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Mystery boxes and surprise packs: This holiday season, stores are thinking inside the box

With shoppers hesitant to enter stores, shopkeepers are going all out with packaged gifts

Top row: mystery boxes from Kind Goods in Maynard. Bottom row: Local Love and Cozy Kiddos gift boxes from Boston General Store.
Top row: mystery boxes from Kind Goods in Maynard. Bottom row: Local Love and Cozy Kiddos gift boxes from Boston General Store.

Running an independent retail store during a pandemic is, for many small-business owners, counterintuitive.

They do what they do because they love helping customers find the perfect outfit, gift, or token of affection. And that’s much harder from behind plexiglass and a mask, and with visitor restrictions in place.

But now, with the biggest shopping season of the year underway while COVID-19 cases are surging, independent retailers are pivoting again. For many, that means thinking inside the box — the gift box, that is.

This year, brick-and-mortar retailers around the region are finding an unexpected bounty in boxed gifts. The trend goes far beyond mere gift-wrapping or free shipping. Some shops are offering curated boxes, book bundles, or holiday surprise packs of presents at set costs. Others are pre-boxing their inventory as themed kits — think a Breakfast in Bed Box or a Winter Warmer Box — and seeing sales soar.

For many shopkeepers, distilling the tastes and sensibilities of their stores into parcel form has been a way to reconnect with customers hesitant to go into stores. For others, it’s a way to go up against the well-established (and well-funded) consumer trends like food and clothing subscription boxes or tap into the bizarrely lucrative appeal of unboxing videos.

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And for some, like Mary Cotton of Newtonville Books, it’s emotional: a chance to revel in the joy of helping shoppers again.

The past several months have been a struggle for Cotton. She’s been offering curbside pickup while keeping her Newton Center storefront shuttered throughout the pandemic, but has a limited inventory of books online. Lately, work has meant an endless stream of stuffing books into boxes and bags. There’s little joy in owning a bookstore, Cotton said, if you can’t help readers discover new titles they’ll love.

“Warehouse fulfillment is not fun,” she quipped.

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But things began to turn around when the store began promoting Holiday Book Bundles on its website in early November. After picking a set price, shoppers can offer favorite titles and other insights into the gift recipient’s preferences: “I’ve got a 20-year-old here who is looking for books with diverse voices, inspiration, humor, anti-racism, empowering women, off-color and sarcastic,” Cotton read aloud from a recent order with audible happiness. You could hear the wheels turning in her head.

Cotton snaps a photo of the box’s contents to the customer before it’s shipped, to avoid bookshelf duplication. The bundles, which can be completely curated or come in themes like “Boredom Busters for Seniors,” account for half of the store’s sales. She’s partnering with the Paper Mouse, a West Newton gift store, to sell care packages and drive even more sales.

The truth is, people love boxes — giving them, getting them, opening them, watching other people open them.

“The value and the mystery of the box has been a real big driver for people,” said Torry Katsiroubas Stamm, president of the food distributor Katsiroubas Bros., which pivoted to selling boxes of produce when its restaurant clients shut down this spring. The box sales took off and are now offered at nine pickup sites. For the holiday season, they’re offering $50 CommonWealth Kitchen Gift Boxes of small-batch sauces and other artisanal items.

For April Gabriel, owner of Boston General Store in Brookline and Dedham, the appetite for prepacked gift boxes has exceeded anything she anticipated, even in as crazy a year as 2020. This holiday season, Gabriel is selling 10 themed boxes with names like Cozy Kiddos and Holiday Spirits, priced from $28 to $78.

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“The response has been overwhelming,” Gabriel said. She has dedicated the back of her Dedham store to packing and shipping and is considering creating a warehouse in the basement. “A quarter of our orders right now are gift boxes,” she said.

Gabriel’s foot traffic has slumped since the pandemic started, but her online sales are up 756 percent over last year’s. She credits some of her success to pulling her marketing budget from blogs at the outset of the pandemic and funneling it all into Google search optimization. But she said it’s also because her customers are looking for ways to connect with the people — and the stores — that they miss.

“They’re spending a lot more to compensate for the fact that they can’t be with people,” Gabriel said. “And I think they’re putting more thought into their gifts.”

Some store owners have garnered such a level of trust that their shoppers are handing off the gift-selection entirely. At Kind Goods in Maynard, Michelle Barrett’s “mystery boxes” — priced at $50 and $75 and mostly sold via Instagram — have helped her keep the virtual doors open to her shop, even while it has largely been closed. She credits the boxes with helping her earn more revenue this year than last.

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She said her shoppers appreciate the concept of shopping local and want her to stay in business.

“It’s just an easy way to participate in a business that you like,” she said. “I think we’re all dealing with a bit of decision fatigue. The idea of needing to gift and do all this digital research because you’re not shopping as much in person is exhausting. If you know the shop, it’s so easy to just let them have the reins.”

Businesses hit particularly hard by the pandemic are turning to boxes as a life raft of sorts. Amy Kimball, an event planner who has thrown parties for the likes of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, had seen her bookings dissipate. So this fall, she began offering At Home Kimball Events, a “one-stop shop for a beautiful tabletop.”

The customer picks a palette, then receives a box of rental China, silverware, and goblets, bouquets from Winston Flowers, and personalized place settings and other table decor they can keep. For families who are struggling with doing holidays on their own this year, “We want to make their time at home feel special, and we want to make it easy,” Kimball said.

And more people staying home has meant far fewer public events. Which is why sisters Vicky and Nicoletta Lirantonakis, who own the Best Dressed rental dress boutique in South Boston, have begun selling boxes of Zoom-friendly accessories like scarves, earrings, and headbands called Style Filos.

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“What if we made it really easy in five minutes to be ready for our Zoom calls?” Vicky remembered asking her sister after watching their rental sales plummet. Now they’re seeing a steady uptick in box sales through social media channels.

The cost “is pretty close to a rental fee, and the margins on our jewelry and accessories are great, almost better,” Nicoletta said. “I do think it’s something that can definitely sustain our business.”

For some stores, like Henry Bear’s Park, boxes are proving an untapped revenue stream. Kas Sharma’s employees always have been adept at helping shoppers pick out the perfect toy. Now they’re offering those skills virtually through Holiday Surprise Packs, which grandparents have been snapping up this year, Sharma said.

Each box has an assortment of toys and trinkets of various sizes, he said, all individually wrapped to boost the suspense. It’s now the store’s top-selling gift.

“The pandemic sort of gave us an opportunity to offer this,” Sharma said. “Looking back, we could have been doing this all along.”


Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.