NEW YORK — If it was cheap, it sold.

That best sums up the mass market holiday season  from a beauty perspective. When the final receipts are counted, chains expect about a 2 percent increase in beauty over last year.

According to Ellen Tolley, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, overall holiday sales will likely increase 4.5 percent over last year to $219.9 billion, spurred by last-minute gift buying and gift cards redeemed the week after Christmas. Several drugstore chains were pleasantly surprised by front-end sales growth of approximately 6 percent, noted Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail.

However, the spoils of the season went to online retailers, such as Drugstore.com, and TV retailers, such as ShopNBC and HSN. Drugstore.com’s holiday sales, fueled by premium skin care items, increased 25 percent over last year, reported Kristy Mattson, the e-tailer’s senior category manager of beauty. Drugstore.com enticed shoppers into buying more by offering a free full-size Philosophy bath gel with each purchase of $89 or more.

HSN and ShopNBC also reported increases for the month of December — 9 percent and 63 percent, respectively, over last year. HSN pointed to strong sales of Serious Skin Care by Jennifer Flavin; ShopNBC said 15 percent more airtime for beauty items helped propel sales this season. 

However, brick-and-mortar retailers who moved in the budget direction have empty shelves, too, but at a price: Those hoping to trade shoppers up were left holding inventory and forced to take big markdowns after Christmas.

Year after year, consumers have pushed retailers to offer sharper and sharper prices with more value. The result has been a rush to value kits created by Markwins International and other importers. Even traditional fragrance marketers, such as Coty Inc., put a bigger spin on getting more bang for the buck this year. The quest for value is putting a vice grip on already squeezed suppliers.

“[Budget items] have put pressure on the established name beauty manufacturers,” said industry consultant Allan Mottus. There has been an invasion of no-name beauty contenders that have made it more difficult for brands, such as Revlon, to expand.

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