A HEARTLAND TOUCH

Byline: Laura Klepacki

NEW YORK — With its red-and-white- checkered awnings and quaint wooden fixtures, Bath & Body Works has brought a piece of the heartland to malls across America.
Yet the casual hominess belies the impact that the brand’s playful packaging, yummy scents and product innovation has played in elevating bathing from a chore to an act of self-indulgence, with B&BW churning up a $1.5 billion business along the way.
Since the brand’s start in a small boutique in Cambridge, Mass., with marketers driving van-loads of product from its New Albany, Ohio, headquarters, the company has expanded into a 1,200-store chain, each averaging 1,500 to 1,800 square feet, with 125 new units slated for this year.
Hard to believe, but Bath & Body Works executives say they are just rolling up their sleeves. Beth Pritchard, president and chief executive officer, said B&BW still only represents about 5 percent of the total $26 billion personal care market in which it’s competing.
“In other words, we have enormous potential,” said Pritchard during a presentation to investors last fall.
In an interview this week, Pritchard was more definitive about future goals and initiatives under way, intended to double sales over the next five years.
“We certainly believe we can grow to a $3 billion-plus brand,” said Pritchard. The plan includes building the store base to 2,000, while also expanding “the depth and breadth of our product offering.”
Continued Pritchard, “We believe that e-commerce can increase our volume.” So, on the board for next year is the launch of a Bath & Body Works site.
Meanwhile, to drive more customers into existing stores, the company is going forward this fall with the introduction of a Bath & Body Works magalog — a cross between a magazine and a catalog. The concept had been in test for two years. “We’ve been experimenting mailing around key holidays, such as Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day,” added Pritchard. The magalog will be mailed to homes and will contain product information as well as editorial content. Topics could include “how to take care of skin or hair and the importance of fragrance in your home and life,” said Pritchard.
In doing so, the company is putting its promotional dollars behind a vehicle that is consistent with its brand image, rather than a traditional print and broadcast advertising campaign, said Pritchard.
“Normal TV or print is not intimate enough with us,” explained Pritchard. “We don’t want to diffuse the brand image.”
While its core sales base is still in fragranced lotions and gels, over its nine-year history, the company has expanded into antibacterial washes, color cosmetics, aromatherapy and sun care collections and even drew up something for young girls with Art Stuff, offering both color cosmetics and bath and body items. “A key strategy for us is to offer something for everyone in our market, which includes eight-year-olds to 75-year-old women. We are very conscious to narrow the sub-brands.
“We are trying to build our brand in an appropriate manner, so that the customer has a relationship with the brand. We truly look at each customer segment both for psychographics and demographics and continue to bring in new customers with sub-brands that are right within the overall umbrella.”
Every sub-brand introduced has a market and also follows the B&BW blueprint, said Pritchard. All collections must be healthy, natural and maintain a “good for you” theme, with gifts and products that represent the heartland.
But as anyone who’s shopped a B&BW knows, the ubiquitous product testers and soft-selling sales associates go a long way in promoting purchases. On a recent visit to a Wayne, N.J., store, a clerk suggested trying various scented items and explained the promotions of the day.
With many B&BW items looking like decorations, a checkout clerk scanning a new soap, shaped like a fruity dessert, playfully reminded the purchaser that it is supposed to be used, not displayed in the home.
That is something that Pritchard wants to stress and is part of the motivation behind its multiple pricing offers.
“Our strategy has been, no matter what product you purchase, you will use it daily. Our strategy is to effect daily usage — we don’t want to have decorative items that just sit there.”
For that reason, the company is continuously changing product offerings to reflect the season. And even its stable of everyday fragrance items is refreshed at least every 18 months. On any given day, a typical store will be offering some 1,500 items in some 30 or 40 scents.
Hoping to duplicate the bath phenomenon, B&BW has begun the expansion of its White Barn Candle Co., which had been a test concept for 1 1/2 years. Fifty stores are on board for this year. “It has developed its own brand identity — in customers’ minds it stands for outstanding candles in both fragrances and forms.” For Easter, White Barn offered a candle that looked like a jar of jelly beans.
Pritchard recognizes that B&BW has created a merchandising model that is closely watched by competitors. B&BW is cited as one reason several drugstore and discount chains have begun to test new ways to merchandise bath and body and cosmetics, and develop private label lines.
But she is not going to take her eye off the ball. “From day one, we have said everything within our stores, from merchandising to products, has to be brand-right. They have to work from a customer’s shopping convenience and product knowledge aspect, and we have to delight the customer. I look at those three things more than what Wal-Mart is doing.”
Because of its vertically integrated business model, B&BW has become notorious for speeding new products into its stores. Sometimes it even catches its own employees off guard.
As noted by the Wayne, N.J., checkout clerk, scanning another soap she had not seen before, “This company always surprises me.”