PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Tucked away in the quaint neighborhood of Brown University, the Brooks Pharmacy on Pitman Street is evidence that the drugstore chain has been doing some heavy thinking of its own.

In September, the 330-store retailer unveiled a new skin care department concept, one that brings popular French brands to the U.S. for the first time. But, more than that, the design is wrapped around the core competency of a drugstore. That is, it focuses on health care.

The Derma Skincare Center at Brooks merchandises Vichy, a product of L’Oréal, and Avène, a brand owned by pharmaceutical company Pierre Fabre. Both collections are made with formulas based on water from thermal springs reputed to have curative powers. The Center also sells Dermablend, a corrective cosmetics and skin care line. On Oct. 28, Brooks opened a center in a store in Narragansett, R.I., and this month will unveil a department in a store in East Providence. By yearend, another three are slated for stores in the Boston market.

As explained by Michel Coutu, president and chief executive officer of Brooks, drugstores need to separate themselves from the pack of mass-market retailers like discounters, supermarkets and convenience stores, which now all handle the same merchandise. "The long-term vision is to differentiate drug, so that we have a point of difference from 7-Eleven, Wal-Mart and Stop & Shop. We have nothing else exclusive to us," Coutu said. "[With this], we will have a special class of treatment."

Five years ago, continued Coutu, "I decided to go on a crusade. I started to look at concepts that would be exclusive to drugstores — where usually the main focus is on health. After conversations with L’Oréal’s Vichy and then Avène, we were able to come up with a concept we could agree on."

The new department is patterned after Europe’s version of a pharmacy, which treats skin care as a health item rather than European perfumeries, which assume a beauty approach.

The center in the Pitman Street store takes up 260 square feet of floor space and is located in the rear right corner of the store, adjacent to the pharmacy. There is a white display table and also a white consultation desk. A key component is that the section is staffed with trained consultants, who are on hand between six and eight hours a day, as well as by appointment."We are really pushing skin health, rather than beauty," said Linda Adams, a store consultant, who was trained by Vichy and Avène experts flown in from France. "Covering up skin, that is not a healthy approach. We focus on daily care. That is what we are trying to bring." The consultants are even trained on identifying skin conditions that require medical attention and can then be referred to the pharmacist.

There is no charge for a consultation."We are trying to get to know the customer and develop a rapport," explained Anne Beauregard, another trained consultant.

"People want to look healthy and better longer," noted Coutu, who said that the consultants will receive a sales incentive.

The center’s lighted wall fixtures feature white and pale green tones. Signage for Vichy — blue and white — and Avène — muted orange and white — add some pizzazz to the clinical-looking area. Coutu, a trained pharmacist, who also enjoys sketching store designs in his spare time, helped create the shelving.

Coutu said that the merchandising of clinical skin care products is already being done throughout Europe, Japan, Canada and other regions worldwide. "It is about time we brought it to this market," said Coutu, who hopes "other drugstore chains will start participating."

Already, CVS has said it will begin experimenting with clinical skin care departments in 12 stores. A spokesperson said the plan is to open departments in a dozen stores in the Northeast in the first quarter of 2003. Sources said Walgreens is also considering a store test.

In Canada, a similar concept has been introduced in Shoppers Drug Mart, London Drug and Jean-Coutu stores, Brooks’ parent company.

Executives from Avène and Vichy said they have been waiting for the right opportunity to bring their specialized skin treatment brands to the U.S. In an unusual alignment, the two companies have been working closely together to create an appropriate concept that would be viable in the U.S. market. Brooks, the seventh-largest drugstore chain in the U.S., has given them their foot in the door.

"We are carving out a whole new way to distribute. It will be in select stores with high traffic and near the pharmacy," said Olivier Fontaine, president of Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmetique USA. "It is a new way of selling skin care. We want to re-create the French pharmacy in the U.S."To be able to launch Avène here, he said: "We needed the right concept to portray the image of the brand known throughout Europe." Avène was born from the Avène Dermatological Hydrotherapy Center in Avène, France, which has treated sensitive skin and skin disorders for more than two centuries using water from its thermal spring. Fontaine said 2,000 patients a year are treated at the Avène Hydrotherapy Center. "This is a great new story with Brooks and the U.S.," he said.

How big can this market be? "The sky is the limit," added Fontaine. "But first, we have to be successful with our first step."

Vichy, at 72 years old, the junior of the brands, was founded by a skin physician, and also focuses on the needs of sensitive skin and is made from thermal spa water.

Stephane Wilmet, general manager, active cosmeuticals for L’Oréal, said he looks "forward to building a strong business in the U.S." Pricing for the line, he said, "is below department stores’, but above mass prices." Prices at Brooks for both Vichy and Avène items range from about $5 to $25.

Wilmet also oversees L’Oréal’s Dermablend brand, which has been marketed in U.S. department and speciality stores and on QVC for many years.

David Morocco, senior vice president, marketing at Brooks, said the store-in-store concept is still considered a test and will be monitored for results and tweaked as necessary. But, he noted, "by bringing this department in, we have enhanced the professional image."

"This is about skin health, it is not about beauty," Coutu stressed.

The Pitman store’s sales consultants said the most popular items from the lines so far have been antiaging creams and acne treatments for teens.

"The brands are so known in other countries that we have people from Boston driving to Pitman Street [a 90-minute drive] for items," Adams said. The center has also received phone calls from consumers seeking products in California, Hawaii, Georgia, Texas, New Hampshire, Colorado and Washington, which they learned of via the brands’ Web sites. Brooks is not shipping products and are referring inquiries to the brands’ respective New York offices.Coutu’s long-term vision is to help evolve drugstores to a product mix that is 40 percent health care, 40 percent beauty and 20 percent miscellaneous items such as greeting cards and candy. "You have to have health and, through health, you go to beauty and to feeling good."

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