Byline: Chantal Tode

New Paltz, N.Y. — In an era of personal care megabranding, some niche players are finding that they can compete with the Oil of Olays and the Neutrogenas by staying nimble and taking opportunities where they find them.
Take Kiss My Face, for example, which is a range of bath products, sun care, deodorants, shaving creams and cosmetics made with botanical extracts. There’s even a Kiss My Face for kids and an organic skin care line called Kiss Organics.
Co-founders Steve Byckiewicz and Bob MacLeod got the idea for a natural-based beauty brand from a bar of olive oil soap they started importing from Greece in the early Eighties, when the practice of using plant extracts as ingredients was still just for aging hippies.
Their offbeat approach was immediately signaled by the choice of a name for their company as well as by the firm’s business strategy, which bypasses traditional — and expensive — corporate marketing strategies, such as extensive advertising and market research. The partners relied instead on good old-fashioned word of mouth to build the brand.
There have been a few bumps along the way, such as when the Kiss My Face warehouse and distribution center burned to the ground in 1997 and several launches flopped. But, in general, the line has met with enough success to warrant the addition of nearly 150 stockkeeping units and to push its distribution to 12,000 drugstores and specialty stores.
Then last fall, an opportunity to take the Gardiner, N.Y.-based company in a new direction — retailing — fell into Byckiewicz and MacLeod’s laps. As big supporters of the New Paltz area, they jumped at a chance to open a company store in Gardiner, a town just to the south. The opportunity came in the form of a new mall, the Water Street Market, that was soon to open at the far end of the town’s Main Street shopping strip.
The Kiss My Face store, with its colorful design scheme, modern design accents and lots of testers spread around, attempts to be an inviting and enjoyable experience for shoppers.
“Retail is fun,” said MacLeod. “There’s a hands-on element to it, and that gives us the opportunity to be directly in touch with the consumer. The idea is to get people in to test the products,” he continued, adding that no one leaves the store without a free sample.
MacLeod and Byckiewicz designed the interior of the store themselves, buying much of the furniture at several flea markets in Manhattan. The best finds include an Art Deco checkout counter and several pieces by Fifties designer Russell Wright. They also had a builder replicate a cabinet by Prouve, another designer from the Fifties.
The walls and accents are painted pale purple, green and yellow, while the floor is made from planks of birch plywood covered with polyurethane, giving the store a bright and airy feeling that complements the blue sky and mountains visible from its windows.
Some of the more whimsical touches in the store include a disco ball, a red sofa in the shape of a pair of lips and a sink, where shoppers can test the line’s many different bar soaps.
Initially, only existing Kiss My Face products such as the best-selling Peaceful Patchouli bath line and Kiss Organics were stocked in the store.
“We let it go with our existing line for the first few months to see if sales would reflect our national sales — and they do,” said MacLeod, explaining that the national hits and misses are also the store’s winners and losers. A few of the top performers are the brand’s bar soaps and its shaving products.
The products are sold at full retail — $2 for a bar of soap and $15 for a Kiss Organics vitamin C cream — so none of the company’s existing outlets in the area are undersold.
In the first few months, sales topped out at a few hundred dollars per day, but now that figure is closer to $1,000 a day, said MacLeod. That’s a pretty good return when you consider that the rent is only $30 a day and that the company hasn’t advertised or promoted the store in any way.
The real reason for the store, though, isn’t profits, but to be a testing ground for new products, said MacLeod.
“Shelf space is at such a premium, but with the store we can test a new soap line, for example, and put in 12 different scents and pick the best four to bring to retail,” he explained. “We can save a lot of money that way.”
This fall, the company will test a major introduction in the store. “We’re launching a new line of color cosmetics, and we’ll put it in the store and monitor it to see which are the best-selling items,” said MacLeod. “We think sales will go up a lot just because of color — that’s a real draw.”
With virtually no previous experience as retailers, MacLeod admits that he and Byckiewicz didn’t get everything right the first time around.
“When you walk in, you don’t go anywhere special,” he stated. “There should be something about us and how the product came about. The store should tell more of a story.”
For example, he thinks that shoppers should know more about the Peaceful Patchouli line, which is the brand’s best-selling bath entry and was created at the request of a friend.
MacLeod also hopes to add some more excitement to the store by carrying micro-batches of no more than a 100 bottles of specially created formulas.
The company is also getting a taste of retail with another type of venue, a Kiss My Face Web site, “We do a gangbusters Web business,” noted MacLeod.
And based on the positive New Paltz experience, MacLeod said that he’d like to open more Kiss My Face stores.
“The idea of doing other stores is really intriguing,” he stated. “We’d probably have to partner with someone, because we are not really in the retail business.”

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