RIDGEWOOD, N.J. — Pharmaceutical giant Hoffman-LaRoche has been stealthily monitoring the global skin care market.

Philippe Burnham, director of business development, Metric Inc./Roche Consumer Health, speaks as easily about the product lines at Boots as the holistic mind-body approach embraced by traditional Asian brands. For the past three years he has been visiting stores and testing products to help Roche fine-tune its own unique retail concept for the U.S. “We really wanted to understand the landscape,” he explained.

The $21.13 billion company, which makes a range of pharmacy items from cancer drugs to antidepressant medicine, already has a stake in skin care, with its Bepanthen and Bepanthol lines marketed in Europe and Asia and a medical skin care business both in the U.S. and abroad. The Bepanthen and Bepanthol businesses had sales of $2.7 billion last year. To U.S. beauty marketers it may be best known as the creator of sunblock ingredient Parsol 1789. But Roche, noted Burnham, is always on the lookout to leverage its strengths through new businesses.

So, last fall it quietly opened a test skin care clinic in the lively downtown of Ridgewood, N.J., an upscale suburb that is a convenient 30-minute drive from the firm’s U.S. headquarters in Nutley, N.J.

The Metric Skin Care Studio draws on expertise from throughout Roche’s global operation, including diagnostic technologies, visual-imaging equipment and laboratory science.

Metric is built around a three-step approach to treating skin. First comes a high-tech analysis that could include a skin ultrasound, digital photographs and monitoring with a video microscope. Then, an aesthetician will analyze the results and recommend a regimen using products from the 25-item BodyMetric line that could be combined with treatments such as microdermabrasion or a glycolic exfoliation. Last, there is a follow-up visit 10 weeks after the first to reanalyze skin and track improvements. The initial visit usually takes an hour.

Metric is different, stresses Burnham, because it can show clients proven results with its advanced diagnostic equipment.

Burnham noted some 1,000 appointments are currently booked for between now and November. Already, Metric has 2,000 to 3,000 clients in its database. Ten percent of those are Roche employees who started using BodyMetric products and treatments during a pretest at the company’s campus.Metric’s 1,800-square-foot space on East Ridgewood Avenue is across the street from a Gap and two blocks from the local movie theater. The atmosphere straddles the worlds of a medical clinic and an exotic spa. Skin care experts wear white lab coats and there is a preponderance of diagnostic equipment, while the decor is of white, beige and pale green walls, blond wood flooring and adornments like bamboo poles and orchids.

Rather than typical photographs of women with beautiful skin, Metric goes the scientific route with computer-generated images and artist renderings of both healthy and damaged skin hanging on the walls. Some show skin with and without proper collagen levels and others reveal evidence of crow’s-feet or moisture levels.

“We don’t scare people here, we educate them,” said Burnham. “The greatest value of this is in the counseling. You need the human touch and to talk to someone who understands you.”

Metric would consider implementing a more simplified approach. It has already reduced its first appointment from an hour-and-a-half to an hour. Tests are scrutinized to make them as quick as possible, while still giving reliable results. Burnham noted that one skin analysis test evolved from a medical system that would have taken 25 computer steps to get the result. Now, Metric can get the reading with one click of a mouse. “If we could simplify the technology, we can see more people, more quickly,” said Burnham.

Going forward, if Metric expands its locations, a goal is to create a network database so that information can be accessed by clients at any store.

To drive interest, Metric has run some ads in local newspapers and magazines and recently offered a free 15-minute facial sampler. So far, customers have been falling into two groups — those between the ages of 20 and 40 years old looking for maintenance and damage prevention, and those 40-plus seeking skin repair and improvements.

Prices of BodyMetric products range from $11 to $82.50, “between Clinique and Lancôme,” said Burnham. Some key ingredients include nanocolloids, a technology developed by Roche two years ago that carries active ingredients deeper into the skin. Most products are unscented and some are modeled after the Bepanthen collection. One sunscreen contains mini sponges to “mop up facial oil” so it can be worn under makeup. Another has micronized titanium dioxide so it won’t leave skin discolored.Metric went straight to the experts for every aspect of the operation. The store design was done by the award-winning Gensler firm of San Francisco. The digital camera was created with help from Kensington medical photographers of Philadelphia. And Jean-Paul Marty, professor of dermopharmacology at the University of Paris South, was one of several industry experts tapped for product advice.

As Metric’s future plans are being considered, merely wholesaling the BodyMetric line is not one of the options. “We are looking for unique new businesses that are not just products,” said Burnham.

“We are considering more retail locations with higher foot traffic, like a mall or a department store,” he said, adding, “There are many other channels that we could be in, even spas or doctors offices.” A next step is likely to come in 2004.

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