NEW YORK — Chalk one up for the indies. Though predictions for the holiday season were grim, independent beauty boutiques across the country proved to be a bright spot for beauty, with many stores reporting double-digit sales increases. The results were not only positive — they were also unexpected.

"The forecast was so gloomy for the season, I was taken by surprise," said Maria Fei, vice president of operations and cosmetic buyer for Louis Boston, which reported a 10 percent sales jump. "The numbers were quite impressive."

"In a challenging retail climate, we were thrilled to show gains over 2001," agreed Shayne Hart, managing director of Fred Segal Essentials in Santa Monica, Calif. "We planned our holiday assortments in a very focused manner, with a concentration on finding and presenting gift opportunities within our core brands, as opposed to looking to season purchasing for gift options."

Among the bestsellers at Fred Segal for the holidays were candles and home items from brands such as L’Artisan Parfumeur, Santa Maria Novella, Miller Harris and Tocca. Many boutiques around the country reported the same trend, with categories such as bath and body, home fragrances and candles driving sales. Brands most often cited include Laura Mercier, Fresh, Philosophy, L’Occitane, Kiehl’s and Tocca in the bath and body category, while items such as Trish McEvoy’s Brush Roll set, DuWop’s Lip Venom and Izzy Sayan and Creed fragrances also received frequent mentions. Prepackaged sets from vendors and makeup palettes were also popular, said retailers.

"We did well with Laura Mercier’s bath and body products and Kiehl’s," said Elizabeth Genel, owner of JD’s Cosmetic Essentials in Westport, Conn., which had sales of more than $3.5 million in 2002. The store, which carries more than 30brands, including Nars and Bobbi Brown, saw a 9 percent increase for the holidays. Merchandise priced in the $15 to $25 range was particularly popular, noted Genel. "Now, even my most affluent customer wants gifts for $20," she said. "That was the one thing that surprised me. Next year I’ll look for more single items that I can sell for between $15 and $25."Sheryl Freedland, owner of Ruby’s Balm in West Bloomfield, Mich., agreed. "No matter what I do, I can not have enough $25 gifts," said Freedland, who reported a 10 percent increase for the season. "There’s never enough quality that’s clever in that price range. People were still buying the quantity of gifts but they just spent less. I didn’t see as many of the several hundred-dollar gifts."

The situation was similar at New York’s C.O. Bigelow, where foot traffic was up but the average sale wasn’t. "There were more shoppers this season, but the average sale was down," said owner Ian Ginsberg. "They wanted to spend $20, $30 or $50 and get the most for their money. Bestsellers at the store included old-fashioned apothecary jars prepackaged with products and priced at $55 and $99. "They are a value in that [the customer] only pays for what’s in it," noted Ginsberg.

Gift cards and certificates were another strong seller at stores across the country. Blue Mercury, which has four locations in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., saw a generous portion of its sales generated from the sale of gift cards, a category which was up 35 percent versus last year. Overall, the chain, which had estimated sales of $10 million in 2002, saw a 10 percent increase for the holidays, led by candles by Diptyque and Red Flower and fragrances from Acqua di Parma and Creed.

And even though sales were flat versus last year at Miami’s Brownes & Company Apothecary, "we sold a lot of gift certificates," noted co-owner Gary Feinberg. Hot brands at Brownes this year included Santa Maria Novella, Molton Brown and L’Occitane.

While department stores are heavily reliant on price-based promotions, such as gift sets, many indie boutiques relied on customer outreach programs to drive sales instead. For example, Houpette, in Greenville, Del., staged a "Girl’s Night Out," where clients were served sushi and cocktails while they filled out holiday wish lists. The store then sent the lists to the client’s significant others, who were invited in for a men’s night of shopping — with list in hand, of course. The results were spectacular, reported owner Christi Miller, who estimated "that 90 percent of the people who filled out the list had people come in and shop for them." Overall, Houpette, which carries more than 15 brands, including Fresh and Laura Mercier, doubled its sales versus last year.For its part, Cosmetique in New York, which posted a 20 percent increase in sales, sent out client e-mails and postcards to inform shoppers of holiday offerings such as free gift wrapping and free shipping, according to owner Cami Rabban. Meanwhile, the Scarlett boutiques in Philadelphia and New Hope, Pa., offered a special gift certificate promotion. Clients who purchased a $50 gift certificate for themselves could buy a $60 certificate for a friend, but only pay $50 for it. "It was an added bonus," said owner Scarlett Messina, "and it unbelievably drove sales."

Despite the overall positive holiday results, many owners are taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to buying strategies for 2003. "We gambled this year that customers were looking for unique items and broad selection," said Linda Roberts, owner of Private Edition in Nashville, who said the "gamble paid off" with a 10 percent increase in sales. Still, Roberts noted, "we are watching our inventory closely and making sure we have key items, as well as continually introducing innovative products and services in the store."

Private Edition isn’t alone in its cautious approach. Noted Sharon Sternheim, owner of Zitomer in New York, "As opposed to a giant corporation, we can take a wait-and-see attitude for the first two quarters of the new year and then make our buying decisions."

"What we’re going to do is not be out of stock, but we’re not going to buy as heavy," agreed Lily Garfield, owner of The Cos Bar, which has locations in Colorado, Hawaii and New Mexico, and is slated to open a Las Vegas store in October 2003. Holiday sales at Cos Bar ranged from single-digit increases in its Colorado stores to a 30 percent jump in Santa Fe. "We’ll keep a good eye on the inventory, and rather than ordering once a month, maybe ordering twice a month instead," said Garfield.

The other key element in the year ahead will be newness. "The biggest key is fads," says Lisa Nelson, owner of NFX Apothecary in Winter Park, Fla., which had a 35 percent holiday increase. "You have to be ahead of the game in seeking out the new. We’ll be looking for more bang for the buck, but still keep the quality."

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