TOUJOURS PROVENCE

Byline: Pete Born

NEW YORK — L’Occitane, the French bath, body and beauty company from Provence, is as close as one gets to a home-grown brand.
Olivier Baussan, the founder, has a tendency to rhapsodize about “the harvest” and recall stories from his youth about freshly distilled containers of lavender oil that were traded like gold. In one such tale, a young farmer bought a house with 60 kilos of oil.
These bits of folklore help differentiate the brand from its competition. L’Occitane, which owns fields in the south of France, has two harvests a year, reaping verbena and lavender. Each yield results in a new collection of products.
The collection of verbena products is marketed in L’Occitane stores in May and June, and the lavender line is merchandised in September and October. Like fine wine, when that year’s vintage is sold, it is gone.
An entire range of products is derived from the precious oil. The products from the current lavender crop include a 250-ml. shampoo for $12, a liter of linen water for $15, a 9-ml. solid perfume for $8.50, 20 incense sticks and a burner for $12 and potpourri for $15.
The harvest collections comprise only part of L’Occitane’s year-round assortment, but the yield they provide can be impressive. Stephanie Guinard, L’Occitane vice president based in New York, noted that last year, only the second year since the practice was started, the harvest products generated 20 percent of total sales volume during the months they were sold. Usually the harvest allotments last for six to eight weeks.
Baussan sees much more in the harvest than a marketing gimmick. To him, it is keeping a vital tradition alive. It recalls the era 23 years ago, when he was a university student and men went into the fields to practice the “noble trade” of picking the fragrant flowers with their hands.
Baussan, who gave an interview here last week, maintains that there’s a difference in the quality of oil between flowers that are hand picked and those that are harvested by machine. Pierre Moise, executive vice president and head of U.S. operations, added that when lavender is picked by hand, “it smells like the pure expression of the flower.” The machine- harvested variety has the character of a hybrid, he noted.
The executives see their earthy philosophy as suiting L’Occitane’s customer base. In spite of the fact that 70 percent of the company’s customers are women, Moise asserted that men do not see the stores as exclusively for women. Lavender has historically been used in perfume, but it also has a history as a men’s fragrance. It was known for its medicinal properties, with an ability to calm and relax, serve as an antiseptic and even soothe a sore throat.
Creating product is one thing, but merchandising it is another. During the 25 years L’Occitane has been in existence and the five years its been carving out a niche in the U.S., the company has been refining its approach.
In 1994, Reinold Geiger, who previously owned a packaging company, became L’Occitane’s principal owner, chairman and chief executive officer. During an interview here last November he revealed his long-range growth plans.
Geiger is credited with steering the company into retailing. In the early Nineties, the company had only a few stores; now it has close to 200 worldwide. He also took what was then a French company and made it international.
Now, L’Occitane operates 30 stores in the U.S. That number is slated to rise to 37 by the end of July and 47 by the end of the year.
Guinard said the strategy is to acquire prime locations in top malls and heavily trafficked streets. “But we do not need large boxes,” Moise interjected, pointing out that his 500-square-foot stores average over $1,000 a square foot in sales, some hitting $2,500.
Productivity comes from concentrating on training sales staff and heavy sampling, Moise continued. He focused on quality, and that means retaining sales talent, as well as putting it in the product — the high concentration of shea butter in many of the products is an example.
The company, which is privately owned, has bold plans for worldwide growth. A total of 100 stores is envisioned for the U.S. by the end of 2003. Plans have also been laid to expand the wholesale distribution. L’Occitane started with a single outside account, Barneys New York, in 1995. The number now stands at 200 doors, mostly trendy specialty and lifestyle stores like Ad Hoc in New York’s SoHo neighborhood and Fred Segal Essentials in Santa Monica, Calif. Executives envision expanding the wholesale distribution ultimately to 600 doors.
The company also does commerce on its own Web site and on Beautyjungle.com and Harrods online, as well as through mail order.
All this adds up to a red-hot growth trajectory. L’Occitane generated $51 million in sales worldwide as of last June, according to Moise. By this June, the number is expected to hit $75 million and Moise has his eye on $130 million by 2002.
The sheer breadth of the L’Occitane line — ranging from facial and body care and toiletries to aromatherapy and cosmetics to fragrance and men’s products — points to the entrepreneurial nature of the organization.
And Baussan refuses to stop probing at beauty’s outer edge. He has opened a series of olive oil stores, called Oliviers & Co., which are part of the L’Occitane group. There are 12 in Europe, and one opened in New York’s Grand Central Station last week.
The oil comes from small growers in Mediterranean countries. Some farmers produce as little 500 liters, and Baussan is proud to be working with them. “What really is important,” he said, “is to offer the customer rare things. When they are available in abundance, people get fed up with them.”