A Happy Marriage

Retailers’ knowledge of their customers is the unmatched asset that they bring to the retailer/brand partnership.

Whatever channel products are sold through, both the brand and the retailer need to support branding and retailing efforts in order for products to sell in any environment.

Before the partnership between a beauty brand and a retailer is established, it’s a little like dating. Each side is checking the other one out, trying to decide if it could be a good fit and lead to a relationship in the future. And, if a match is to be made, there has to be similar personalities, philosophies and goals coming into play. It also has to be accepted that both partners in the match might be in a couple of other relationships, or might call it off with you after just a few dates. Sounds like a tall order, right? It is. However, once a brand and a retailer do decide to tie the proverbial knot, there are many ways to keep their relationship in the honeymoon stage for many years to come.

Made for Each Other

Much like dating, a brand and a retailer need to learn about each other and examine the long-term potential before officially taking the plunge into a relationship. According to Maureen Kelly, founder and CEO of Tarte Cosmetics, “We evaluate our retail strategy quarterly, and when new opportunities arise, we review internally to decide if we can manage it and if it’s an appropriate fit for the brand.”

It’s equally important on the retailer side. Ian Ginsberg, owner of New York-based apothecary C.O. Bigelow, believes that being in tune with your target consumers’ tastes and preferences is essential to determining a brand’s potential in his store. “I’ve learned a lot about what my clients like and don’t like, what problems they have and want to solve, and how they feel about products, textures, etc.,” he says. “So when [brands] come to me with products, I can see if it’s something that has legs for us or not. I know my customer pretty well and that is the key.” Likewise, Italian luxe retailer La Rinascente uses a similar methodology. “Our brand mix comprises both the market leaders and smaller brands that are in target with the consumers of each particular retail location,” says Simone De Stefanis, head of La Rinascente’s cosmetics department.

So what constitutes a brand that would fit into such specialty retail outposts? “For me, it has to deliver what it promises, it has to be a good product and packaging is important,” explains Ginsberg. “Purchasing in personal care is an emotional experience, and [consumers] have to connect emotionally to the brand. A great brand is a story well told.” La Rinascente concurs, and also emphasizes the brands’ commitment to ethical and moral responsibility. “The goal is to select credible and certified products,” asserts De Stefanis. “We normally verify all certifications prior to signing our purchase agreement.”

Mass Expansion

For some brands, branching out beyond the specialty retailers and into the mass market comes with its own rewards. According to global market research firm Mintel, 57% of women bought their beauty goods at a mass merchandiser, and 45% frequented the drugstore for these items in 2010, making them the top channels for cosmetic purchasing among women of all ages. Moreover, these retailers can boast a wider selection of branded products than ever before, and can afford to be competitive with their pricing—a major plus for recession-weary fashionistas.

In February 2011, the high-end French beauty line Roger & Gallet expanded into Duane Reade, a landmark drugstore chain in New York. However, these products aren’t exactly stacked on an endcap between the diapers and denture cream; they fit perfectly into Duane Reade’s Look Boutiques, the store’s sophisticated beauty centers that market prestige products on par with those found in top salons, spas and luxury retailers. The Roger & Gallet line is now found at six Look Boutiques in Duane Reade outposts throughout Manhattan.

Until recently, products from Butter London—a Seattle-based line of nail lacquers, hand and nail treatments—could only be found in small and specialty retailers and at the company’s flagship store in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. In April, all 390 Ulta stores began offering the brand’s products to the a vast clientele. “Butter London and Ulta are perfect partners,” says Leslie Freytag, president and CEO of Butter London. “Offering an affordable, yet luxurious selection of nail products, Butter London is high fashion, which serves Ulta’s desire to provide affordable indulgences to their customers.” It’s an arguably wise business decision—according to Mintel, 11% of shoppers surveyed have made a beauty purchase at Ulta in the past six months.

It Takes Two

Whether a brand can be found in specialty retailers, mass merchandisers or anywhere in between, the experts all concur: The support needs to be on both sides of the equation—the brand and the retailer—in order for products to sell in any environment. “Having a great relationship with our vendors is crucial,” says Kelly. “To that end, we really investigate all areas and ensure that we always have the inventory, resources and team to support them.”

Mally Roncal, founder of cosmetics line Mally Beauty, agrees. “From the get-go, it was important for us to establish strong relationships with our retail partners,” she says of the line, which is sold at Henri Bendel department stores, online and on QVC (see Storeless Selling). “We communicate with them very often—every day, if not several times a day—so that we can all stay on the same page. We feel it is very important that they fully understand Mally Beauty in terms of who we are, what our image is and where we would like to take our brand in the future.”

The promotion of a new product by the retail team can only be amplified by the active participation of the brand. When Roger & Gallet launched its line at Duane Reade, it lured customers by handing out 6,000 roses in the course of two days, with special cards redeemable for a tote bag with any Roger & Gallet purchase of $20 or more.

C.O. Bigelow goes above and beyond when introducing a new product, and expects the brand to do the same to ensure a successful launch. “We have our own PR team, and we’ll incorporate the brand into our social media campaign, we’ll do a window on 6th Avenue, we’ll put in an in-store display, we’ll try to have someone devoted to the brand and we’ll have the founders here just to talk about the brand,” says Ginsberg. “We have a very sophisticated clientele that is very well-read and knows a lot about the brand already. Our staff is used to dealing with an educated customer, so they want to be sure they can talk intelligently about the products. The more staff members learn about the brand, the more empowered they will feel to talk about it. So, I tell the brand to put the time in. If you work with them, it will pay off because we are in it for the long haul.”

Likewise, La Rinascente employs its own public relations initiatives, dedicates staff to a new line and glorifies the products in high-traffic areas, and gives the brand an opportunity to play its role in advertising as well. “We make sure to allow brands the possibility of expressing their products by allowing them to personalize each shelf with the following elements: logo, shelf talker, tester display and product description,” says De Stefanis. “Where possible, we allow them to personalize niches with brand visuals as well.”

Heading for Divorce?

Even if a brand and a retailer seem like a match made in heaven, there is the occasional instance in which the relationship hits the skids. According to De Stefanis, some reasons that La Rinascente might discontinue sales of a particular brand include low sales performance, change of brand positioning or negative publicity. Ginsberg also notes that poor performance, for whatever reason, could lead to an end of the relationship. “We will give a brand a lot of time—we will put in a lot of time beforehand, we’ll test it and we know if it’s something interesting,” explains Ginsberg. “So if we discontinue it, it’s because no matter what we tried, it’s just not working. We might if we feel the support on the brand side is not enough.”

However, it is important to note that the size of a brand is not a reason that these retailers would pass over it or not give it a fair chance to succeed in store—in fact, it’s quite the contrary. “Smaller brands help us differentiate our cosmetics business from the rest of the distribution, and are equally important as the larger brands,” says De Stefanis. And at C.O. Bigelow, small niche brands are instrumental to the apothecary’s success. “If it’s not a well-known brand and we really love it, we will stick with it and help build it because we want our customers to fall in love with it, too,” says Ginsberg. “There are plenty of things you can buy anywhere, so we have built our reputation on having really unique things. Every visit, a customer will find something they didn’t see before. It’s all these great little things that you’d never yet discovered.”

Lisa Doyle was formerly the associate editor of GCI magazine and is a freelance writer in the Chicago area. Her work has appeared in Skin Inc. magazine, Salon Today, America’s Best, Renew and Modern Salon.

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