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Brindley details uniqueness of beauty at Walgreens

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Lauren Brindley

Lauren Brindley

DEERFIELD, Ill. — Lauren Brindley journeyed from the U.K. five years ago to leverage her expertise gleaned from Boots to differentiate the beauty experience in Walgreens stores across America.

Her imprint helped burnish Walgreens’ beauty shopping experience, making her an invaluable resource as the chain looks to mirror the success Boots established in beauty.

During her time in the U.S., Walgreens has upgraded its beauty ambience and assortment; launched a brand new beauty consultant program; sharpened the omnichannel approach; and, most recently, launched a buy online, pick up in-store feature. Walgreens is also ramping up its loyalty approach to make it even more personalized in beauty through the new myWalgreens program.

“I came for two years, but have been here for five years already as there is so much opportunity in the U.S. beauty market” and Alex [Gourlay, co-chief operating officer of Walgreens Boots Alliance] has asked me to stay for at least another year,” said Brindley, group vice president of beauty and personal care at Walgreens, during a video conference call and question-and-answer session.

The informative chat was hosted by Chain Drug Review and featured Rebecca Brown, vice president of marketing at E.T. Browne; Nancy Duitch, founder and chief executive officer of Sera Labs; Allan Lever, CEO of Hollywood Alliance Canada/Look Beauty; Osman Mithavayani, vice president of OKAY Pure Naturals; Jeff Smalley, senior vice president of sales at High Ridge Brands; and Janell Stephens, CEO of Camille Rose.

While Walgreens has always had a solid footing in the U.S. beauty market, Brindley’s quest has been to elevate and distinguish the department from the plethora of American beauty merchants, especially other mass marketers.

“We started by understanding deep customer insights,” Brindley said of focus groups she initiated to dig into the psyche of the beauty customer. The quest was to uncover what Walgreens needed to change to become even more of a destination for beauty.

The message was clarion. People appreciated the convenience of their local store but wanted more inspiration in beauty rather than just a place to “run into and pick up some beauty products if in a pinch.”

With that as a blueprint, Brindley set out on a multi-pronged effort to look unique versus competitors across the street. To serve requests for exploration, the chain broke the traditional self-serve mass market mold by adding testers.

Emboldened by the popularity of No7 in the U.K., which benefits from trained sales associates, Brindley invested top-shelf training for Walgreens’ cadre of new beauty experts. Walgreens already had a beauty expert program, but under Brindley the program was radically enhanced.

For example, the retailer’s 3,000-plus beauty consultants are now provided a full week of classroom training every quarter along with regular in-store coaching, Brindley said. The chain seeks to be the source for personalized advice and support in beauty, paralleling the image in health care.

“We listen to you to understand what you want to achieve with your beauty. We give our experts the training they need, including the product knowledge to advise you on the right product for you, whether that’s what’s suitable for your skin type or simply the look you are trying to achieve,” she said.

Walgreens fortifies the amplified service with upgraded and illuminated fixtures fused with a merchandise mix that is in tune with its customer base. “We’ve made some really, really big changes, and it has been powerful to watch,” she said. The transformation not only reflects changing consumer purchasing habits but has resulted in higher register rings. “We’ve gone from our best-selling product being priced at $10 in 2015 to one of our top-three products being $40+ last year, demonstrating how differently customers are now shopping our beauty assortment,” she said.

When COVID-19 struck, Brindley had to pivot. But she was steadfast in the importance of one-on-one consultation.

“Obviously when the pandemic hit, we had to take testers off the shop floor,” she said, adding the sensorial and touch component she had worked so hard to establish had to shift gears to a no-touch interaction. Within that scenario, however, Walgreens consultants proved they could do more than just recommend a popular lip liner. People wanted information they could not glean online and from a retailer they knew was focused on health and safety.

“At the time I reinforced that 95% of the power of the beauty consultant model was the verbal conversation itself. It’s the power of asking a customer what they’re trying to achieve … what are their concerns and what are their needs? Finding the right solution for them is the most important element, and this can be delivered outside of a physical touch experience,” she said.

The in-store team also found they could still provide products to test — just at a six-foot distance. “We can give out hygienic samples for customers to test themselves,” she said of the solution.

“My beauty consultants are also saying that our interactions with customers now feel even more personal and important through the pandemic,” Brindley said. “With less physical interactions generally we have even more responsibility to our customers to care for them. We also want to make sure we’re making those interactions as uplifting as possible,” Brindley said.

“We’ve been doing some extra 20% off senior days, which are hugely popular along with free gifts if you spend over a certain amount,” she elaborated.

Although she believes that in-store product testing may take a while to return, she fiercely believes in the potential of the beauty consultant model. But in the new reality, consultants need to be armed with virtual discovery tools, such as augmented reality to virtual sample.

The rise in online shopping during quarantine accelerated Walgreens’ omnichannel effort at warp speed — almost five years in just five months, she said. “That’s the kind of rate of change we’ve seen.”

Brindley observed that the chain was ahead of the pack with its pharmacy app (which fills a prescription every second across the U.S.) and its photo business. “Our pharmacy app and our photo experience is very advanced. But our beauty digital experience had been very functional,” she said.

As a remedy, Brindley went full throttle on getting all of the brands on digital sites and devoting effort to elevating the imagery and search terms. “We’ve grown the business,” she said. “But we still have a massive opportunity ahead.”

Fusing online and physical stores is moving to the forefront at Walgreens, spurred by consumer concerns over safety. Shoppers are consolidating trips, being cautious about where they are shopping and ensuring protocols are in place, she said. Reacting to those needs, Walgreens has launched a chainwide buy online pick up in-store program where items will be ready in 30 minutes.

“It doesn’t matter — whether it is a gift, diapers, skin cream or pain relief — if you order it, we will have it ready to collect within 30 minutes,” she said. Shoppers will see online if the item is available at their store, thus negating any disappointment if they travel and don’t get the desired product.

Shoppers can have it their way, according to Brindley, with options to order online and pick up or receive products through the drive-thru. Customers use the app to alert the store that they are there, and orders will be delivered to their car. Store teams will be timed and held accountable to deliver within the half hour promise.

“That’s one of the advantages of Walgreens — with over 9,000 stores, 76% of the population is within five minutes,” she said, adding that there will be a big national media push behind the new program for the holiday season.

To further strengthen Walgreens’ connection with beauty shoppers, Walgreens is reshaping its loyalty program. It first introduced Beauty Enthusiast, a beauty club dovetailing with Walgreens Balance Rewards, in 2016. “We did this because we know that beauty needs are different than health care needs. Health care is educational; beauty is both educational and inspirational. Beauty Enthusiast club enabled us to support the beauty customer with deeper content and offers,” explained Brindley.

Taking that concept to the next level, Walgreens has launched its new Customer Engagement experience and loyalty scheme called myWalgreens that will provide a more personalized experience. Each consumer will receive content and deals tailored to shopping behavior, including beauty tips and tricks.

For brands, Walgreens has the ability within its 100 million customer database to better match up potential consumers, which helps level the playing field for smaller brands. “You don’t need to be talking to 100 million people straight away,” she said. Instead, nascent beauty companies can target people who have tried or know about the products. “My Walgreens is a consumer engagement platform that is enabling Walgreens and our brand partners to target specific groups of customers with personalized recommendations, including new innovative products and brands.”

She’s confident the new program will offer a better experience and sales conversion. It strengthens how consumers talk about their Walgreens store. “People naturally talk about their corner store as ‘my Walgreens,’ and they want a personalized experience,” she said.

Brindley has seen in-store traffic pick up since the pandemic began, but she realizes consumers will need new reasons to come into the store. “Physical store experiences are important for customers discovering beauty, but we know we will need to make the experience even more rewarding. We already have some new ideas,” Brindley promised.

One strategy is to maximize the synergy between pharmacy and beauty. “We have a unique opportunity to connect our pharmacy with beauty. Areas like skin care are important to us,” she said. “We are committed to helping customers achieve healthy and beautiful skin. We’re about credibility, we’re about scientific, and we’re about clinically proven.” The respect shoppers have for Walgreens pharmacists has a halo effect on beauty.

That’s playing out as more consumers look for natural products and ingredient transparency. “We get asked a lot about skin irritants and side effects from different prescriptions,” she said, illustrating how the two departments overlap.

The chain also is moving sustainability and diversity to the front burner. Brindley, who said she’s passionate about those issues, noted Walgreens’ efforts working with the Loop Project, which offers shoppers the opportunity to buy products in reusable packaging.

“Loop is enabling some of our best-known household brands to be purchased in reused packaging, and this innovation has actually produced some fantastic new products,” she said. “We are also really keen to work with brands who have unique stories to tell in the sustainability space. Our customers are asking for this. They want to see brands that have a bigger purpose beyond profit.”

The chain created a team devoted to sustainability in the beauty space. Those efforts are also impacting in-store displays, such as prepacked gift sets, where Brindley said she’s focused on reducing the amount of plastic used.

Speed to market is mission critical, but it can be a challenge in Walgreens’ massive store roster. “Trying to manage 9,000 stores and supply chain is complex,” conceded Brindley. Although Brindley is focused on removing the complexities and speeding up the process of launching items into stores, she recommends brands sometimes think digital first.

“We can get a new product online really quickly,” she said. And now, through our new buy online pickup in-store, products can be available at the drive-thru or curbside. Digital first is the way we must go to market, given how fast customers’ needs are changing.”

That process is cost effective for both parties, because it lessens the risk of resetting stores, especially if an item misses the mark. “So, more often, I’ve said to my team, ‘Go digital first, test, learn, and expand from there.’ ”


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