SOAK’S BATH SUCCESS BUBBLES OVER

Byline: Faye Brookman

NEW YORK — With the current proliferation of bath and body specialty stores, some experts think the market is reaching saturation. But, most of the competitors don’t have the secret weapon of Soak, a 600-square-foot boutique in Carytown, Va. — bubbles blowing out of the roof of the store.
Opened in 1998 in Carytown, an eclectic shopping district in Richmond, Soak quickly burst onto the market with a mix consisting of handmade Fizzy Bath Bombs, custom blends of makeup and beauty lines such as London’s Molton Brown and Paula Dorf.
The first store was so successful that a second unit opened in November 2000 in the Chesterfield Towne Center shopping mall. The Carytown store pumps out sales of $600 per square foot and Soak’s president Veronica Brockwell expects the 1,775-square-foot mall site to hit $1 million in sales.
She hopes to elicit financing to help Soak grow into new markets such as Virginia Beach, Atlanta and other sites in the mid-Atlantic region. Even without extra financing, Brockwell plans to open two new stores in 2002.
The bath bombs are a signature item, accounting for 25 percent of store sales. “I originally made the Fizzy Bath Bombs upstairs over the store,” said Brockwell, who now has a manufacturing and distribution plant where the Fizzy bombs are still handmade. She admitted there are other versions of the bombs, which fizz in the bath like an Alka-Seltzer, sold at competitors. But, she maintained hers is unique because of how it is made.
Besides offering the pleasure of carbonation in the bath, aromatherapy ingredients have been included. For example, a bomb for relaxation features oils such as rosemary and lavender. “We call one ‘Rub a dub, dub, how bout some love’ — an aphrodisiac and I don’t need to tell you what that’s for,” chuckled Brockwell. There are 28 different Fizzy Bath Bomb flavors retailing at three for $10.
But, there’s more than fizz to Soak’s success. Brockwell said the other nuances in addition to bath bombs that set her stores apart from the competition include a Cosbar where trained staffers help women custom blend lotions, shower gels, lipsticks, foundations, eye shadows and now nail color. “Customers are especially amazed when they see they can make their own custom-blend lipstick,” said Brockwell. The lipsticks retail for $16.50 or two for $30.
With beauty lines such as Molton Brown, Paula Dorf, Fresh, Bloom and Stuf, Brockwell also thinks she delivers products that customers can’t find in the Richmond market. There’s also a soap and candle line from Primal Elements and candles from Tipton Charles. Eighty varieties of soaps are presliced and available at Soak. Rather than sell the plethora of prestige or mass fragrances available, Soak sticks to a fragrance bar where there are 60 oils to create custom blends. A trained staff provides free makeovers and minifacials.
Brockwell, a former manager with The May Department Stores Co., also worked in a shopping center development where she first saw the growing demand for upscale bath and body shops. “Part of my job was to identify trends in the market,” she said.
That experience helped her realize a mall site was right for Soak. Although she said some of her retail pals in Carytown faulted her for taking her boutique concept to a mall, she believes that she’s re-created the aura of a downtown store in a shopping center.
During the holidays, employees stood outside of the mall store singing reworked words to the 12 Days of Christmas — complete with gift selections from inside the store. “This mall had the right demographics for our store and it didn’t have a high-end specialty bath store,” she said. Sephora, the closest competitor, is in another shopping center in Richmond.
In addition to thriving as an independent operator, Brockwell also has been able to create what she said is a profitable e-commerce business. Her Web site, gosoak.com, offers the full array of products sold in the store and helps support the new distribution center. There’s also an area called “Tub Talk” for devotees to discuss favorite products. Without the funds to spend heavily in advertising the Web site, Brockwell slathered the address on packages, mailings and all other materials within the store. “Through word of mouth, we’ve built quite a following,” she added. To advertise the store, Brockwell mostly uses radio and local print. She said she devotes 7 percent of sales to advertising. Celebrity visits — such as actor Jay Mohr — haven’t hurt business, either, admitted Brockwell.

Vowing to make sure that grocery stores maintain their fair share of the health and beauty care business, newly installed chairman of the General Merchandise Distributors Council, Jeff Manning, said the organization will continue to provide its members with ammunition to survive in a brutally competitive market.
Manning, who is vice president of nonfoods for Fleming Companies Inc., said supermarkets need to keep a fresh approach to health and beauty, especially as new competitors for those dollars surface. He cited 7-Eleven and its efforts last Christmas with cosmetics and gift items, as an example of stepped-up competition. One study being conducted by GMDC that he hopes can give food chains a leg up is a Women’s Well-Being Merchandising study that will be released in the fall. Manning made his comments at a luncheon last Friday, where he took over the gavel from outgoing chairman Duane Nizinksi of Spartan Stores Inc. “There is tremendous opportunity for our members to continue to build upon their success in health and beauty care and general merchandise,” concluded Manning.

Eckerd Corp. has named Jeff Thompson as vice president of marketing. That role was previously held by Lorraine Coyle, who left to join L’Oreal. Thompson, who will report to Enzo Cerra, senior vice president of merchandising and marketing, was formerly director of advertising for Randall’s Food Markets Inc. in Houston.

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