Byline: Pete Born

NEW YORK — The customer has always been right, but now she’s calling the shots, too.
Following a decade of market maturation and flattening potential — an era when it became imperative to excite an increasingly apathetic consumer — it was perhaps inevitable that the customer would move into the driver’s seat. She started by strongly influencing marketing and has ended up picking ingredients.
Custom blending, an old idea, has gained new life — at least in specialty stores. There is a small, but noticeable movement turning into a trend.
“Now what is happening is that we’re seeing a big trend in treatment,” said Mary Lavo, divisional merchandise manager at Barneys New York.
Historically, Prescriptives paved the way in the early Eighties by custom-blending powders and foundations. But since then, prestige manufacturers have begun offering such comprehensive ranges of foundation that finding the right shade match is no longer such a problem, Lavo noted.
New opportunities lie in other product categories. “The wave of the future is in treatment and fragrance,” said Lavo, noting that there is a large market for tailoring skin care products to individual needs. “So you’re in L.A.,” she said hypothetically. “And you want more SPF in your moisturizer or cleanser.”
On the fragrance front, Creed has picked up the custom-blending baton by mixing anywhere from two to five fragrances together. Lavo noted that the unit sale on the Creed custom blending can average $500 to $700. Creed is setting up custom blending counters in Barneys Beverly Hills and Madison Avenue stores this month. In April counters will be added to Bergdorf Goodman and four Neiman Marcus doors.
Jane Scott, vice president of cosmetics at Bloomingdale’s, noted that there is a belief in the market that the customer wants product tailored to her personal needs. She pointed to Prescriptives’ longstanding practice of customizing, Elizabeth Arden’s computerized foundation matching and also moves from other vendors — such as Three Custom Color Specialists and the By Terry shops at Saks Fifth Avenue.
The next step, Scott speculated, may be more intelligent products, perhaps a smart skin care, which can behave differently on skins and will dispense the right amount of ingredient.
Scott noted that one difficulty posed by customization is that the process is very labor intensive and therefore the question arises: how much volume must be done to justify the cost?
Executives at the small specialty stores assert that that is exactly the reason why customization is right for them: They have a customer who is used to being pampered with generous levels of service. Last October, Bergdorf Goodman put in a Prescriptives boutique that added customization for lipsticks and glosses, in addition to foundations and powders. The lipsticks retail for $30 and the glosses for $15.
Bergdorf’s also carries Anne Semonin, a French line that custom blends skin care, and Helena Rubinstein, which tailors its Force C vitamin C product.
Patricia Saxby, the divisional merchandise manager of cosmetics at Bergdorf’s, said this approach strikes a chord with the store’s prime customer. She noted that the custom blending consumer is probably not a trendy customer, but one who is very committed to finding just the right shade or texture. “They are serious about color and skin care,” she said, “and are willing to invest.”
Laura Saio, cosmetics and fragrance buyer at Henri Bendel, said the store started custom blending for lips and cheeks with Three Custom Color about 10 months ago, and a repeat business has developed.
The store also is pioneering holistic skin and body care with Naturopathica. The store also sold a do-it-yourself lip gloss kit from Color Lab, which came in a paint can and retailed for $50.
Fred Segal Essentials in Santa Monica sells a Luminique custom blended foundation, and the store also carried the Color Lab lip gloss kit. But Robin Coe-Hutshing, the store’s owner and director, questioned how much of a market there is for custom-mixed color in an era when there are so many cosmetics brands offering so many shades.
“People buying lipstick or foundation want to take it home,” she said, noting that, historically, some custom vendors have mailed the resultant product to customers. Tailored skin care, however, is a more interesting prospect.
Anne Carullo, vice president of marketing at Prescriptives, said that customizing lipsticks allows women to build a color wardrobe. It also gives them a chance to replicate old shades that are no longer available.
The lipstick shades are matched by computer, a feature that answers some market criticism that it’s difficult to re-create the same shade because personnel behind the counter changes all the time. “Clearly, without the computer you’re dealing with havoc,” Carullo said. “It becomes ad hoc.”
The Bergdorf counter has made impressive strides, with custom blending contributing 3 to 5 percent of Prescriptives sales in what is known as a $1 million door for the Estee Lauder division.
Custom blending helped build Prescriptives in the early Eighties, and now it is being used to stage a comeback for the brand. Carullo said the custom blending part of the business grew by 20 percent last year, and executives are contemplating a rollout of the lipstick boutiques in perhaps as many as 100 doors in the next two to three years.
Carullo said the phenomenon is indicative of a larger truth. “If you don’t have the customer at top of mind and don’t provide service, they will go somewhere else. You have to have something above everyone else.”

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