Big Interview: Feelunique's journey to a community beauty platform

It’s been three and a half years since Joel Palix took over the top job at the e-tailer, Feelunique. Joining from Clarins, he had mostly commercial and marketing experience, but he is the first to admit he left his comfort zone when he transitioned to a technology-driven company. 

“When you are in your 50s, either you decide to sleep gently, or you take the challenge – and I love it,” the smooth-talking Frenchman, tells Essential Retail.

And clearly he has adapted to the fast-paced world of eCommerce well, he says business is booming, having just experienced the best quarter since he joined at the end of 2014. And while the e-tailer has not quite hit the £100 million-a-year target its founders declared it would by 2017, Palix says it is very close in terms of retail sales.

Year-to-date retail sales have seen a growth of 40%, while Feelunique’s website now receives 130,000 daily visits. The average basket value is over £50 and 15,000 products are sold online every day.

The company is also growing internationally, with the recent acquisition of the French online beauty e-tailer, Beautyst, cementing its position in Europe, while Asia and Russia are also trading well, with China sales now accounting for 10% of group sales. 

Feelunique Unlimited

Last month, Feelunique launched a delivery proposition called Unlimited, which provides a next-day delivery pass for £8.95 per year, with no minimum order value.

“Three years ago we were saying consumers were not expecting or needing to get a beauty product right away,” says Palix. “And I still think it’s true.”

But Palix says the e-tailer could see the shift in consumer expectations around faster online deliveries, thanks to the pioneering fulfilment service, Amazon Prime, which has even encouraged fashion e-tailers like Asos to provide a next-day subscription delivery model.

“Replacing your fragrance or getting a makeup product, yes you're happy to have it, but if it's coming in three days, then it's fine,” explains Palix. "I don't think there's the same urge, but there's this consumer habit we need to take into account.”

There’s also the theory that customers who subscribe to a company’s delivery proposal are inherently more loyal. “£8.95, it’s nothing, but it’s money that’s taken upfront. And we calculate that if the customer moves from a standard two orders per year, to even three orders per year, then suddenly for us the whole economic equation is positive.”

Considering Feelunique currently charges non-unlimited customers £8.95 for next-day delivery on products under £15, and £4.95 above that threshold, the customer seems to be getting a very good deal. Fundamentally, some customers will order every month, and others will only order once or twice a year, but these frequent customers, outset the costs of Feelunique practically offering free next-day delivery.

“I think long term becoming the natural destination for all your beauty products is great for us, and having a share of your beauty wallet is really important.”

Finding the right product

Feelunique now hosts 500 brands with 28,000 SKUs on its website, but with such a huge amount of products, how can an e-tailer make browsing its online catalogue easier than walking the aisles of a high-street store’s beauty department?

“Our customers are busy, urban women who want their lives simpler and want a great customer experience,” describes Palix. “We’re serving the beauty customer that can’t find products and our belief is that with online you can really help the consumer identify in an objective and brand agnostic way, the right product for her."

Palix also points to the difference in merchandising between the department store and online, saying customers can discover different brands easier with Feelunique, without the pressure of beauticians breathing down their necks. “You’re sometimes forced to end up with a product or brand you don’t always like.”

And this is something about the beauty industry Palix is very unhappy with – he doesn’t want bathroom cabinets around the world full of out-of-date beauty products that customers have bought following bad advice.

“I believe in a more responsible way of consuming beauty,” he says. “I’m not saying beauty should be completely serious, but introducing a bit more responsibility I think is right.”

There are several tools Feelunique has introduced to ensure customers find the right beauty products for them, firstly the e-tailer’s AI-driven ‘finder’ algorithms ask a series of questions to objectively drive customers to the right products, while it also introduced an AR mobile application to virtually try on make up.

“We think AR and AI both are in our scope of development, because we’re such a large site in terms of products, we need to really make it simpler for the consumer to find the right product.”

Feelunique also offers a discover service in the form of its ‘Pick ‘N’ Mix’ sampling programme. Customers pay £3.95 for a box which they fill with five samples from hundreds of products online and they are then given a £3.95 gift voucher in a follow-up email which can be redeemed on a future purchase.

“You can tailor your sample box to test in the comfort of your home, whatever product, including delivery,” says Palix, who admitted those customers could easily try the samples from Feelunique and purchase the full-sized products elsewhere.

“It’s more about connecting consumers with brands and connecting them with influencers and other consumers – our model is shifting from pure retail to being a service and community platform specialising in beauty.”

He adds: “My vision in terms of journey is a very rich catalogue – as big as possible – and then tools to help filter out the products and finders as a more advanced way of filtering your choice, then Pick ‘n’ Mix to try and then you buy.”

Human touch

But the future for Feelunique is not all about eCommerce, artificial intelligence and augmented reality. Palix is keen to ensure a human touch remains part of the brand. While the e-tailer has hired beauty journalists for several years to create online content, how-to videos and Facebook Live events, it is also about to throw human experts into the online mix using a live video chat functionality.

“We think the way to advise consumers will be through content, bots and also human consultants,” explains Palix, saying the experts will be able to see a customer’s hair and suggest a relevant products, while Feelunique has even hired a pharmacist. “We think with skin care you can’t play around with this and you need to deliver the proper advice.”

While the service is still in beta, Palix says customers who interact with an expert convert much higher than regular online customers. “I think it’s the best of two worlds – customers have the advice, but at any moment they can turn it off, which in a department store, once you’re in a certain environment, it’s very hard to say ‘bye’. You feel stuck.”

And talking of stores, is a network of shops on the horizon for Feelunique?

“Beauty is an interesting business, in terms of size, it is not as big as fashion, but it's complicated with all the different brands.”

Palix says a network of stores would be too capital intensive. “We wouldn't be so good at mastering both bricks & mortar and online, we see some of our competitors in bricks & mortar and they have to compromise for online," he explains.

“This trend of ‘phygital’ and ‘pop-up’ connected to an internet site – that could be an option for us, but really I think it’s more of a marketing tool than a new strategy.”