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Shoppers Stop’s biggest differentiator is brand expression at its best: Beauty CEO Biju Kassim

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Shiv Joshi
Shiv Joshi
An editor with over 20 years of experience across industry verticals and content formats from tabloids to magazines, he is the Deputy Group Managing Editor at Images Group.

Chief executive of Shoppers Stop’s beauty business Biju Kassim speaks about the company’s strategy for the vertical, its plans across channels and its ambitions to supply to every beauty retailer in the country

Beauty has been a key focus for Shoppers Stop since its inception in 1991. This was evident from the large beauty spread that greets customers when they walk into any Shoppers Stop across the country showcasing some of the biggest brands from across the globe like Dior, Nars, Clarins, Armani, Prada, YSL (Yves Saint Laurent), Estée Lauder, M.a.c Clinique, Bobbi Brown and Too Faced—all the premium brands that otherwise operate only in a boutique environment.

Today, about 18% (Rs 262 crore) of Shoppers Stop’s overall business comes from beauty across formats, out of which approx. 42% comes from fragrance, followed by makeup and skincare. And the company wants to take beauty contribution to 20% and then 25% in three years, Biju Kassim, who took over reins of the chain’s beauty business as President – beauty in January 2022, told IndiaRetailing.

Onboarding Kassim was one of the first steps in the Mumbai-based listed retailer’s plan to recalibrate its beauty strategy post-Covid in the face of intensifying competition from new-age companies and new players in the segment.

The retail company, which recently celebrated the milestone of 10 million customers on the country’s longest-running loyalty programme—First Citizen—pivoted from being a department store-only company to being an operator of speciality beauty stores named SS Beauty and a distributor of international beauty brands in February 2022. These were in addition to boutiques it was running for Estée Lauder, M.a.c Clinique, Bobbi Brown, Jo Malone and Too Faced through its partnership with Estée Lauder Companies.

In an exclusive interview, Kassim speaks about the company’s strategy for its beauty business, its plans across channels and its ambitions to supply to every beauty retailer in the country. Edited excerpts…

Why did Shoppers Stop decide to venture into the distribution of beauty brands?

We saw a lot of disruption during Covid and we decided that we need to have more visibility on what brands want to do on a long-term basis because beauty as a category is all about brand building. When you enter distribution, it is much easier because you get to know the three- or five-year plans of the brand and you can partner with the brand more effectively.

Better control over the supply chain, costing, investment, visibility and brand building happens when you have skin in the game as far as the distribution is concerned.

That’s why we started Global SS Beauty Brands Ltd., as a 100% subsidiary of Shopper Stop, after we launched the SS Beauty store format.

What is the strategy for the distribution business?

The beauty distribution is still a young company—about a year and a half. One of the first sets of brands that came in was Clarins, then Nars, and then we signed LID, which is L’Oreal International Division, which has got Giorgio Armani, Prada, Valentino, Mugler, Viktor Rolf, Azaro, Ralph Lauren, Maison Margiela—all powerful brands.
Then we also have Earthi, Banana Republic, Tumi and so on.

At the end of the third quarter of the financial year (FY) 2024, the distribution network expanded to 334 doors and retailed to 17 different retailers. The business clocked sales of Rs39 crore.

Distribution is important for our overall growth because if we have to grow the market pie, distributors have to do the right job only then more and more people will consume.

And our desire as a company, is to ensure we supply to every retailer, not just to Shoppers Stop. That’s why distribution is an independent arm. Our job is to bring the best of the brands and represent them in the best possible way in the country, across all retail.

So as a distributor, we will be fair to all retailers—whoever gives us the best opportunity to flourish together, we will work with them.

 

For your beauty format SS Beauty, you recently launched a 9,000 sq. ft. store in Kolkata. Is this the direction you’ll be taking, going forward?

When we look at the current landscape, most of the beauty stores, including ours, operate in the range of 1,500 sq. ft. to 3,000 sq. ft. We were looking at larger opportunities to be able to achieve true brand representation, which is lacking in India—there are a few boutiques, but 90% of brands cannot afford opening boutiques.

Internationally, whether it is in Europe, America, the Far East or the Middle East, you see larger stores with better, bigger brand representation.

So, we decided to open large format beauty-only stores, where we give decent space to each brand to express themselves to the best.

The first such opportunity came in Bengaluru. We opened a 3,400 sq. ft. store at the T2 in Kempegowda International Airport.

The second such opportunity came at Quest Mall in Kolkata, which is a premium luxury mall. The Quest team wanted to consolidate all beauty under one roof and was looking for an ideal partner for it. And they thought we were the best fit. So, all the little boutiques in the mall were merged into the 9,000 sq. ft. where we created this absolute magic.

In the real sense, this is where beauty within Shoppers Stop is going to be different from that at the competition. In most stores, it is largely the retail atmosphere and less the brand atmosphere. We are giving brands more space and telling them to represent themselves the way they want within certain parameters for the sake of uniformity.

SS Beauty at Quest Mall Kolkata
The 9,000 sq. ft. SS Beauty store at Quest Mall, Kolkata

What is your strategy for such stores?

Large-format stores put more pressure on profitability. Therefore, as a strategy, we will only take opportunities where we have exclusivity like in the case of Quest or a really good location like the Bengaluru Airport. In the meantime, we will continue to open small-format stores and 200 sq. ft. to 600 sq. ft. boutiques.

Simultaneously, we will expand the space given to beauty to about 20%-22% even in our department stores. For instance, we are renovating the Shoppers Stop in Malad, Mumbai and increasing the space given to beauty from 4,500 sq. ft. to 5,000 sq. ft. space. Soon, at Juhu Shoppers Stop, the entire 10,000 sq. ft. ground floor will be beauty. So directionally, that is what we will do. So far, we’ve received a good response for the Quest Mall store—we are almost at 85% of the budget in just two-three months.

What will be different at these large stores in terms of customer experience?

These stores are a celebration of beauty. They provide the best of the brands, the best customer experience, and the best of the engagement tools such as fragrance finders, virtual mirrors and skin analysers, among other things. Then there is a Beauty Bay, where one can get makeup and makeovers; a nail bar, a hair blow bar and a skincare treatment room.
We want to educate the customer, which leads to a better experience and engagement. The education piece will be omnichannel, driven by digital.

Tell us about your omnichannel presence and strategy.
We continue to be heavy on brick-and-mortar, and while we have adopted online, only about 7% to 8% of our business comes from online. The desire is to incrementally get to 10%, 12% and finally to 15% in the next three years. But we want to be deliberate about it as we want to be sustainable and continue operating on a healthy EBITDA—Earnings before Interest, Tax, Depreciation, and Amortisation.

Our omnichannel setup is straightforward. We have two websites— shoppersstop.com, and ssbeauty.in, which we are currently in the process of upgrading. The moment we get this to perfection, increasing our contribution from online to 15% should be easier.
We have a 100% single view of the inventory across all our channels. In beauty, we are in 56 cities with almost 180 points of sale. We can deliver quickly, we have endless aisles, which allow customers to check for desired products online and get them delivered if they are not available at the store. We are working around offering other omnichannel conveniences too—order from home, pick up at a store, anywhere returns and so on. But this is work in progress. Even after we perfect it, the contribution from online will still hover around 12% to 15% since 60% brands we operate are prestige premium, and not all of them want to be online.

What is your private label play?

We have Arcelia, which includes fragrance, bath and body, and makeup. It is exclusively available at Shoppers Stop. And we have plans to take it to other retail partners. Also, we are in the process of adding a couple of other brands to our private labels portfolio.

However, private labels as a category has been small for us, contributing about 2% to our business. Although we would like to increase it to 10%, that is not going to be a big focus for us as we prefer to remain a house of brands.

You mentioned opening a large store at Bengaluru Airport. How is that doing?

Interestingly, that 3,400 sq. ft. store at Bengaluru Airport is not one store but three combined into one. We bid for three independent stores and then consolidated them because India is at a stage where people are starting to see, understand, learn and upgrade.

The store gets the right type of customers that are consuming branded products and is highly productive with sales per square foot in the range of Rs70,000 to Rs75,000. The other stores we have at airports like Mac, for instance, yield more than Rs 100,000 in sales per square foot.

Normally, a city store with sales per square foot anywhere between Rs50,000 to Rs60,000 is a good one. An airport store anywhere between Rs70,000 to Rs80,000 is a good one. So, the new store is doing well for us.
We have 26 airport doors across formats…and are quite familiar with airport retail and while it is expensive, one can also achieve the numbers.

The beauty space is getting crowded and the competition intensifying. What is your strategic differentiator?

The biggest differentiator is brand representation the way it is done in Dubai or Singapore and a strong portfolio of over 100 brands, which few can match.

Last year, across all the beauty stores, we had 1 million customers spending anywhere between three to five minutes with us. This is beyond buying and selling but engaging with us with makeovers, skincare treatments and fragrance discovery among other things.

You recently made it to the Guinness Book of World Records with similar activities…
Yes. At the launch of the Quest outlet. We did 187 makeovers—the Most Cosmetic Makeovers in one hour. Sephora in Germany had done 148 makeovers in 60 minutes; we broke that record. We wanted to celebrate by doing something remarkable from a professional point of view.

The Guinness Book of World Records was pleasantly surprised that an Indian company took up this challenge. But the confidence came from the fact that we have some of the most powerful makeup brands in our ecosystem—M.a.c, Nars, Bobbi Brown, Too Faced, Dior, Shiseido, and Clarins among many others.

All these need passionate, qualified people. So, we have the largest talent pool of makeup artists in the country. That’s why we were able to pull it off on the first attempt.

So, what is your strategy for Nars?

Nars is clear that it wants to have brand building at the core to make it desirable. This means opening a couple of boutiques followed by 5-7 shop-in-shops, then about 10 to 12 counters in speciality beauty stores every year. Currently, they are in Sephora apart from Shoppers Stop and brand boutiques.

Which other brands will you be launching this year?
Armani Makeup, Prada Makeup and Valentino Makeup.
Maison Margiela, we have just launched. Then we will have Atelier Cologne, which is part of the L’Oreal Group. So, these have been signed. We have some more big names, but not signed. So can’t speak about them now.

What’s next for Shoppers Stop retail beauty business?
Last year, we did 17 department stores. This year also, if not more, we will do the same set of department stores. Boutiques, we will have about 10 to 12. SS Beauty, we will have about 10 to 15. So, about anywhere between 35 to 50 doors is what we anticipate opening in total.
We will be easily anywhere around 300 footprints in beauty with healthy growth in the next three years.

What are the three key trends that will drive the growth in the BPC segment in India and how does Shoppers Stop plan to capitalise on them?

Premiumization—we have been leading this trend in beauty. Then engagement, which is gaining ground. Here, we intend to increase our touch points from 1 million to 1.25 million touchpoints by targeting about 9,00,000 makeovers, 100,000 skin consultations and about 2,50,000, fragrance discoveries.

Category-wise, K beauty and skincare are underpenetrated, which we are working on.
Fragrances too is one of the fastest growing categories and we will capitalise on this. Last year, fragrance for us grew at the rate of about 25%.

When you strategize what is the thumb rule you follow?
I’ve spent a large part of my life in the Middle East. I’ve completed about 30 years in beauty, 20 years I lived in the Middle East, 10 years here in India and I am fortunate to have travelled the world. So, my aspiration as a professional learner is to bring the best to Indian consumers.
Indian consumers were not taken care of the way they should have been. My desire is that beauty in its most glamorous form should be available in India. We have to create the atmosphere for brands to come without hesitation and complement it with best-in-class services, best-in-class education, and best-in-class engagement so that people feel motivated to buy.
I also want to bring more sustainability (refilling bottles, sustainable packaging) and inclusivity (employing marginalised communities) into the business.

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