PARIS — The alpha-hydroxy acid products that are revving up treatment sales across the U.S. are starting to show positive results in France as well, according to retailers.
Although consumers here seem divided about acid-based products, with acceptance varying from one location to another, overall the category seems to be making headway in the French market.
“Fruit acid skin products are not very important in France,” said Marie-Annick Choloux, general director of the Marick perfumeries, who buys for the chain’s nine stores in Angers and Le Mans. “The consumer is a little bit afraid of these products, which can potentially damage the skin.
“The French take a much more pragmatic approach,” she added. “Our clients aren’t looking for a miracle product. We prefer moisturizing creams to acid-based ones.”
Choloux said her customers tend to be anxious about the potential side effects of acid-based products. Even Lancome’s Bienfait Total, a product with only a slight acid base, “is not selling at all” since its launch in late April, she said. Priced at almost $40, the product is “too expensive for its purpose,” she added.
She noted that treatment sales — which account for about 60 percent of the Marick bottom line — are “stable” compared with last year.
In Limoges, though, alpha-hydroxy products have taken off, according to Phillipe Debernard, owner of the two Debernard perfumeries there.
“It’s completely crazy with our customers. It’s acid-fruit madness,” he said. Skin care sales at his stores have been “stable” this year compared with last year, he added.
Fruition by Estee Lauder and Elizabeth Arden’s Alpha-Ceramide are selling well at Debernard, he said, as are La Prairie’s Age Management Serum and Clinique’s Turnaround Cream, which is not an AHA item, but contains salicylic acid.
The acid revolution also seems to have conquered Paris, where two department stores, Le Bon MarchÄ (formerly Au Bon MarchÄ) and Printemps, report brisk alpha-hydroxy sales.
The slight increases in treatment sales over last year reported by both stores — about 5 percent at Le Bon Marche and slightly less at Printemps — probably owe a great deal to the acid phenomenon, the stores’ skin care merchants noted.
“Our customers like acid products a lot,” said Valerie Chaleyssin, head of the perfume department at Printemps, where treatment products account for about 30 percent of sales. “They like them because they’re natural.”
Her department is “still reeling from Fruition,” Chaleyssin added, saying that the item is still doing well a year after it was launched.
Alpha-Ceramide was launched to a “tremendous success” in April and Bienfait Total is also doing well, she said. Then there is Turnaround Cream, a product that’s “still beating all records” more than a year after it was introduced in France.
“The clients come back, and they buy it regularly,” Chaleyssin said.
The phenomenon has resulted in a big boost in Clinique sales at the store, due in part to the “star system” effect: An outstanding product attracts customers to the line’s lesser-known items, according to Chaleyssin.
“They’re discovering the brand through the product, then buying complementary [products],” she said.
Clinique’s customer base at Le Bon Marche has also expanded thanks to Turnaround Cream, noted Marie-Francoise Stouls, director of the store’s fragrance department, which includes skin care products.
But the brand’s added sales aren’t entirely due to Turnaround, she added.
“Clinique has also made a lot of effort; they’ve done a lot of marketing,” she said.
One of the most effective ways has been through mailings that use Le Bon Marche’s client list, Stouls said. Such customer lists are “precious,” added Chaleyssin. Printemps often notifies clients about new products and promotional events.
“We’re always using them to bring people into the store,” she said.
At Debernard, acid-product sales haven’t necessarily created further interest in a brand, according to Debernard. “[Customers] don’t necessarily buy others in the series,” he said.
Choloux of Marick, however, said the star system is definitely at work in her stores. The success of single items is pulling up the rest of lines, she noted.
While the alpha-hydroxy boom is the main treatment story, there’s more to the business than acid, retailers said, noting that even companies that don’t make such products can still thrive in France’s dismal economy.
For example, Sisley continues to make inroads in treatment sales by keeping its salespeople informed.
“Sisley is very strong in training people at the point of sale,” said Marick’s Choloux, noting that the company gives training sessions to salespeople at least once a year. “And the name is reassuring,” she added.
Best-selling Sisley items include the face product Tenseur BeautÄ and a new sun series, Phyto Touche de Soleil.
At Debernard, Sisley’s Super Creme Solaire Visage — a sunscreen/moisturizer hybrid — has turned out to be a big hit for the summer.
Because customers in today’s recession-ridden France are more cost-conscious than ever, brands like Shiseido — which keeps its prices a bit lower than some of its competitors’ — seem to be doing particularly well.
Shiseido’s Vital Perfection took off after it was named “number one moisturizer” in a popular consumer magazine earlier this spring, according to Debernard.
At Le Bon Marche, Stouls is optimistic about a new Shiseido skin care line, Pureness, in part because of its relatively low price points. “The price is very competitive,” she said.
At the other end of the price scale, Chanel’s Lift Serum is doing well at both Marick and Le Bon Marche. On the other hand, Lauder’s Resilience, launched in May, has had disappointing sales at Marick.
“It hasn’t been terrific,” said Choloux. “It’s hardly moving at all.”
In general, though, she said, “The French love moisturizing products.”
Top sellers at her store include Lancome’s Hydrative, Chanel’s Hydra System, Clinique’s Dramatically Different Moisture Lotion and Clarins’s Multi-Active night cream.
Instead of peeling with acid, Choloux’s clientele prefers different exfoliation methods. “They want to remove dead skin, but they want to do it by mechanical, not chemical, means,” she said.
At Printemps, non-acid bestsellers include Shiseido skin care products and Christian Dior’s Hydra-Star, launched earlier this year.
In addition, “Clinique and Estee Lauder have a loyal clientele with us,” Chaleyssin said.
Hydra-Star was a particularly successful launch at Printemps, where samples of the product were given out over a three-week period. “We made our customers discover it by giving them sample doses before the launch,” Chaleyssin said.
She added that these days, a product’s simplicity is the most likely indicator of its probable success. “Clients are looking for simplicity. They want products that are easy to use and that have specific functions.
“That’s why products like Clarins’ Multi-Active Nuit and Lancome’s Bienfait Total are doing well,” she continued. “The time when a customer would apply four products, one after the other, is past. Now they want one. They want something that will do it all in one step.”

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