By  on December 29, 2000

PARIS -- Taxicabs flanked with mysterious advertisements for "104 Champs-Elysees" were cruising around town recently.

France's largest perfumery chain Parfumeries Marionnaud hoped the ads would titillate and lure beauty junkies into its latest concept store, a 6,600-square-foot, two-level extravaganza that just opened for the holiday shopping season on Paris's most renowned boulevard.

It is the second of such Marionnaud mega stores. The first was inaugurated in late September in downtown Marseilles. That door, at 16,600 square feet, is by far the chain's largest.

Both the perfumeries here and in the south of France were designed in a minimalist style that's the antithesis of what is typically associated with Marionnaud perfumeries. These are largely considered the quintessential traditional perfumeries, with amenities such as assisted service and a homey feel.

"We wanted to do something more modern -- a perfumery of the 21st century," said Marcel Frydman, president of the company. As a result, the new doors have stark, white, multilevel interiors, high-tech video screens and color-coded product departments. But he added that due to the hefty cost involved in creating such locations, it is impossible to open such mega stores everywhere. The company will save them for only "the most prestigious" spots.

Like the Champs-Elysees. The new store there is a lesson in streamlined modernity. Shots of Paris from the Seine can be seen on four screens as soon as customers enter directly from the street into the women's and men's fragrances area that spans the width of the floor. At the rear, a gentle ramp leads up to a mezzanine featuring skin care, accessories and new products. In the latter, makeup mirrors also boast miniature screens that show advertising clips for brands.

To the rear of the mezzanine is a small room currently featuring the work of artist Jean-Daniel Lorieux, with a series depicting the likes of models Laetitia Casta and Karen Mulder in oils based on photo originals. That space now houses Christmas gift packages, but is destined to become an Internet and animation space.

The route to the second floor is via an escalator and covered-glass walkway that provides a panoramic view of the entry and fragrance areas. This level is home to mass market products, parapharmacy items and makeup. This floor is also fitted with the opaque screens and rainbow lighting, but has an overall softer feel, largely due to the smaller spaces allotted to each department compared to those on the first floor.The Champs-Elysees store is staffed with 25 beauty attendants who help customers choose from the lineup of 20,000 products from 200 brands and navigate the different departments, such as accessories, children's, skin care, makeup and novelties. Brands include all of the big names such as Clarins, Parfums Christian Dior and L'Oreal's Gemey/Maybelline, along with smaller brands like Klorane and Phyto.

The product display areas are marked with arrays of dots of the appropriate tint. Both male and female fragrances get the lilac treatment in one room, for example, while color cosmetics earn a warm rose hue, an apple green does the business for accessories and a pale sienna points the way to mass market items.

But the color theme does not stop there. The Marionnaud spectrum casts its luster throughout the store as an array of neon lights behind opaque walls and column screens cast their discreet blushes to provide an ever-changing backdrop. The effect is enhanced by the liberal use of mirroring throughout.

According to Elisabeth Cohen, store manager, the colors give the space "conviviality." That congeniality is boosted by the location's fragrance diffusers and by the numerous banks of flat, high-resolution screens. On them, Marionnaud transmits loops of advertising videos for such products as Lancome's Miracle, Isabella Rossellini's Manifesto and Vivienne Westwood's Libertine, plus a short news clip about the store. Since its opening, the store is ringing up in excess of 1,000 sales per day, noted Cohen. She expects that figure to be pretty constant yearlong, and that it shouldn't simply be put down to a festive bulge.

If the guest book is anything to go by, the public is so far upbeat about the new concept. "Bravo pour le design" (Bravo for the design), "Je vous admire" (I admire you), and "Bien coloree" (Nicely colored) were some of the messages scrawled across its pages.

If bigger is better, then the Marseilles store at 2.5-times the size could gain even greater plaudits. That door is laid out differently from the Paris location, albeit with similar ramps and stairwells linking product departments. To access the Marseilles door, for instance, clients must take an escalator directly from the street. On the first floor, there is an "M" cafe and also a waterfall running over images of Marseilles.However, there are similarities between Marionnaud's concept and that of a rival, Sephora. As one visitor to the Paris store mentioned in the guest book, " Comme Sephora mais moins cher," or that the new store is "Like Sephora but cheaper."

The Champs-Elysees Marionnaud store is only a stone's throw from the flagship of Sephora, LVMH Moet Henessy Louis Vuitton's perfumery chain that is some 15 doors down the street. Marionnaud is routinely referred to as the polar opposite of Sephora, which is number two in France and known for its open-sell service and hyper-modern approach to selling beauty -- until now.

But brands say they think there is room for both modern mega beauty concepts. "I think [the new Marionnaud store] gives a very nice balance to Sephora because it speaks to a different consumer group," said one beauty brand executive here, explaining: "Marionnaud speaks to a more global consumer, whereas Sephora speaks to a less traditional clientele."

"For me, it is nice to see Marionnaud coming up with a new type of concept," said another Paris-based executive. However, he said that he found the layout of store -- with its numerous levels and rooms -- "difficult" to navigate. Another complained that the new concept has "no soul."

But that view is rare. It is Marionnaud's human touch that most people say makes the chain stand out among the beauty megaliths here. Sources say that the fact that the company is family run -- the Frydmans have a majority stake -- makes a difference. Frydman began his business 16 years ago, when he bought a perfumery door in the Paris suburb of Montreuil for his wife and her friend to run as a hobby. "We had no idea about the future then," chuckled Frydman.

The company really started developing in 1996, when Frydman purchased the Bernard Marionnaud chain, and then acquired Silver Moon in 1998. But that was only the beginning of acquisition fever.

The company now boasts more than 400 doors in France and is expected to ring up pretax sales of approximately $354 million this year at current exchange rates. In 1999, Marionnaud posted pretax sales of $195 million.As reported, Marionnaud registered nine-month sales of $297.6 million, up 93.4 percent over the same period last year. That figure includes sales at its recently acquired 106 stores in Switzerland and 35 in Italy -- among its first inroads abroad -- which brought in $22.2 million and $2 million, respectively. At similar group structure and at constant exchange rates, sales for Marionnaud would have risen by 10.5 percent for the period.

Worldwide, Marionnaud now owns about 630 doors, and is revving up to make more purchases abroad, according to Frydman.

But that's not the only buzz concerning Marionnaud. Rumors are continually heating up here that the company is for sale. The most recent speculation was that diversified French retailer Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (PPR) is about to snap up the firm.

Frydman, however, has denied the rumor, and PPR refused to comment.

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