making the attempt, largely because I am more likely to have a camera than a SP anyway. The pics were always grainy as hell and at a shutter speed of 1/15th or slower it seems. But maybe it’s just me, or perhaps Robert Capa prevails. I agree for stills SLRs seem to have reached good enough a while ago.

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      1. a recent ride through tuscany produced some good smartphone snaps – does light get much better though?

        when your light touring a smartphone is infinitely preferable to a camera, incredibly useful small package, photos, comms, navigation etc. etc.

        I honestly don’t think the images are that bad – and I’ve only got a cheapy moto-g

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      2. Tuscany will be pretty good. I formed the opinion from a Galaxy Young and the Nokia 3110 in my own hands, but more generally from other people’s social media posts, they presumably keep up with the times. But perhaps are poor photographers 😉

        Been through the navigation snarl about smartphones elsewhere on here. A-GPS will fail you exactly when you have just lost the mobile signal and unable to raise help, it’s worse than nothing IMO because it works a treat 98% of the time, just not the 2% when you really need to know how do I get off this hill back to the road 😦 I discovered the weakness of A-GPS the hard way on Dartmoor, but fortunately had a paper map!

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      3. GPS blows my mind every time I think about it – spread spectrum signals beneath the noise floor and time-difference-of-arrival multilateration based on satellites whizzing round in space. It really is a miracle of engineering, every aspect of it is immensely clever.

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  12. Way back you could get Graze boxes for free (like actually free, no postage or signing-up). We tried a few. To be fair the snacks were delicious. A box would last approximately 0.2 seconds! Probably defeats the object…

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  13. My late Father was a negative 3 handicap amateur golfer, who’s proud boast was that he never spent a penny on golf other than his club membership and green fees at other courses.

    I remember him, after hitting a perfect middle of the fairway drive, walking down the rough looking for lost balls.

    His golf bag was tied together with old clothes line and contained the oddest assortment of woods and mismatched irons.

    But then he had lived through the great depression – he used to pick up bent nails and straighten them.

    What would he have thought of Graze I wonder?

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  14. Interesting blog and comments.

    Do subscriptions ever have a use?

    Back in the historical times of my youth, if you had a niche interest subscription clubs were often the only way of getting your fix. Even though I lived in London I was a member of the Foyles Science Book Club, and a folk music record club. In both cases, my local specialist shops did not have what I was interested in on the shelves, and in those far off days you had to know what you wanted before you could order it. So I stuck with both for several years and probably got good value from them – at least I enjoyed reading topics and hearing music I would never otherwise have encountered.

    Satisfying the inner child of my kids brought us to the infamous part works. You know – build a scale model of the Cutty Sark over 36 weeks; first issue half-price. Actually, these were pretty good value for my kids, because there was delight as each issue arrived and pleasure in adding whatever new component was enclosed. We got a working robot, an orrery and a model of HMS Victory out of that. The kids developed some good manual skills and a lot better mechanical understanding of how things work. The building was the thing, and once the project was completed they tended to lose interest.

    So a couple of cases where there was good value delivered in my view, and where the subscription allowed an activity that would have been unlikely otherwise.

    Now I have subscriptions only for things that I know I will use regularly, and where there is a significant discount on buying one at a time. So a couple of magazine subscriptions for things I would buy anyway. On top of that I live in a rural area so picking up the latest copy whilst out and about it tricky.

    Mobile phones on SIM only contracts. Could switch to PAYG, but extra hassle for almost zero saving in our case.

    I am still in business (at least part-time) so I find software as a service is almost unavoidable. But it can be good value. I use an online accountancy service, which even my accountant reckoned was better value for my simple needs than using him. It collects the same information I used to have to put together for the accountant. Does it in a way that is much easier for me, and generates everything I need to keep HMRC and Companies House happy. It has probably halved record keeping time, and is perhaps one-tenth the cost of my previous arrangements.

    But I agree about Graze. I see no need in my life (others may find good reasons), just as I don’t need a recipe box because I enjoy cooking and can read a cookbook.

    So for me the thing about subscription services is whether or not it is perceived value for money when you factor in the convenience. It is all about thought and intentionality of spending.

    For example, I agree with the comments on how good smartphones are as cameras, but I like to photograph wildflowers and insects in close up. So I have a couple of macro lenses, each of which is more expensive than the whole of the rest of my SLR camera kit. But I need them to do what I want to do. A smartphone or a conventional kit digital camera will take great pictures, but not the ones I want to take.

    Is that profligate? I would say no. I have chosen what to do with my money. I am not keeping up with anyone’s image of what my lifestyle should be. My spending is intentional, and I would hope thoughtful.

    I would not spend what others in this thread would spend (or at least think about spending) on bike equipment because I am not interested, but for them it could make a real difference to their experience and enjoyment. A have a friend who sacrificed a lot to buy a really outstanding electric guitar. I have a cheap Chinese knock-off. His guitar is beautiful. I have played it and it feels wonderful and plays a dream. He can coax magic from it and I can’t. He feels justified in an investment that would be madness and wasteful for me.

    As with all spending it is about thoughtful rather than automatic spending. It is like the distinction between Satisficers and Maximizers in behavioural psychology. Satisficers are happy with good enough, Maximizers try to find the optimal choice. In most areas of my life I am a satisficer. Good enough is good enough for me. But in some areas that I am passionate about, I am a maximizer. taking time and spending resources to get that little bit of extra performance an value that has a real meaning to me.

    I guess we are all the same. Somewhere there are subscription models that are worth it for each of us. Perhaps if there was a Graze box that was cheaper and easier than I could manage myself, and introduced me to fabulous new flavours and types of food I would never otherwise come across, even I could be persuaded.

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  15. I fell for Stitchfix in the U.S. which sends one a clothing box every month. They supposedly use stylists, but they must make minimum wage because my stylist changed every month. I thought this would save me time on clothes shopping which I hate, but 75% was algorithm or stylist fail and had to be returned. Worst of all every single piece I kept had stitchery come loose within days so even clothing brands I knew to be good quality off the rack broke down when Stitchfix sent them. I suspect that they are doing enough volume to commission runs of clothing from labels, but paying less and skipping the quality control checks a Nordstroms or such uses. I canceled after the third month.

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    1. Interesting article from HBR which seems to imply Stichfix does some design modifications, but as you say, QA may be the weak point there. It’s an idea that done well could work, but it probably won’t win on price. And that turnover says something about the business…

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  16. Thanks for that link, Ermine. I guess I really want a subscription that unleashes the Stanford Data Scientists on predicting just when my favorite few clothing pieces are about to humiliatingly unravel and sends me a replacement box the day before. That would be well worth the $20 fee to save me the time, aggravation and dejection of shopping. Instead, I’ve learned my lesson and paid for it that when I say black leggings, flat boots and long black tshirt a Stylist or incipient Data Scientist hears floral lace miniskirt, velvet shoulder-less top and red, grommeted lace-ups.

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    1. I’ve learned my lesson and paid for it that when I say black leggings, flat boots and long black tshirt a Stylist or incipient Data Scientist hears floral lace miniskirt, velvet shoulder-less top and red, grommeted lace-ups.

      I guess that’s the millions of others injecting noise into the signal from you 😉 As CEO Katrina Lake said

      > Those choices are based on information you and millions of others have given us

      Any recommendation service be it for music or style or books is always going to have a dynamic tension between novelty, serendipity and the same as you had before. All those PhDs and rocket scientists need to make their model converge PDQ on the right ratio for you as an individual customer. Probably easier to do for Graze, Netflix and Spotify that StichFix. It’s a shame, because the HBR article sounded convincing. The inefficiency of the sale or return model must be rough on overhead costs too!

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