NEW YORK — L’Herbier de Provence Ltd., the French bath and body store, is growing new roots in the U.S.

L’Herbier plans to open five to 10 stores in 1994 in addition to its five existing locations. The store hopes to open 30 new units in the next three to five years, according to managing director Laurence Gross.

Units in Stamford, Conn., Pentagon City in Arlington, Va., and South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif., are company owned, while locations in Atlanta’s Phipps Plaza and Palm Gardens in Palm Beach, Fla., are franchised.

The line is also wholesaled to about 450 accounts nationwide, including drugstores, specialty stores such as Walt Disney’s South of France shop in Epcot Center and spas.

Executives would not discuss figures, but industry sources estimate annual net sales for the three American company-owned stores to be about $2 million.

When the L’Herbier line was first brought to the U.S. in 1989, it was sold to about 100 wholesale accounts, from department stores to specialty stores and pharmacies, according to Aubin Wilson, assistant managing director.

Today, she said, the line is in about 450 non-L’Herbier doors. Wilson would not discuss figures, but sources familiar with the company estimate a wholesale volume approaching $8 million in those doors.

The L’Herbier stores range in size from 528 to 750 square feet, although the Atlanta store is 1,000 square feet, accommodating a small tea room where customers can sit down. All of the stores are in shopping malls.

L’Herbier products are made from natural ingredients such as fruits, flowers, herbs indigenous to Provence and essential oils such as wheat germ oil, which is used as a natural preservative.

In the stores, about 50 percent of the merchandise consists of L’Herbier products. The remainder of the stock was chosen to fill out “the look of the shop,” Wilson said.

The non-L’Herbier products include bath accessories such as loofah brushes and sponges, aprons, French foods and related books.

The target audience is a “sophisticated, fashion-oriented customer between the ages of 25 and 50,” said Wilson. “About 75 percent of our customers are women.” Many come into the stores looking for gifts, she added.

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About 50 percent of the L’Herbier line is devoted to perfume and bath products ranging in retail price from $3.50 for soap to $25 for a jar of bath beads.

Aromatherapy, which comprises 30 percent, ranges from $12 for massage balm to $22.50 for body oil, and skin care products, which take up 20 percent, range from $12 for hand cream to $35 for special moisturizers.

Aromatherapy, Wilson said, is the fastest-growing area of business, and the staff is being trained to educate customers on the benefits of the products. On occasion, an aromatherapist is brought into the stores to give out aromatic bath beads and hand massages.

One major goal of the store is to develop more franchises, said Gross, rather than expand into more company-owned locations.

“We don’t want to run multiple stores on a day-to-day basis,” said Gross. “At this point, we’d prefer to wholesale the products to licensees and consult with them for sourcing and finding good locations.

“If an excellent location should come up without an interested licensee, however, we wouldn’t hesitate to buy it,” Gross added.

Founded 20 years ago in the south of France by two brothers, Gerard and Gilles Caussade, who took over their grandfather’s herb business, L’Herbier was, in the beginning, both medicinal and beauty oriented. The brothers opted to concentrate on the body and bath side of the business, opening their first store in St. Remy. Eventually, they sold the store to an English company, Booker Ltd., which opened stores throughout Europe and the U.S. The first U.S. location opened in 1989 in Pentagon City.

In a joint-venture agreement, Ricky Wong, president of Sultra Co., invested in the L’Herbier locations in both Pentagon City and later in Stamford. Sultra holds the license for J.G. Hook’s women’s apparel line, Camp Beverly Hills and Fido Dido, the junior fashion line,

With the success of the stores, Wong bought the L’Herbier trademarks and formulas for American distribution of the line from Booker in 1991, recognizing and taking inspiration from what Gross called the “cutting edge” of bath and body shops blazed by such entrepreneurs as The Body Shop’s Anita Roddick. At the same time, Booker sold the European L’Herbier rights to a Paris-based firm, Catalix.

Wong opened a separate manufacturing facility in Fontainebleau, outside of Paris, under the supervision of one of the original L’Herbier chemists. Overall, the factory employs about 30 people.

“Although L’Herbier is an environmentally friendly company, we market ourselves simply as an upscale French chemist which uses natural ingredients,” said Gross. “All of our products are manufactured in France, and that’s our panache. French women are known for their skin care.”

Skin care is an area which the company hopes to grow, said Wilson. Currently, those products sell more in L’Herbier stores than with outside retailers because the service is more personalized.

“We compete with department stores for skin care business, and there is a high degree of brand loyalty,” she said. “We’re trying to aggressively train our salespeople so that customers can learn more about the products.”

While the company employs five independent sales representatives for the line, its main focus is more aggressive store expansion.

“We would be a lot further ahead in our business today if we had not started out in department stores,” said Gross. Until last year, he noted, the line was stocked in locations such as Nordstrom and Bullocks.

“In our own stores, the products don’t get lost as they did in large department stores,” he said. “Personnel were always changing and we had less control over the presentation.

“It benefits the customer to learn about the product in a controlled environment, and we can create a certain feeling within the stores that is specific to the products.”

A natural evolution for the company, said Gross, would be a mail order catalog. Currently, however, there are no set plans to develop that side of the business.

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