In this episode:

Wendy Liebmann talks to Maly Bernstein, CEO, Bluemercury, the luxury specialty beauty retailer, about her vision for the future of beauty retail and how her strategy is coming to life neighborhood by neighborhood.

They discuss:

  • What makes Bluemercury shoppers unique
  • The focus on personalized skincare – both products and services
  • The importance of new categories and private brands
  • The new store format, with its “modern residential” focus, in-store service bars, master classes and other events that are driving shopper engagement and loyalty
  • How wellness is delivered through unique products, partnerships services, and human experiences
  • The role technology and AI will play in the future to enhance service and customer experience

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Watch the video episode:

Wendy 00:09

Hello, everyone. I'm Wendy Liebmann, CEO and chief shopper at WSL Strategic Retail and this is Future Shop. This is where I talk to innovators disruptors and iconoclast about the future of retail.

Wendy 00:23

Today, the topic is reinventing luxury beauty retail on the corner, or aka how smart retailers are bringing luxury to their customers. neighborhoods. My guest is Maly Bernstein, she is CEO of Bluemercury, the luxury beauty retailer, she oversees some 170 Plus-ish stores around the US and a growing and intriguing portfolio, highly curated proprietary brands, beauty services, and of course, a digital presence, of course, all on your local corner. Anyway, Maly and I first met when she was vice president of beauty and personal care and vice president of ecommerce at CVS Health, where she was responsible for a multi billion dollar portfolio. Prior to that she worked in global at the retail and consumer practice with McKinsey, very focused on consumer digital excellence. Welcome to Future Shop Maly.

Maly B. 01:27

Thank you, Wendy, I always love talking to you. And I'm excited to be here today.

Wendy 01:31

Yeah, it's great. You know, it struck me I remember very well, when we first met, I think was actually the L'Oreal dinner, and we started a chat and you just moved into the beauty position at CVS. And then I remember walking into your office and thinking she actually gets it. She's just not just from a big consulting company moving into a retail business. But actually, she gets beauty because as I recall, all over the walls and on your chairs, and leopard print chairs, lots of lipstick, and product and all of that. So I feel you're absolutely in the right spot, running what is clearly a very fast moving and growing and successful beauty retailer. So that's exciting.

Maly B. 02:11

It is I feel very lucky because I feel like I get to play at work. And Wendy, as soon as I saw your accessories, I knew that we were kindred spirits.

Wendy 02:19

That is true. That is true. Well, you know what intrigues me about this that transition for you from beauty at CVS to beauty at Bluemercury and 2021. So sort of middle ish pandemic, what did you learn at CVS that you were able to bring to Bluemercury,

Maly B. 02:36

I was so proud of my time at CVS, because of the people I worked with and the things we did. And I think what I was most proud of is the fact that we came together across teams. And we launched the beauty on altered commitment to the country. And what we did there is we brought together products, experiences and services. And we pulled it all together into this compelling and emotional story for the nation, where we were one of the early committers to authenticity in the beauty industry. And so for me, as I think about Bluemercury, I bring to Bluemercury, that purpose led brand perspective. And so at Bluemercury, we're looking at what does that mean for the modern luxury beauty consumer as we pull together our curation of beauty products driven by efficacy. And as we pulled together our spa service and our modern luxury, residential aesthetic, what does purpose look like at Bluemercury?

Wendy 03:40

You know, I think that's really, really impressive, because Beauty Unaltered was something that for many of us was very emotionally engaging. For those of you who are not familiar with it, you should be, but it's really been a very strong campaign that says, We are not going to retouch imagery, correct me if I'm wrong. Now the retouch imagery for beauty, photographs, images displays, so that people didn't feel particularly young people, young women didn't feel like perfection. Was it set? Right? That's

Maly B. 04:12

right. And there was a commitment to being transparent when our brand partners did retouch imagery, and therefore it was commitment to provide a watermark that identified whether what you were looking at read the the results of the beauty products on the models was actually Photoshop to embellish the results, or was unfiltered and what you see is what you get when using the products. And to your point, the reason why it was so emotional, was because we learned that two thirds of women felt worse about themselves after seeing beauty ads, and little did the nation know but CVS was contributing 4 billion pieces of customer communication in beauty alone, and therefore we felt like we had ever responsibility to do our part in helping with mental health. And that was our connection back to our overall company's purpose of health and making sure that it wasn't just about physical health, but it extended to all the other aspects that contribute to health. So as you

Wendy 05:16

think now here you are in Bluemercury last two years ish. I think they're about

Maly B. 05:22

over two years now. Yeah.

Wendy 05:24

Two years hard to believe. So when you think about the Bluemercury shopper, who is she? Who is he? What's that experience?

Maly B. 05:33

Our shopper we affectionately call the modern confident. And our shoppers describe themselves as sophisticated, charismatic, exploratory, passionate, and thoughtful. Another nickname for our shopper is this intellectual, our clients just love getting to know what's behind the beauty that they're using, and having a real thought partner as well as they put together their beauty rituals. And so the modern confident is our muse. And that's who we designed for, and everything we do.

Wendy 06:10

Yeah, it's interesting when I walk into the store, and I think about it, not to name names, but when I think about it, versus a Sephora shopper, or an Ulta shop, or just within a sort of specialty beauty range for the moment of retail, it's very clear to me that the three, maybe there's crossover, but the three feel quite distinctive. And the way you tell your story at Bluemercury feels quite different, not just because of where you are, but how you've curated that offer in the stores. Talk about that a bit. Because the skincare piece is really interesting. And the mix of product is really interesting to me, yet,

Maly B. 06:47

we believe that there's a place for everyone. And at Bluemercury, we differentiate because our clients are looking for more personalized and customized service. They're also looking for curated beauty that really emphasizes High Performance and Results. And in particular, that extends to skincare where we have a large assortment of dermatological skincare. In addition, they're also looking for that modern residential luxury experience that's much more intimate, much more accessible, much more aspirational. And so when we think about how we differentiate at Bluemercury, it does come back to customize services, curated products, and coveted neighborhoods,

Wendy 07:29

you've alluded to that, you know, this sort of residential kind of experience, you've recently opened a new store in Connecticut. And that feels like it's the first version perhaps of that modern residential image.

Maly B. 07:46

That's right. And so we launched the vision for Bluemercury in New Canaan, Connecticut, back in October. And it was to bring to life modern luxury, aesthetic. And so from the moment you walk in, there's the elevation of the service bar, but it's designed like the kitchen island. So that encourages the gathering and the community feel that Bluemercury is known for even more. So as you extend throughout the store and you get to the spa, all of a sudden, we invite you to escape into the blue with us. And to help you indulge in the full experience in skincare in the brands that you love and to take it down a notch. And so when we think about modern luxury, aesthetic, what we hope you feel when you come into our stores, and in particular, that new store that we launched, is that you've come into a luxury home,

Wendy 08:39

that sense of being local, in the sense of not in a strip mall, local, but in a suburban locale, I guess it does feel like that it reminded me of actually walking into Williams-Sonoma in the early days, when you walked in and felt like you're into a high end luxury kitchen. And even if you didn't have a kitchen like that you sort of felt like you're up there tasting the olive oils, looking at the wonderful pans and jams and all of those kinds of things and being an expert cook. So I felt like the same kind of experience, which was really interesting in terms of that retail definition that you're creating with the new format.

Maly B. 09:21

That's a great analogy. And to bring that to life. What we've also done is expanded into Uber Lux home and into more personal fragrances. And so even that smell when you walk into a bakery and you feel like you've just got to have something, we have that as well when you walk into our stores and you smell the scents in the store and you are suddenly transported and feel the need to find your signature scent. In addition, when you reference that Williams-Sonoma example, it made me think about how you started to play in the store. And that's what we're encouraging as well when you go into that new Bluemercury format, whether you're playing at the new service Are because we've got it set up or masterclasses now or set up for individual consultations, or because you're going throughout the store, and you're trying all the different samples, or because you're going to our power toolbar, where you can now see how all the Dyson appliances work and figure out with a Bluemercury expert, how it works before you buy. And so that aspect of play is key to that new format. And that feeling of not only being welcomed into a modern luxury at home, but also encouraged to play within it.

Wendy 10:33

The thing and you've heard me say this before, I'm always very conscious of smell, touch, but also sound. And I really, I always I think as I walk into really well to any retailer, but really good retailers I like what is the music I hear. And I don't mean just the sound system. But what is the music I hear emotionally, as well as you know, through my ears? So what's the music for Bluemercury these days?

Maly B. 11:00

It's a great question, because the music has to be different in the front of store as it is in the spa, in order for us to encourage you to escape into that blue. And so were in the front of the house, you may feel that energy in the back of the house, we want you to feel that sense of calm. Now you have asked me before and I just love this question. If I were to pick a theme song for Bluemercury, what would it be? And so if I were to pick one, and I don't know if you and everybody else has heard of Lily Meola yet, but she was on America's Got Talent. So she's a rising star. I think it was Heidi Klum did get behind her. And she has this song. And it's called Daydream. And in that song, there's this lyric, this line that says Why save it for sleep, when you could be living your day dream. And that's what we are trying to create the new format. And that's what we are also trying to do for our clients when they come into our stores that they go into our spots. We want them to come in and live their best selves and help them with that.

Wendy 12:06

I'm always saying, you know, what does this retail brand sound like? Everybody will now know I always ask that question. So this new store and the new format, I mean, exemplifies some of the things you've obviously been thinking about over the last couple of years. So how will that play out? When you've got another 150 60 70? Plus stores? How do you see that evolving? And what does it mean for the, you know, the existing stores?

Maly B. 12:31

Yeah, it's certainly the direction we're headed for new stores, as well as the vision for the evolution of our existing stores. But what it represents most is our total brand experience and how that will evolve. So that everyone is excited about and clear about what Bluemercury stands for. It's that customized service, curation for results and in coveted neighborhoods with that modern luxury feel. So

Wendy 13:00

the other thing that strikes me is when I walk into a Bluemercury store, whether it's, you know, in New York, in the city or in the suburbs, it's an interesting mix of people. And by mix, I mean generational? Is that something that you've worked on? Was it always part of the brand, this sort of intergenerational welcome to everybody?

Maly B. 13:24

I'm so glad you noticed that. But then again, I shouldn't be surprised. You're one of the most observant people in luxury and in beauty. And what I would say is that, yes, it is intentional, because we are about education, our service is anchored on educating our colleagues, to educate our clients, and together learning about what makes most sense for you. And as a result, when you think about educating, it warms our hearts to see our clients reflect that by bringing their next generation and helping them to educate on beauty and in particular on beauty that they love at Bluemercury with us. And that's why when we think of our proposition to clients, education is one of the pillars that we absolutely strive to get to our clients. But then at the same time, it's why we also speak to about our clients as more from a psychographic point of view than a democratic point of view. And that's why our clients describe themselves as modern confident, and it cuts across ages. And we're really excited to see it extend into that next gen.

Wendy 14:28

It struck me must have been in the last few months. In a couple of the stores. It reminded me of the day when you would walk into you know, you take a younger person, daughter, niece, whoever with you into a department store to get some advice as to what they should use. I always think about the Clinique counter where moms would take their daughter's often simple 1-2-3 Clinique, but there was that sort of advisory aspect of it. And then we became very digital, and the kids all went on their phones and did their own homework and Tiktok-ed themselves into whatever the experience was. But I did feel like when I walked into Blue Mercury, that that sort of level of again, intergenerational of engagement was something that we'd lost in a more luxury experience. And it seemed to be coming back in blue mercury, so you with the master classes and things you're doing you encouraging that how are you seeing that build over time. That's right.

Maly B. 15:27

And also our clients don't have to wait for the master classes. It's just part of our every day. And so to give you an example of that, I was working in stores, as you know, I'd love to do and I was doing that last Wednesday, and one of the best sites for me to see was the mom having one of our beauty experts play with the Sisley color cosmetics brand. And then at the same time, her daughter engaging in our RMS clean color brand, with another beauty expert. And there you have it right in front of you, you know, that intergenerational shopping, it

Wendy 15:59

does talk to that power of human connection as well. I think when you create that kind of environment where people feel they can come not just play because there are other places people can do that, but feel comfortable across. It's not like for one generation versus another. I hadn't thought about the Clinique counter for a long time. But that place where people came to play and learn and trade on or share their experiences. So you know, there's been a lot going on in the specialty beauty space and a lot of partnerships that are emerging, whether it's, you know, Ulta at Target, Sephora at Kohl’s, Thirteen Lune at JC Penney, all those sorts of things. How do you view those partnerships? I mean, I know your owned by Macy's, that's that. But those kinds of partnerships in terms of building out this experience, how do you see that?

Maly B. 16:49

Yeah, at Bluemercury, we're right now really focused on redefining modern luxury beauty. And so we're really working on what does that look like for our core stores. And that's the focus where we're focused on with partners is, for example, bringing in new brands like AESOP, and DS & Durga, in a way to either expand into body further with the AESOP or expand into fragrances further with DS & Durga. But our partnerships are a category based or spa based, where we're also partnering with HigherDose and bringing in their services, whether it's their red light mask, or it's their higher dose infrared lights on a blanket. And so our partnerships right now are more focused on helping us to redefine modern luxury beauty.

Wendy 17:39

I think about you know, the ease at which you can find some of those brands. And by ease, I mean, in quotes, because it's not always that easy. I love Aesop Australian brand, right, originally, and you know, you can go to their stores or go online, but to see them more accessible in a, you know, suburban setting, is really appealing. So how do you go about that? I mean, how do you think about, do people come to you? Do you go to them as sort of a two way street of looking at, this is who we are. And these are the kinds of categories and brands that we want to partner with? It's

Maly B. 18:14

definitely a two way courtship. That's the great news. And it always starts with fit. And it always starts with what is our vision? What is their vision? And is there congruency in each other's vision so that we are reaching the same clients that we're both targeting. And so a great example of that is ESOP reaches a unisex consumer. And ESOP also wants to play across categories, whether its body, its fragrances, its home, and its skincare, for sure. And so as a result, their vision for the clients are going after that is also a med spa client. And it's also a client that believes in the ritual of skincare is very similar to ourselves. And the fact that they are very much about home beauty also matches with our residential perspective. And so when we met with Aesop, it was just a match made in heaven and for us, the fact that we could grow together made it a perfect partnership. Yeah,

Wendy 19:18

that's a brand that's so clearly defined in my mind because everywhere you go around the world, they create this very intimate differentiated physical retail experience. So whether you're in Sydney or whether you're in Los Angeles or anywhere else around the world, and I can smell that brand, the fragrance was so clear to me in a much more elegant way than you know, it's going to make the reference to Mrs. Fields, chocolate cookies, you know, you just smell it and you knew, you know exactly what it is. I can understand the fit there because of yours. More skin and body emphasis and medical dermatological, I can see that I can hear it, I can smell it. It is one of those words And so you led me to a point where you just mentioned it's not gender specific. So where do you see in that intergenerational experience? What about men in that experience in general at Bluemercury?

Maly B. 20:12

Yeah, I'm so excited whenever I see men at our masterclass sessions, and part of that is because the entire store is designed for both men and women. And with men, we find that they shop the same skincare brands that women shop. And at the same time, we have the unisex brands that I'd mentioned. But then we also have specific men's brands. And that includes yes, cult favorites, like Jack Black or Kiehls. But also that includes new entrants, like Atwater, or, for example, Humanrace by Pharrell Williams or Le Domaine from Brad Pitt. And so as a result, we do have a number of brands that cater to everybody. And then some exclusive brands as well, for men focused on men's grooming in particular, yeah

Wendy 20:58

it doesn't feel like a place where you know, only women are invited, it feels very gender neutral,

Maly B. 21:04

I just have to add, because this is true. I've gotten some of the best brow advice from the men in our team.

Wendy 21:13

The whole digital experience, I mean, obviously, you can be local, convenient on somebody's street corner, luxurious, but you still have to offer up the digital experience. How is that fitting now into this new vision or this expanded vision that you have for the brand? Yeah,

Maly B. 21:30

it's another touch point for our consumers to engage with us. And the great news is that we're also creating connections between the channels so that you can play across them. A good example of that is our fulfillment capability. So when you're in stores, especially because you want to smell it, or you want to sample it and try it, understand the texture, understand how it works with your particular skin, you can absolutely do that in our stores. And if for some reason, if that beloved bottle was just sold, and we don't have any more in stock, or that shade you love has for some reason not come back in yet, for any reason what you're loving and looking for, and you've just sampled in stores to is not there, we can fulfill it, which means we can have it sent to you from the store and have it shipped to any one of your homes. And as a result, we make sure that across channels we get you what you need. Whether that is because you come into stores because you want to try it first, or because you're online and you want to just be able to have it easily delivered to you. It's about creating touch points with our customers.

Wendy 22:40

The other thing that I was thinking about when you were talking about men and not gender neutral, and that when I think about your CVS experience, and now you're Bluemercury experienced the sort of context of wellness, and how health and wellness much overused term these days, but fits into the model in terms of either product or experience. So how do you think about that at Bluemercury? Now?

Maly B. 23:03

That's a great question. I mean, it naturally fits in through services, as well as products. And as well as location. If we think about services, our spa is designed to encourage that pause in your life, our surface bars in the stores are encouraged to take that moment to have a seat. And so Bluemercury is designed to encourage you to spend that time with us. My mom always says we seem to eat, walk and talk like we have to go somewhere. When do you just sit down and enjoy that moment. And so we offer that through our services, whether it's makeup in the front or spa in the back. That's one way. Another way is oftentimes people think of beauty as the deck latte enough. But we also very much focus on the body. And that's both in product as well as partnerships. And so the infrared sauna blanket that I mentioned, from higher dose, and maybe too much to bring the sun into your house for most of us, including myself it is but to get that sauna blanket and to be able to crawl into that and be able to have the 20 minutes of just heat and relaxation. That is more doable. Or the Partnership for example, with aloe. Everybody loves her yoga, everybody loves their athleisure. And now we've got their beauty. And so product. Absolutely. It's another way in which we think about wellness. And then last but not least in our locations. We are in centers that encourage you to be a part of the community and to shop not just with us but to shop. The Wellness stores around us too because we're part of that at that neighborhood. Yeah,

Wendy 24:41

that whole context of community, which I think you know, we see in all our How America Shops® research and all our observation around the world in terms of what we would consider the best in class retailers of any form not just beauty, it could be food beverage travel, lots of extra Aaron says, when we think about that there is that sense of belonging, that sense of community that we see. And people lusting after that, in these crazy times, there was an old movie Little shop on the corner or something, I think was in the 1930s, they tend to play at a Christmas time. But that notion of the place, the Haven on the corner, that you can go to has very powerful emotional resonance, I think, too. So there's that piece to the wellness proposition, right? It's not just to ingestibles and things like that.

Maly B. 25:31

That's right. And one of the ways in which we encourage that too, is through our events. Well, we'll have the founders or we'll have educators come out to the stores or influencers come out to the stores, and clients can book one of those events and join us for a party to learn about, you know, a new ritual, a new brand, a new set of innovation. And as a result, the events are just huge for Bluemercury throughout all of our stores across the country.

Wendy 25:58

You and I are big fans of Mecca in Australia. I know and that's part of that beauty community there too, that they'll do in either their, their local stores, or they'll do virtually where they're spiriting in the founders from across the airwaves, or in their flagships. So it's that experience is very powerful. reengaging that sense of community and, and participation in the in the beauty experience. So you've also, I noticed of late added some of your more of your own brand. That's clearly a strategy for the future. Is that right?

Maly B. 26:32

You got it. Cerulian 6 is a new brand that we launched, in addition to the M 61 skincare line, in addition to the Lune+Aster color line that we have. And Cerulian 6 more specifically is our body home and fragrance line that came from a need and an ask from our colleagues and clients. And that's where our proprietary brands come from. It's from the wishes of colleagues and clients who said, Oh, you don't have this yet, or I haven't seen this yet. I would love dot dot dot. What's great about Bluemercury's proprietary brands is that they're connected in several ways. One, we do our very, very best to try to balance conscious beauty ingredients, while still having the efficacy and the results that beauty customers want. The second thing is that they're all cosmically connected, and so M 61 is a constellation, Lune+Aster you know, the stars and the moon and whether it's, you know, Cerulian 6, and so for us, the point being is that we also think very much about how all of those brands contribute to the whitespace. That doesn't exist in beauty today, but should. And so as we think about our proprietary brands, they're great to cocktail with all the other brands in our stores. And yes, to your point, we're expanding.

Wendy 27:55

So last couple of thoughts. Where do you see beauty and beauty retail evolving over the next? I don't know, pick a number three to five years?

Maly B. 28:05

Yes, that is the that is everybody's gasp because of AI, and all the different ways AI is going to change the ways in which I think we can further humanize the experience, not digitized experience, humanize the experience. And what I mean by that is, how can AI help us enrich the personalized recommendations? How can AI help us with the diagnostics to get closer to what you need? How can AI help us with the next best action for you? And so the big question, I think, for us is how fast can we use the power of AI to do what we are known for? And instead of having AI lead us? That's

Wendy 28:52

a fascinating comment. I had somebody on the podcast a couple of weeks ago, and Alissa Shu Lynch and she came out of Johnson & Johnson and then Google world and still in that technology, world healthcare and technology. And that was very much the conversation we had, it was actually around health care. But it was that power of who leads whom and how do we think about what this world or even envision what this world might look like three to five years from now. So I thank you for connecting those dots. And last question for you. You know, the personal question, I always love to ask is favorite place to shop aside from Bluemercury or Macy's or Bloomingdale's?

Maly B. 29:36

Great question. Given that I've pulled out my Canada Goose jacket, it's hard for me not to go back to that retail experience.

Wendy 29:44

It is chilly now so I get it. That's right.

Maly B. 29:47

And I'm from Canada to so it also pays homage to where I came from. But what I also loved about it is that they have this cold room. And so for anyone who hasn't seen snow or anyone who is Looking to test the power of the jacket that they're looking at buying? Boy, does it ever help with conversion? Because you can go into that room. And you can give that jacket a try in the temperature that you need it set at. And so if it's good enough for Antarctica, I think of it as good enough for New York, Boston and any other place you must be. Yeah,

Wendy 30:22

I do. Think about your spa services as that what am I testing when I walk to the back into the services it now I have this vision of the Bluemercury spa and services and the Canada Goose refrigerator.

Maly B. 30:37

Exactly. That is a great comparison. Because if you love Revive in the front of our store, you can now immerse yourself in Revive in our spa in the back of the store. Absolutely.

Wendy 30:46

You've told me a story that I can hear and smell and feel in all of this. So thank you for coming today. Thank you for joining Future Shop.

Maly B. 30:55

Absolutely. Wendy, it was my pleasure.

Wendy 30:58

What was interesting about what Maly talked about Now was this very clear vision of what a retail brand needs to be. But you could hear it, you could see it right? You could smell it, that if you are going to be delivering a retail experience that people want to come back to and back to and back to it have to think about all the elements to that experience, the exclusivity of product, the unique partnerships, the level of training for the people, that experience when you walk in the store that says this is a different place, the music, the smell, all of those kinds of things. And the power of that. And that clear vision of this modern luxury, retail experience, sort of the residential experience, she talked about walking into my home. And she's not doing this in one or two places. She's doing it in hundreds, maybe not 1000s, but hundreds. And it does say to us all about what good retail should look like in the future, that it needs to embrace all of those pieces, all of those elements to ensure that a shopper wants to come back and back and back. And it's not just about you know, I can buy that online. So she has always had a passion about a brand, the brand whether it was a big drugstore chain, or a more intimate luxury beauty retailer. But those elements of what she talked about are the most powerful elements of building a strong retail brand, whatever kind of business you're in, so good learning of that for the future. And lots more to come. So see you in the future. Cheers for now.

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