After 24 years in the mass market arena, Carol Hamilton joined L’Oréal USA’s Luxury Products Division as president eight months ago — becoming one of the few to straddle both the mass and the class worlds. One of her most surprising discoveries, she said, has been that luxury is able to adapt to market trends far more nimbly than mass — giving innovation in prestige distribution an edge.

This story first appeared in the May 15, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“The luxury retailers I’ve worked with have an incredible merchant appetite and seem to be able to get around rigid operations faster than our mass colleagues,” said Hamilton. “When you work with a Wal-Mart, you have to plan out 18 months to two years, and then if you change anything, everyone goes crazy. And we all know that this is an industry of change, where you constantly want to be reacting. And one of the great surprises was to discover how nimble and reactive and how fast the luxury retailers are willing to change their plans if the innovation warrants it.”

Hamilton pointed to Oscillation, Lancôme’s vibrating mascara, as an example. “L’Oréal was able to move up the launch by a full six months — and then really only give the retailer 10 weeks to plan,” she said. “Our retailers worked with us as partners to make this launch happen in record time, and they did it without compromising one single part of the launch.”

No matter what the channel of distribution, the creative process is similar, she said. “We all know that product innovation drives everything, and in fact I found the process of working on products is exactly the same [in mass and class],” said Hamilton.

The shopping experience is another arena in which Hamilton feels luxury has the edge. “The luxury consumer has a deep relationship with her favorite department store, with her specialty store, and with her beauty adviser,” said Hamilton. “When I compare that to drugstores — which certainly have incredible assets, like self-service, convenience, location and price — the relationship that the luxury consumer has is just so much of a deeper, emotional one in beauty. And it’s something that, no matter how much Wal-Mart improves its beauty wall and no matter how many new formats come out, like CVS and 360 Beauty, the emotional connection that the luxury consumer has with her stores and her beauty advisers just can’t be duplicated by mass.”

In fact, Hamilton believes growth in the prestige market will come from focusing on this strength. “I’ve realized, having this perspective across both channels, and seeing the strengths and weaknesses, that we should spend as much time innovating in service, merchandising and education as we do in product, and improving every single shopping experience and recognizing the assets that each of our retailers and each of our brands bring to the overall industry.”

In the luxury market, beauty advisers are a key part of that process, said Hamilton. “At her best, [a beauty adviser] is an incredible expert in product, and she knows what to say to whom to sell at the right time. At her very best, she also becomes a personal friend, a personal confidant, an adviser. At her not-so-best, she can actually block your knowledge of the product. We need to innovate on how the beauty adviser speaks to the customer, and especially the younger consumer — who has actually identified that, when the beauty adviser is too pushy, it’s a violation of trust.”