By  on October 26, 2007

After opening locations in New York, San Jose, Calif., and Scottsdale, Ariz., Lather has returned home.

The beauty brand officially unveiled a new 1,900-square-foot flagship in Pasadena, Calif., this month, only a few blocks from the spot it initially planted its roots in the city's bustling shopping district in 1999. In the intervening years, competition in the natural beauty sector has ballooned, but husband-and-wife co-owners Emilie Davidson Hoyt and Rob Hoyt's resolve that quality ingredients appeal to a wide audience hasn't wavered.

"We needed to produce unisex products that could be geared to the mainstream," said Davidson Hoyt, explaining Lather's early rationale. "It didn't have to be a niche product. It didn't have to be a hobby of theirs [customers.] These were everyday products that could replace their other products."

With natural products still a sliver of the marketplace at Lather's inception, knowledgeable store personnel were critical to explain ingredient benefits. Relationships between personnel and customers engendered loyalty — Hoyt gathered the rate of repeat business is around 40 percent — but, as Lather's popularity mounted, it became obvious that it would take an inordinate number of employees to speak to every shopper who walked through the door.

"Where we chose to focus and improve in this store was communicating with customers in other ways than through sales associates," said Davidson Hoyt. "When the store was busy, customers might have gotten overwhelmed. There are a lot of products, a lot of ingredients."

Lather decided to relay messages in the new store with visual indicators. Although the products had been color-coded before (for example, blue is for body products and orange is for face products,) shoppers might have been confused about what the colors meant. With help from Pasadena-based design firm The Retail Element, signs were placed on the walls above shelves to signal which category a customer is browsing.

One portion of the wall, referred to by Davidson Hoyt as the branding wall, has Lather's slogan — "It's what's inside that counts" — overlaid on a weaved, white covering. Below the slogan are boxes with raw ingredients such as honey and lavender that the products contain. The boxes are stocked according to what fresh contents Lather opts to highlight at the moment.Unconsciously proving the brand slogan, Davidson Hoyt proceeded to tell stories about the discovery of various ingredients in Lather products. She originally thought about putting wasabi in a product, which ended up being used in the $12 lemongrass, cucumber and mandarin wasabi hand washes, when she read about Japanese workers using wasabi to kill bacteria on machines. She used Yuzu in $24 Yuzu Sugar Cane Body Buff and $18 Yuzu Bergamot Body Moisturizer after eating a dish with it at a Japanese restaurant. "I thought it was so fresh and delicious," she recounted.

In the center of the store, oval-shaped, avonite-topped fixtures are filled with merchandise, from gift items in the front to Lather's signature soaps in back. A fixture toward the front of the store houses stone sinks to encourage customers to try the products, while Lather's staple Blending Bar at the far end of the store contains a selection of more than 20 essential oils for personalized shower gels, body lotions or body oils.

Even as people have paid higher and higher amounts for beauty remedies, Davidson Hoyt has tried to keep the prices relatively unchanged. Prices start at $6.50 for a Lip Protector and $8 for olive oil soaps and rise to $58 for the Vitamin C Peptide Renewal. "We always want to be approachable, but charge enough to use ingredients that we want to," said Davidson Hoyt.

Heightened demand for natural products, while spurring rivals, has afforded the brand with growth channels outside its own stores. Lather is featured on an estimated 600 Delta airplanes and has moved into hotels, including those in the Joie de Vivre boutique hotel chain and the Renaissance hotel chain as well as the Borgata in Atlantic City, the Wynn Las Vegas and New York's Hotel 57 and Gramercy Park Hotel. "Service industries have to differentiate [themselves,] and one way is to bring in a brand that people trust," noted Matt Heinze, Lather's vice president of brand development. "Then they can feed off each others' brand equity."

Lather has also dabbled in selling to other retailers and spas, but only makes its products available to a few — the Red Mountain Spa in Utah, the Rituals Day Spa in Connecticut and among them — that it believes have high standards. "It is something that we will do more of, but we took an approach of doing it more exclusively," said Hoyt.Of course, in its stores, awareness of the natural sector hasn't hurt either. Davidson Hoyt noted it has helped attract customers outside of Lather's core group of affluent women and men (about 30 percent of the customer base is male) in their 30s and 40s. "We don't have the early 20s as much, but as interest in activism grows, I have noticed them becoming more interested," she said.

However, Lather, now a $10 million business and expecting the flagship to generate $600,000 to $700,000 in first-year revenues, has no plans to ride the natural wave rapidly into every city and town in the country. The Hoyts are insistent the brand has loads of potential, but share a long-haul, gimmick-free philosophy of slow growth and customer attentiveness. Davidson Hoyt concluded plainly: "We want to continue down the road we are on."

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