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It’s time to step up chain drug’s skin care and beauty game

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I usually don’t mince words, but it is getting more and more challenging to write these opinion pieces with confidence. The difficulty is the two-month lead time between when I hand in my opinion and when you, gentle readers, absorb what I have to say. Now, amid our nation’s reopening, we are experiencing COVID surges in multiple states. These conditions make guessing the market conditions at the time of this reading a bit murkier than a prognosticator like myself prefers.

Steven Robins

Some of the early trends in the economy, like the strong demand for new cars and the return to bars and restaurants in force are encouraging, but counterintuitive, given the still weak employment picture. But some of the over-enthusiastic pub crawlers are causing states to slow reopenings. Further, discussions with several of the New England Consulting Group’s clients in categories related to visible personal care indicate that COVID has disrupted some long-held usage patterns. Some of these were obvious to Zoom meeting participants. It was pretty clear that shaving became unnecessary during the peak of the crisis. Long pants took a significant hit in favor of shorts. It was less obvious, however, that average contact lens wearing days per week declined. People either got more comfortable wearing glasses or simply did not put in contacts as often since they weren’t leaving the house. Similarly, and more to the point of this piece, multiple cosmetic segments declined as we all hunkered down and went virtual.

Despite all of this uncertainty, there are steps that chain drug retailers can take to compete better with the expanding competitive set. It is time to remind consumers that the channel is more than a place to buy masks, hand sanitizers, thermometers, wipes, over-the-counter products and, yes, even toilet paper. It is time to remind them that of the strength in the skin care and beauty segments as well.

Now is the moment. With consumers increasing personal interaction again, publicly visible categories like beauty and skin care need to reassert themselves and adapt to face masks and the inevitable ebbs and flows between physical shopping and e-commerce. While several chains have in-store beauty advisors to help educate and engage consumers, we must continue to improve the way we compete with the ever-growing list of e-commerce competitors and specialty channels competing for the skin care and beauty dollar.

With all of this in mind, the following is a framework to think about your chain’s beauty ­strategy:

  • Optimize the loyalty data that you have to increase skin care and beauty sales for your shoppers and their families.
  • Make your app skin care and beauty friendly.
  • Treat skin care and beauty in-store the way you treat the pharmacy and O-T-C.

Keeping the edge in loyalty ­programs — While loyalty programs and CRM targeted promotions have become commonplace across retailers and retail channels, the specialty beauty chains, department stores and beauty e-tailers are incredibly narrow in their understanding of their consumers. After all, they have no visibility into the broader health and wellness behavior of the shopper. Additionally, the digitally native brands that are working hard to customize skin care and beauty regimens also fall short of the perspective that today’s chain drug retailers have embedded in their shopper cards and loyalty programs.

Anyone who has scanned their CVS app when buying a pack of gum has come to expect 14 coupons ranging from razor blades to greetings cards print off the register. There is no more transparent illustration that there is plenty of purchase data from categories outside of beauty and skin care available to savvy chain drug merchants. The level of profiling available is accurate enough to determine whether we are single or married, have families, children, etc. As a result, the opportunity to drive purchases for the consumer’s entire family is unmatched.

Categories such as sun care and acne, as well as special considerations such as skin sensitivity underlying medical conditions and pediatric usage, offer excellent adjacent opportunities to increase the value of the total market basket.

Making your app skin care and beauty segment friendly — NECG shopped the leading drug chains’ apps, and one thing is clear, they make it easy to register prescriptions, find medical care at in-store clinics or through telemedicine, and communicate with a pharmacist. Shopping the skin care and beauty segments appears to be an afterthought. While you can buy through the e-commerce feature, there is little distinct or interactive about the experience. The mass merchandisers were similar. While both were easy, buying a wrench and buying cosmetics was virtually the same process. It should be noted that Target had some integration with its Instagram feed, but you were well into the app before it was visible.

Contrast this with Sephora, where you can text chat with other shoppers or customer service as you shop to get information, compare products, etc. Blue Mercury has an expert chat as soon as you log in. In short, they approach beauty the way chain drug approaches pharmacy/O-T-C, and it’s time the channel stepped up. Leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and, in the case of Target, Walgreens and CVS, the live beauty advisors they have deployed, allows chains to delight their shoppers and fight back against the competition.

Treating the skin care and beauty segments like the pharmacy and O-T-C — As mentioned above, several retailers have already seen the value of staffing key stores with beauty advisors. These informed intermediaries are a critical link in unlocking the potential value of the beauty and skin care categories. After all, these are categories where the rate of innovation is a blur compared to the pharmacy and O-T-C world. The number of new items, formulations, colors, fragrances and claims is staggering. Further, many of these products can be used alone but are best used in combination as part of a regimen.

As a channel with deep experience in offering consumers professional help through pharmacists, optometrists and, more recently, through in-store clinics, adding beauty advisors seems like a logical next step. Further, coordinating beauty advisor activity with manufacturers in the same way that promotional events and education are organized with the pharmacy department can provide significant support for beauty advisor services in an increasing number of stores. Ultimately, just like the pharmacist, the beauty advisor becomes an ambassador for the chain’s brand while driving revenue and consumer ­satisfaction.

While the times are uncertain, we know that people turn to the chain drug channel in a crisis for functional necessities. With the right attention to consumers’ needs, we can get them to turn to the channel for their enhancive ones as well.

Steven Robins a managing partner and principal in the New England Consulting Group. He can be contacted at sfr@necg.net.


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