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Personal care

Public Goods: Is this simple members-only online store worth it?

Like Brandless, Public Goods sells simplified household products to eliminate decision fatigue.

rest-and-restore-kit-publicgoods-cropped
Kent Rogowski / Public Goods

I love the way Amazon seems to so effortlessly drops products at my doorstep. Seriously, Amazon delivery people ring my doorbell once a week, on average, often because I don't feel like commuting to a brick-and-mortar store to pick something up.

A new kind of e-commerce store that's almost as quick as Amazon Prime, but a much more pleasant shopping experience, might become my new go-to for basic household essentials.

To the Test is a series where we bring products into our everyday lives and share our experiences with them.

Note that CNET may get a share of the revenue of anything featured on this page.

What is it?

Public Goods is a membership-based online home goods store with a hodgepodge of business models rolled into one. Akin to Costco, members pay an annual fee of $59 to access lower-priced items.

The online wholesale concept is similar to Brandless, though Public Goods refers to its model as "anti-Brandless" because they don't lock themselves into the extremely low price point that became Brandless' hallmark.

Oh, and they're anti-Amazon, too: CEO and co-founder Morgan Hirsh found Amazon to be chaotic and distrustworthy because there are seemingly endless options on the massive retailer, and it's sometimes tough to be confident in the reviews, the manufacturer or the ingredients in the product.

"[Amazon] is just truly overwhelming, " Hirsh told CNET. "You've got 30,000 bottles of shampoo and then thousands more reviews, and it can just become too much."

rest-and-restore-kit-publicgoods

Public Goods focuses on quality, sustainability and simplicity.

Kent Rogowski / Public Goods

Public Goods offers just one type of product per need -- one body wash, one deodorant, one type of toilet paper and so on. The products are inexpensive, incredibly simple and aesthetically pleasing.

Another thing that bothered Hirsh about the traditional retail market is that brands tend to cater to people's insecurities.

"One time my wife brought home a bottle of shampoo that said 'for limp hair.' I thought, 'Oh, what a great message,'" Hirsh told CNET. "Walk into a store and you're bound to feel deficient because brands want to tell you your problems and then be your solution."

That's the main reason Hirsh designed his product packaging to be simple, elegant and free of far-reaching product claims.

The store started with household goods and personal care products, then expanded into foods in early 2019. This summer, they will announce another new category, a women's wellness line, and moving forward, Hirsh told CNET he hopes to expand into pet and childcare essentials.

What I tried

I ordered a handful of Public Goods items to use in place of my normal household items: lemongrass liquid dish soap ($4.25 for one bottle), walnut scrubber sponges ($3 for four) and tree-free toilet paper ($7 for six rolls).

I also purchased a couple of personal care items: deodorant ($4.25) and a shampoo bar ($5.50).

I used all of these items, including the deodorant, instead of my usual supermarket-bought supplies for one week. The only exception was the shampoo bar, which I only used twice.

household-cleaners-bundle-copy-publicgoods

From kitchen cleaners to bathroom supplies, Public Goods offers basic household essentials in sleek packaging.

Public Goods

What I liked

Prices

Public Goods is relatively inexpensive for most items. After checking out the Public Goods Instagram and seeing beautifully curated photos with tones of bright white and earthy browns, I navigated to the site expecting sticker shock.

Imagine my welcome surprise: The majority of Public Goods items sit under the $8 price point, but keep in mind these prices are in addition to the $59 annual membership.

Compared to the $3 average price point at Brandless, some Public Goods items are expensive, but this could be a good thing in disguise: The abundance of items available for only $3 can lead to wasteful over-ordering, and quality might suffer when a retailer is locked into such a low price point.

No overload

On Amazon, things can get a bit tumultuous. With so many options for every item, not to mention thousands of reviews on each, decision paralysis often sets in and items sit in shopping carts for weeks.

Public Goods offers just the basics, with a few fun extras here and there, on an extremely clean, navigable interface. I logged onto Public Goods with not a clue of what I wanted, but I still somehow checked out less than 10 minutes later. For me, logging onto Amazon without a plan ends up as an hour-long digital escapade with 20 tabs open.

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Ease of purchase and delivery speed

As I mentioned above, ease of purchase is a big deal for me. Like most busy people, I don't like spending too much time on something that should be quick and easy. My total time spent on the Public Goods website to order my products was about 10 minutes. That beats driving to a grocery or convenience store any day.

Delivery also proved fast: I placed my order at 1:41 p.m. on April 24, received a shipment notification in just one hour, and found the package on my doorstep three days later. Not quite up to par with Amazon Prime shipping speed, but still extremely quick.

Simple ingredients and reduced packaging

Every item I ordered from Public Goods contains far fewer ingredients than the products I usually use. For instance, the lemongrass liquid dish soap contains only seven ingredients, and the other brand perched behind my kitchen sink contains nearly 20.

Public Goods packaging -- both for the shipment and on the products themselves -- is also minimalistic. Notably, my shipment arrived without packing peanuts, bubble wrap, crinkle paper or other fillers.

Fewer ingredients usually means fewer toxins, and less packaging means less waste.

bar-shampoo-01-publicgoods

Shampoo bars are more sustainable than shampoo bottles because they don't use any plastic for packaging. 

Kent Rogowski / Public Goods

What I didn't

In all honesty, I didn't run into a single real problem with Public Goods. Ordering was easy, delivery was fast, all of the products work and everything smells great.

If I must say one thing, it's that I wasn't a fan of the shampoo bar, but this measure is totally subjective. There's nothing wrong with the product; I just learned I prefer liquid shampoo, even if a bar is more sustainable in terms of packaging.

What I learned

My biggest takeaway? The way people shop for groceries, household items and personal care items has changed in a big way.

Between Amazon, Brandless, Public Goods and others such as Thrive Market, consumers are faced with endless ways to purchase daily essentials. You can also use services such as Shipt and Instacart to get staples delivered from your favorite local storefronts. That's not even to mention Amazon's futuristic automated store or Kroger's new "connected" grocery store in partnership with Microsoft.  

The most significant differentiator about Public Goods is its smaller selection of products which, for me, is a very good thing.

If you want simplicity, my pick is Public Goods.

Should you use it?

Shop Public Goods if you need environmentally friendly household items delivered to your door at decent price points. This newer online store isn't quite as fast as Amazon or quite as inexpensive as Brandless, but the shopping experience is pleasant, the products are functional, and the brand as a whole is more sustainable than other e-commerce shops.

As for me? I'll keep using the Public Goods items that I have now, and I'm excited to try out new items, but I do hope to see their offerings expand. I'd like to see some devices, perhaps a diffuser to go along with their collection of essential oils, as well as some more food items. 

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