What's in that secret bath bomb sauce?

Lush, purveyor of rustic handmade soaps in an array of intoxicating fragrances and brightly colored bath bombs, is doing pretty damn well in 2017. Report after report may say that malls are struggling, and yet, here is a mall chain that's thriving.

The brand reported an impressive $530 million in sales in North America in 2017. With nearly four million Instagram followers — a stat most beauty companies would kill to reach — and a thriving e-commerce business, the Vancouver-based brand is now in the process of overhauling and expanding its brick-and-mortar retail presence, with plans to relocate nearly 30 existing retail shops into larger locations, with a renewed focus on in-person product demonstrations and in-store experiences. 

Lush has had a significant presence in the American beauty retail landscape since 2004, but it has all the trappings of a successful digital beauty brand in 2017. The products have a certain authenticity to them (they're "fresh" and "handmade"). They're also cruelty-free, meaning never tested on animals. And, of course, they're fizzy, sparkly and fun, begging to be shared via social media. (If you don't Instagram your bath bomb, you're doing it wrong.)

With a business that's already winning in the elusive-for-many online retail space, the obvious question is: Why bother? Lush's digital presence is a solid one, driven largely via social media, often in the form of ever-coveted organic user-generated content. So why double down on driving customers into brick-and-mortar stores? Well, for starters, a retail space — when customized to exacting specifications, outfitted with interactive features and attended by highly trained employees that are themselves an extension of the brand — can itself be a key factor for that all-important organic user-generated content.

Ahead of the opening of Lush's first new concept shop in New York City (a 1480 square-foot space located near Union Square) on Friday, I caught up with Brandi Halls, the director of brand communications for Lush Cosmetics North America, to glean some insight about what, exactly, is in Lush's secret bath bomb sauce.

Can you walk me through Lush's recent retail expansion and give a general overview of key developments both in the present and near future?

With customer intrigue and product innovation both surging in the last few years, we recognized the need for an elevated customer experience in our Lush shops across the world. Here in North America, we recently shifted our focus away from expansion into new markets and toward expansion and elevation of shops in pre-existing markets. What that means is, expanding and/or relocating most of the current shops in our portfolio. You can expect to see bigger, brighter, more interactive Lush stores that offer the space and staff for customers to experience the ultimate Lush playground.

Why did the brand want to focus more on enhancing the in-store consumer experience, especially given that it has such a strong digital presence?

Lush's customer experience is what sets us apart. Our curious-looking stores and enthusiastic staff are what put Lush on the map, so it only makes sense to further nurture and enhance that experience for our customers. In this age when digital sales are soaring, we truly believe nothing compares to the in-store experience where customers can touch, feel and play with our innovative products and engage with our knowledgeable and passionate staff.

The newly updated Lush Union Square store. Photo: Courtesy of Lush

The newly updated Lush Union Square store. Photo: Courtesy of Lush

Was it important when thinking about the re-vamped brick-and-mortar stores that there be interactive elements that consumers will want to share via social media? 

As a company that was largely built on word of mouth, we recognize that social media — specifically, the shareability of the Lush experience — plays a key role in maintaining our relevance in the market. We know that our loyal fans are excited to share their Lush experiences with their friends, so we designed these bigger-format shops to accommodate that. The large sinks spread throughout our freshly renovated locations allow for beautiful product demonstrations that make for gorgeous "bath art" engagement on social.

Can you expand on how the brand has found success in the digital space and how important has social media been? 

Social media has had a significant impact on our business. Long before social media, our fans were very active on online forums and other online communities, so we are well versed in listening to, engaging with and learning from our customers. Of course, with the growth of social media, all of those opportunities have been enhanced. Not only are we hearing from fans more often and about more things, but we're also seeing a bigger impact on sales when those discussions go viral. 

The shareability of the Lush experience has certainly inspired our product inventors to continue to push the boundaries around things like our bath bombs, which are creating more beautiful and shareable experiences.

How will Lush's new stores be different from the old stores?

You can expect to stumble into a sensory playground with more products, space, demonstrations, passionate sales associates and generally more fun. In many of our locations, we're more than doubling the size of the shop floor. We've created space for customers to really engage with our products and staff. There will be large demo sinks throughout the store, enhanced skin-care consultation areas and vintage furniture pieces.

How will Lush's new stores be different from other in-store beauty shopping experiences that other brands offer?

The Lush product range and level of customer experience are so unique to the market that we simply designed the new stores around enhancing both of these elements. [We thought,] let's give the staff enough space for them to feel like this truly is their playground — not just a job. 

The shop floor is a stage for our staff to share all they know about the brand and products, as well as to express themselves and their passion for the brand in their own unique way. [We want to] give our customers inviting displays that encourage them to engage with and share our bright and playful products and the space to genuinely learn from our staff.

It seems like Lush relies heavily on its in-store staff for branding. How does a highly trained retail staff help to enhance and cultivate the business as a whole?

Lush staffers are synonymous with the Lush experience. You can't help but feel more energetic when leaving a Lush store simply [because of their own] energy. They are not only passionate about the brand and its ethos, but they are excited and knowledgeable about our extensive range of fresh handmade products as well. They take genuine pride in selling people only what they need and only what's right for them; they are the key to setting Lush apart from other brands.

The newly updated Lush Union Square store. Photo: Courtesy of Lush

The newly updated Lush Union Square store. Photo: Courtesy of Lush

What are some of the takeaways you hope a Lush customer leaves their in-store shopping experience with?

Most of all, we want to make their day. We want customers to leave our stores feeling happier, more relaxed and lighter than when they walked in. If they also leave knowing something new about one of our ethical ingredients or our strict no-animal testing policy, that helps, too. But ultimately the Lush experience should be fun and we hope that's what they take away.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in the beauty retail space right now, and how is Lush working to address and overcome them?

It's a really interesting time in retail right now. We're seeing declining traffic in malls, an increasing shift to digital and consumers demanding more and better from all of us. Ultimately, the consumer has more power over what we produce, how we sell it and where we sell it than ever before. At Lush, we're constantly seeking to understand more from our loyal customers: What ingredients do they want us to use more of or less of? How can we do the heavy lifting for them so they can trust that Lush is the place to purchase ethical beauty products? We have shifted our business strategy toward these bigger shops to encourage traffic to our retail locations. In digital, we continue to look at how we can offer our products to our customers where and when they want them — a challenging feat when producing handmade products from fresh ingredients.

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