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How in-store beauty services are helping Superdrug battle with online

The future of the UK high street is a concern at the forefront of most retailers’ minds right now, with casualties of 2018 already stacking up to include big names like Toys R Us, House of Fraser and most recently, Coast and Claire’s.

This is even the case for successful retailers, who know exactly how quickly the winds can change in today’s digitally-focused world.

Superdrug is a breath of fresh air on the high street. A retailer visible on most UK high streets thanks to its 800-plus store count and last year it reported profits up by a very comfortable 40%.

But Superdrug’s sales operations director, Jerry Walkling, is all too aware of how the uncertain future of the high street is the retailer’s biggest challenge going forward.

Talking to Essential Retail, he describes while the company is trading well on the high street – and even more so in leisure environments like retail parks and shopping centres – there is a concern about the disappearance of Superdrug’s retail neighbours, which leads to less footfall in once-popular town centres.

“Those retailers, like M&S, who are closing down have made a big dent in the high street,” observes Walkling, who says the retailer is planning on ramping up its retail park stores from 25 to 100 over time.

“We don’t have strategy around closing [high street] stores – it’s not something we want to do and we will do whatever we can to keep stores open. But if there is an opportunity to be in a retail park over a high street, that decision may be already made.”

Wake-up call

And does Walkling blame the explosion of eCommerce for the death of the high street?

“I don’t blame online at all, I think online has just been a wake-up call for traditional high street retailers.”

And it is that wake-up call which saw Superdrug shaking up its in-store experience by offering beauty treatments including threading, manicures and ear piercing.

“It’s been a very natural extension of our product range,” says Walkling. “We began with eyebrow threading five years ago and we very quickly learnt there was a demand for this and we’re already the market leader in eyebrow threading.”

Out of its portfolio of 808 stores, Superdrug has eyebrow threading stations in 301, while nail bars feature in 88, with plans to roll express manicures out to 300-400 stores over time. The retailer also offers hairdressing and services in health, including flu jabs and travel vaccinations via a consultation with on-site trained nurses.

Response to online

Walkling says the launch of its beauty services has been to stand out on the high street and to encourage online shoppers to visit a physical store.

“Many retailers feel you have to do something different to compete with online retailing,” he explains. “But you can’t get these services online so it gives customers a reason to come into Superdrug, and hopefully the customers will buy their other beauty-related products rather than buying online.”

And it is these beauty services which fit in so well with the theory that millennials and younger shoppers are spending their hard-earned cash on experiences over things. Indeed, Walkling says the core Superdrug customer has decreased in age over the last few years to the 14-25 year-old age bracket.

“Retailers are learning that customer experience in the store needs to be different. Customers need to engage, touch and smell a product – try before they buy – so we have more testers and knowledgeable staff in store than we used to. But there has been a fundamental change in customer experience and expectations that have gone through the roof.”

“Many retailers feel you have to do something different to compete with online retailing"

Tailoring to a younger audience

These younger shoppers are part of the ‘want it now’ generation who are used to instant gratification from social media and one-hour or next-day delivery from online retailers.

“People want that same immediacy with products and levels of service in store,” he says.

This is one reason Walkling has focused on rolling out the beauty services to as many stores as possible in a short time period, to get them in front of the customer quick. Next on the agenda will be to build an online booking platform, so customers can pre-book beauty appointments, but Walkling says this hasn’t been a priority as the services are express treatments and quite often customers choose them in the spur of the moment.

Instead, the retailer has focused on providing the beauty bars with a card reader to take payments, rather than a customer having to queue at the regular till point to purchase their treatment.

“I think it really comes down to listening to your customers and responding to their needs,” he explains, noting how the retailer has used social media to learn quickly what customers are asking for, as well as creating a new youthful in-store look including neon lighting and graphics.

“The looks younger and stylish – that’s something you wouldn’t have seen in Superdrug five years ago. Kept the brand young and up to date. And these services are a great example of responding to customer demand.”