SubSummit Special Edition: Trials and Tribulations

Free trials have low adoption among subscription retailers—but 1 in 3 consumers will bite

Note: we are excited to partner with the SubSummit 2021 conference to sponsor the annual pitch competition. Participants in the competition were asked to submit questions for our next BOXpoll survey. The content that follows is based on the questions asked by competition finalists. Attend the event or tune in on Tuesday, September 21 to see the finalists compete for the title.

Consumers love free things—free shipping, free gifts, buy-one-get-one-free offers, free shipping…and also free shipping. In the subscription services space, free becomes a pivotal but risky offer. On the one hand, consumers want some assurance of product quality before signing up for yet another recurring expense. But because free shipping is simply table stakes in the subscription industry, some retailers offer trial subscriptions to lower the barrier to conversion. And giving consumers something for free opens a retailer up for some degree of risk and lost investment.

A recent study found that a small but increasing number of subscription retailers are offering free trials (growing 2.5% year over year in 2021 Q2), and that a higher proportion of top-performing retailers are offering trials (6.7% of top 30 sampled, vs 4.2% of ‘middle’ tier, and 0% of the bottom 30). So, with the caveat that consumers love anything free—we decided to ask them about their attitudes toward free trials of product subscription services.


Key takeaways:

  • Consumers are most turned off (66%) by being prompted for a credit card prior to enrolling in a trial. Surprisingly, it’s higher-income consumers making over $100k/year (72%) and Gen X (72%) who are most deterred by this requirement.
  • More than half of consumers are (unsurprisingly) more likely to enroll in a paid subscription after a trial if they’re offered a discount in exchange for a 6–12-month commitment. This is most true among higher income consumers (73%) and Millennials (64%).
  • A surprisingly high number of consumers—nearly half, 44% — readily admit that they’re likely to enroll in a trial just for the free stuff, with no intention of ever paying. Who are they? 
    • Predominantly Gen Z and Millennials—each at 58%—and least likely to be Baby Boomers (27%).
    • More likely to be urban consumers, 50% compared to 39-43% of suburban and rural residents respectively.
    • Interestingly, there is no statistical difference between the responses of men (44%) and women (42%).
  • Gen Z are most likely to convert to a paid subscription if they’re notified about the trial expiring over SMS (versus email)—59%.
    • Whereas 46% of Millennials are more likely to convert to paid if notified over email (versus SMS).
  • More than half of Gen Z (56%) and Millennials (57%) are more likely to start paying if the trial’s unboxing experience is enjoyable.
    • Similarly, 57% of Gen Z and Millennials are more likely to convert if the tracking experience is easy.

Last minute plan changes

Not quite related to free trials—but relevant to notifications, we asked consumers how they preferred to make last-minute changes to their scheduled deliveries prior to shipping. 

  • Surprisingly, more consumers in every generation said they preferred to login to their account on the retailer’s website to make changes (overall average of 32%).
  • Also surprising: email was the second most popular, even among SMS-savvy Gen Z (27% email vs 22% SMS) and Millennials (26% email vs 25% SMS).
  • In a validation of our other survey on chatbots, only 2% of consumers preferred to make plan changes via automated online assistants.

BOXpollTM by Pitney Bowes, a weekly consumer survey on current events, culture,and ecommerce logistics. Conducted by Pitney Bowes with Morning Consult //2094 US consumers surveyed August 2021.© Copyright Pitney Bowes Inc.

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