There was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, that almost all beauty and personal care products were sold by shops. There was a small sector that sold from adverts in magazines and periodicals. This was known as ‘off the page’ – I suppose it still is because it still exists, but I imagine it is declining in line with the decline in newspaper and magazine sales. There were also party plan and door to door sales. Avon had, and still has, the dominant position in this market. Again this sector still exists, and might be bigger than you realise. It depends a lot on how you count it, but it is probably about 10% of the total market.
But the rise of the internet and shopping channels has totally transformed the way we buy beauty.
QVC now has a 24 hour television channel devoted exclusively to beauty products. There are rumours it is going to start one devoted to fragrances. You can now spend all day buying stuff from your sofa without any necessity to get out of your pyjamas if you so choose. There was a time that the premium brands shunned shopping channels because they were felt to be down market. This reluctance hasn’t lasted long as the realisation has grown that this is the way a large number of consumers like to spend their money.
The shopping channel format works well for brands that have a story to tell, and especially well for ones that benefit from being demonstrated. The nail sector overall is doing particularly well at the moment. I don’t have any conclusive evidence for this, but I wonder if this is the result of people getting intrigued by watching nail polishes being skilfully applied on their tellies.
The shopping channels are all streamed onto the internet, but there is already plenty of opportunity to buy stuff online. There are dedicate websites that stock all the big brands, and most of the small ones too. But there is an obvious problem with this way of selling skincare, cosmetics and fragrances. You don’t get to touch, feel and smell them. For a business that relies on the senses so much this is quite a handicap. I don’t think the high street retailers will be wiped out in the same way that the music and video ones have been by online competition. But even so the extra options for spending must be hitting them in the tills.
The shops are being forced to up their game, and are doing so. The aim must be to create a rich experience for your shopping trip to keep you in the store and spending for as long as possible. Selfridges in Oxford Street are a good example of a general trend. They regard themselves as the top prestige outlet for beauty products in the UK. Most people agree with them. But despite this they can’t rest on their laurels. They have introduced a thing they call The Beauty Workshop where you can get a wide range of beauty treatments, including the Paint Shop where you can get your nails done. The analogy is with a garage, but with highly trained white coated consultants looking at your skin, hair and nails rather than greasy mechanics looking at your car and sucking air over their teeth in dismay.
It would be unfair on the rest of the retailers not to point out that they are all moving in the same general direction with a lot of creative thinking going into increasing the value of a trip to their shops. Probably the company that has travelled the furthest in the last couple of years is Marks and Spencer. There was a time when the M&S skincare offering was almost the definition of frumpiness. Everything was own branded and you either picked it up off the shelf, or more probably didn’t. Now they have added non M&S brands, consultants and an impressive integration with online ordering.
Where is all this leading? Who knows – I certainly don’t. But things are clearly changing and the products themselves are certainly going to have to change to reflect the new environment they are being sold into.