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Amazon’s Bold Beauty Play

With the launch on Thursday of the Luxury Beauty Store, the company hopes to revolutionize how — and as importantly, where — prestige beauty products are sold.

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With the launch on Thursday of the Luxury Beauty Store, Amazon.com hopes to revolutionize how — and as importantly, where — prestige beauty products are sold.

This story first appeared in the October 11, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The e-commerce giant has made no secret of its desire to conquer the prestige beauty category, an effort that thus far has been met with skepticism by many brands accustomed to the more rarified — and nondiscounted — confines of traditional distribution channels like department and specialty stores.

Amazon hopes that the curated environ of the Luxury Beauty Store, coupled with a more attractive visual presentation and the technological prowess for which it is renowned, will change that perception. It also has committed to selling the products at full price, or not going below the prices charged by brick-and-mortar stores.

“We have luxury shoppers,” said Chance Wales, Amazon’s director of beauty and health & personal care. “What we have been lacking is luxury brands, and we hope this is the first step to marry our customers’ needs with what brands expect in terms of displaying and selling their luxury [products].”

For the launch of Luxury Beauty, Amazon has signed on 24 brands. They include Nars, Stila and Vincent Longo in the makeup arena; skin care from Ahava, StriVectin, Dr. Brandt, Clark’s Botanicals and DDF; Burberry fragrances and Jack Black men’s grooming products, plus L’Occitane and Sabon, the vertical retailers.

The shop, which will be featured on the home page of Amazon’s main navigation bar, is a marked departure from the more commoditized areas of the Web site. The pages are cleaner and more visual than a standard Amazon page, and the products — all of which have been photographed in-house — are larger.

“We all knew there would be a moment in time when the desire on the part of Amazon to showcase more luxury in beauty, as they are doing in fashion, would be so important, they would be willing to make some concessions,” said Wendy Liebmann, chief executive officer of WSL Strategic Retail.

Customers can shop by three main avenues: by content, brand or category. In all, there are six categories: Skin Care, Makeup, Fragrance, Hair Care, Men’s and On Trend, which is based on content and trends created by a team of 12 editors.

“For the design, we focused on the customer experience,” said Margot Johnson, Amazon’s senior marketing manager of beauty. “It has a different look and feel, rich visuals and clear navigation.”

The Luxury Beauty Store features Amazon’s most popular widgets, such as “Customers who viewed this also viewed that,” and a robust review area, but the site also features new functionality, such as “Complete the Look” in the makeup pages or “Complete the Regimen” in the skin-care section.

For example, if a shopper is buying nail polish, the site will recommend three complementary products chosen by the editorial team, such as a nail fortifier, top coat and base coat.

But the biggest lure by far for many brands is the control it gives them on Amazon.com, the world’s largest online retailer, which often resembles a grand bazaar of every conceivable product imaginable.

“This site is much more premium,” said Stephane Colleu, president and chief executive officer of Dr. Brandt Skincare. “A mass brand is not going to be sold within this platform, which is why it’s very attractive.”

As to the reaction that Colleu is expecting from his current retail partners, such as Sephora, the executive was realistic. “I’m sure they won’t be thrilled,” he said, “but I didn’t want to miss this opportunity because we know how powerful the Amazon platform is today. I am a niche brand, in the sense that my distribution is limited in the U.S., and Amazon gives me the visibility and awareness that I don’t have today with my current partners.”

Crucially, Amazon is also working with brands to control their presence on other areas of the site, particularly regarding pricing and the Amazon Marketplace, where products are sold by third-party vendors.

The company has reportedly addressed brand’s concerns regarding discounting. When asked if products would be discounted, Wales replied, “We reserve the right to set our pricing.” But brands indicate that as long as other authorized retailers are not discounting products, Amazon won’t either.

In terms of the Marketplace, Amazon has also shown itself willing to exert more control over where the brands in the Luxury Beauty Store will be available on the site. “We are working with brands to make sure we’re presenting their products in an optimal environment,” said Wales.

That holds immense appeal for companies engaged in the war against diverted products. “As part of being on the site, they will allow the brand to gate out what other retailers can sell our brand,” said Curran Dandurand, chief executive officer and cofounder of Jack Black. “We gave them a list of authorized retailers, and if a reseller is not on the list, Amazon takes them off the site.”

She added, “Allowing us to have better control of the retailers who are selling Jack Black was very appealing. Heretofore, it was the Wild Wild West.”

“This is a huge upside of us working with them,” agreed Elana Drell-Szyfer, ceo of Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories, where e-commerce constitutes 25 percent of sales.

Abby Whitmer, Ahava’s senior director of global digital marketing, also applauded Amazon’s openness to work with brands on content creation. “They have been terrific at helping us determine what content will be attractive to their audience,” she said. “They are looking to get a higher-spending audience and are catering to those who are already paying for their services like Prime Membership. So the type of content they’re compiling are tips, brand stories and imagery for people to see the product in motion. They’re trying to upgrade the image of the luxury beauty sector to be friendlier for both brands and consumers.”

Be that as it may, Liebmann says the key to Amazon’s success in the sector will be its ability to maintain the exclusivity of the subsite. “Amazon is going to have to be really willing to hold the line,” she said. “The moment they start discounting or let the Marketplace come into play, these brands are going to go running for the corners.”

Wales insisted that Amazon is in it for the long haul, fully committed to winning in the category. “The launch is Day One and it is our goal to aggressively add selection over time,” he said. “We want to be able to offer every luxury brand consumers are searching for, and they are looking for all of the top brands [on Amazon],” he continued, declining to reveal the most-searched beauty brands.

“For every business we go into, we want to be the place for consumers to discover and buy whatever they are looking for,” he concluded. “It’s true in books, in automotive, in beauty. In beauty, we recognize we want to push the boundaries to innovate the look and feel. And that was the piece that was missing before.”

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