We tried a new e-commerce startup that sells organic and natural products with an annual membership that's the same price as Costco's - here's what it's like to use

Public GoodsDennis Green/Business Insider

  • Public Goods is a new online store that specializes in essentials like food, household, and personal care products.
  • It uses both an annual membership program like Costco's and a private-label model where each product category offers pretty much one choice.
  • The company's tagline is "It's all good," meaning that each product is natural, organic, and/or sustainable.
  • We ordered a smattering of Public Goods products to see if that was true.

Public Goods is part of a new breed of online shopping startup.

This time, the equation is Costco + Brandless = Public Goods.

The relatively new online store specializes in essentials like food, household, and personal care products, all with slick, Instagram-friendly branding. It requires a membership, which costs $59 a year. (Costco's membership costs $60 a year.)

"Our membership model, it allows us to deliver that quality without compromise but still being accessibly priced," Morgan Hirsh, Public Goods' CEO and founder, told Business Insider.

It also fits the mold of recent online shopping startups like Brandless, which launched a shop that offers natural, organic, and sustainable own-label goods that are priced in $3 increments. Public Goods offers a similar focus, but without the specific price target.

Read more: Brandless, the online store that sells everything for $3, just got $240 million to take on Amazon. Here's what it's like to use.

"Hitting a specific price point is less important for us, it's just hitting quality," Hirsh said. "And for us ... quality means that it's healthy for people and healthy for the planet."

Products on Public Goods range in price from $1 - for four razor blade refills - to $45 for a large bath sheet.

The strategy has seemed to work in the year that Public Goods has been shipping products to customers, starting with personal care and expanding into food.

"80% of people who try us repeat," Hirsh said.

Public Goods took an atypical road to get to where it is today. Instead of a splashy, VC-backed round of funding, Hirsh and his co-founders went first to friends and family and then launched a Kickstarter campaign in the summer of 2017. It blasted past its goal and raised $686,748 from 10,260 backers.

In the fall of 2018, it ran another Kickstarter, raising $410,676 from 5,239 backers. At the same time, the company raised $3 million in seed funding from angel investors.

We decided to take advantage of Public Goods' free 30-day trial and ordered a smattering of products to see what it's like:

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Ordering on Public Goods' website was easy and sleek, supported by Shopify's simple interface.

Ordering on Public Goods' website was easy and sleek, supported by Shopify's simple interface.

Navigating around the site and placing items into my cart was easy and quite fun.

Navigating around the site and placing items into my cart was easy and quite fun.

With the stellar reviews written by customers on most of the products featured on the site, I had high hopes that I was going to love the products I was buying.

One snag: there's no way to cancel a membership on the website, and you have to email customer service to do so.

One snag: there's no way to cancel a membership on the website, and you have to email customer service to do so.

I did not want to get charged just for this review, so I emailed right after I placed my order. It was cancelled soon after, a rep confirmed to me.

But I still had to email. A button would be better.

Shipping is free for orders over $25 — a necessity in this e-commerce day and age.

Shipping is free for orders over $25 — a necessity in this e-commerce day and age.

My entire order came in a sleek black box about five days after I placed my order.

My entire order came in a sleek black box about five days after I placed my order.

It was well-branded with the Public Goods word mark and catchphrase.

It was well-branded with the Public Goods word mark and catchphrase.

Opened up, it looked like your typical e-commerce fare, with goods in a box made safe with paper packing.

Opened up, it looked like your typical e-commerce fare, with goods in a box made safe with paper packing.

Removing the paper revealed the merchandise in matching slick packaging.

Removing the paper revealed the merchandise in matching slick packaging.

F0r Hirsh, the branding was key. Each bit of packaging is made from renewable materials, and the labeling is consistent among products to create a uniformly beautiful appearance.

"People care about beauty," Hirsh said. "This is like a very real human need to be surrounded by things that are beautiful. And yet when it comes to [consumer packaged goods] products historically, and presently, they haven't been designed for your home and to have a beautiful home."

In a sentence: the products are designed to look nice on Instagram, not on store shelves.

Food items were placed in one plastic bag.

Food items were placed in one plastic bag.

And non-food liquids were placed in another separate bag that was tied on top.

And non-food liquids were placed in another separate bag that was tied on top.

Going through the box, I had some questions. Why was there a random mini white envelope thrown in there?

Going through the box, I had some questions. Why was there a random mini white envelope thrown in there?

Turns out it was for the lip balm, which I found at the bottom of the box.

Turns out it was for the lip balm, which I found at the bottom of the box.

The lip balm was unremarkable. Standard fare. It reminded me of one you might get for free in a swag bag.

It's usable, but for $2, I didn't feel like I would be getting my membership fee back yet.

Another disappointment going through the box was the spilled pesto sauce.

Another disappointment going through the box was the spilled pesto sauce.

I'm not sure what happened, as neither the glass nor the top was broken, but the sauce had leaked onto its protective paper encasement. A $4.25 disappointment.

I got penne to go with the pesto, but those hopes were obviously dashed.

I got penne to go with the pesto, but those hopes were obviously dashed.

I instead cooked and dressed the pasta with some leftover butter, cracked pepper, salt, and some parm on top.

I have to say that the pasta was probably the best I've ever had out of a box. For $2 a box, it was the first item in the order that felt like it was worth the higher cost.

The Wheat Thin-style crackers were also a hit.

The Wheat Thin-style crackers were also a hit.

They're much better than what you might get at a grocery store, with a subtle saltiness and a pleasant wheat flavor.

For $3 a box, they were a pleasant snack.

I also tried the unsweetened apple sauce.

I also tried the unsweetened apple sauce.

This apple sauce was cool and creamy, and it had a nice color and consistency. The color of the sauce was actually what you see on the outside packaging.

It was good, but at four for $4.25, it felt a bit steep.

The popcorn was easily my least favorite of the food items.

The popcorn was easily my least favorite of the food items.

It was a bit too bland to really stand out — it lacked the flavor punch I've experienced with other brands.

It was $2.75, and I don't see myself buying it again given the opportunity.

Moving on to bath products, I was not a fan of the bar soap I purchased.

Moving on to bath products, I was not a fan of the bar soap I purchased.

This soap lathered nicely and smelled clean, but it had a problem that a lot of body soaps do: that feeling of not being able to get completely off the skin.

I completely stopped using it after the second time, and at $3 for one bar, it did not feel like I got my money's worth.

It was at this point I realized that personal preference — and likely sheer habit — may become an obstacle to Public Goods' mission.

The set of kitchen towels included two organic cotton towels.

The set of kitchen towels included two organic cotton towels.

I loved the design, but as soon as I got them out the bag, I realized they were more about style than substance. They're just too thin to really be used for anything other than decoration.

At $6 for two, the price was right, but the design left something to be desired.

At $6 for two, the price was right, but the design left something to be desired.

The hand cream was also pretty standard.

The hand cream was also pretty standard.

Clean, a natural-smelling scent, and not greasy, the hand cream was a winner.

At $3.75 for two ounces, that seemed fair to me.

The toothpaste came in a similar-looking bottle.

The toothpaste came in a similar-looking bottle.

The toothpaste was much like more natural-focused brands. I don't usually go for those, as I feel like they don't get my breath fresh enough.

I didn't really have anything to compare this to, but I liked it enough to keep using it to brush my teeth before bed.

The sunscreen had an identical bottle — but a very different product.

The sunscreen had an identical bottle — but a very different product.

I can't say anything for its 50 SPF effectiveness yet as it is the end of winter in New York, but it rubbed into the skin easily and had no scent at all. This travel size is also perfect for a carry-on bag.

At $5, I wouldn't exactly call it cheap, though.

The toothbrushes came in a set of two inside a paper box.

The toothbrushes came in a set of two inside a paper box.

They're made out of bamboo, which is more sustainable than plastic. The bristles felt completely normal, but the handle felt kind of exactly what you might expect it to feel like: bamboo.

I also wondered how a natural material like bamboo could stay fresh and usable, and a few days later my fears were confirmed when a black mold appeared on the bottom of the brush from the water that collected at the bottom of my toothbrush holder.

This has never happened when I've used a plastic toothbrush. Sustainable materials are great, but if they make a disposable product even more disposable, it seems to defeat the purpose.

At least they are cheap, at $4 for two.

The dental floss came in an adorable glass container.

The dental floss came in an adorable glass container.

It's made from natural silk covered with peppermint oil to make it minty fresh.

It was easy to get the strand out of the bottle, but using the small sharp bit to cut it was not quite as easy as I would hope. The thick strand made it difficult to cut it to size.

The thick strand also was hard to maneuver between my teeth, and I wasn't getting much peppermint. I think it all rubbed off on the container while un-spooling and cutting.

The pocket tissues were low-cost, and there were lots of them in the package.

The pocket tissues were low-cost, and there were lots of them in the package.

They're also tree-free, meaning they're made from recycled fibers.

Unfortunately, that means they were a bit scratchy and not very comfortable. Certainly not great for colds that have symptoms including a runny nose.

The final verdict:

Public Goods does deliver on offering a slate of natural, organic, and sustainable essentials at low price points, making it easy to purchase for people who can't get those things at a local grocery store.

But for some of these categories of necessities, it seems like natural, organic, or sustainable does not always mean easier to use.

The customer needs to be aware of what "quality" means at Public Goods when shopping there, because the items may not be what they're used to when they go to the grocery or drug store.

I'm also unsure whether the price points were low enough to justify the $59-a-year membership fee, which is half of what Amazon Prime costs but does not offer any of the same benefits except access to these product.

But if you're looking for a one-stop shop for essentials that do fit those parameters and you don't mind any extra cost, Public Goods is very appealing.

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