Study Shows Search Drives Automated Subscription Renewal Services For Retail Sites

In the United States where subscription shopping sites are more established, the share of visits to sites with automated subscription services driven by search engines rose 20% in the last year, according to data released Tuesday.

Search remains the biggest driver to retail Web sites with automated subscription services, such as Sephora's invitation-only membership called Play!, which launched in September 2015, or Starbucks' $19 per month service that includes one 8.8 ounce bag of whole bean coffee, though less reliant on search than other retailers, per Hitwise, which Connexity acquired from Experian in December 2015.

In the United States, 34% of referred traffic to subscription retail sites came from a search engine during the month of December 2015. That same month, retail sites received 40.7% of traffic from a search engine. Subscription box sites in Australia and the United Kingdom followed a similar trend.

The study from Hitwise -- a Connexity division -- analyzed subscription retail Web sites, showing that visits to them grew 2,963% during the past three years. There were more than 21.4 million visits in January 2016 compared to 722,000 in 2013. By comparison, visits to the list of companies appearing on the Hitwise Retail 500, an aggregation of the top 500 online retail sites, grew by just 168% during that same period.

During the 12 weeks ending Jan. 23, 2016, 53% of U.S. visits to the subscription-box industry were from a mobile device, compared with 35% of all online visits that come from mobile. In the U.K. and Australia, visits to subscription-box sites are not yet dominated by mobile visits, but the share is higher compared with the industry average.

Consumers using subscription-box services tend to have above-average income and education levels, fall predominantly into the 25- to 39 year-old age bracket and skew more heavily female than the average online shopper. They tend to live in multicultural urban neighborhoods in larger cities or the surrounding suburbs, subscription-box shoppers are culturally-minded and enjoy active, health-conscious lifestyles, according to the data

Will the increase in subscription services reduce or augment online search advertising budgets and organic searches on engines and retail Web sites? 

"I can’t actually comment on whether the rise in subscription services will reduce or augment online advertising budgets, but I do believe that subscriptions provide consumers with a good reason to return to a company’s site on a regular basis for a variety of reasons," said John Fetto, senior analyst for research and marketing at Hitwise. "Curated subscription services generate excitement and often encourage the customer to visit the site to check out the selections that they’ve made for the customer each month and provide feedback on what they like or don’t like about the selections."

Fetto said this back-and-forth conversation between the retailer and the customer is one that traditional retail models don’t often get to experience.

"There is also the possibility of using a recurring subscription to encourage consumers to buy additional items, whether they are add-ons or refills of items they received in a previous shipment that they want to re-order," he said.

The data comes from an analysis of 127 subscription-box sites in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, whose primary or sole focus is on subscription boxes. Using the Hitwise online panel of 11 million Americans, 3 million Brits and 1 million Australians, Hitwise analyzed the trend in visits to those sites and the sources driving traffic, then profiled the visitors to subscription-box sites using its AudienceView platform, which combines online insights with rich offline demographics, attitudes and lifestyle elements from Simmons Research.

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