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Can a Drugstore Fill the UK's Sephora and Ulta Void?

British consumers already shop for beauty products at Boots. But can the retailer become known as a destination for makeup inspiration and skincare discovery?
Inside a Boots beauty hall in Hull | Source: Courtesy
  • Tamison O'Connor

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LONDON, United Kingdom — Anyone entering Boots' large Covent Garden store would be forgiven for thinking they'd walked into the wrong shop. Shoppers flit between hair colour consultations at the Josh Wood station, testing La Roche-Posay's skin-care tool or refilling empty bottles with Beauty Kitchen's all-natural creams. An Instagram-friendly flower wall beckons. Meanwhile, the aisles of cold medicine and tampons are tucked away upstairs.

Boots has been a staple of the British high street for decades (the 170-year-old chain is owned by the same holding company that operates Walgreens in the US). It sells products that fall under the health and beauty umbrella, from makeup to medicine, plus snacks and other items.

Now, the retailer wants to become “the absolute and ultimate mecca for beauty,” said Joanna Rogers, trading director and vice president of beauty at Boots.

“What I would like you to feel is that you are inspired by Boots and you see Boots as a leader in beauty, as much as a destination,” she said.

Inside a Boots beauty hall in Hull | Source: Courtesy

There’s a reason Boots is giving its beauty aisle a total makeover, while Walgreens is limiting itself to a few nips and tucks. In the US, Sephora and Ulta Beauty are the go-to destinations for cosmetics and skincare; no comparable chains exist in the UK. If Boots can overcome its dowdy drugstore image, it stands to gain a bigger share of the £13 billion ($16.8 billion) UK beauty market.

UK drugstores are already big in beauty, with a 25 percent share of the market, compared with 15 percent in the US, according to Euromonitor. Boots is by far the biggest in the category, with a nearly 40 percent share of health and beauty specialist retailers.

The upgraded stores are just one part of Rogers’ plans. Boots is trying to attract more buzzy and higher-end brands (Fenty and Huda Beauty are two recent additions), while creating an experience that evokes an upscale beauty boutique, doing away with traditional beauty counters and replacing them with live demonstration areas and trend-driven “pick and mix” stations, with beauty specialists on hand.

It’s early days for Boots’ beauty experiment. Of the chain’s 2,500 UK stores, only two — Covent Garden and Sheffield’s Meadowhall — are dedicated to beauty and wellness, with about two dozen additional stores receiving upgrades to existing beauty spaces. Another 60 stores will get the treatment this year, though Rogers sees the project expanding to just 10 percent of locations (many Boots are exclusively pharmacies or convenience stores, with little or no beauty options).

Starting in May 2019 with Fenty Beauty — previously only available in the UK at Harvey Nichols — the retailer brought in dozens of popular brands, including Millie Bobby Brown's Florence by Mills, Morphe, The Inkey List and The Ordinary. Huda Kattan's beauty and skincare lines, another UK exclusive, entered Boots in January, and Kendall Jenner's Moon Dental range is among the names due to land in stores later this year.

Even that limited rollout would potentially shake up the UK beauty market.

“Retailers like Boots with a large number of physical stores have got to give customers a reason to shop in-store, so expanding its beauty halls and increasing the focus on customer service by recruiting many more in-store beauty specialists will help just do that,” said Mintel analyst Michael Oliver in a note.

Outside Covent Garden, the average Boots shopping experience at one of the chain's 2,500 locations is a far cry from what premium destination like Sephora in the US or Space NK in the UK delivers. While the store has long offered premium names like Benefit, Chanel and Dior in its larger stores, and its private label brand No 7 routinely garners waitlists of thousands for new product launches, these names have previously sat alongside mass brands like Max Factor, Rimmel and Maybelline in a typically drab drugstore setting.

It would be strange for us not to reinvent as the environment changes. We've seen a massive, almost revolution in beauty.

Sales at upgraded stores are up 20 percent, according to the retailer, while the number of shoppers at these stores under the age of 24 are up by 50 percent. Online sales of premium brands are up 42 percent since the beauty reinvention began.

However, total Boots UK retail sales declined 2.6 percent last year, as Brexit weighed on the UK economy, and e-commerce ate into store traffic.

Attracting young consumers by stocking new brands is also key, Oliver said. Older prestige brands have lost ground to a swarm of buzzy upstarts, many fronted by influencers and celebrities like Kattan and Charlotte Tilbury. Many newer brands, such as Glossier and KKW, focus on a digital-first, direct-to-consumer model that avoids stores like Boots entirely.

Boots isn’t the only UK retailer pursuing beauty customers. Rival drugstore Superdrug and supermarkets like Sainsbury's are bolstering budget beauty offerings. At the premium end, Space NK has 75 locations, while department stores like Harrods and Harvey Nichols have revamped their beauty halls. Harrods recently launched standalone beauty stores, and brands are opening more stores of their own.

“It would be strange for us not to reinvent as the environment changes,” Rogers said. “We’ve seen a massive, almost revolution in beauty.”

Inside a Boots beauty hall in Hull | Source: Courtesy

The sheer number of Boots locations gives the retailer a leg up in signing on brands; 90 percent of the British population live within 10 minutes of its stores, according to the company. According to market research firm YouGov, the chain has near-universal name recognition in the UK, and consistently ranks as one of British women’s favourite brands. Among Millennials, 81 percent have a positive opinion of the retailer.

“Brands are of the knowledge that stocking in Boots means gaining access to a wide customer base — and hence huge opportunities for brand growth,” said Gabriella Beckwith, senior research analyst at Euromonitor International. “The question pervades of whether Boots would be able to… shed its image as simply a local drugstore.”

Rogers has no plans to turn every Boots store into a beauty destination. Pharmacy-led convenience shops will remain just that. Even in the upgraded stores, beauty will always sit down the hall from deodorants and allergy medicine.

Store experience aside, if Boots continues to secure the exclusive distribution rights for hard-to-get, in-demand brands, young shoppers will come flocking. As beauty e-commerce sites like Cult Beauty and Feel Unique continue to grow, Boots will have to work to ensure its offering keeps up with the pure play e-tailers, which sell a range of international brands that are hard to get in the UK.

Convenience may just help Boots win. While shoppers after luxury names are unlikely to swap boutique chains and high-end department stores for a trip to Boots’ beauty hall, everyone else — particularly Gen-Z and Millennials — may find Boots the most cost effective and handy option.

“When you step outside of London, Boots has an opportunity to covert those customers [that don’t have access to Selfridges, Liberty, Harvey Nichols or Harrods],” said Millie Kendall MBE, chief executive of the British Beauty Council.

Fenty Beauty, for example, had been available in the market for over 18 months via Harvey Nichols online and in-store before arriving at Boots. Yet the retailer still sold a Gloss Bomb lip gloss every 21 seconds on the day of the brand’s Boots launch.

“If you want to be an inclusive brand, you need to offer the brands consumers want, it's as simple as that,” said Rogers. “Consumers see us now bringing in those brands — and are paying attention.”


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