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In-store beauty services help Superdrug battle online rivals says Jerry Walkling

Concerns over the future of the UK high street loom large on most retailers’ minds right now, with casualties during 2018 already including big names such as Toys R Us, House of Fraser, Coast, and Claire’s.

But Superdrug provides a breath of fresh air on many high streets. The chain has an 800-plus store count and last year reported profits up by a very comfortable 40%. But Superdrug sales operations director Jerry Walkling remains well aware of how the uncertain future of the high street is one of the company’s biggest challenges.

He describes how the company is trading well from high street stores – and even more so in leisure-driven environments like retail parks and shopping centres – yet harbours a concern about the disappearance of Superdrug’s retail neighbours, which leads to reduced footfall in once-popular town centres.

“Those retailers, like M&S, who are closing down have made a big dent in the high street,” says Walkling, who adds that Superdrug is planning to ramp up its retail park stores from 25 to 100 over time: “We don’t have a 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 there is an opportunity to be in a retail park over a high street, that decision may be already made.”

Walkling doesn’t hold the growth of online competition responsible for the challenges facing physical stores. “I don’t blame online at all, I think online has just been a wake-up call for traditional high street retailers,” he says.

It is that wake-up call which motivated  Superdrug to shake up up its in-store experience, 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 808 stores, Superdrug has eyebrow threading stations in 301, and nail bars feature in 88, with plans to roll express manicures out to 300-400 stores. The retailer also offers hairdressing and health services, including flu jabs and travel vaccinations via a consultation with on-site trained nurses. A new Beauty Studio store format, designed by MMP, was unveiled at Fosse Park in Leicester at the beginning of the year.

Walkling says the introduction of its beauty services has been designed to help it 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.”

These beauty services fit with the theory that millennials and younger shoppers are spending their hard-earned cash on experiences rather than 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.”

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,” says Walkling.

This is one reason Superdrug 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 customer quickly. 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 on the spur of the moment.

Instead, the focus has been on providing the beauty bars with a card reader to take payments, rather than requiring customers to queue.  “I think it really comes down to listening to your customers and responding to their needs,” he says, noting how Superdrug has used social media to learn quickly what customers want, as well as creating a new in-store look including neon lighting and graphics.