Navigating The Changing Retail Environment
Thia Breen Reveals New Efforts To Improve The Customer’s Shopping Experience
The Estée Lauder Companies’ Thia Breen, President, North America sat down with Beauty Fashion to discuss how the consumer is shopping today and ways that the vendor can adjust to a changing retail environment to keep the
Beauty Fashion: What did you identify as the major problems with the Beauty Advisor’s performance at-counter?
Thia Breen: It wasn’t really an issue with the Beauty Advisor so much as the way we had looked at how the consumer shopped, and she has changed the way she looks at her shopping experience. For instance, it was surprising to us that over 70% of the trips she makes to the Beauty Department are surrounding the idea of replenishment. The idea of grab-and-go or replenishment does not fit the current concept of our department store counters with Beauty Advisors, Makeup Artists and Beauty Consultants.
What we’ve done—certainly you’ve seen it in terms of the Clinique Even
Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector promotion, is try to take the best selling concepts, products and ideas and make them more available to the customer in terms of servicing her in this replenishment. While we understand the Beauty Advisor is there to provide a lot of information, support and service for this customer, we want to make sure that, in certain trips that are replenishment-oriented, we are servicing her.
BF: What goals did you set in upgrading the role of the Beauty Advisor?
TB: It is very important for us to emphasize to the Beauty Advisor, Beauty Consultant or Makeup Artist that our research clearly indicates the customer wants service but she wants it on her own terms. In certain instances, it may mean that the trips go into two very different buckets: browsing and replenishment. Of course, there may be times that she comes in for replenishment and ends up browsing. But, for the most part, it’s browsing or replenishment.
For some of our top performers who sell a great deal of product on an annual basis, which I certainly appreciate,
it means holding back and asking the customer, “Do you want a few minutes to look around?” She might respond, “Yes, give me a few minutes.”
It’s not constantly going for, if you will, selling the key product of the day. It means really finding out what kind of service the customer wants. We know that service can change by trip. She might walk in to Macy’s one day and be very interested in replenishing a product and be in and out in two minutes, or she might come back in a month and be very interested in finding out what is the season’s color story. She is not always going to be in a replenishment mode. What she needs in terms of browsing and replenishment can change from trip to trip.
BF: What is the importance of “high touch?” How does it define the service at-counter and what does it bring to the customer’s experience?
TB: Mrs. Estée Lauder invented “high touch.” One of my favorite pictures is of Mrs. Lauder standing behind the
counter, probably at Saks Fifth Avenue, in a hat, talking to about 20 very nicely dressed women, also with hats on, intently listening to her. Mrs. Lauder was able to tell the story about her product, and her customer was very interested in hearing about that product.
Obviously, that is not the way our customer gets her information anymore or really wants it that way. It now has to be more of a ‘pull’ mentality. From the touch point we have with the customer, she is now really more in charge of how we manage and navigate the sale than a ‘push’ of product. We can’t just ‘push’ the product anymore.
Customers have to want to hear about the product, hear the message. Certainly that’s what we’ve been seeing. The significant advertising that Clinique has been doing for Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector is one of the biggest television buys we’ve ever undertaken. It isn’t tied with gift-with-purchase or anything else. It’s clearly straight [information about] the product. And that is ‘pulling’ customers in and has been wildly successful. So, it is very important for us to really identify that this idea of just ‘pushing’ product at customers is not necessarily the way the customer wants service today.
BF: Have there been any changes in the Beauty Advisor’s role at-counter since you have brought new ways to conceptualize the position?
TB: There may be certain instances—and we’ll probably be testing this—where someone will be a sort of concierge at-counter. When the customer comes in, she can give a list or say, “These are the three products I’m interested in.” She doesn’t have to worry about being ‘upsold’—trying to sell her something else as well—when she walks up to the counter.
There are times when she wants that kind of service, and there are other times when she comes in and says, “I really need a moisturizer and want to talk to someone who is a skincare expert.” We’ve talked about ten different delineations of service that the customers want. The products she wants could be across brands. In other instances, the customer might say, “I’m very interested in a Clinique moisturizer,” and we will have an expert on hand.
We’ve gone to customers and asked them what kinds of service they want, and we’ll try to mirror that service in-store. Certainly, that won’t be as possible in smaller stores, but in larger stores, we will give service the way she wants it. It will require a different education.
BF: How have you changed training and education to improve the Beauty Advisor’s performance?
TB: Recently I was at a meeting with education teams for Estée Lauder and Clinique, and they were talking about the Beauty Advisors and Beauty Consultants finding out what kind of service the customer wants. Up to now, we’ve not necessarily seen that. There is a new energy around value. Whether the customer has changed forever or whether it’s just a recessionary recovery period, all counters have really taken a look at how we price things.
Oftentimes, when the customer came to the counter, there wouldn’t be prices on anything, because we relied on the Beauty Advisors to tell them the cost. Now, at Estée Lauder counters, you might see a sign on the mascara tower that says, “Mascaras starting at $19.50.” All of a sudden, ten people in a day are saying, “You’re kidding; mascaras starting at $19.50.” They had no idea of the pricing of these products.
We can’t be so arrogant anymore about showing smaller sizes. We’ve always taken these smaller sizes and
put them in drawers. I couldn’t get our retail partners to even order smaller sizes. In terms of fragrances, everyone had the idea that the customer will only buy the 1.7 oz. or 3.4 oz. size, and that’s not really the case. We saw this last December when Estée Lauder had three different fragrances starting at $29.50 for .5 oz. A group of top performers during last year’s holiday season admitted that in years past, those smaller sizes never would have made it out of the stockroom.
However, when the customer looks at $29.50 for a .5 oz. size and then looks at the prices for the 1.7 oz. and
3.4 oz., she thinks that the value really is in the larger size. But we need to give her those choices and not just
have the larger sizes available. Some customers like to have 15 different fragrances on their bureau and don’t want
the bigger sizes.
We have also seen this desire for value in luxury skincare. La Mer is a very prestigious product and brand for us, but the complexion of that business has changed, too. I was recently in a Neiman Marcus store and found that the La Mer business had responded nicely and had good growth numbers. I asked, “Tell me about this.” They were selling a lot more of the 1 oz. size, which is the smaller size La Mer. And then I asked, where would that 1 oz. have been two years ago, and they responded, “Oh, in the drawer. We wouldn’t have even shown it.” Now they have it on the tester unit lit from the bottom.
We’ve gotten entire groups within a mall in one room—Neiman Marcus, Dillard’s, Nordstrom, Macy’s—and talked to them about value. It’s interesting that, as much as you would think that the BAs from the Neiman’s store are not concerned about value, they are the first ones to say, “My customers are very concerned about value today.”
It’s interesting to have a cross fertilization among the retailers so they can see that their customers are all really saying the same thing.
We talk a lot about how the customer is in charge, and we have to give her these choices in terms of value,
so certainly that is one of our messages in education. The other message we share with Beauty Advisors and Beauty Consultants is in terms of browsing and replenishment. We educate them that sometimes the customer wants to be in and out in a minute. Find out if the customer is in a hurry and just get the product and ring it up.
If you have a product launch, you don’t have to talk about it to each and every customer. It may not be appropriate for a certain customer. That might not be the trip type that she is on today. If she’s in there for replenishment, she needs to be in and out, and that is the kind of service we need to offer her.
BF: Have the changes you’ve brought about improved the Beauty Advisor’s job performance?
TB: What we’ve seen is a growth in terms of our sales. Our business is outstanding, and we’re gaining market share with our retail partners. We’ve seen that the customer is responding, and the way we know that is in terms of how our business is much improved from a year ago. Certainly, this is the first year for us to have the North American Affiliate, and the reported numbers are very good. We are very much on plan and feeling great about the prospects for the future.
BF: Are you seeing higher caliber candidates aspiring to be Beauty Advisors?
TB: First of all, we are seeing a reduction in turnover. We are being much more deliberate about making sure we are supporting our teams at the counter. If you come in to a store and make a great connection with a Beauty Advisor today, come back in a month and she’s not there, it is not good.
We’ve made a very conscious effort to reduce turnover. We’ve also seen an increase in the level of applicants we have for our brands. All in all, it’s an increase in service level that we are endorsing with the stores.
Someone can apply [for a Beauty Advisor] position online and, with the social networking and digital media, there is a lot more opportunity available for the applicants to see what stores are available and what brands are available. We are getting a lot more applicants online.
We have people in the field who have previously been Account Executives or been in education, and we have
them certified to conduct interviews. It is a very flexible work schedule for them. In some instances, they might
have three interviews in a day or schedule eight interviews in a day. They are the ones doing the screening. They have great knowledge of what it takes, so they have been a great support to us. Each brand has different names for them, but they all have been in the field at one time or another, so they can listen with a third ear to the kind of answers they are getting.
BF: How is The Estée Lauder Companies trying to make the Beauty Advisor’s position an entry point to a career path?
TB: I was at two sales meetings recently for Origins and Clinique. At some point in both meetings, someone
would ask all of these senior executives, “Please stand up if you started behind the counter.” And, 90% of the
audience stood up.
It’s rare that someone who starts selling cosmetics and stays in cosmetics for some period of time is not bitten by
the bug. So, the Beauty Advisor can either stay in that role or work their way up through the department store world
to become a Cosmetic Department Manager with our retail partners or through our ranks to become an Account Executive and/or work in education or planning. It’s very clear that if you start behind the counter, there is a pathway to becoming a senior member in the field.
BF: What has been the retailers’ reaction to your efforts to upgrade the Beauty Advisor’s role? Have there been any joint efforts between The Estée Lauder Companies and retailers to produce better service at-counter?
TB: The retailers have heartily endorsed this program. These Beauty Advisors are on the stores’ payrolls, but we’re great supporters of them. The retailers love the concept of “high touch” service in the stores.
We always say to a Store Manager, “If we’re not giving you the best service in your store, we owe you more
than that.” We believe that if a customer has a great experience in the Cosmetic Department, they will have a great experience in that store. We are at the mall entrance with great positioning from our retail partners. We want to make sure what we give is the best shopping experience in that store.
Between our Education and Sales Departments, we spend a lot of time in the stores, so we have strong partnerships with these retailers. It’s a mutual development of these teams. The Store Managers take as great an interest in the development of “high touch” and service as we do.
BF: What more needs to be done to keep the Beauty Advisor’s role relevant in today’s retail environment?
TB: As I have established, most of our leadership in the field comes from behind the counter. When you start on a brand and know that your Account Executive started behind the counter, it’s a great endorsement for what can happen in your career as well.
We’re talking about different roles evolving in these large size stores. It can go from being a concierge to a skincare expert. We will have an array of roles that are currently not being executed at store level, and that will certainly be an important move forward.