When Lee Howard is not working as a professional artist, he spends his time being a nerd.
To indulge his hobby, he subscribes to Nerd Block, a Whitby, Ont., subscription service that sends out a box of nerdy stuff every month. It's a surprise what will be in the box, but a welcome one.
"They put in really good quality action figures," he said. "It's stuff that you can't necessarily find in stores, which I really like."
Each box is valued at $60 to $80. But Lee only pays $20 a month for a box, plus shipping.
Nerd Block and subscription services like it work because millions use them.
There are 500 subscription box companies catering to Canada and the U.S., making it a booming, multibillion dollar industry. When the industry began, it was mostly about sending a box of makeup products or a crate of wine for sampling. But now, the trend is expanding to everything from nerd gear to boxes of cured meat to items related to famous people, like a box from Toronto-born model Coco Rocha.
Erin Bury, a digital marketer and director of an agency called 88 Creative, said a growing number of professionals are willing to pay for the exclusivity that subscription boxes offer.
"You're getting things curated for you by tastemakers and people who are experts in their industry," she said. "That means that you have access before everyone else and you could be the one to share it with your network as opposed to reading about it in the paper six months down the road."
Boxes for new moms
Lorena Pacheo Scott would have loved to receive a box of baby items in the mail when she had her first child.
'It's nice to get something that's a surprise and makes you smile.' - Lee Howard
"The first diaper I ever changed was his. I felt like the most unprepared mother," she said.
That's why she's now helping new moms get prepared for child-rearing, one box at a time. Mommies First is currently shipping out around 2,000 boxes full of baby-related products each month.
"We've got everything from [rattles] for sleepy time, to tummy cream for pregnant moms," Pacheo Scott said.
Nerd Block is one of a growing number of subscription companies in the Toronto area. The nerd gear is all packaged in a Whitby, Ont., warehouse.
When it first launched a year and half ago, the company's goal was 300 subscribers in the first month. But 24 hours after launching, Nerd Block attracted more than 3,000.
Nerd Block has expanded from a staff of four to 60. Everything is packed by hand, by fellow nerds, and subscribers never get the same item twice. They send out more than 100,000 boxes a month to 27 different countries.
"One single order from Nerd Block is on par with a single unit order that Walmart or Toys 'R' Us would make," said president Russ Montague.
To subscribers like Howard, it's money well spent.
"We're so used to getting Visa bills and hydro bills and stuff like that in the mail, it's nice to get something that's a surprise and makes you smile instead of cry," he said.