LONDON--Skin care sales are surging in Great Britain. Retailers at department store chains here said the treatment category is on a trend to increase 20 to 30 percent this year, boosted by the rollout of a bevy of alpha-hydroxy acid-based products and an increasing consumer awareness of what is available to help skin problems. "Skin care is still by far our strongest performer," said Ian Marshall, sales controller for cosmetics at the Debenhams department store chain. "We are still performing terribly well on all skin care houses." Buyers said skin care sales have been on an upward spiral for five years as British women have adopted the attitudes of their counterparts in continental Europe and the U.S. While in the early Eighties women in the U.K. lagged behind those in other markets in the use of skin care and body products, buyers said the gap has rapidly closed. "Women have now realized that prevention is better than a cure," Marshall said. Women have also begun trading up to prestige lines from the mass market lines they used in the past, buyers said. And, unlike the fragrance business, the treatment category was not hit by the recession of recent years because women now generally view skin care as a necessity rather than a luxury. Among the strongest performers have been the alpha-hydroxy acid-based anti-aging products, which British women have taken up enthusiastically. Buyers said British magazines and newspapers have done a thorough job of explaining the benefits of acid-based products, and repeat business on the products has been quite strong. The acid-based products also are important for leading customers into the remainder of a brand's line, the merchants noted. "We probably do better selling entire regimens with the AHA lines than others because they are not to be used only as one product," said Beryl perfumery buyer at the Fenwicks department store chain. "What helps is that now all the products make sense. The fruit acid creams spearhead the other products, and now consumers understand them and are willing to try the entire regimens." Buyers said that among the best-selling acid products are La Prairie's Age Management Serum, which has enjoyed strong repeat business; Elizabeth Arden's Ceramide Moisture Cream and Alpha-Ceramide, and EstÄe Lauder's Fruition. Buyers said they have no difficulty emphasizing so-called "star" products such as Fruition or Clinique's Turnaround Cream. Instead of eating into sales of the other products in the line, these items actually increase the number of units per transaction because they are sold as part of entire regimens, the retailers claimed. Despite all the success with alpha-hydroxy acid, some buyers expressed concern over the industry's total focus on those products. They also pointed out that Clarins, one of the strongest-selling lines in the U.K., doesn't have an acid-based product. "I'm sure if it weren't AHA, it would be something else," one buyer for a major U.K. department store chain said. "At the end of the day, we have to build our department on the basics rather than on trendy products like AHA." But as the cosmetics industry rolls out more and more acid-based products, almost to the exclusion of everything else, buyers said it will be difficult to come up with an alternative. Few major skin care launches are slated in the U.K. this year, and any introductions that are scheduled are simply fill-in products for the existing alpha-hydroxy brands. "With all this sudden interest in AHA, it will be difficult for companies to bring another advanced product onto the market," Lake admitted. "What can they possibly do after AHA?" Buyers noted that a backlash against alpha-hydroxy acid could emerge if side effects appear. "We haven't faced that kind of [consumer backlash] yet in the U.K. because the whole category is newer here," one buyer said, claiming that American women are already questioning the safety of acid-based items. "Even when it does come, it won't be as strong here because there is a greater awareness of skin care in the U.S. than in Britain." Despite the wariness, buyers remain bullish about their skin care business for the remainder of the year and into 1995. Debenhams, for example, is installing more enclosed treatment rooms to offer not just skin care consultations but total body care. House of Fraser also is installing private beauty rooms in even its smallest stores to cater to the growing demand for body and skin care products. "The continuing growth of skin care provides a strong core around which we can build other parts of our business," Marshall of Debenhams said. "It is a major way to build loyalty with our customers."
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