LONDON, United Kingdom — On a wet October morning this year, a line of shoppers snaked around the outside of Liberty London from 6am, waiting to get their hands on one of the famed department store’s latest releases. But they weren’t queuing for a cult sneaker or hyped brand collaboration. It was the launch of Liberty’s Christmas beauty drop: the advent calendar.
Now in its sixth year, Liberty’s beauty advent calendar, priced at £215 ($277), remains the retailer’s fastest-selling product in its 147-year history.
The advent calendar — traditionally a paper box containing chocolates behind 24 small doors — stems from the European tradition of counting down the days of December leading to Christmas. But now, beauty brands and retailers are capitalising on high consumer interest to engineer a marketing moment.
Beauty advent calendars aren’t that new a phenomenon, with the likes of Benefit and Ciaté debuting products as early as 2013 in the UK and the US, according to retail data firm Edited. However, beauty calendars have evolved significantly since their early days, becoming more sophisticated and elaborate, containing higher-value items, and often coming with a premium price tag.
“This surge is attributed to the hype created from influencers in the beauty community who post round-up YouTube hauls to showcase the best-of-the-best, generating demand from beauty mavericks,” said Heather Ibberson, a retail analyst at Edited.
For the right product, shoppers are willing to spend big. After trialing a calendar last year that sold out within seven minutes, Jo Loves, the fragrance brand Jo Malone CBE launched in 2011, decided to double down for 2019 with a £300 Christmas tree-shaped calendar filled with exclusive products and brand favourites. (The Jo Loves calendar sits at the upper end of the price spectrum, joined by the likes of Diptyque, £320 ($413), Dior, £340 ($439), and Dr Barbara Sturm, £405 ($522).)
The day that the Jo Loves calendar went on sale marked the brand’s biggest e-commerce sales moment to date, bringing in record traffic levels. While the majority of sales were driven by the now sold-out calendar, many shoppers were also adding additional items to their baskets too.
For a multi-brand retailer like Liberty, the beauty advent calendar also offers “customers a chance to try and discover products, maybe even across categories, that they would never even dip into or consider,” said Liberty Beauty Buyer Emily Bell. By curating a mix of high-profile, desirable brands and lesser-known names or newer products, the department store is able to entice shoppers with products they already love, while pushing awareness of alternative offerings within the store. It will then monitor customer feedback via social media and customer service emails and on the shop floor.
It can be used as a discovery tool for new customers. As buzz around the Liberty advent calendar continues to mount, so does the customer acquisition potential. This year, 56 percent of sales came from new customers, said Bell. For Jo Loves, about 50 percent of calendars were sold to new customers, said General Manager Catherine Fairbairn.
“It really gives people who don’t necessarily know the brand the opportunity to try lots of different things within the range,” said Fairbairn.
When a small brand has a big retailer behind them, that’s creating a demand and giving a buzz in the market.
It’s not just higher-end brands participating in the beauty advent calendar craze. British drugstore Boots releases an advent calendar for its own-brand label No7, now in its fifth year. This year, 226,000 shoppers joined a waiting list for the calendar, allowing them to purchase ahead of its official release.
The calendar sold out in record time, according to a Boots spokesperson. Once available, the retailer sold three calendars every second. On the day of launch, 10,000 units were already sold by 7.30am.
Brands and retailers across price points market the calendars as a value-for-money proposition for customers. According to Boots, its £42 ($54) calendar contains products totalling £173.50 ($224), while Liberty pitches its £215 ($278) calendar as containing over £600 ($775) worth of product.
“People love getting something for nothing. Getting that perceived value is hugely important in influencing someone to buy,” said Jenni Middleton, WGSN’s director of beauty.
For the smaller brands, participating in a multi-brand retailer’s advent calendar can be a big investment. Liberty’s Bell declined to disclose the financial agreements the department store struck with individual partners, but explained that the stock used to fill each calendar is separate from the department store’s own inventory. However, when a product garners as much hype as Liberty’s calendar does, the sampling payoff is worth it.
“[When a small brand has] a big retailer behind them, that’s creating a demand and giving a buzz in the market,” said Middleton. “It’s hard for smaller, niche brands to create that sense of excitement.”
While currently a UK-centric trend, international awareness is starting to grow, largely thanks to social media. In the US, where the concept is relatively unknown, department stores including Nordstrom and Bloomingdales are selling beauty calendars from the likes of Charlotte Tilbury and Diptyque. Target, too, has a $10 bath bomb calendar product on offer.
UK retailers also see potential in targeting international customers. Liberty, for example, said 22 percent of 2019 calendar sales were outside of the UK, up from 7 percent last year.
But as the market grows, brands and retailers will have to work hard to keep their beauty advent calendars attractive for shoppers. Plus, striking the balance between consumer demand and product supply will continue to be a challenge.
“We don’t want to saturate the market with it,” said Liberty’s Bell, whose team has already started working on the calendar for 2020. “Obviously, it’s a very desirable product. We want to keep it that way.”