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Italian Beauty Box Start-up Gains Traction With Fashion Partnerships

Launched last year, Abiby is on the radar of local beauty customers and companies such as Vestiaire Collective, Colmar and Cosmoprof.

MILAN — In a world demanding newness on a daily basis and a market saturated with products, to find a disruptive idea doesn’t come easy.

Getting inspired by disruptors and being the ambassadors of a concept and reinterpreting it with a personal touch can still create waves, though.

Young Italian entrepreneurs Mario Parteli and Luca Della Croce always looked up to subscription box company FabFitFun as a business model of the future. Both leveraging experiences in digital companies — in Italian leading price comparison web site and Alibaba-owned Lazada marketplace, respectively — Parteli and Della Croce eyed the opportunity to replicate the format locally and scale it down to meet the demands of Italian consumers.

They focused on the beauty industry to conceive Abiby, a start-up launched last year and offering beauty box subscriptions and dedicated e-commerce.

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Abiby's co-founders Luca Della Croce and Mario Parteli.
Abiby’s cofounders Luca Della Croce and Mario Parteli. Courtesy Photo

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“We heard the entrepreneurial call, did many market analysis and fell in love with the beauty industry for different reasons and for all the opportunities it offers,” said Parteli retracing the beginnings of the company, whose name is inspired by the Arabic world “habibi” — “my love” in English — to “indicate the love for oneself, as we want our clients to indulge in a monthly treat.”

In particular, Parteli underscored the role played by Italy in the international beauty production, as 60 percent of the European makeup is manufactured in the country. “We have an important ecosystem here, plus the share of online purchases was still low when we started, so there was and there still is a big room for growth. Moreover, margins on beauty products are high,” he continued, listing the reasons that directed the founders to venture in the cosmetic industry.

“We first investigated how consumers are used to buying in perfumeries. There are three main categories of customers: those entering in store for repurchases, those on a gifting mission and those who get in perfumeries to discover products, relying on the suggestions offered by in-store experts. So we realized we could deliver all these experiences digitally.”

Online purchases of beauty goods in Italy are just starting to be adopted by local customers. According to Cosmetica Italia’s data, last year online sales registered a marginal value of 350 million euros out of the global turnover of the national cosmetic industry, which totaled 11.2 billion euros.

Yet, the e-commerce channel was up 10 percent compared with the previous year and a further 22 percent increase is forecasted for 2019, telegraphing a dynamic performance for this category.

The current gap in Italian customers’ mind-set toward online shopping compared to consumers in the U.S. and the U.K. didn’t seem to represent an issue for the cofounders, who “see this more as an opportunity rather than a threat,” Parteli said.

The company is growing thanks to its intuitive and eye-catching platform and social media accounts, that are putting Abiby not only on the radar of beauty customers but also of brands operating outside the cosmetic industry, which have recently teamed with start-up on special projects.

Abiby x Pennyblack beauty box.
Abiby x Pennyblack beauty box. Courtesy Photo

In September, a partnership with Max Mara Group’s Pennyblack line resulted in a special beauty box Abiby developed with Dermalogica and the implementation of in-store beauty experiences. In particular, customers receiving an Abiby invite via newsletter and buying a Pennyblack item were gifted with the beauty box, vouchers for Dermalogica face treatments and the opportunity to attend a makeup masterclass.

Abiby also recently joined forces with Nike during an outdoor yoga session event the sportswear powerhouse staged in Milan. In sync with the project, Abiby developed a yoga-themed beauty box comprising skin-care products offering in-depth cleansing and regenerating properties.

This month, the start-up replicated the move partnering with Vestiaire Collective.

“We’ve been inspired by the platform to develop the theme of this month’s box, selecting products that could mirror both our and their philosophies,” Parteli said. In particular, the theme picked for the tie-up was “Beauty that matters” to underscore the sustainable focus promoted by both firm. This resulted in a package containing 2-in-1 products, including the “Happy in Pink” mask codeveloped with the Zago Milano brand, and a voucher to shop on the secondhand fashion platform.

The "Happy in Pink" mask co-developed with Zago Milano for this month's beauty box.
The “Happy in Pink” mask codeveloped with Zago Milano for this month’s beauty box. Courtesy Photo

“This collaboration is really important for us because shows how Abiby’s value is acknowledged also from non-beauty partners. It was the chance to join forces with a digital native entity like ours, which plays a key role in the international online fashion business, and a way to expand our communities and enhance our message,” Parteli said.

In December it will be the turn of Colmar, resulting in a different themed, co-branded beauty box, that will also be gifted to the performance apparel company’s customers in-store.

The new year will mark another milestone for the start-up, which has been tapped by Cosmoprof Worldwide Bologna for a collaboration. As part of the link-up, Abiby will put together a limited-edition beauty box comprising a selection of the best products showcased at the trade show in March. In addition, a booth staged at the fairgrounds will further promote the platform among the international buyers and visitors attending the fair.

Parteli defined the move as another “source of pride” since “being identified as a key scouter from such an institution and reference point for the whole cosmetic industry as Cosmoprof is a major thing.”

Experiences, exclusive events, as well as promotions and private sales, contributed to the development of an increasing community around the company. Abiby’s business mainly comprises the beauty box subscriptions and an e-commerce platform, which serves the purpose of re-purchases once a customer likes a specific product discovered in the box.

“We help brands on three levels: they access to our channel with the product placement, which provides them visibility and contributes to increase their brand awareness in a market they are approaching. We then register consumers’ preferences, collect data and feedback we receive about their products and give them this kind of info. Third, through our e-commerce we turn our clients into their loyal customers,” Parteli explained.

Each box comes with a price tag of 29.90 euros monthly, or 24.90 euros for a six-month subscriptions, and contains three to five products from three different brands, for a total value of more than 90 euros.

All products — spanning the skin-care, makeup, body-care and hair-care categories — come in full size or travel size formats and are put together monthly to “avoid product or brand overlaps.”

Fragrances are a category voluntarily left out for the moment, as Parteli considers the only likely way to offer scents is through samples. “But we avoid samples, they are perceived as gifts and we can’t make people pay for a gift,” he explained.

In general, the company conceives product selections in sync with current trends, mostly offering cruelty-free brands and naturally formulated products.

So far, Abiby counts 40 partner labels, which include Ahava, Akar Skin, Corpore Sanctum, Dermalogica, Dr. Botanicals, Ecooking, Hemp Care, Patchology, Skin Regimen, Vitamasque and Zago Milano, just to name a few.

Abiby's "Summer Hits" selection released earlier this year.
Abiby’s “Summer Hits” selection released earlier this year. Courtesy Photo

Scouting is core activity for the company, whose ultimate goal is to offer Italian consumers a platform providing new products and emerging beauty brands to discover.

A dedicated team, formed by four people based in Milan and international freelancers in key locations, finds, tracks and tests new brands for the company.

“Scouting is the most important part as we have to defy expectations. As soon as these get lower than what the client expects, we lose the customer, so we have to oversee all channels,” Parteli said. Trade shows and events are seen as important occasions to get to know new trends and interact with brands’ owners, but checking beauty-oriented web sites and dedicated magazines is also part of the team’s daily activities.

“We select both emerging brands, which want to start approaching the Italian market, and the ones that are already available here but want to push their new products through our platform,” he added. “Once we identify the target, we need to identify the bestsellers and the message we want to communicate to our customers,” continued the cofounder.

Storytelling is central for the company, which schedules different contents to release boxes and beauty routines dedicated to a different theme each month. Each box comes with a graphic banner, a themed canvas case and a leaflet with insights on the products, aimed at “educating and providing customers with a complete learning experience.”

This is further enhanced on social media, led by the company’s Instagram account that has drawn a following of 45,000 users so far, attracted by the signature fun graphics and tone of voice of the firm, as well as by the visibility that a series of local ambassador have given to the service.

Investments in marketing activities peaked after the company successfully completed a capital increase of 1.5 million euros in May. Initially financially backed by the cofounders, Abiby got the stamp of approval also by a pool of investors with a background in digital ventures, as well as international private equity funds and entrepreneurs operating in fashion and beauty industry. These are led by Alberto Genovese, owner of and other digital platforms, now also president of Abiby.

The injection of money will consolidate the company structure with new employees and cover operational costs, in addition to boosting marketing implementations to ultimately increase the number of subscribers.

So far, Abiby counts 6,000 subscribers in Italy, with a target of women aged 25 to 40. The secondary target is not represented by younger generations but by women aged 40 to 45. “But the most interesting fact is that less than 40 percent of the subscribers lives in main cities such as Milan, Rome, Florence and Turin. This reflects the demands of women living in smaller towns, that maybe can’t access to wide assortments or new products,” noted Parteli.

The company intends to further build on its brand awareness and integrate new projects. “We will be working on the positioning of the current services, adding also a more premium offer,” said Parteli, who was also open to include other targets and provide men’s grooming products as well as eyeing a possible launch of an Abiby private label in the future.