By  on December 10, 2004

NEW YORK — The Limited Brand’s Bath & Body Works division unveiled its long-awaited C.O. Bigelow beauty line this week, embarking on a brand reincarnation that ultimately could spark new trends in beauty retailing.

Limited’s chairman and chief executive officer Leslie H. Wexner is famous for plucking an inconspicuous label, such as Victoria’s Secret, and building it into a blowout brand. Thus, industry interest has mounted on Bigelow.

His new strategy honcho, Neil Fiske, is at work transforming BBW into a multibrand retail power, and the advent of a C.O. Bigelow Apothecary personal care line is the first major salvo of that campaign.

Based on the practices and recipes of the venerable Greenwich Village pharmacy that dates back to 1838, Bigelow has reached back to the pre-Civil War touchstone of its beginnings to fashion a modern cosmetics line that seems fresh and disarmingly authentic, amid the inebriation of today’s celebrity-crazed marketing.

The personal care range consists primarily of skin and body care — aimed at both genders — based on old formulas. Executives proudly point to the lettering on the new line’s packaging that derived from the time when Herman Melville was still writing. And with ingredients like rose water, lemon extracts, peach-nut oil and witch hazel, the Bigelow line is designed to evoke a feeling of purity from a long-gone era. The executives proudly point out that no color cosmetics or fragrances have been included, except scents given off by necessary ingredients. With names like Dr. Keightley’s Mouthwash Concentrate and Dr. Galen’s Herbal Skin Tonic, Limited is clearly betting on old-time religion turning today’s jaded consumers into believers.

But Fiske, ceo of Bath & Body Works, and his partner, Ian Ginsberg, president of the family-owned Bigelow pharmacy, are tackling the challenge in a methodical fashion. During an interview this week at Limited’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, Fiske said the Bigelow line will make its debut Jan. 18 with a soft launch.

Fiske is pondering the ultimate shape of distribution. Now, he says, the line will initially be launched in January in Bigelow’s existing New York flagship, a new-generation store that Limited opened in the Easton Town Center in Columbus in October and in Henri Bendel, another Limited division. A smaller product assortment will be launched in the nearly 70 Bath & Body Works flagships in January and an even smaller product set will go on sale in the 1,600 core stores of BBW. The 90-plus stockkeeping unit line will go into the entire distribution by the end of February.Fiske said it will take six to nine months of selling to determine the final shape of the distribution. He theorized that there are two possible formats with a variation. Either the Bigelow products can be merchandised in a two-tier distribution, or a three-tier setup with a layer of Bigelow stores added. Fiske added that there also could be conversions of BBW flagships into Bigelow units. However, Fiske added that he feels no pressure on that score since the BBW business is developing well. “We are not in a hurry,” he said. “We’re happy with the flagships.”

The ceo said he intends to build two Bigelow stores, as a test, to compete head to head with BBW flagships “to see if the market can support both. There’s tremendous elasticity in the market.” Fiske noted that he expects that Bigelow could thrive in both mall and urban settings. Fiske said that the Bigelow products will be merchandised on the walls of BBW stores. But there will be no shops within shops. He also indicated that eventually executives might consider outside distribution in other apothecary-type boutiques.

The Bigelow store in Easton was the brainchild of Wexner, Ginsberg noted, and is meant to update the apothecary boutique beauty retailing that was pioneered in the original store. Bigelow, located on Sixth Avenue, south of Ninth Street, still does nearly 20 percent of its volume in beauty while still driving a high-ticket pharmacy business. Like its East Village rival, Kiehl’s, Bigelow has built a strong following over the decades. Part of its appeal is based on the quality and originality of its beauty assortment, which runs the gamut from iconic brands like Christian Dior to offbeat items, like fragrances from the Hotel Coste and Colette in Paris.

Fiske indicated that an aggressive three-year development plan has been mapped out for Bigelow. But he firmly declined to give a sales projection. Industry sources, however, said that BBW had built up one of the largest aromatherapy businesses in the U.S. with sales of $250 million to $300 million at retail. They speculated that Limited would not be satisfied with anything less for Bigelow in the U.S. The target is undoubtedly higher.

Bigelow’s contemporary business was developed by Ginsberg, a frustrated musician who nonetheless entered the family business by becoming a pharmacist. That quickly gave way to his entrepreneurial élan. In addition to roaming Europe looking for unexpected items to retail at home, he also opened a Bigelow boutique in the trendy Jeffrey, his downtown neighbor.Mostly, Bigelow’s appeal lies in the store’s apothecary-style problem-solving merchandising approach. The customers, many of them young women aged 25 to 28, often come in complaining of itchy skin or chapped hands.

The reinvented Bigelow store in Easton has a far broader assortment, counting 100 brands ranging from in-house names like Henri Bendel to third-party propositions like Nars, L’Artisan Parfumeur and Acqua di Parma.

Ginsberg has been involved in developing the product line for the year since Limited inked its deal with Bigelow. Fiske, a thoughtful and soft-spoken man, warmly describes their relationship as both a licensing deal and a true partnership. Limited invested its resources into the product development and Ginsberg led the way, aided by Betsy Schmalz and her product development squad at BBW.

“Ian is the guiding force and provided the bridge into the history of the company,” said Fiske, who offered with a smile that they still like each other despite a year of making products.

In the beginning, the executives went through Bigelow’s archives searching for old formulas, bottles, photos and evidence of famous customers like Eleanor Roosevelt, Mark Twain and Thomas Edison.

Fiske said the objective was to develop a line that was as natural and authentic as possible to live up to its apothecary positioning as a problem-solving brand with historic roots. Fiske stressed the importance of “a notion of truth” in making claims and clearly and accurately listing the level of key ingredients. “We know the therapeutic threshold,” he said, then made a backhanded reference to the “world of hope in fairy dust.”

“The whole line is [built] around problem solutions,” Fiske said. When asked what need he thinks the new line can fill in the market, he replied that there are false claims being made by marketers. “Very few deliver against an authentic credo,” he added, asserting that Bigelow “says what it does and does what it  says.” He then proudly pointed to the 2 percent peppermint oil prominently printed on the front of the label of Mentha Lip Shine.

Prices range form $5.50 for a 0.5-oz. tube of lip balm to $32 for a 7.5-oz. size of a deluxe moisturizer. Rose Wonder Cold Cream, one of the star products, is $15 for 3.35 oz., and a 4-oz. aftershave lotion retails for $24.Fiske sees the brand’s personal care positioning as having legs. He said that one additional category that has been targeted for the future is hair. But again, only from the brand’s problem-solving vantage point, as in a remedy for itchy scalp. Another area of opportunity is to find a way to fragrance the body. Fiske quickly added, however, that such products would be natural in orientation, such as cucumber, and lightly scented.

Fiske also indicated that there are more rose products on the way for spring. Like the “formularies” obtained out of hand-scrawled pages of musty books, a big talking point of the brand lies in the product groups built around versatile natural ingredients, such as lemon and rose.

During a lab presentation and demonstration put together this week in New York for the press, Ginsberg, clad in a white lab coat, whipped up a batch of lemon body cream from a circa 1870 recipe. There also was discussion of Lothio Mentholis, which is designed to ease itchy, flaky skin. It’s formula incorporates menthol, camphor, thymol and eucalyptus with sensicalmine entelnine added for soothing. Executives say it is effective as an over-the-counter product and that route is being explored.

In addition to reviving old-time formulas and ingredients, Bigelow also resurrected a product term jettisoned into the past — cold cream. Ginsberg said women stopped using the term because the name sounded like “your grandmother’s Crisco.” Bigelow makes it a part of the rose story because the pink petals provide a balm for dry patchy skin, making it a good ingredient for a moisturizer. And rose water makes a tonic.

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