Bringing in what beauty addicts want

Mr Alwyn Chong, the owner and managing director of Escentials, at its newly renovated store in Paragon.
Mr Alwyn Chong, the owner and managing director of Escentials, at its newly renovated store in Paragon. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Luxasia's new Escentials store in Paragon aims to stock "trending" brands. Gladys Chung reports

Multi-label beauty boutique Escentials at Paragon officially re-opened last Thursday after a renovation, but a new look is not the only thing it boasts.

The store now carries products at lower price points alongside its existing range of premium products. For example, where fragranced candles used to cost $100 and up, they now start at $60, for those from Australian brand Damselfly.

Escentials is known for its range of exclusive premium brands of cult skincare and fragrances such as Eve Lom, Diptyque, Serge Lutens and Annick Goutal. They will continue to be stocked in the stores.

Mr Alwyn Chong, the owner and managing director of Escentials, says: "We used to cater to the more affluent consumers, and only selected high-end brands. Because of the price points, it might have been daunting to walk into Escentials.

"Now, we want the store to be accessible to a wider spectrum of customers, and to be a destination for those who want the latest and best in beauty."

Another strategy to keep shoppers coming back for more - introducing new brands almost every month.

Escentials used to stock about 30 labels. With the re-opening, it has introduced four more brands: the exclusive and hip Stockholm labels Byredo and Verso, the French perfume house Dear Rose, as well as Damselfly.

"Going forward, we'll be bringing in more products at lower price points. But we will stock only brands that are fresh and 'trending'. Whatever we bring in will be what beauty addicts want," adds Mr Chong, 37.

Escentials was first launched in 2001 at Raffles Hotel's shopping arcade and, in the following year, another outlet was launched in Tangs Orchard. The Raffles Hotel store shut in 2007, while the Paragon location opened in 2010.

Escentials is owned by Luxasia, which has a sizeable beauty distribution network in Asia.

The revamped Paragon store has increased its retail space from 1,500 sq ft to 2,300 sq ft, after converting an office within the shop into more counter space.

Mr Chong says it is important to keep the store looking "alive".

"Retail spaces need to be living spaces. At the new Escentials, where we have two new windows instead of one, themed visual merchandising will play a big part; certain brands will have their own distinctive space so they can thrive, and there will be activities so we can animate the store more.

"Now, when online shopping is widely available, you have to see what differentiates online and offline shopping."

An area within the store, called the "vanity zone", has been carved out so shoppers can try on the latest lipsticks and eyeshadows from brands such as By Terry and Lipstick Queen in front of large mirrors. Raised on a platform, the area will be available for makeover party bookings in the future.

Make-up artists and manicurists can be hired for the occasion through home-grown beauty appointment booking app Vanitee. In July, Luxasia and angel investor Robert Yap gave the then three- month-old Vanitee $2 million in funding.

On why Luxasia chose to invest in the booking app, Mr Chong says: "We believe in the model and that it works well in targeting the younger crowd.

"We also felt that we can add value to their business. They can provide services at Luxasia events, and we can put them in contact with spa owners who can outsource their services through the app."

He reveals that an Escentials e-commerce site is in the pipeline. Inspired by luxury men's fashion and lifestyle e-purveyor Mr Porter, the new Escentials website will feature an e-magazine with beauty, fashion and lifestyle content.

Mr Chong declined to reveal Escentials' sales figures, except to say it has been growing above market rate.

The changes at Escentials are part of parent company Luxasia's attempts to grow the business in a volatile retail market. The home- grown company was founded by Mr Chong's father Patrick - who is in his early 60s - in 1986 as a distributor of fragrances.

Today, it distributes more than 100 international cosmetic brands - such as Aveda, Calvin Klein and Bvlgari - across 11 markets including China, India and Myanmar.

Mr Chong, who is also managing director of Luxasia, runs the business in China, oversees the Thailand and Philippines markets and Escentials; his father, the chief executive, runs everything else.

Entering into joint ventures has been a key business strategy since a decade ago.

In 2005, Luxasia entered into a joint venture with the international beauty giant Coty to form Coty Prestige Southeast Asia. This leaves both companies responsible for about 20 labels such as Marc Jacobs, Chloe, Miu Miu and Philosophy in selected markets.

While Luxasia was previously a distributor of Coty products, it now handles operations such as logistics, finance, sales and marketing.

More recently, in 2011, it embarked on another joint venture with the fragrance and beauty arm of French luxury conglomerate Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) to form L Beauty.

Through the venture, Luxasia provides LVMH-owned beauty brands Dior, Benefit, Make Up For Ever and Fresh in the South-east Asian markets with support in human resource, logistics and information technology.

Mr Jacques Gouallou, the managing director of L Beauty, says the partnership makes perfect sense: "Luxasia is established in South-east Asia and beyond for more than 30 years.

"This venture has allowed us to expand quickly to these markets, by leveraging on the presence of Luxasia which has helped us tremendously in setting up our operations and choosing the right distribution channel in each country."

Two years ago, Luxasia also teamed up with French cosmetics chain Yves Rocher to relaunch the brand here with standalone stores - after it exited the market more than a decade ago - through a joint venture.

Earlier this year, yet another joint venture was formed with American label Elizabeth Arden.

On these partnerships, which add an additional 20-odd brands to Luxasia's portfolio, Mr Chong says it is a natural progression for the business.

He adds that "the age of distributorship is coming to a close now"; and it is about synergistic partnerships where companies grow a business together and leverage cost efficiency on a regional level.

As Luxasia marks its 30th anniversary next year, Mr Chong says the company is all prepared for the next decade.

"For us, retail stores, e-commerce, mobile-commerce and partnership with key retailers and companies on a regional platform will be the way forward.

"We want to be Asia's beauty market maker and offer brands a fully integrated platform to access the Asian markets. We've been taking key steps and making investments in important areas to ensure that we will be ready for the next leg of our journey."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2015, with the headline 'Bringing in what beauty addicts want'. Print Edition | Subscribe