Bluemercury’s Marla Malcolm Beck Calls for Innovation

In a bid to kick-start new products with staying power, Beck shared her nine rules for creating smart, effective products.

On each new store, Bluemercury hangs a sign in the window that reads, “Beauty junkies wanted.”

This story first appeared in the May 24, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“It says everything about who are we are and the customers we serve,” said Marla Malcolm Beck, cofounder and chief executive officer of Bluemercury Inc.

Beck’s quest for the latest in beauty began well before she founded the beauty apothecary and spa in 1999. She shared that, as a graduate student at Harvard Business School in the mid-Nineties, she’d drive 30 minutes to Chestnut Hill, Mass., to buy MAC Cosmetics lipstick at Barneys New York. Several years later, while living and working in the Washington, D.C., area, she bought a beauty boutique in Georgetown that was about to shutter its doors and Bluemercury was born.

“Everything else had been pulled out of department…why not cosmetics? I was 29, and didn’t like the experience of shopping in department stores,” said Beck. Her entrepreneurial mettle was tested several months later when Sephora opened two doors down. And again, when the niche, often founder-led brands she selected for her store, such as Nars Cosmetics and Kiehl’s, were acquired by industry behemoths. But 14 years and nearly 50 stores later, Beck is guided by her unrelenting search for newness. In fact, she put out a call for more niche makeup and hair-care products. Beck implored, “No more skin care, please!” On her wish list were hyper-segmented product lines, such as a color-treated hair-care lines designed for specific hair types, and a dermatologist-created skin-care line organized by skin type.

“It’s the promise of something new that drives customers into the store or onto the e-commerce site,” said Beck.

But not newness doesn’t always stick. Beck said last year Bluemercury launched 2,000 stockkeeping units. Only roughly 400 items were successful with mascara, eye shadow sticks and eyeliners, makeup palettes, lip glosses and balms and BB creams emerging as stand out segments.

In a bid to kick-start new products with staying power, Beck shared her nine rules for creating smart, effective products. They include: Create an annuity stockkeeping unit — a product consumers return for year after year, such as Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer; cannibalize your annuity sku with disruptive innovation, or someone else will, citing alphabet creams impact on tinted moisturizers and foundations; create a need that no one knows they have, citing Clarisonic as an example; extend hero sku’s with more products; create an irresistible “shiny” object, such seasonal palettes and designer collaborations; find a category to hyper-segment — for instance, primers now offer benefits such radiance, hydration and SPF; codesign product with a story, as Beck does with Trish McEvoy and Sara Happ, and spotlight the brand founder as the celebrity, and “forget the Kardashians.” And lastly, “Love is all you need. If we love it, our clients will love it,” said Beck, asking brands to get the retailer involved earlier in the product development process.

Beck said Bluemercury’s edge is its friendly, neighborhood store concept, and a shared passion for beauty among its store associates. To ensure that passion exists, Beck has interviewed every store manager who has joined the company.

“I don’t know what products we’ll be selling 20 years from now, but I still know we will be the best in the industry at giving beauty advice,” said Beck. “We are curators. We see beauty as personal, emotional and pick products and brands that strike a chord.”

But Beck is still hungry for more, saying, “We are ready for successful, impactful, creative product launches. Please hurry.”