Wendy Liebmann

During her presentation, Liebmann discussed the societal changes that have led to a transformation in the shopping habits of consumers.

If the incredibly fast pace of change in the beauty industry has you asking, “What the heck is going on?,” Wendy Liebmann, founder and president of WSL Strategic Retail and author of the frequently quoted WSL From the Edge Trend Letter, says you’re not alone. Running through the significant deals of the last 12 months — the alliance between J.C. Penney and Sephora, L’Oréal’s acquisition of The Body Shop, third-party brands in Bath & Body Works, just to name a few — Liebmann used the question as a refrain to highlight the unrelenting pace of change in her speech, “Reinventing Beauty in a Never Normal World,” also the title of her 2006 megatrend report.

During her presentation, Liebmann discussed the societal changes that have led to a transformation in the shopping habits of consumers, revealed what matters most to shoppers today and prescribed six rules for reinventing the beauty business.

“My head is spinning as we watch the American shopper go from drugstore to dollar store to discount store to department store and online and catalogues, too,” she said, citing statistics from the report. “What we’re seeing is American shoppers spinning the globe to a degree that we’ve never seen before.”

The world is changing so quickly, Liebmann explained, because of societal upheaval in the last six years — the bursting of the dot-com bubble; the terrorist attacks of 9/11; corporate, political and religious scandals; war, natural disasters; rising fuel prices.

“It is a never-normal world,” Liebmann said. “American consumers are telling us they don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and, as a result, they’re trying to take control of their life in the only way they know how.

“Guess what?” she continued. “For the most part, it’s where they go shopping, where they choose to spend their money everyday.” There are more shopping choices in beauty than ever before: 15 years ago, Liebmann tracked eight retail channels for the category; today, that number is 24.

Still, with all the transformations, “we are at the very beginning of a new shopping decade,” Liebmann said. To explain what today’s consumers are looking for, Liebmann created a fictional character, Prudence. “She is one heck of a prudent shopper,” Liebmann laughingly explained. “She has a prudent mind-set that is calculatingly price-conscious. That doesn’t mean she necessarily only wants the lowest price in town, but she certainly is smart enough to know what a good price and a good value is and that’s fueling her mind-set.”

This story first appeared in the May 26, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Today’s consumers want an easy shopping experience, but one that provides entertainment, too. Customer service is key. And if your product isn’t considered essential, they’re not buying it anymore. In the past two years, categories such as pets, health and food have risen in importance to women, Liebmann reported. But when it comes to beauty, only hair care and skin care are considered essentials; fragrance and color cosmetics are not.

“So what do we do in this ever-spinning, never-normal world when it comes to beauty?” asked Liebmann. “We talk a lot about reinventing beauty. But if we think we’ve been reinventing beauty for the last 20 years, I would suggest to you that what we’ve been doing is repeating beauty.”

To that end, Liebmann revealed her six rules for reinventing beauty:

  • Stop merchandising beauty as a commodity. As an example, Liebmann cited Target, which recently unveiled a revamped candy department she called “a beauty department bar none. It takes commodity brands like Hershey and M&M and puts them in a fashion mind-set,” she said. “Well, I want the best lipstick, thank you, and I can’t buy it in the same fabulous experience and gorgeous environment that I can buy candy in at Target.”
  • Don’t isolate the beauty category from the rest of the store. “It’s holistic; it’s about a fusion,” she said, citing the London department store Selfridges as an example, where beauty is merchandised on multiple floors, including in a nail salon in the fashion department, in a pharmacy on the top floor and in a tattoo parlor in the teen department.
  • Inspire the consumer. “It’s got to be experiential. It’s got to be inspirational. They’ve seen it all, they’ve done it all, they’ve shopped it all and they don’t know what tomorrow is going to look like, so you better inspire them,” Liebmann said. She singled out a recent promotional program at Le Bon Marché in Paris that integrated beauty and food. “It was so whimsical, it was so silly, it was so funny, that you just wanted to buy it all,” she said.
  • Newness counts. “Why do we think that if fashion stores like Zara and H&M and Mango deliver new merchandise into the stores every 10 days, that the consumer doesn’t expect that from us and will wait months and years and centuries, it seems, to see newness; real, discernible interest.”

  • Simplify the shopping experience, provide killer customer service and edit, edit, edit product selection. “It’s about service, it’s about easy, it’s about edited.”
  • Create a bond of trust with your consumer and don’t disappoint her. Here, Liebmann cited the airline industry, “where nobody trusts anybody any day,” she said. But then came Jet Blue, “who sort of took the Target model of expect more, pay less, and redefined an airline carrier.”

    “Repeating, repeating, repeating no longer works,” she concluded. “Reinventing beauty is a huge opportunity and a huge challenge, but a wonderfully embracing idea.”