Beauty business is looking good
Vicki Notaro on how four entrepreneurs have made their mark on the lucrative skin care and cosmetics industry, which is worth £200m a year
With the biggest date in the retail calendar fast-approaching, the cosmetics sector is gearing up to tap into the lucrative Christmas sales market. At Inglot, the Irish franchisee for the Polish cosmetic brand, employee levels have just hit the 250 mark for the first time as they staff up for the festive period.
Not bad for a business born slap bang in the middle of a recession which now has sales of €8m a year.
Jane Swarbrigg, who heads up the family firm which includes her brother and mother, came back from Australia to bring the franchise to Ireland.
Her mother Geraldine had strong retail connections and had brought the Vera Moda brand to Ireland. The pair came together to establish Inglot when they were looking for another opportunity after the sale of the Vera Moda business in 2007 and heard the Inglot frachise was up for grabs.
Aware of the cost-consciousness that came with the recession, they had been looking for a product that didn't cost an arm and a leg but didn't shirk on quality either.
After a few trips to Poland, they were sold on Inglot - and now they are about to open their 14th store.
"For us it was about getting the right product at the right price but still had the quality - that was Inglot," said Swarbrigg, who is originally from Mullingar, in Co Westmeath. "We started off selling into the make-up artist colleges and then, when the students qualified, they kept using the products - it was word-of-mouth really at the beginning.
She added that Irish customers got a feel for the products right away. "We have what we call a freedom system with our palettes, where you can pick and choose the products and colours you want and put them on your own refillable palette. But as we've progressed, the consumers have come with us."
According to Swarbrigg, the market has changed from the recession days of the late 2000s and the company is in expansion mode. Although beauty is a multi-billion industry worldwide, it seems the recession has given birth to a whole new breed of Irish women entrepreneurs who have built up their own beauty businesses.
Also in expansion mode is fake tan product firm Cocoa Brown which was established in 2012.
Launched by Marissa Carter, whose face is now one of the country's most recognisable in the beauty sector, a big chunk of Cocoa Brown's business is now conducted in the UK. "With Cocoa Brown, 70pc of the business is now outside of Ireland. We're the fastest-growing brand in Sweden and Norway, we are on shelves in the UK, Australia and North America, and we've just pitched to get into 1,500 US stores, the country's second largest grocery store chain," Carter said.
But the Brexit vote has brought changes for Cocoa Brown's approach to the UK market. "We would normally spend about €200,000 on marketing in that market but we will be increasing that to €300,000 or €350,000 following on from the Brexit vote," Carter said.
Many Irish exporters are finding the drop in the value of sterling has hit their business and Carter says the company is considering a relocation of its manufacturing to Ireland to avoid additional costs.
A turning point for Cocoa Brown was Carter convincing her husband, the other director in the company, that it was a good idea to plough their first year's profits into a trip to the States to tan the rich and famous ahead of the Oscars in 2014.
"We sent over 300 litres of tan to California, and the entire thing cost an absolute fortune, but it truly changed the direction of the business for me, and I got a taste of what it would be like to see my brand on shelves in the States," she said.
Carter also says that sheer doggedness was key in achieving brand awareness. "I went to a conference in Las Vegas and heard a gent called Richard Power speak who is the owner of a chain called Rickys NYC. They pride themselves on finding the most innovative brands and bring them to the States. I saw him slip out the side door, ran after him in six inch heels and practically threw the products at him. We got a selfie. I tweeted it to him, followed up and about six months later we were in every single Rickys store."
According to Carter, having a profile is much more important to the domestic market but when it comes to markets abroad, it means much less.
"Building your personal brand is great, and great for your home market because people know who you are and are familiar with your product, but you have to move beyond that and build the brand of the product itself. You must make sure it can be compared to the L'Oreals of the world."
This is an interesting point given recent research which showed the growing influence of social media on the industry. It seems that these days online personalities are now more trusted than celebrities when it comes to product endorsements.
Beauty blogger turned businesswoman Suzanne Jackson said: "People often wonder how bloggers monetise their brand. I always knew I wanted to bring products to market, and that's one way of monetising."
Using her two million followers on Facebook as a testing ground, she then chooses what products to launch.
"It's all about quality - I want all of my products to be able to stand beside the big competitors too. I'm not going to be a blogger for the rest of my life, but I felt I knew a lot about the beauty industry because I was a beautician for four years, I know a lot about ingredients and I know what sells."
Her most recent products included a line of premium false eyelashes, and a nail varnish line, as well as a facial contouring palette.
"Everything with SoSueMe.com and SOSU the brand was very organic. But being a beauty blogger for the last six years and seeing my recommendations of other products sell out when I mentioned them, it became quite clear that I had a good idea what my followers wanted. Then I wanted to be the one who could bring these products to the market, and make sure they were good quality and good value for money," said Jackson.
"I started my blog just as a hobby. I'd write very consistently though, which I think was a key component to success. It went from one post a week to several, and I was always very engaged with my audience. I've always listened to them, even when they need to pull you back down a peg or two."
Her products are sold in Penneys stores, online and in independent pharmacies. Suzanne thinks the only way is up and says she's beginning to think of herself as a businesswoman. "It's a big title and I don't want to get ahead of myself, but I have big business plans for SOSU and hopefully they all go well and come to life," she said. "There were, of course, huge risks involved, but if you don't take risks, you're never going to get ahead. We saw something so special in the brand."
Of course, cosmetics in Ireland is big business. The most recent figures from Euromonitor International puts the value of skin care and colour cosmetic sales in Ireland at over €200m.
Like these other entrepreneurs, risk-taking is something businesswoman Paula Callan wasn't afraid of either.
One of Ireland's first high-profile make-up artists, she has more than 20 years experience under her brush belt - but she wanted more.
A former part of the Brown Sugar group, the co-creator of Buff Make-up and now the owner of the Callanberry Academy and Callan and Co salon in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, she's used her wealth of practical experience to make strides in the business arena with a multi-faceted approach.
"I knew I had to have something that would last, because you can't be a freelance makeup artist forever. I had my own business before, but when that ended I knew I was going to do it again one day. It was about finding the right premises and people, and in the end, it's all happened naturally, it really came together. This lifestyle is what I'm used to, even with four kids. It's difficult but I've never let it stop me - I feel the fear and do it anyway!"
Callan has just returned from a working trip to Cannes as a make-up artist, proving her original skills are as in demand as ever. And while she's not turning her back on painting faces, she always knew she wanted more.
"For me, it was more having a business on my own that nobody could take away. I have an amazing team, yet all the pressure is on me. I wanted to open a one-stop shop, from makeup and nails to tanning, hair colouring, cutting, extensions, and a retail outlet as well, and that's what I've done."
All four women are familiar with taking the show on the road and the importance of meeting customers.
Callan has been teaching masterclasses for years and has her own academy, while Swarbrigg has been touring the country with Inglot.
Both Carter and Jackson have used their high profiles to host their own workshop days out. However, they also recognise the importance of digital marketing.
"It's so time-consuming but so important," says Swarbrigg. "Until about three years ago, I did it all myself, but now we have an amazing marketing team, and we sit down monthly to come up with exciting, interesting plans. Competition is so fierce, but social media and beauty fit so well together, because it's all about photos."
Carter agrees that it is important, but maintains traditional marketing also has its place.
"In my experience, you can only attribute about 7pc of your sales online to social media. The people who are following and watching you aren't necessarily doing so to buy from you. Right now, I'm allergic to so many Snapchatters and Instagram stars because it's all sell, sell, sell, and it's blatant and obvious. I don't think that works. People want to see you providing information that's useful, informative and helpful."
However, Carter does think joining forces with other professionals can pay off for all involved. "The only way to achieve real success is through collaboration. Get up off your arse, get out and meet people.
"I'm all about the 'girl bosses' and supporting other women. I wouldn't be where I am if it wasn't for other women helping me get there," she said.
To hear the full 'Business of Beauty' podcast with Group Business Editor Dearbhail McDonald, log on to www.independent.ie
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