LA transplants ship samples of natural products in mail

by:  PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Conscious Box sent out more 10,000 of these product mixes last month to its sustainability-oriented customers.The minimalistic office in Northwest Portland’s industrial district is painted a springy-fresh green.

Visitors are asked if they would prefer an office chair or a yoga ball to sit on.

When an employee accomplishes something notable, a Conscious Box team member hits a large golden gong with a mallet.

Conscious Box bills itself as an online natural product sampling service that introduces consumers to “ethical, sustainable and honest businesses that create the purest products available.”

For $19.95 a month, Conscious Box mails a box of surprise goodies to subscribers filled with what it deems to be the best green products available.

It's all about discovery, according to the company's mission statement. Conscious Box also is committed to overcoming the ethical problem of “greenwashing,” deceptive business tactics that lead customers to think something is “green” when it isn't.

The founders of Portland's Conscious Box were all younger than 24 when they started their business 16 months ago in Santa Monica, Calif.

Originally an online natural products publication called Organic Soul that was started by childhood friends Jesse Richardson and Jameson Morris two years ago, Conscious Box has evolved into a kind of marketing firm that represents nearly 3,000 natural product brands. Since relocating to Portland from Southern California in January, Conscious Box has doubled its customer count to more than 8,000 families receiving monthly boxes.

“Most of our customers are moms and families ... they're not eco-freaks.” Morris says. “They don't know much about natural food. They know they want to live healthier lives, but don't know who to trust.”

Morris says that big-box stores like Whole Foods and New Seasons can be overwhelming in terms of brands, and the last thing you want is to buy some expensive laundry detergent, find out it doesn't work for you, and let the rest go to waste.

How it works

Conscious Box serves two main functions. It provide samples and ideas to families who are trying to build healthier lives, and it helps businesses get wider circulation for their natural products. Conscious Box gives these brands access to a national audience while helping them beat the extreme competition for shelf space inside stores.

“These products have to be sampled,” Morris says. It’s the best way to know that the products, with natural and organic ingredients that make the price higher, are worth the extra cost, he says.

Conscious Box also provides its suppliers with customer feedback about their products, something that’s hard to track when sampling through stores and trade shows. Customers receiving Conscious Box packages can go online and receive points for giving detailed feedback — which Conscious Box relays to brands. The points help customers buy full sizes of sampled products on the Conscious Box online marketplace.

Conscious Box's workers pack nearly 15,000 boxes to be mailed each month, including the monthly boxes and follow-up orders. Every month the box is packed with new and fresh products for subscribers to try. May's box contained products ranging from children's snacks to dietary supplements to dishwasher soap tablets.

The boxes are made with 100 percent recyclable cardboard, vegetable-based inks, and zero genetically modified organisms. The labels are BPA-free.

The Marketplace

After Conscious Box customers get their box in the mail and have some time to try all of their products, they can then go online to Conscious Box's website and buy full versions of the products that they enjoyed.

The Marketplace, an online shop launched three months ago that allows customers to order those products, is Conscious Box's way of continuing to be true to its brands.

To the founders, it’s a way around natural food chain stores, which they feel do not have very friendly practices for small mom-and-pop businesses like most of their clients.

“They have to pay a slotting fee either in cash or in products before they even get any products on the shelves,” says Patrick Kelly Jr., Conscious executive officer.

Because of the difficulty of getting onto exclusive shelves, brands often only have one or two products available in stores, when they offer as many as 10.

Although Conscious Box says the Marketplace is too new to see the real numbers, surveys indicate that customers are buying three to five full-sized products sampled in the box.

So far, Conscious Box is an online and mail-order retailer, but the team is looking to expand and do some pop-up retail sales at farmers markets and yoga studios.

A “try-before-you-buy” approach is difficult with Internet retailers, but not for Conscious Box. “Conscious Box represents the next generation of e-commerce,” Kelly says.

Portlandia bound

“The show Portlandia convinced a lot of us to move here,” Morris says of the four founders.

Relocating to Portland also helped cut the company’s costs. In Santa Monica, the four founders were living and working out of a 750-square-foot office outfitted with bunk beds. Costs in Portland have been 30 to 50 percent lower, and real estate is one-third the price of that in Santa Monica.

Their new space on Northwest Yeon Avenue has allowed the company to expand, but it still has far has more space than it knows what to do with.

“We'll probably get a ping-pong table,” Richardson says.

In four months, the team has expanded from a staff of four to 13. Conscious Box now has two new investors, and it hopes to have a 20-person workforce by the end of this year.

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