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Should Your Ecommerce Shop Default to Subscriptions?

Default to subscriptions or default to 1-time purchases? Learn the pros and cons of each to determine which is right for you.
October 17, 2022

If you offer a subscription option for some (or all) of the products you sell (or if you are preparing to offer them), you may be wondering: Should subscription be the default selection for customers? Or is it better to pre-select a one-time purchase with the option to change it to subscription?

For example, at Bulletproof Coffee, the product is set to “one-time purchase” by default. The customer must select the subscription option if they want to subscribe.

But on Huel, the “subscribe” option is pre-selected. Buyers must toggle the window to “one-time” if they want to buy it only once. 

Which choice is right for your store? In this article, we help you decide if your ecommerce store should default to subscriptions or if it’s better to default to one-time purchases with an option to subscribe. We’ll break down the pros and cons of each approach to help you decide which is right for you.

Pros of Defaulting to Subscription

Offering subscriptions by default comes with some practical benefits for your business. Let's go over each.

Merchants Can Clearly Communicate the Benefits of Subscription

While it’s possible to convince customers to subscribe to products they’ve purchased once, it might be difficult to catch them in the mood to buy. If they receive your pitch after they’ve used the product and enjoyed its value, they won’t be feeling the pressure of that underlying pain. Convincing them to open their wallet again could be challenging. 

Defaulting to subscriptions, however, gives you an opportunity to clearly define the benefits of subscribing, such as any discounts, perks, or extra services. This happens when the customer is experiencing their pain or strongest desire, is deep into the buying process, and is primed to make a financial decision. 

Customers Can Easily Switch to the One-time Product

There aren’t many disadvantages as long as you also give your shoppers the option to buy just once and make it easy to switch. They can always choose the one-time purchase option when they add the product to their shopping cart.

Jon MacDonald, president and founder of The Good, told us in a Subscription Ecommerce Live session that you can safely default to subscriptions as long as you make it clear to the visitor. He coaches his merchants to communicate the subscriber will get a notification before the next renewal and can choose to cancel at any time. He also explained that it isn’t always the best consumer experience, but it’s something you should test. 

Keep in mind, however, that predicting recurring revenue is challenging if first-time customers are in a flow that defaults to subscriptions. Some only subscribe to snag a discount (or perk) and will churn right away. Don’t start counting on that revenue until the second renewal.

Subscription Customers Are More Receptive to Perks, Discounts, and Upsells

Subscription customers who subscribe on their first purchase are willing to take a chance on your brand. Sometimes strongly encouraging subscription (by default) gives merchants a chance to earn future renewals using surprise and delight tactics. For instance, you can add an option to claim a mystery gift, like Kettle & Fire does (see below), in the first renewal upcoming charge notification, and reduce the chance that they churn after one shipment.

Eventually, subscribers who subscribed “early” will become comfortable with your products and brand. They know and love your products enough to say, “Yes, I will be buying again next month and each month after that.”

These customers open your emails, read your notifications, and generally enjoy their relationship with you. Plus, that relationship gets deeper each month they don’t churn. 

That means this group is also very receptive to upsells, as long as you personalize the offers.

Cons of Defaulting to Subscription

Defaulting to a subscription sounds like a good idea, but it has some disadvantages, too. Let’s go over the drawbacks. 

Some Customers Will See It as Deceptive

Generally speaking, unless your store is entirely subscription focused (like a box-of-the-month-type product), customers will assume that you sell 1-time products with some subscription options. They won’t expect the default selection to be a subscription.

Katharine McKee, Founder of Morphology Consulting, put it well: “The potential to feel as though you've been tricked or scammed is very high online.”

In this sense, defaulting to subscriptions can be seen as deceptive, as if you are trying to trick them into a more significant purchase commitment than they intend. Some customers may not even realize it’s happened until they receive an upcoming charge notification or until the second product shows up on their doorstep.

Generally speaking, unless your store is entirely subscription focused like a box-of-the-month-type product, customers will assume that you sell 1-time products with some subscription options. They won’t expect the default selection to be a subscription.

Kristen LaFrance, Director of Community at Repeat, agrees that it’s deceptive, calling it “growth hacky.”

“It can ultimately put a customer into a subscription without them knowing,” she says. “Then you have a customer who has too much product that they were not ready to get, and they're upset. They feel like they've been kind of schemed, and now they're going to churn and be permanent churn and even dangerous churn that can kind of spread out because they might tell their friends, ‘Hey, watch out for this company because they kind of shooed me into a subscription without me knowing.’”

Customers Are Afraid of Contracts

A subscription is a bigger commitment than a one-time purchase, so customers are naturally hesitant. How will they know if they like the product enough to buy it over and over?

On an episode of Subscription Ecommerce Live, Eli Weiss, formerly at OLIPOP, explained why it sometimes makes more sense first to sell a one-time purchase. He recommended waiting to explain the perks and benefits of subscribing and offer a discount until the customer buys again (or indicates that they intend to buy again).

A subscription is a bigger commitment than a one-time purchase, so customers are naturally hesitant. How will they know if they like the product enough to buy it over and over?

Being transparent about the subscription model puts the decision firmly in their control. OLIPOP’s testing found that these kinds of subscription customers tend to stick around longer. The subscribers who subscribed after being one-time buyers had higher LTVs than early subscribers.

Tips for Defaulting to Subscriptions

If you decide to set some or all of your products to subscriptions by default, here are some best practices for success.

1. Always Include a One-time Option

Unless you intend your product to be a subscription (like a wine of the month or unique snack box), it’s important to offer a one-time option for your products. Make it just as visible as the subscription. Use a radio button that customers will clearly understand as “either/or.”

2. Offer a Perk or Discount for Subscriptions

Asking customers to purchase a subscription is a bigger request than asking them to buy the product once. When we spend more, we expect benefits. 

Give the customer a clear, easy-to-understand financial incentive to purchase the subscription. Don’t bog them down with complicated deals or pricing structures. Say something simple, like “Subscribe and save 15%,” “Subscribe for $10 off each month,” or “Free shipping for all subscribers.”

Worried about offering a discount? Check out these seven alternatives to subscribe-and-save, (suggestions include things subscribers want, such as subscription flexibility, community, rewards, and philanthropic donations).

3. Send a Clear Confirmation Notification

In addition to a Thank You Page that clearly communicates they’ve subscribed, send an email. Remember, while we as sellers immediately interpret symbols, like a flywheel circle, or specific wording to indicate “subscription purchase,” your customers may not. Use clear language that tells them this is the first of a series of ongoing charges and how often it will renew. 

4. Let Them Change Their Minds

If a customer subscribes by mistake, immediately give them a way to change their order to one-time, without friction. Don’t try to save it. Don’t try to reexplain the benefits of subscribing. Just say, “Sorry for the trouble! Your one-time purchase is on the way.” Better yet, don’t make them reach out to change it. Give them the power to do it in a few clicks.

5. Test the Program Regularly

Test regularly to determine a) If defaulting to a subscription generates more revenue effectively, b) If it generates complaints / bad word-of-mouth, and c) How it impacts the user experience. It’s important to monitor these concerns to turn off default to subscription if you notice trouble. 

6. Send an Upcoming Charge Messages that Helps Them Feel Empowered

Make sure to send an upcoming charge message so they can delay, change, or cancel their subscription. Communicate to subscribers that this message will come in time to make that decision. Consider offering a bonus on the first renewal to reduce the chance of churn

Pro Tip: ARPU helps Recharge merchants get more value from their “shipping soon” emails. You can add 2-click upsell options or swap products, let subscribers adjust their shipment date, empower subscribers to buy one-time gifts for friends, and create custom campaigns based on renewal count, subscription items, and Shopify tags. 

Tips for Defaulting to One-time Purchases

If you decide to set some or all of your products to one-time purchase by default, here are some ideas to help those buyers convert to subscriptions when they are ready.

1. Always Include a Subscription Option

Make the subscription visible with a radio button that shows them they could subscribe and what the perks or discount for doing so will be. Even if they don’t subscribe this time, they’re now aware that they can. 

2. Use Your Thank You Page to Educate Buyers About Subscriptions

Your purchase confirmation page is a great place to communicate the perks of subscribing. Think of it as an opportunity for a transactional page to be educational, too. Include information about how to be successful with (or enjoy) the product purchased and list any additional perks they might enjoy if they choose to subscribe. You can offer an opportunity to change the purchase to subscription, but don’t come on too strong. 

3. Remind them Subscription is an Option in their Confirmation and Welcome Series

Reinforce the idea that subscription is an option (and list the perks) in their confirmation email with an option to change the purchase to a subscription. Position this as helpful, not a sales push. 

For first-time buyers, send a series of emails that gets them excited about what’s coming and how to use it (maybe recipes, customer success stories, anything they might need to plan for ahead of its arrival).

For repeat buyers, send gentle reminders around the times the product they purchased should run out to see if they’re ready for more. Use this opportunity to remind them that switching to subscription will mean they don’t have to remember to rebuy in the future. Promote how flexible your subscription is if you offer flavor swaps, delays, etc. 

4. Keep Earning Renewals Even After They Convert to Subscription

Think of the subscription journey like a relationship. Just because they decide to commit doesn’t mean you should stop trying to win their trust. Make becoming a subscriber feel special. Treat them like royalty; they’re your most loyal customers. 

Consider letting them choose a free gift in one of their first renewals to encourage them to always anticipate what nice thing you’ll do next. And give them opportunities they didn’t have as one-time buyers, like a chance to vote on your next product release. 

5. Send Upcoming Charge Messages that Make the Subscription Feel Flexible

Remind them of each renewal with an upcoming charge message that lets them delay, change, or cancel their subscription. This email shows them you appreciate their business and want to be transparent about each new charge. Plus, they’re likely to stick around longer if they have the flexibility to make changes.

Pro Tip: ARPU helps Recharge merchants send highly customized upcoming charge notifications. In addition to converting on relevant upsells in just 2 clicks, subscribers can swap products, adjust their shipment date, buy one-time gifts for friends, and even add products to their existing subscription. 

Default to Subscription or One-Time Purchase?

As you can see, there are several advantages and disadvantages to defaulting to a subscription option. The best way to decide if it's right for your store is to run an experiment. Send a portion of your traffic to a version of your site with the subscription option engaged and watch how each cohort performs over time. Does one have a significantly higher LTV? Also, make sure to follow the tips outlined above as you learn more about which options earn more buyer trust.

We’re Obsessed with the Subscription Experience

If you’ve read this far, we’re obsessed with you, too, because you care about offering an amazing subscription experience that aligns with your revenue goals. We’d love to invite you to join us for Subscription Ecommerce Live, our expert Q&A series where we talk with subscription experts about topics like the one in this article. 

Additionally, we’d love to help you level up your upcoming charge notifications. ARPU helps Recharge merchants on Shopify and BigCommerce send customized versions of this notification that link to optimized conversion flows, like 2-click upsells and delays. You can get started with a 14-day free trial.

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