Can Boots’ new Covent Garden store help it compete with beauty brands and department stores? John Ryan reports.

Beauty is an increasingly competitive sector. Department stores are leaning on it as a footfall driver, brands are selling direct to consumer more and traditional players such as Boots are feeling the pinch.

The opening of Boots’ new flagship store on Covent Garden’s Long Acre last week was heralded as a major step forward in its bid to reinvigorate beauty. And it’s certainly given top billing in the shop. With wellness, pharmacy and an optician on the first floor, the way was left clear for the ground floor to be devoted entirely to beauty (with the exception of haircare).

Boots has followed the department store road. This means the first thing a shopper encounters is the beauty hall, largely because margin, product volume and supplier contribution make it something of a no-brainer as far as in-store location is concerned.

But given what has been done and the cost of trading on Long Acre (which proved too much for a busy Marks & Spencer when it closed on this site in 2018), does the Boots beauty hall measure up against its big rivals?

Boots, Long Acre

If the name were removed from the door, shoppers might be forgiven for thinking they were entering a standalone beauty emporium as they step across the store’s Long Acre threshold.

Boots (2)

Boots in Covent Garden mimics a standalone beauty emporium at first sight

From front to back the floor is composed of a series of branded beauty islands, ranging from Boots-owned skincare brand Liz Earle to the retailer’s stalwart No7 range.

Pride of place goes to the recently launched Fenty range, by Rihanna, which is positioned close to the entrance.

But private label offers notwithstanding, there are also a number of big names that have agreed to take space at Boots owing to the location and the in-store semi-standalone beauty environment that has been created. This means shop-in-shop units for L’Oréal, Estée Lauder, Clinique and Nyx, among many others.

Walking the floor is something of a voyage of discovery as the sightlines across the space are interrupted by the mid-shop displays, many of which feature light boxes and digital screens, a feature that has been extensively trailed and used in the Boots stores in Seoul.

Boots (5)

Big-name brands add to the beauty hall feel of Boots in Covent Garden

Also worth noting are the ‘magic mirrors’, which permit shoppers to test-drive make-up virtually and are increasingly a standard for beauty halls that mean business.

At the back of the floor, a fragrance department is a multi-brand affair and is something of a departure from the Boots norm inasmuch as very upscale fragrances are not behind a counter.

This is the home of the biggest beasts, with names such as Gucci, Chanel and Dior all contributing to the feel of a beauty hall rather than a branch of Boots that has a beauty area within it.

However, the difference between the ground-floor beauty hall and the first-floor wellness area is stark and may lead to a mild sense of retail schizophrenia. Can a serious player in the beauty business really afford to have its gaze distracted by also being a pharmacy and an optician? Might there even be room for a standalone Boots beauty format?

Debenhams, Watford

Opened in 2018, Debenhams Watford predates the departure of former chief executive Sergio Bucher and to a large extent, it was one of the projects to which he nailed his colours.

Located in the extension to the Intu shopping centre, the beauty department/hall is on the store’s top floor (although there is a strong argument that it is the main entrance owing to the car park access) and is a thing of spotlights and shadows with a ‘Beauty Club’ at its heart.

It is little surprise that Beauty Club is given pole position in this store. Launched in September 2018, Beauty Club is about bringing together the online ‘community’ and the offline shopper, and in Watford, this means a translucent curtained area where beauty treatments, seminars and suchlike can be carried out.

It also means booking, which can be done online or with one of the receptionists who front the in-store operation. This is fine, but on the day of visiting, July 1, the digital screen advertising forthcoming events also carried details of things that happened on June 21 and 30, which did somewhat undermine the excitement.

That said, the overall ambience, consisting of a large number of shop-in-shops, did look as good as most other offers and gave the impression of something considerably more upscale than might perhaps have been anticipated in a Debenhams.

John Lewis, Leeds and Cambridge

The John Lewis stores in Leeds and Cambridge are part of a journey towards making beauty shopping an experience, according to Peter Cross, customer experience director.

“There’s no doubt that beauty is a big battleground,” he says, adding that the aim should be to bring “a little bit of joy” to shopping the category.

With this in mind, the Leeds and Cambridge stores have ‘Beauty Studios’ installed as part of the mix.

John Lewis & Partners - The Beauty Studio

John Lewis says the Studios have proved popular, with 900 appointments made in four weeks

These are places in which beauty advisors are on hand to help select the right cosmetics or beauty treatments and remove what Cross says can be a “slightly daunting” feel to the experience of beauty shopping.

Cross says in terms of making the department more attractive it is working, citing 900 appointments being made for beauty consultations (free for a 20-minute session) over the past four weeks.

He also says a lot of retailers are playing with ‘digital’ as part of the beauty offer, ranging from the John Lewis lipstick app, which allows shoppers to try on different shades of lip colouring virtually, to digital mirrors in the store.

Beauty Studio

John Lewis is trying to add ’joy’ to beauty shopping with its Beauty Studios

The store environments in Cambridge and Leeds are the outcome of a period that, since the revamp of the Oxford Street branch and the advent of the Birmingham store earlier in the decade, has seen beauty being expanded across the John Lewis portfolio, in line with the shift in the market as a whole.

Much of this is relatively low key; there is little that is flashy about a John Lewis beauty offer with sophistication being closer to the nub of things, irrespective of the brands that have taken space.

Like other areas in the retailer’s stores, it is the John Lewis name and feel that takes prominence, rather than the other way around.

Charlotte Tilbury, Covent Garden

One of the benefits of being a standalone beauty store is that shoppers know what you stand for. The Charlotte Tilbury store in Covent Garden is a case in point.

Charlotte Tilbury - Copy

There are other places in central London, Harrods and Selfridges among them, where the brand’s products can be accessed, but there are a lot of other things to look at while doing so.

From the moment you look at the Charlotte Tilbury store, from the giant red lips in the window to the golden Hollywood-age palm trees inside, there is no mistake about what you are looking at.

Once through the doors, you are caught in the brand’s world and the choice is to buy what’s on view or not, nothing else.

It’s the reason that standalone beauty shops continue to flourish and with Charlotte Tilbury having just opened its first store in Los Angeles, the future looks pastel pink or almost any other colour you might care to mention.

Superdrug, Oxford Street

For many, Superdrug and beauty conjures up images of something cheap and generally cheerful but possibly without the depth of knowledge or range that the other big players seek to provide.

The atmosphere of a typical branch is certainly supermarket-like with aisles and queuing systems as well as rows of checkouts.

Yet the Oxford Street flagship follows many of the rules that might be expected of either a standalone beauty outfit or a department store, particularly the in-store location of beauty being at the front.

Superdrug beauty studio 2

Even Superdrug is attempting to upgrade its ‘supermarket’ image

This branch might be seen as a convenience grab-and-go beauty shop with mainstream and inexpensive brands arranged by beauty category.

As well as the lotions and potions, the store also boasts nail and brow bars, moving it away perhaps from the supermarket aura.

Visually, Superdrug does not appear to be that special (although there is certainly glitz aplenty on the displays) in the way that other stores selling beauty are, which generally look swisher and carry a greater sense of sophistication.

It does, however, have a major part to play as a purveyor of entry-level beauty products and given that its owner is the Hong Kong-based conglomerate AS Watson, it has the backing required to continue developing.

It is also a digital player, with the Superdrug app enabling shoppers to scan in a store and collect points, as well as receiving offers relevant to a local branch, while on the move.

Boots, the beauty merchant?

Following the opening of the Covent Garden flagship does Boots, perhaps best known as the dominant force in the UK for health retail, now demonstrate true heft as a beauty merchant?

When set against its peers and if it were just the Long Acre store that was involved the answer would almost certainly be yes.

The challenge for Boots is how it takes what has been done in its new flagship and spreads the love across the rest of the chain, or the regional flagships at least.

With the backdrop of 200 high street store closures to come, even if Covent Garden is a sparkling, glitter-encrusted success, finding the money to do something similar elsewhere may prove difficult.