Byline: Matthew W. Evans / Cassandra Chiacchio

NEW YORK — With the clock running down on one of the most hard-fought Christmas seasons in memory, department store beauty retailers are straining to salvage the month.
In Charlotte, N.C., Belk’s is riding the strength of its color cosmetics and treatment businesses. The division is poised to break even for December, exceeding plan. Jonathon Pollock, senior vice president and general merchandise manager, estimates that his overall business will show a respectable increase — on the order of 3 or 4 percent — for the year.
However, he conceded that the fragrance business, like elsewhere, is “a little tough,” with the women’s category sustaining a low-single-digit decline. Men’s is doing better, possibly breaking even.
Acqua di Gio for Men has been been “fabulous,” he said, and Calvin Klein’s Eternity for Men has “held up nicely,” along with Ralph Lauren’s Romance for Men and Polo.
On the women’s side, Chanel has done well, along with Donna Karan’s Cashmere Mist and Lauren’s fall launch, Glamourous. Pollock had praise for Lancome and its new Miracle women’s scent. Lancome figures prominently in the success of the big three at Belk’s with Clinique and Estee Lauder “hanging in there. We are very pleased,” Pollock said.
However, he rated the performance of value sets as “disappointing,” while coffrets are selling “through the sky.” Makeup continues to be a bright spot, with MAC Cosmetics performing at a “fabulous” level, Origins continuing to be “terrific,” Bobbi Brown still showing strength and the recent introduction at Belk’s of Stila turning into “an outrageous success.”
Looking forward, Pollock said he is feeling confident about Valentine’s Day and seems impressed with spring programs. However, Belk’s has had difficulty during the last two Mother’s Day periods, and Pollock is not feeling confident. With Christmas imminent, Barneys New York’s beauty business “looks much better than it’s been,” said cosmetics and fragrance buyer Bettina O’Neill.
With erratic foot traffic and a late pickup in holiday sales, O’Neill believes it’s now more important than ever to focus on customer service. To date, Barneys has sustained a monthlong double-digit increase, according to O’Neill, and the department is operating close to plan — albeit with a more conservative post-Sept. 11 oultook. This conservative mind-set will continue into January, O’Neill said, while Barneys gears up for mid-March, when it plans to open its new beauty department downstairs in the Madison Avenue flagship store.
The events of September coupled with “a very strong spring” are expected to yield an estimated increase of roughly 10 percent overall for this year, said O’Neill. For the season, the numbers will probably look flatter, anywhere from a 1 to 5 percent increase.
Men’s has been hot at Barneys, especially Anthony Logistics for Men, which has shown considerable growth since coming aboard midyear, noted Chris Czajkowski, the retailer’s vice president and divisional merchandise manager of cosmetics. Nickel has also been a popular men’s brand.
For next week, “we’ve planned some in-store events,” said O’Neill. Stila’s new Winter Blues colors, which are about to hit counter, are expected to create excitement and draw. Other hot items include Kiehl’s Since 1851 gift packs. The treatment category is doing well, said O’Neill, as are scents for the home, especially from L’Artisan Perfumer. In color, Bobbi Brown, Chanel and Clarins have been bright spots.
The season has been challenging, according to Gary Borofsky, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for Rich’s in Atlanta. “The fact that it’s later than ever doesn’t help,” he said. “The weather has been so mild, the customer really had to get into the thought process of holiday shopping.”
“There’s been a nice spike [in sales] within the last few days,” he said. “How the rest of the season plays out remains to be seen. The next four days are the big ones.”
Value, more than ever, is driving the business, said Borofsky. “We are seeing some very giftable items with a lot of value — customers are responding accordingly. When offered a choice between a value set and a container set, customers are going for the value sets.”
“Additionally, we’ve had some really good sell-through on the coffrets.” As to what sales would be, Borofsky says it’s a tough read: “We are flat to last year this past week. There is a lot of newness in color and treatment and that’s always nice for business. Highlights in treatment are Estee Lauder Night Repair and Clinique’s Moisture Surge. The new Chanel color story, which just launched a few days ago, is doing very well. I’m also optimistic about the new color story from Lancome.”
“We are relying more on service than we ever have before, our focus is on that. We just recently added fragrance counter managers for the first time, and that’s working out well. In fragrance, our core brands — Romance, Glamour and Cashmere Mist — continue to chug along. There have also been some nice increases in Miracle and Happy,” he continued.
Despite the generally cool business climate, there have been some warm spots. “We are looking at double-digit comp growth,” says Shashi Batra, senior vice president of merchandising at Sephora. “In terms of categories, fragrance is not a leader although it tends to pop the last three days before Christmas. Fragrances that are doing well are Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue, Marc Jacobs and Higher.”
According to Batra, the driving business in Sephora is bath. He points to brands such as Bliss, Fresh and Philosophy as top sellers. “Bliss has fun, gifty items like socks and gloves; Fresh has very giftable soaps and lotions, not to mention a great Sugar set, and Philosophy is huge. The cookbooks are flying.”
Color is the next biggest pop, said Batra. “Urban Decay Honey is doing incredible. It’s edible, it’s shimmer, it’s $25 — the perfect stocking stuffer. Benefit’s Kitten Shops NYC is also doing well. It’s done the best out of the three Kitten powders.”
Muriel Gonzalez, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Bergdorf Goodman is pleased with their beauty business. If it’s new, it’s selling, she noted. The home fragrance category is hot, including Votivo candles, Slatkin & Co. potpourri and Jo Malone, according to Gonzalez.
“You [need] a good edit — particular products and the conviction to buy deeply enough into some of them — even in shaky times,” said Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager of Henri Bendel. For two months now, Bendel’s has been single digits ahead of it business plan and that’s where it stands now.
The mid-September drop hit the cosmetics accessories category the hardest, according to Burstell, but the launch of Kevyn Aucoin took up the slack, he said. The MAC Cosmetics holiday color set is also a success, Burstell noted, along with L’Heure Magic, Laura Mercier’s first fragrance, and offerings from L’Artisan Perfumer.
These days, Nordstrom is stressing customer service in its beauty department. “It’s more important than ever to simply connect with customers,” said spokeswoman Amy Jones. Exclusives such as Herve Leger fragrance have been popular and Castelbajac is another strong seller. Makeup kits from MAC, Laura Mercier and Trish McEvoy also have been selling well. The bath-and-body category has been strong, said Jones, due to “feel-good” products like those from Mercier’s Collection Gourmande, a bath-and-body care collection that made its debut in the fall.

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