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Liebmann’s Leap of Faith

If Wendy Liebmann had it her way, attendees of the WWD Beauty CEO Summit would have joined her onstage, held hands and leapt into the abyss.

If Wendy Liebmann had it her way, attendees of the WWD Beauty CEO Summit would have joined her onstage, held hands and leapt into the abyss.

“I do call on you to leap because if you don’t, we may find ourselves in an even more challenging position two years from now,” declared Liebmann, founder and chief executive officer of WSL Strategic Retail.

After all, dramatic actions are de rigueur in what she dubbed “the whole new shock-rocking world of beauty retailing.” She defined the concept with a number of key observations of the consumer mind-set: Anarchy reigns; prudence remains; new values emerge; trust issues intensify, and a new shoppers’ bill of rights is formed.

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These days, the shopper has weighty issues on her mind, including product recalls in toys and food, sky-high gas prices and the subprime mortgage crisis.

“This is the world in which the American shopper lives and breathes…and consumers are trying to understand and live in that world of chaos. They are navigating this current state by attempting to control the little things,” said Liebmann.

“But here’s the thing: the little things, guess what? That’s us. They are trying to control the little things and that’s the business we’re in.”

That’s where shoppers’ prudent mind-set fits in.

Liebmann said, “She’s not waiting for some official in Washington to say big recession, little recession. She’s already in it, and she’s trying to find ways to make sense of it all and control the little things.”

Liebmann underscored the point by sharing some statistics from WSL’s 2008 “How America Shops” study. According to the study, 64 percent of shoppers polled said it’s important to get the lowest price on items; 58 percent said they’d go a little farther to shop where they can save money, and four out of 10 said they are more likely to choose a lower-priced brand than their usual brand.

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Liebmann clarified, however, that consumers are not always guided by price, particularly when it comes to compelling and innovative products.

Plus, they are increasingly raising their consciousness about holistic and green living, with 48 percent of consumers polled saying they buy products that are good for the environment.

“Now she is stepping back and saying, ‘You know what, I have different things in my head today. I’m thinking about the good citizenship of the brands I buy. I’m thinking about this appropriate consumption, I’m thinking about how to help my family and my community be healthier.’ It’s an incredibly rich proposition and it is absolutely a mandate that American shoppers are revealing to us.”

Empowered by the Internet, shoppers are also reassessing whom to trust, and are increasingly relying on the advice of strangers online, friends and themselves. Armed with research, Liebmann said, “A shopper, who has all the information she needs, walks up to your cosmetics counter or into your beauty store and knows more than the people in the store. That’s an opportunity.”

She continued, “So as we leap into the new future of beauty marketing and beauty retailing, our mandate — their mandate — is clear.” The shopper needs control.

That need has inked what Liebmann called a new “shoppers’ bill of rights.”

“They have a vast shopping experience. They will buy everything, anywhere. You need to be where they want you to be, not where you choose to go anymore,” she explained. She pointed to Sephora as a company that has heeded the new shoppers’ bill of rights. “It’s about a store, but it’s also about a catalogue. It’s about strategic alliances. It’s about a Web site that is its number-one store. It’s about a holistic approach to reaching out to shoppers absolutely where they are,” she said.

Other retailers that have taken a more holistic, sensorial shopping position include Target, which moved beyond health and wellness and established itself as a happy place to be.

“They will buy everything anywhere and I mean really anywhere. There is no box.”

Liebmann said she had an epiphany that drove this point home several months ago, when a friend’s teenage daughters went prom dress shopping at Nordstrom, taking photos of themselves in each dress they tried on. They later posted the photos on their MySpace pages, and asked friends to vote on which one they should wear. When the votes were tallied, the girls bought the dresses online, where they could order customized versions.

“It’s no longer a one-size-fits-all world. It’s about customize me, please. And smart retailers and brands around the world are understanding their shoppers in very intimate ways, not just by offers, but by understanding their life stage and lifestyle through loyalty programs as diverse as Tesco — one of the best retailers in the world — Sephora, CVS and even Costco.”

Other efforts along that front include Memoire Liquide bespoken perfumes at Henri Bendel and made-to-order Converse sneakers.

“The challenge for us all today is to leap into what looks like an abyss but is not,” said Liebmann. “It is the joy of the changing nature of this beauty business and that’s what we have to look forward to. And you’ve had a day and a half of those ideas, painful some, extraordinary others, but boy it’s all out there. The opportunities abound.”