March 7, 2013 -- It's a routine women know all too well. At that time of the month, it's off to the drugstore to buy a box of tampons, and perhaps some Advil or Midol as well. And, well, you know the rest. The next month, rinse and repeat.
It's certainly an idea, an idea that now a few women have had. A number of start-ups are now trying to improve the monthly experience of having one's period. There isn't much they can do about the natural process of menstruation, but three companies -- Juniper, HelloFlo, and LeParcel -- have set out to improve the tampon-buying experience with monthly subscription services.
"This entire experience is so last-century. You go to the store, you buy your stuff and you come home and you run out," Lynn Tao, the founder of Juniper, told ABC News in an interview. "You can pay $35 in San Francisco and find a start-up to do almost anything for you -- clean your house, get you a car. Why not for something like this? This should be automated too."
Three Services, One Goal
All three of the services work in a similar way. You pick your tampon brand, tell the service when you get your period, enter your payment information and the tampons are delivered to your house five to six days before you begin your cycle.
But the services are certainly not identical. Juniper was one of the first tampon subscription services to hit the Web, and it also happens to be the priciest. Tao launched the site in October 2012 and began charging $28 a month. You pick your preferred Tampon brand, go through the "calibration process," which requires you put in the start date of your period, and decide if you need some Midol or backup protection (panty liners, pads, etc.).
Tao says the premium price gives you a premium experience. The packaging is nice and included with each set of tampons (you can request anywhere from 10 to 40 tampons) are a selection of teas and, of course, chocolates. If you opt to include Midol or panty liners, they're all included in the $28 flat fee. While a box of 36 tampons usually costs $8.00, Tao says her service "provides a lot more value." Each subscriber is also paired with a Juniper BFF, someone who helps customize the experience.
However, HelloFlo, which launched earlier this week, offers similar services for half the price. Naama Bloom, the founder of the service, said it is all about convenience and making it fit into the way you are already talking about your period.
"I thought of how I think about my period and how do I talk about it," Bloom told ABC News in an interview. "We focus on the one decision and that's whether you have a low, medium or heavy period."
There are three flow (or flo) options. The $14-a-month deal is for those whose periods are on the lighter side and only last for 3 to 4 days. Then there are the $16 Medium Flo and the $18 Heavy Flo packages. The size and number of tampons included depend on your flow level. When you select the plan, you input the day of your last period and the frequency of your period as well as your birth date. Included with the package is a small treat.
And because three is never a crowd, there is Le Parcel, started by Megan Hollenback. Le Parcel fits in between the other two. For $15 a month, you get 30 tampons or pads or panty liners of your choice. And yes, included in each Le Parcel package is a piece of chocolate and a small gift.
A Large Market, But Large Demand?
Women absolutely now have a choice of subscription tampon services, but the question is whether there is even a demand for this sort of service.
All three of the female founders have bootstrapped the companies; they haven't raised capital from investors and are instead investing their and their husbands' savings in the businesses.
As of this writing, Le Parcel had 1,500 subscribers and Juniper 100 subscribers. HelloFlo would not comment on its subscriber numbers. The female founders started on the projects with the help of others who are working in exchange for equity in the companies. They purchase the tampons, box up the packages and send them off themselves.
In our own informal survey of women, ABC News found that some were interested in the services, while others just didn't think it was necessary, especially if it cost more than just running to the store.
On the Internet, however, the criticism has been louder and harsher. One commenter called it the "Pets.com of the second Internet bubble." Another commenter said, "How is buying tampons any different than buying toilet paper?" Critics also point to services like Amazon's Subscribe & Save, which isn't only for tampons, but allows you to have a number of household items delivered on a monthly basis.
Nikhil Kalghatgi, a principal at SoftBank Capital, has similar concerns and says he isn't bullish on services that look to compete with Amazon.
"Among many other things, Amazon owns commodity products and wins on price and speed. Some new commodity product subscription companies allege to compete on convenience," Kalghatgi said. "Adding a subscription services to a commodity, which is by definition an undifferentiated product, like toilet paper or tampons, is not adding convenience. Imagine if you had a subscription service for everyone one of these types of products, that sounds like an inconvenience. "
Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings, which invests in start-ups, also says she is skeptical. "The point of buying diapers online is that they're bulky. And the point of buying underwear online is either variety or people who really hate shopping or need to be reminded," she said. "But I just don't think having a spare box of tampons on hand is really that great of a challenge for most women."
Tao and Bloom answer that their new services solve an issue and have real value to women. "If only I could send Silicon Valley a Juniper box every time it gets all PMS-y at the launch of another tampon delivery service," Tao wrote in response to criticism this week. Bloom said, "To them I would say sending a one-pound box is better than sending dog food across the country." As for the Amazon comparison, Bloom says, " Amazon doesn't remind you it [your period] is coming, it doesn't get delivered to your door, it doesn't come with a fun treat."
While these companies ultimately compete, they do agree on something: that there is a market for their offerings, and that with competition there is more motivation to create a unique offering.
"This is a huge market. Half the world's population uses these products once a month," Bloom said. "In the end, I'm not surprised there are others in the space. I think it's a really good idea."