As someone who has been consuming, observing, researching and writing about the beauty industry for over a decade, I can’t help but pay close attention to individual beauty retailers. Recent announcement by Farfetch that it is stepping into the beauty marketplace caused waves of curiosity, but whether things go according to plan, even with their significant digital outreach, funding and pool of professional talent onboard, only time will tell.
When Net-A-Porter added beauty, it caused ripples of excitement too, but I am not sure NAP changed the paradigm of online beauty shopping in the way Alexia Inge and Jessica De Luca did when they launched Cult Beauty and became the pioneers of online beauty shopping. With the recent news of Alexia’s departure from the business that was bought by THG last year, declining levels of customer service and actual website visibly changing for the worse in the last few months, the signs of the next stage of Cult Beauty under new leadership are far from promising.
I remember the days of events at SpaceNK, where the likes of Carla Oates ( founder of The Beauty Chef ), Rose-Marie Bravo ( founder of RMS Beauty )and Lee Mullins ( founder of Workshop Gymnasium, based at Bulgari hotels around the world; at the time that I write about Lee was one of the lead trainers at the Bodyism, which was one of the first luxury sports gyms to launch supplements ) introduced products and then mingled with both press and customers. Now their retail stores barely look busy and staff working on commission isn’t inclined to sell you what you need, but rather as much as they can of what will allow them to get a bigger commission ( I am generalising here, as there are always exceptions to any rule ). They manage to attract some niche brands, but based on my recent survey on Instagram, its not a particularly popular beauty shopping destination – for niche brands, or well-established ones. Interestingly, when Westman Atelier was looking for UK retailers, SpaceNk was the first to announce that it will carry the brand, but very quickly lost the brand to Selfridges ( where brand launch was delayed too ).
I often reminisce with both joy & nostalgia about shopping at the original Content Beauty store on Buttolph street, interacting with its welcoming and knowledgable staff ( many of who went on to launch their own skincare and make-up businesses in the UK, like Alex, founder of NINI Organics and Sjaniel Turrell, holistic make-up artist to the likes of deliciously Ella and Jasmine Hemsley ). Content also spotlighted many of the beauty founders that went on to make stratospheric world-wide success out of their businesses – Tata Harper, Rose-Marie Bravo, May Lindstrom, ILIA, W3LL People, Holifrog, Josh Rosebrook, Kjaer Weis & Odacite are just a few examples of brands that Content founder Imelda Burke was the first to introduce to British consumers. Such was (and is) the trust in this niche beauty retailer, many other retailers went after the brands that Content was launching exclusively. The brick & mortar store in Marylebone has sadly closed down post pandemic, but when shopping on Content website, you can count on staff being both knowledgable & attentive to your individual beauty and skincare needs and desires. A rare exception when it comes to UK beauty retail in my expert opinion!
The same positive clout applies to US-based online niche beauty retailers Boxwalla, Beauty Heroes and a more recent entrant Botanic Affair ( full disclosure: I have introduced a few of the brands to the website and since then both sides have established successful partnerships ). Their individual curation of brands continues to be refreshingly interesting. They pay attention to trends, but are led by individual customer service and choosing brands that have long-term, rather than short-term, goals when it comes to growth, business ethic & sustainability goals/targets. While many online retailers only seem to cater to the needs and desires of Generation Z, the above three focus on all demographics & genders, choosing to combine efficacy & innovation of formulation and impact of beauty on the state of nature and environment, as well as sourcing, manufacturing and labour conditions. A case of when slogans match the actions perfectly, rather than slogans alone that help sell the products to consumers craving constant newness.
GOOP might be a dab hand at selling beauty, but it does so aggressively, it often has the opposite effect and alienates potential customers, especially with its reputation for making questionable claims when it comes to not just beauty, but supplements and lifestyle practises as well It has a wide-encompassing brand selection in addition to its own brand of skincare, supplements and fashion, but the tone of both the website and e-newsletters is overbearingly “sell, sell, sell GOOP”. There is also the question of price point of GOOP offerings, which is in stark contrast with the recent initiative by UK’s Superdrug chain to “freeze the prices of over 100 everyday essentials to help the customers with the rising cost of living”. Something worth considering by the increased number of beauty and supplement brands that are positioning themselves at the ‘luxury’ end of the segment.
UK’s department stores aren’t fairing particularly well in that completion. Marks & Spencers tried hard to sell beauty to its loyal customers, but brands selection and position within the store are quite uninspired. Same can be said about Fenwick, where I recently saw a niche beauty brand Bloomeffects relegated to the bottom shelf, next to… customers shoe level. Fenwick had an exclusive on the brand ( it was announced today that H Beauty, Harrods pivot into beauty via targeted beauty stores strategically opened around the UK, will carry the brand as well ), but such placement, as well as lack of staff on hand to assist customers and spotlight the niche beauty selection in-store, is both a disservice to brands AND customers.
Business of Fashion recent editorial contained a barely concealed sarcasm over the possibility of Glossier‘s first ambassador Olivia Rodrigo reviving brand’s fortunes. Thing is, Glossier used to do things in a way that turned everyone’s head – from consumers to retailers – because the shopping experience they offered was unsurpassed. But any business can’t be expected to go up, up, up all the time. Economy works in cycles and so does any business model – to expect otherwise is to define logic. In this instance maybe what Glossier needs is instead of hiring a celebrity ambassador, it’s worth analysing its past mistakes, figuring out the point where things started going wrong for the brand and reviving its fortunes with the help of the customer feedback and engagement that was second to none and to which the brand owed a big part of its stratospheric success in the first place.
I remember well the days long gone, before Pop-Ups became “the thing”, when indie beauty brands presented themselves at exhibitions and small markets, where founders & customers engaged with each other based on genuine interest & alliance when it came to natural beauty – before it morphed into “clean beauty segment”. What has changed?
Part of the problem is Gordon Gekko’s principle of “greed is good” and many brands, celebrities and investors jumping on the popular bandwagon. Beauty bloggers gave way to influencers. Bloggers were more about educating their audience, while promoting their services, while in many instances influencers are simply about marketing themselves to the highest bidder, helped by their social media numbers. Nowadays the brands that influencers present to you are they ones they don’t necessarily use or love – but rather those that they are paid for to promote – something that is often not mentioned in their gushing posts. Of course such a model of business is popular – for both the brand and the influencer, if their audience is buying into the clickbait, wanting to emulate their virtual hero. But best long-term partnerships of any kind are built on, among other things, taking into account interests of all sides. Brands want to sell you things. Influencers want to promote things to you that you will buy and allow them to make a living. What often happens is that consumers buy something that they either didn’t need or it doesn’t suit their needs. Who takes the responsibility?
Beauty retail often forgets that it’s there to serve its customers in order to make their business a success – when a beauty retailer truly gets that right, overall result its much better for all sides, as consumers will keep on coming back to a brand or retailer where their needs are met & served well. Beauty conglomerates have huge budgets, access to factories, labs, suppliers, which niche beauty brands often lack, especially when they are just starting out. However, more often than not, its the niche brands that bring innovation and exemplary customer service, getting to know they clients as they build a personal relationship with them.
A beauty retail overhaul is long overdue, but aside from profit watch and marketing, innovation directed at consumers needs to raise its head. There is also a need for significant investment in customer service improvement. A good example here is ZARA, which started impressively well with its make-up range and staff on hand when it launched in-store, however now the Beauty section on Oxford street looks deserted and furlong. It would probably make sense to divert some funds from the online marketing campaigns to improve physical store services.
Another suggestion would be to stop using ‘authentic’ as a marketing hashtag – authenticity – be it personal or professional – is unmistakably palpable to a highly attuned ‘bullshit” radar. There is also a pressing need to diversify when it comes to demographics & ability to knowledgeably serve consumers beyond Generation Z, which is the only demographic brands and retailers are keen to serve these days. Go back to hosting brand founders, open the floor to engaging dialogue and entice us all not with the clever marketing, but true innovation, welcoming spaces full of practicality & surprise, as well as opportunities to learn how we can all look better without resorting to social media filters. And maybe, just maybe, direct the incubator funding away from vanity celebrity brands and to pioneering people who are truly set to change the industry for the better. And last, but not least – please remember that the best way to attract AND keep the consumers is to make sure they know that their custom is being appreciated and valued, rather than being taken for granted.