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Small Firms Win With Samples, Moxie

NEW YORK -- Getting beauty products into the hands of consumers is easy if you're a manufacturing giant with longstanding retailer relationships and an ample demographic database. But for the little guys -- companies with limited distribution...

NEW YORK — Getting beauty products into the hands of consumers is easy if you’re a manufacturing giant with longstanding retailer relationships and an ample demographic database. But for the little guys — companies with limited distribution and annual sales of less than $1 million — getting a buyer’s approval and a consumer’s attention requires a bit more ingenuity.

But many small companies are meeting the challenge. By being innovative, aggressive and aware of who their target customer is, small companies are learning that sales can be generated despite minimal marketing funds.

Valerie Bennis, founder and president of Essence of Vali, an aromatherapy company based in Manhattan, is taking the new year by the horns. She’s busy drumming up new marketing ideas for her collection of plant essences, which are designed to help people with various stress, sleep and energy difficulties.

For example, Bennis is marketing Sleep, one of her best-selling scent concoctions, to numerous hotels, a ploy she thinks will appeal to their guests. “The [New York] Palace Hotel places [samples] on guests’ pillows,” Bennis said.

Bennis, whose one-year-old company lacks an advertising budget, last year generated $70,000 in wholesale sales, with distribution in stores such as Caswell-Massey. She sees 2002 sales even higher, in part by capitalizing on holidays that mesh with her fragrances, such as Valentine’s Day. Currently, Bennis is sending out testers of Passion — another top-selling fragrance blend — to leading chocolatier Godiva. In one letter to a Godiva executive, Bennis writes about a potential promotion idea: “You could give these cards to your customers with a tag ‘Find your passion at Godiva. Our way of thanking you for your passion for our chocolates.”‘

In-store promotions, like the one she’s planning on Feb. 10 in Chelsea’s Whole Foods Market, could also boost sales. This past December, a Whole Foods in-store stint produced sales of 14 bottles of Sleep massage oil, which retail for prices ranging from $15 to $18. That’s comparable to receiving one small wholesale order.

“It also jump-starts our line,” Bennis said.

Tracy Hollander, founder of Star, a bath and beauty care company based in Hollywood, Fla., believes the way to attain visibility is to get — and stay — in the spotlight. “I’m very active on all of the beauty and fashion message boards, which helps in getting my products in the hands of consumers,” Hollander said.

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Star was launched last October and is sold in stores such as South Florida’s Gables Beauty Supply outlets. It has generated sales of $15,000 in 2 1/2 months and consists of an array of beauty products such as a Grapefruit Butter Bar, Bathing Beauty Dreamsicle Shower Gel, Celebrity Skin Lavender Body Butter, Divalicious Sugar Scrub and Diva Detox Salt Scrub products.

Following her concept to produce “luxurious bath products that immortalize Hollywood beauty,” Hollander is targeting celebrities. Star Sample Kits will appear in celebrity goodie bags at the Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards this April.

One of the most well-known new small companies to come along in the past year is Manhattan-based Noode. Founded by Seth Ratner, Noode skin care has gained placement in the industry’s top department and specialty stores, such as Henri Bendel and Bloomingdale’s. Since its launch last spring, Noode has generated more than $1 million in sales.

Ratner believes that when it comes to marketing, especially when building a new brand, the key is “not to advertise but to be very selective with the promotions you do.” Ratner advises to “stay away from national advertising in the first year” and focus instead on vehicles like catalogs, postcards and samples, which are relatively inexpensive. In addition, store events are key to driving brand awareness since they “draw in immediate sales.”

Late last year, Ratner partnered with Ralph Fragrances, Tony & Tina, Lucky magazine and Bloomingdale’s to launch Teen Appreciation Day, an event dedicated to performing teen facials and makeovers. Ratner said Noode generated a month’s worth of sales in one day at a minimal cost.

There are also companies who must reinvent their marketing strategies in order to expand their distribution reach. Farmingdale, N.Y.-based Z. Cosmetica, a designer of private label skin care products for dermatologists and plastic surgeons, last year decided to move from the professional health sector to retail. The company entered retailers such as Henri Bendel, when it launched Geomer, a line of skin care products utilizing a patented form of unbuffered glycolic acid with antioxidants.

According to Laura Brewster, vice president of product development for Geomer, a secret to getting her line noticed by buyers and consumers is to give the product away. “I’m a firm believer in sampling,” Brewster said. “If the buyer tries a sample and it works, they take the line in.”

Visual demonstrations, such as performing in-store facials, are also important to promoting the line. Brewster uses an oxygen machine to attract curious customers. “People are really enticed by it. And if we can get them to sit in the chair they will let you do the facial. Then, they almost always buy the product.”

While Brewster believes much of the product’s success lies in its efficacy — many of Geomer’s products include shark cartilage — dramatic before and after photos in a window at Clyde’s Chemist on Madison Avenue draw quite a crowd.

“We have a huge, untouched before and after board in their window display. The changes to the clients are quite subtle, but noticeable. People walking down the street stop and look and discuss whether they can see a change or not. That usually draws them into the store to get a sample,” or to hear a sales pitch, Brewster said.

Laura Mastrangelo, chief executive officer and illustrator of the Lauri Simone bath and body line based in Brooklyn, N.Y., has a lengthy list of do’s to properly promote a new line.

Attending trade shows, such as Extracts, a trade show for aromatherapy fragrance and personal care, Mastrangelo said, “gives great visibility and provides key buyer contacts.” Follow-up is as important as the product you’ve created, she notes. Sending out samples of full-sized products, as opposed to small samples, sends a great message.

“We stand behind our product and we want our potential retailer and consumers to have a real experience, not just be able to wash their hands [with the product].”

Mastrangelo also attends all buyer meetings. “I personally cultivate all of our relationships with the senior buyers. Lauri Simone is new and is in a highly competitive field and I will not trust our first-time associations to anyone but myself.”

In November, Lauri Simone appeared on the Rosie O’Donnell show, where Mastrangelo gave away $35,000 worth of gift baskets to the audience and Rosie’s staff. Mastrangelo calls sampling of this magnitude “a must in this industry.”

The Lauri Simone line has been in eight Nordstrom locations since September and will expand into additional Nordstrom units this year. Mastrangelo expects first-year sales of Lauri Simone to fall between $100,000 and $200,000.

Mastrangelo, who is never without brochures and product because “you never know who you will meet or what beautiful shop you might pass,” has one bit of advice for companies looking to promote their products on the cheap. “Make sure the person who presents your line has the passion and vision to sell. They have to love it and see it like you do, if you expect a buyer or customer to accept it.”