ILONA’S EXPANSION PLANS TAKE OFF

Byline: PETE BORN

NEW YORK — Ilona is a little skin care company with big ideas.
The company’s founder and president, Ilona Meszaros, is using her small network of five freestanding skin care salons as a springboard for full-scale distribution into specialty and ultimately department stores.
The first phase began a few weeks ago as Ilona began setting up counters and doing business in six Neiman Marcus stores.
Meszaros came to the U.S. 40 years ago, with the outbreak of the 1956 revolution in her native Hungary. She and her husband started a small hair and skin care salon in New Jersey and then began building the present skin care company in 1971 after relocating to Denver.
Ilona now has freestanding skin care institutes in Denver, New York, Chicago, Houston and Costa Mesa, Calif. These are full-service salons which also sell the Ilona line of treatment and hair care products.
Although the company does not break out figures, sources estimate that last year the five salons did a combined retail business of $2.6 million to more than $3 million in merchandise sales, not counting the business in services.
Meszaros said she wanted to enter regular retail distribution for several reasons, the financial consideration being one strong attraction. “Building your own stores is very costly,” she said. “I would like to try this angle of distribution.”
There have been talks, she said, about eventually going into more units of the 28-store Neiman’s chain. Preliminary reports of the initial business, which has been done while Ilona traveled from one Neiman’s branch to another, hiring and training beauty advisers. While neither Ilona nor Neiman’s executives would discuss figures, sources indicate the joint goal is to do $1 million in retail volume for the first year in all six stores combined. First indications are that the target is within reach.
“The customer has responded positively so far,” said John Stabenau, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of cosmetics at Neiman’s. He said the counters in markets where Ilona has her own stores and is better known — such as Denver and Houston — are outperforming the others.
The Ilona counters went into operation at the end of January and beginning of February in the six Neiman Marcus stores. Formal launches are being planned, complete with local newspaper ads and store appearances by Ilona, who will conduct skin-typing sessions with customers. The introductions also will be accompanied by heavy sampling and direct mail promotions.
The schedule of official grand openings includes King of Prussia in Philadelphia the week of March 24; Cherry Creek Mall in Denver the week of March 31; the NorthPark and Prestonwood Malls in Dallas the week of April 28; the Michigan Avenue store in Chicago the week of May 19 and the Houston Galleria the week of June 2.
Neiman’s was attracted to the Ilona business because of the position it had carved out in the market and the fact that its image had not been sullied by overdistribution. “We looked at their business and felt it is a niche that has done extremely well,” Stabenau said. “Some businesses we encounter have a problem of being too broadly distributed.”
Meszaros not only envisions one day blossoming as a broad-based U.S. business, but, ironically, she would like to one day return to Europe, which she now barely touches with a mail order business. “One day I would like to be in Europe and the Asian countries.”
Ilona products now are sold in England, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Hawaii.
The driving force behind the entry into Neiman’s is Robert Makari, senior vice president of new ventures and son of the founder. He said there have been discussions about opening more Neiman’s branches on the East Coast, notably in Paramus, N.J.; Short Hills, N.J., and Chevy Chase, Md.
The Ilona formula is based on sophisticated, high tech skin care products. The latest launch, occurring within the last two months, was a moisturizer, called Buoyancy ReOxygenating Moisture Complex and bearing a price tag of $65 for 1.7 ounces.
According to sources, it rang up $21,000 in retail sales for the first 45 days in the Ilona stores. The company’s newest star face cream, Clock Wise Progressive Firming Complex for the Face, was launched a year ago. Priced at $50 for a 1.7-oz. jar, Clock Wise reportedly chalked up sales of $75,000 in the Ilona salons.
Makari said he is now repackaging and revamping the color cosmetics portion of the line. The old makeup was suitable for salon retailing during the earlier stages of the company’s development, he indicated, but Makari and his mother are in the process of elevating the quality level for Neiman’s and the company they envision in the future.
Makari also is toying with the idea of doing “a wonderful signature fragrance.”

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