NEW YORK — When Cynthia Henry left Longs in June, she took 17 years of retail experience with her.
"It was time for a change and I was looking for something different," was Henry’s simple explanation for leaving the 442-unit California-based drugstore chain, where for the past seven years she worked as category manager of cosmetics, a position inaugurated with her.
Henry had not been planning on a career in beauty. She started out part time at Longs, moved through several positions in the company, including working on the store floor, in the photo department and in the pharmacy. Ultimately, she landed in the training department. During that time, Longs was forming task forces to examine its core categories. Henry helped lead the cosmetics group. However, soon after, she left Longs to earn an MBA.
Two years later, advanced degree in hand, she was lured back by Terry Burnside, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Longs, with whom she had stayed in contact. The company was starting to hire category managers. "He thought I had the skills and the background with stores [to do it]," recalled Henry. "There was a buzz about it [category management], but people didn’t know if it would be a fad or not."
After receiving training in category management, Henry was sent to New York for cosmetics "boot camp." There she met with a host of cosmetics firms to learn about the business.
Reflecting on her seven years heading up Longs’ beauty program, Henry said: "I really enjoyed the category. Being in-the-know of what is coming is something I will miss the most."
Not long before her departure, a new promotional program was instituted at the chain called "Got To Have It." Henry credits an associate at Revlon for planting the idea. "What we decided to do was replace Olay with a new section featuring the best new products in the store."
The section typically holds five or so products such as a skin care item, a lipstick, a nail enamel or a good hair care item. "Last summer, it would have included the Venus razor," said Henry. "We select key items to bring incremental sales and we really highlight those items to get people in."Olay was 3 percent of the business, noted Henry. "We had to do something to replace those sales." The selection changes every month or so. And to stimulate excitement around it, the program is advertised. "We were trying to differentiate ourselves with the consumer — when you think of a new item, come to Longs."
One of the most challenging parts of the job was the resets, said Henry. "You really have to touch every peg and assess the cost of doing that." What has made the job more challenging also has been the change in manufacturer trade terms over the past couple of years, as manufacturers have become more strict with return policies. "It used to be a 100 percent guarantee. It now puts the burden on the retailer." If a shade isn’t very successful, a retailer can get stuck. "You can have your markdowns planned, but if it is a bad color, it doesn’t matter what it costs, it is not going to sell," said Henry.
But unlike some other consumer product categories, beauty "is very exciting because things change so fast," observed Henry. "There is great innovation [in beauty] and you are never bored in that category." During her time at Longs, said Henry, "I like to think I made a difference." Certainly, category management programs made inroads in enabling merchants to better understand the business. "But there are still things that we don’t have a push of the button to do," noted Henry. However, programs continue to evolve. "There are new systems and tools coming that will be able to provide data instantly. There are just a lot of great things coming down the pipeline."
Over the years, Henry also witnessed a creeping up of retail price points among mass beauty brands. Yet, she noted, at the same time, there has been growth in budget brands like NYC New York Color and Naturistics. "You have to have entry price points for teens. We know they have disposable income. But you have to have the other end of the spectrum, or you will push people away."
Summing up her retail experience, Henry said: "It has been a great ride and I have learned so much from so many people." While Henry intended to take the summer off, she has already been tapped by Delta Group, an international consulting and training company, where she has begun to conduct training sessions on topics such as category management and negotiating skills. Still, it’s unlikely she’ll stray too far from her beauty industry colleagues. Said Henry: "I sure hope that I will be able to work with some of the cosmetics vendors."
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