By and  on March 29, 2012

CVS Pharmacy has learned that prestige beauty is a tough nut to crack.

The drugstore behemoth opened its first high-end beauty boutique, called Beauty 360, in Washington, on the eve of the last presidential election three and a half years ago.

RELATED STORY: CVS to Close Beauty 360 Stores >>

At the time, Barack Obama was riding high on the campaign promise of “hope,” and with the economy in free fall the message found a receptive audience. Beauty needed a dose of hope too, as department stores continued to lose their mojo and, along with it, customers.

Now, as Republican presidential candidates battle for their party’s nomination, CVS plans to shutter the Beauty 360 concept. The retailer will close all 25 Beauty 360 locations and cease operation of the boutique’s e-commerce business on May 19.

The concept, borrowed from European and Canadian pharmacies, offered niche beauty brands the promise of an upscale, open-sell environment and wide distribution. With some 6,800 CVS stores at the time, it was well beyond what Sephora or Ulta could offer.

The boutiques — complete with a sleek white interior, brushed steel accents and a treatment room — were located adjacent to select CVS stores and connected via breezeway. The idea was that it was far enough away to distance the more prestige offerings inside from mass but close enough to leverage CVS’ steady stream of foot traffic — some 4 million customers visit the drugstore daily.

At the opening of the Washington store in Dupont Circle in November 2008, CVS’ then senior vice president of merchandising declared, “Nobody can replicate our real estate. We are convenient and that’s what the shopper wants.”

Smaller, niche brands —Vincent Longo, Mario Badescu, Cargo, Freeze 24-7, Paula Dorf, Laura Geller and Pop Beauty, to name a few — embraced the concept. CVS’ aim was to ultimately attract an anchor brand, along the lines of an Estée Lauder, but the department store establishment stayed away.

Plans called for CVS to open 50 Beauty 360 outposts that first year, and to reach 500 units within a few years. CVS did manage to outfit 25 doors (mostly on the West Coast) with the concept within about a year, but stalled there. In the interim, Macy’s fought back with an open-sell beauty concept called Impulse Beauty, featuring some of the same brands as Beauty 360, along with lines like Smashbox and Bliss; and the metro-New York chain Duane Reade, which is now owned by Walgreens, shocked the industry with an upscale, and very compelling, beauty concept of its own called Look Boutique. There are currently more than 35 Look Boutique shops across Duane Reade and Walgreens stores, with plans to grow to 40 soon, said Joe Magnacca, president of daily living products and solutions at Walgreens. The drugstore chain has not said how many are ultimately planned, except to say the number is “in the hundreds” and only in renovated stores. Asked if Beauty 360’s demise casts a shadow on Look Boutique’s prospects, Magnacca said, “Beauty is a strategic pillar in all of our stores. We have roughly 27,000 beauty advisers in our stores and that’s a major commitment to the category.” In Magnacca’s view, prestige brands need a secondary point of distribution outside department stores. “We’ve told them, ‘We will build it and you can come when you are ready.’ ”

Complicating matters for CVS, department stores are once again enjoying growth in the beauty category. In 2011, prestige beauty gained 11 percent across U.S. department stores and Sephora, according to The NPD Group.

Also, as one mass market vendor said, Ulta’s plan to ultimately open 1,000 doors means that fledging, niche brands no longer have to pin their hopes to a drugstore.

Industry consultant Allan Mottus said, “It may very well have been too little, too late for CVS. Between Walgreens’ expansion of Look Boutiques in Duane Reade and its own stores, and the rapid expansion of Ulta, CVS was behind the proverbial eight ball. Beauty vendors are already stretched and CVS had little to offer.”

CVS’ lack of new openings began to raise eyebrows as early as 2009.

“On the face of it, it makes a lot of sense,” said one vendor, noting CVS’ plan to leverage its pharmacy traffic to become a major purveyor of luxury beauty. “But there’s an experience tied to buying prestige cosmetics, and customers see value in that.”

Many industry observers said it’s a tall order for a mass merchant to make inroads in the insular and risk-adverse world of prestige beauty. “CVS asked a mass [merchant] who had no relationship with prestige companies to go get prestige brands,” said one vendor. “It had the resources, the real estate, the traffic pattern, but it didn’t have the background in prestige. It ultimately seemed like an extension of mass.” Another observer said CVS approached beauty the same way it did the other categories in the front end of the store, which includes candy and seasonal items, and not with the finesse prestige brands require.

One vendor affiliated with the concept said that in its quest to court mega prestige brands with marble-looking finishes and chandeliers, Beauty 360 alienated the CVS shopper who may have found the area too intimidating. According to this source, Beauty 360 began asking its vendors how it could improve the concept less than a year into the process.

Three years ago, however, Beauty 360 was revolutionary for its time and continues to be touted by a number of brands. Paula Dorf, who frequently did public appearances at the boutiques, said each new door opened was better than the last. Her namesake brand also is sold on HSN and at Ulta, among other retailers. Fellow makeup artist Laura Geller said, “We were pretty certain as a brand that [CVS was] moving in that direction some time ago. While our hope was to grow with the concept that was planned, we were strategic in our planning toward an exit as soon as we knew that its growth strategy had come to a halt.”

Andrew Knox, presidentand chief operating officer of Pop Beauty, said, “With Beauty 360, CVS was a pioneer of where beauty was headed. It unfortunately just didn’t work inevery location.”

Several sources suggested that a change in management at CVS had shifted its efforts away from beauty to sharpen its focus on pharmacy. Last year, Tom Ryan retired from his post as chairman and chief executive officer, and Mike Bloom, one of the chief architects of Beauty 360 who served as executive vice president of merchandising and supply chain, left to become president and chief operating officer at Family Dollar.

But CVS may not swear off prestige beauty for good, suggested several vendors. One source said, given the blurring of retail channels, “CVS may want to try it again, down the line.”

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