By  on July 23, 2010

In the air-conditioned oasis of the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, a number of beauty trends — frizz-busting salon services, gel-polish manicures, antiaging hair care, Argan oil and its ballooning constellation of relatives, among them — were generating enough heat to almost contend with outside temperatures topping 110 degrees.

At the eighth annual Cosmoprof North America trade show, held here from Sunday to Tuesday, the force of these trends spotlighted pockets of strength as the beauty industry rebounds from the depths of the recession, even while uncertainty persists with unrelenting high unemployment and stock-market oscillations. The show’s 700 exhibitors demonstrated to attendees — from distributors to retailers to salon and spa owners to packaging experts, totaling around 25,000 versus 22,500 last year — that cash-strapped consumers will spend on beauty when an innovative service or product offers discernible advantages over the humdrum fare.

Beauty industry figures are looking better. Salon and spa owners surveyed by the Professional Beauty Association reported a 3.7 percent and 0.4 percent jump in first-quarter service and retail sales, respectively. Chicago-based research firm SymphonyIRI Group’s year-over-year data for supermarkets, drugstores and mass market stores excluding Wal-Mart revealed growth in soaps (up nearly 5.6 percent), facial cosmetics (2.56 percent), nail (9.92 percent) and eye cosmetics (6.77 percent), although bath products (-4.77 percent), women’s fragrances (-5.03 percent), lip cosmetics (-5.38 percent) and skin care (-0.48 percent) foundered.

Still, the industry remains in flux. Bumble and bumble’s entrance into Sephora — a shot across the bow for salon owners fighting to keep professional hair care brands in their channel — illustrates that traditional industry walls are coming down. Speculation at Cosmoprof about the move focused on whether there’d be a Bumble and bumble backlash from salons, and whether other professional hair care brands would follow. Industry veterans were split on the former and were confident that Bumble and bumble would be emulated.

“As long as Bumble maintains its prestige distribution, if I were a salon owner, I wouldn’t get rid of it,” said Shawn Tavakoli, owner of Beauty Collection, a Los Angeles-area beauty retailer that has salon services. “Bumble’s effort at being in prestige retailers is to create a point of convenience for consumers to find the product rather than through diverted channels….That is probably very helpful for the brand.”

Robin Coe-Hutshing, founder of Studio BeautyMix at Fred Segal in Santa Monica, Calif., a longtime vendor of Bumble and bumble products, agreed convenience should be the priority. “Brands need to serve their customers. If the customer base expands, the brand needs to expand with them. Customers are very savvy. They know how to use these products. They don’t need a ‘professional’ to show them how to do it,” she said.

The nature of today’s beauty customers and what retailers are doing to reach them were topics discussed during a panel entitled “Behind the Retail Door — The Reality Check,” moderated by this reporter. Panelist David Altman, founder and chief executive officer of MarketShare Advisors LLC, (and former senior vice president, general manager, Bath & Body Works Direct) pointed out the aspirational customer has disappeared — and may not return — despite luxury perking up. Panelist Claudia Lucas, former senior vice president and general merchandise manager for beauty at Henri Bendel, who is now consulting for Rue La La, an invitation-only online boutique, suggested the drivers in the current market can’t be pigeonholed into luxury or other segments, but rather frequently fit a broader “masstige” profile.

Panelist and former Walgreens vice president, general merchandise manager Kathy Steirly painted a picture of a tough road for upstart brands to break through at drugstores. Steirly, who is founder and ceo of Kathy Steirly Associates LLC, explained that the stockkeeping optimization efforts in drugstores caused buyers to turn to private label programs for newness and that much of the focus for drugstore and mass market executives is on food to attract return visitors.

Despite the uphill battle to gain a foothold in stores, newcomers to Cosmoprof said they received a warm welcome, and retailers checking out the latest crop of brands gave positive reviews. “I had the opportunity to meet individually with a dozen emerging brands as part of Cosmoprof’s Discover Beauty Program,” said Coe-Hutshing, referring to Cosmoprof’s program highlighting emerging brands. “I would say the overall caliber of brands this year was the best and most professional — i.e., market ready — ever.”

Coffee-inspired brand Barista Bath and Body, priced from $4.50 for lip balm to $150 for gift sets, claimed Discover Beauty’s award given to the Discovery Beauty exhibitor believed to have the greatest ability to succeed in the marketplace. Barista’s eight debut products tap into the benefits of coffee — the brand asserts it can be an effective exfoliant and astringent, for example — and feature playful names that are twists on coffee terms, such as the Triple Shot shower gel and Make Mine Black soap.

Christine Willett, ceo of Barista Bath and Body marketer CMN Products Inc., said she didn’t know what to expect at Cosmoprof but was pleased by the response from beauty retailers and spas that viewed the brand, which could eventually partner with a coffee brand, including Henri Bendel and Red Door. “The reception we got from buyers [indicated] that they are looking for a full, new brand,” she said.

For established brands, expansion is often being propelled by opportunities arising in the wake of the recession. Napoleon Perdis said his namesake cosmetics brand is heading into Dillard’s to take over space left vacant due to Prescriptives’ shuttering. He added that additional U.S. distribution would soon come from Stage Stores and Von Maur. Tweezerman ceo Conny Wittke said the beauty tools company is making a “big push” for its $20 ProCurl Eyelash Curler to capture business from the Eyelash Curler by Shu Uemura, the L’Oréal-owned brand that ceased U.S. operations earlier this year.

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