Across the beauty industry, brands’ top-line sales have been hit hard by social distancing orders and subsequent store closures, as well as by slower consumer demand driven by unemployment and economic uncertainty. According to NPD data, the prestige beauty market has been declining a double-digit percentage year-over-year since mid-March. Though beauty brands across all segments are reckoning with a new normal, luxury lines with extremely high, premium pricing and limited, high-touch distribution would appear to be vulnerable; oddly, this linear thinking doesn’t hold up.
“We’re seeing that interest in beauty is on the rise, and consumers are now showing increase[d] attention to beauty as of late March,” said Laura Gerchik, Biologique Recherche U.S. general manager. “The interest in skin care is increasing as consumers are adjusting to their new lifestyle at home and performing more self-care treatments. They are seeking solutions in beauty products and guidance from us as specialists.”
Biologique Recherche is arguably one of the most sought-after beauty brands. Its P50 1970 phenol-charged product that promises a high-end facial in a bottle has attracted a cult following; it reportedly makes up 50% of the company’s $55 million in sales. Despite its fans and a new investment secured last fall, the French luxury spa brand is not readily available at beauty retailers like Sephora or Ulta, nor at department stores; Biologique Recherche operates 40 of its namesake spas globally and its products are sold in about 150 independent spas. Online, the company requires customers to log-in to view its prestige pricing; bottles of its P50 1970 start at $68, according to the website of Paul Labrecque Salon, a New York-based salon and spa.
Without being able to offer in-person spa treatments, and while avoiding promotional pricing and sales gimmicks, Gerchik said the company is relying on its social channels to offer virtual consultations and keep sales steady. “Our social channels are bringing us closer to our community in an unprecedented way, and we are listening to their needs and requests and responding as best as we can,” said Gerchik. “We are remaining true to our core values of being a professional skin-care brand available through expert spas, but we’re adapting to the situation … to drive consumers to our network of partners.”
Though spas and salons are not open for the foreseeable future, Biologique Recherche is driving customers to partners’ e-commerce sites through social media. On April 3, the global Biologique Recherche Instagram account launched an in-feed video series dubbed “Skin Mentor Tips” featuring estheticians, rather than influencers that most beauty companies rely on. The first installment has seen over 11,000 views; the account has 122,000 followers.
Paul Grasso, the co-owner of the Paul Labrecque Salon, said phone inquiries for Biologique Recherche at its two locations have quadrupled since mid-March. The virtual consultations the salon offers for Biologique Recherche products, specifically (though social media and its own e-commerce site), have surpassed 800 and online sales for the brand “are up significantly.”
“We were the first in the U.S. to launch Biologique Recherche. [The brand] was always rooted in service and treatments, so customers could understand the techniques to use the products,” he said of Biologique Recherche’s chemical formulations and methodical ways of applying products. “It never wanted to be be a mass market retail brand and was selective and difficult to access, but now that women have the time and brain power to learn how to use the brand at home, they are.”
Brands like La Prairie and La Mer are more readily available at department stores, but have equally luxe positioning. Their sales online have been standouts without beauty counter support said Stacie Bortek, svp and gmm of cosmetics, fashion accessories and fine jewelry at Bloomingdale’s.”La Mer, La Prairie and Sisley have been performing strong for us online, thanks to driving marketing exposure [via Bloomingdale’s company’s emails] and sampling [products],” she said. “Our online business in beauty is exceeding expectations, particularly in skin care. Customers are stocking their favorite items, plus looking for new ways to relax and rejuvenate at home during this difficult time.” La Prairie and La Mer were not available for comment.
But newer luxury brands are having somewhat mixed results, primarily because of the lack of support from big retailers even when customer demand continues to surge. “Outside of December, March was our biggest sales month with Saks and Neiman Marcus,” said Uma Oils founder Shrankhla Holecek, who sells her products with the aforementioned department stores, as well as Goop and a bevy of luxury hotel spas like The Beverly Hills Hotel. “The purchase sentiment in the luxury market is that people are still buying on our DTC site and Goop, but volume order has dried up about 20%.”
What Holecek is referring to is the fact that retailers are shifting store inventory to e-commerce and extending payment terms. Holecek reported that Neiman Marcus has not placed any new orders since late March, even though the brand can see that inventory is light on Neiman Marcus’ e-commerce site. And though Saks Fifth Avenue is continuing to place orders, Uma Oils has stopped sending products to the company because its payments are delinquent. Sales via Uma Oils’ spa partnerships have varied since locations remain closed. Holecek said that as they’re more one-on-one in communications and do not fall under an auto-replenishment cycle, she is waiting until the end of the month to gauge that impact.
“We are seeing the revenue paradigm shift, and the person who was buying at Neiman’s was maybe just buying because she liked the rewards there, but it is difficult because this is money coming out of my pocket,” she said. “Then again, it’s not just me. If these retailers are overextended and never come back that effects the whole industry.”
That’s why Biologique Recherche is sticking with its plan of supporting an independent network of spas and not going much broader, despite current closures, explained Gerchik. “We are focusing our attention on supporting our existing network of spas, but we’re also turning to the future … growing our professional partnerships and bringing Biologique Recherche to new markets.”
As for how consumer demand for luxury beauty will fare going forward, Grasso said, “Biologique Recherche is a brand that was very insider-y for long time and only reached a tipping point about four or five years ago. They continue to ship orders, even if it’s a little delayed, and support their partners the best way they can. I’m not really worried about now, but once unemployment sets in, in one to two months, then we will really know how much people are buying and can buy.”