Architect Monica Adair was feeling guilty. She had fallen behind on sending scores of thank-you cards, including one to Spanish friends who hosted her in the late 1990s. Then, one day about four months ago, among bills and junk mail, a small package arrived on her doorstep.
She tore it open and found a long, rectangular wall organizer for holding cards, along with an earnest letter from Swiss designer Tina Roth Eisenberg on the importance of saying thanks. "What can you get in the mail that can change your life?" asks Adair, who lives in Saint John, N.B. "All of a sudden it arrived, and that's exactly what happened."
Adair is one of thousands across the world who receive missives from Quarterly, a website where regular folks pay $25, $50 or $100 to receive quarterly packages filled with items hand-picked by celebrities, bloggers and other public personalities. It's one of an emerging market of subscription-style online services that deliver grab-bag-style parcels throughout the year, ranging from makeup (Birchbox) to coffee (Craft Coffee) to shoes (ShoeMint).
Quarterly founder Zach Frechette, who also co-founded left-leaning, design-savvy GOOD magazine, started the Los Angeles-based company in 2011. The concept was partly inspired by his mother; one summer he went to a draconian camp where candy was routinely confiscated and she helped contraband evade detection with care packages full of carefully concealed treats, including gummy bears stitched inside a real teddy bear.
"In terms of raw emotional impact, the experience of getting good mail is unparalleled – e-mails, text messages, and tweets don't even come close," wrote Frechette in a public letter when the site launched. "Quarterly wants to recapture the romance and impact of a well-crafted package, but tie it into existing online communities in an organic way. We think there's a hunger for analog experiences that complement digital ones."
The site now has more than 40 contributors, including superstar producer and musician Pharrell Williams, scientist and television personality Bill Nye "the Science Guy," and Marie Claire style director and Project Runway judge Nina Garcia. What's paradoxical is that many contributors, including Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and a proponent of de-cluttering, are self-styled minimalism advocates.
Style blogger Megan Collins says her Quarterly packages aim to help her fans and subscribers live more "intentional" yet "stylish" lives. "I think curation is the enemy of consumerism. I never feel like what I'm sending out is an advertisement or clutter," she says. "Anything that disrupts your day, that makes you stop in your tracks, is a good thing. … It's like you're right back under the Christmas tree, or at your birthday party."
Home delivery of authentic-feeling, seemingly "hand-picked" items is a savvy marketing ploy, and one that's on the rise, according to Zeynep Arsel, a marketing professor at Concordia University's John Molson School of Business who specializes in branding. While it's normal to rely on an abstract sense of "good taste" when deciding what hand cream, socks or cutting board to buy, what has changed, she says, is that consumers are now delegating those decisions to celebrities, sports figures or people they follow on social media.
"We are trying to make sense of who we are," says Arsel. "And it's normal to identify the stories that are attached to our objects as our stories, but now we're actually buying those stories, fully formed."
After her first magical experience, Adair was later delighted to find in her mailbox a moon-shaped lamp that waxes and wanes. Moons are a theme in her family, and now she can watch her young son joyfully flip through the lunar phases. While she expects the novelty might wear off eventually, Adair says she's looking forward to her next package.