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How Sephora India Aims to Reach the Changing Indian Beauty Consumer

CEO Mohit Dhanjal has identified key "pockets of opportunity." 

NEW DELHI — As the pandemic turned a corner in India, beauty sales have seen recovery, along with some change in direction. Mohit Dhanjal, who took over as chief executive officer of Sephora India on Jan. 1 in a changing of the guard for the biggest international beauty retailer in India after five years, has very quickly taken the reins of this changing market.

Sephora has done a very good job in regard to the brand mix in India, the categories that we work in, to identify the gaps in the Indian retail space, whether it is online or offline. The fundamentals are there,” Dhanjal said, in an exclusive interview with Beauty Inc. “Now we have to ensure that this pandemic — which has caused so much disruption — also gives us the chance to look at the changing market. I’m not looking at a shift in strategy, but more at the pockets of opportunities that the pandemic has raised and looking at it as a way to satisfy changing consumer needs.”

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Sephora India opened in 2015 with a license for Bengaluru-based Arvind Fashions Ltd., which has brought a host of global brands to India including Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, but has never a presence in beauty. It was Sephora’s third partnership in the country in as many years, and has grown to 24 stores.

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This is also Dhanjal’s first foray into beauty. Earlier, he was business head of textile manufacturer and retailer Raymond in India, and has also worked with multisector industries. He takes over at a time of growing competition in the Indian beauty market, with retailers like Nykaa and Shoppers Stop increasingly targeting the category.

Mohit Dhanjal
Mohit Dhanjal

Dhanjal, though, is firmly focused on the fast-changing $16 billion beauty market in India, particularly on what he describes as “pockets of opportunity.”

As for one of the biggest?

“Skin care,” Dhanjal said, unequivocally.

Pre-COVID-19, makeup had taken the lead at Sephora India, but the balance is changing. “The pandemic continues to bring up protection and sanitization issues. People are going to continue to protect themselves and be more hygienic. There is also a shift to technology-led skin care, be it ingredients or application,” Dhanjal said.

The other major change isn’t what consumers are buying, but how. Dhanjal said consumers in India are in the “the early transition curve” of experimenting with buying beauty online. Normally, experimentation took place in physical stores in India. But all of the Sephora doors are in malls, and the 2020 lockdown had a significant impact.

Stores are starting to reopen, with 95 percent reopened by mid-January and single-digit growth posted for February. Dhanjal expects the online behavior to become part of a bigger trend, with the growth of technology and the work put in by retailers and brands.

Fragrance sales were surprisingly strong online, for example. “A lot of fragrance brands ran very attractive offers, so that got a lot of people a chance to try them for the first time,” said Dhanjal. “Fragrance has been one of the fastest categories to recover.”

Other growing categories include bath and body and men’s products.

Dhanjal said consumer attention to Indian brands has also been increasing. “Recently we introduced Simply Nam, a makeup cleaner, which is a reusable towel to clean off makeup. It has a low carbon footprint because it is reusable for up to 90 times. We launched it mid-December and it is doing really well.” Other key Indian brands include Forest Essentials and Kama, launching this summer.

In terms of international brands, Benefit, a Sephora exclusive in India, and Dior have been top performers, as has Sephora’s private label products.

“Our differentiator is the Sephora label, which is present across all the categories of the beauty segment. It is by far our largest brand,” said Dhanjal. “This is amply supported by more than 30 of our Sephora-exclusive brands that add vibrancy and freshness to our various categories.”

Dhanjal pointed out that the beauty consumption in India was still very low, especially compared to Southeast Asian and other global markets, but said the rapidly growing middle class will be eager to try new products and innovations. “We can expect that the large set of consumers who are now experimenting with beauty will only increase substantially,” he said, predicting double-digit growth in the coming years. “We know that awareness combined with the increasing disposable income will lead to greater sales.”

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