Mass Beauty Survives Christmas

It has been well documented that this past holiday season was one of the worst in more than 15 years.

It has been well documented that this past holiday season was one of the worst in more than 15 years. Somehow, mass marketers managed to squeak out with slightly better-than-expected beauty sales, led by fragrance and skin care, and clean sell-through on anything that screamed value.

Beauty fared better than general merchandise, according to a regional chain drugstore executive, citing that the poor economic condition led women to want to look better. Sales at this chain showed that “skin care was fairly healthy; cosmetics was not as good as skin care but it was not on the floor, either, and in hair care, we are seeing trade-off from high-end to medium- and low-end brands. Customers are cherry-picking brands on promotion, seeing how they can get the bargains,” the executive said, noting that depletions in cosmetics negatively affected sales, since many retailers are changing over their current sets to get ready for spring.

In some ways, holiday 2008 marked a return to categories that were strong five years ago in chain drugstores — and historically for the channel — such as fragrances and bath items.

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Perhaps the biggest surprise was a “decent” year in fragrances. CVS Pharmacy executives singled out celebrity fragrances as among its best items. The revival of Britney Spears as an artist also provided a lift to her scents. Other fragrances mentioned by a survey of top mass retailers included Hannah Montana, High School Musical and McGraw by Tim McGraw. A return to classics was seen in a spurt of sales for Charlie and even Dana scents, including English Leather. A few buyers said Shania Twain scents suffered somewhat from her lack of stage presence last year, but that Celine Dion items moved well.

Scents that were snapped up carried sales tags, retailers added. Many chains enacted sales before Christmas rather than waiting for the after-holiday blowout. Rite Aid, for example, had 50 percent off designer scents for a pre-Christmas promotion. Walgreens also had sales before the Yule, but drastic reductions came directly after Christmas Day. In its circulars prior to Christmas, Walgreens promoted select scents, such as Celine Dion fragrances Enchanting and Sensational; David Beckham at $10 off; classics including Giorgio Beverly Hills and Shalimar at 50 percent off, and gift sets like Antonio Banderas for $17.99. Designer scents were featured in advertising with the tag line, “Why pay department store prices?” There was an exclusive “only at Walgreens” of Davidoff Cool Water Freeze Me or Summer Fizz eau de toilette at $10 off.

The advertisement touted fragrances as a “great fit for everyone on lists.”

Prior to holiday, Duane Reade ran special loyalty card programs, but for the most part its promotional style mirrored its 2008 strategy. Post-holiday, however, Duane Reade’s fragrance aisle now boasts 50 percent-off sales tags, signs that weren’t around pre-Christmas.

One retailer explained the reason behind cautious pre-holiday promotions.

“If you are a merchant and the economy is unsure, you don’t know what to do. You can’t just run 25 percent off sales when you don’t know how the customer is going to react. You need to give them what they are used to, and that is what you saw in the ads in December. Retailers stayed close to the vest. You didn’t see anything exciting,” said the chain store executive.

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