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What to Watch: Can Beauty Save the British High Street?

Retailers of all kinds are putting beauty at the top of their retail strategies.

LONDON — Beauty is helping British high-street retailers stay out of the red. As consumer spending on beauty products increases, ailing retailers like Debenhams and Boots are putting the category at the forefront of their restructuring strategy, while companies who have never been in the beauty game before, from supermarket chain Sainsbury’s to fast-fashion retailer Primark, are looking to tap into the opportunity.

“Beauty is such an accessible commodity to the consumer, so it stands to reason that high-street retailers known for pharmacy, food and fast fashion are getting into the game,” said Millie Kendall, chief executive officer of the British Beauty Council.

Companies are betting big on beauty, especially for the likes of Debenhams and Boots, which have both been struggling with sales. In the fourth quarter of fiscal 2018, Boots’ Retail Pharmacy international division saw sales decrease by 2.7 percent, while Debenhams filed for administration earlier this year.

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However, both believe that beauty can provide the makeover they desperately need. According to Sebastian James, senior vice president and managing director of Boots U.K. and Republic of Ireland, “there has been a radical shift in the performance of our premium beauty sector. It gives us confidence that this is the way forward.

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Richard Cristofoli, Debenhams’ managing director of beauty, marketing and digital, is also looking ahead. “We are focusing on what happens now and beauty is front and center of our new strategy,” he said.

The two are making similar plays. They’re making their offering more attractive with new brand partnerships, like Boots’ Fenty Beauty exclusive and modernizing the traditional beauty counter space.

Earlier this year, both retailers knocked down counters and replaced them with shelving units, rezoning products by category and adding elements such as play tables making the shop floor open, enticing and easier to navigate.

While these high-street retailers are banking on beauty to pull them out of troubled waters, higher-end stores such a Space NK and Harrods have also undergone a similar makeover.

Harrods has invested heavily into its new beauty hall, which upon completion in December will be 53 percent bigger than its existing beauty space. The department store has introduced treatment rooms, masterclasses and virtual try-on mirrors to encourage shoppers to engage with products.

Harrods New Beauty Hall
Harrods’ new beauty hall. Courtesy

Space NK, too, wants to engage their customers and has rolled out play tables, which encourage consumers to sit in-store and try on products from different brands at the same time.

There seems to be no signs of slowing down, with the U.K. beauty market contributing almost 30 billion pounds to Britain’s gross domestic product, according to a recent report by the British Beauty Council. This kind of volume has gotten nontraditional beauty players wanting in on the action, too.

Last year, Sainsbury’s announced that they are looking to roll out a beauty program in its stores. The supermarket will introduce specially trained beauty advisers and stock more than 1,500 beauty products with exclusive brand partners such as Mane & Tail, Burt’s Bees, Essie, Korres and Dr Paw Paw. It will also relaunch its own Boutique cosmetics range, which consists of 100, mostly vegan, products.

Primark has also been putting a focus on beauty. The retailer has partnered with influencer Alessandra Steinherr on a skin-care line, Alex Steinherr x Primark. According to the retailer, a product was sold every three seconds on the first day of the global launch in October.

While it may seem like an unconventional route for the influencer to partner with Primark, she said it enabled her to make accessible skin care to serve teenagers, men and mature shoppers.

“Primark has the scale and the breadth to make this possible. There are no marketing or budgeting costs, so all the money goes into the formula and allows me to create products form a disposable-income perspective. If you’re spending all your money on makeup and clothes, there isn’t much left for skin care,” she said of her products that range in cost from 3 pounds to 6 pounds.

“High-street retailers can offer brands reasonably large distribution as well, which opens up a lot of doors for both the retailer and brands, and beauty is still bringing in 30 billion pounds to Britain’s GDP, that clearly proves that beauty is buoyant,” added Kendall.