An Insider’s View of Premium Beauty: Séan Harrington, Managing Director, Elemis


Séan Harrington is a leading figure in the international spa and beauty industry, having headed up his company, Elemis, since 1990. By travelling, researching and immersing himself in all aspects of brand development and international expansion, Séan is supremely well placed to comment on the direction of the premium beauty industry.

We are delighted to share Séan’s views and insights with you in this latest of our “An Insider’s View…” series.

The premium beauty market has proved to be markedly resilient during these recent turbulent times. What should the industry be doing to ensure ongoing growth of the category?

For me, the quality level is where we need to focus our attention and this comes from product development and technology. If you look at the incredibly fast-moving worlds of technology, such as tablets and smartphone, it’s the same in premium beauty.

We need to be looking at raw materials to deliver great products and efficacy. If you stand still, you can’t expect to be premium and you can’t expect consumers to pay premium prices.

Do consumers shop differently for beauty?

It’s inevitable. You can’t move without there being a TV somewhere and the success of TV shopping has been phenomenal. For example, QVC is very educational and interactive and what they offer professional and quality brands is very clever.

Omnichannel is gathering pace. You have to remember you are dealing with the same customers, whether they go to a department store or shop on QVC or online. It’s about creating touch points everywhere to reach them.

The enduring challenge for Elemis is converting online customers to becoming loyal Elemis customers. If you get an ambassador for the brand, they can get five or ten others. However, if you expect customers to self serve it will be a struggle as they become price point sensitive and there is no chance to educate them about product. Elemis has 12 therapists in customer care who engage with consumers when they register and throughout their online experience. The key is to drive them into retail distribution.

How has the retailer and supplier relationship changed?

On the back of a tough economy, it’s more challenging than before. There is less margin in the business and everyone is striving for the smallest percentage point. As retailers become aggressive on margins, the fringe opportunities get cut.

Together, retailers and suppliers need to focus on what we deliver to the consumers, not trying to squeeze as much out of each other as possible. The opportunity is in investment and growth, not just margin.

Do brands need a different sales strategy for online?

Absolutely. Communications online requires a different language because there is no physical interaction and people’s attention span is less.

Online is never standing still. What worked six months ago won’t necessarily work today. It’s not a mature industry and doesn’t have the strength and depth of the professional sector. But it’s very influential and is creating a new generation of visionaries. It’s a fascinating opportunity.

Will online premium beauty ever be as big as retail?

Unquestionably it will, if it isn’t already. It’s a global marketplace with different levels of trade, including grey marketers and secondary market traders like ebay and amazon. Their business has accelerated through acquisition and through new ideas and they are working hard to adjust to the consumer.

Retailers need to adjust their offer to make it all about experience and service. I was recently in a fashion store in Miami where you can try on clothes and are handed a tablet to scan your purchase. You then decide whether to have your order delivered to your hotel, home or pick it up in 20 minutes. It’s the future of retailing.

What predictions do you have for the premium beauty industry over the next 3-5 years?

I believe the sector will grow significantly due to NPD translating into products that deliver to the consumer.

There will be a huge change in the evolution of NPD. Launches will happen faster and more regularly. It used to take 3 years to get a new product to market, then 18 months to 2 years and now 12-18 months. Eventually, that will reduce to 6-12 months.

Technology is enabling this acceleration, but without any compromise in performance or quality.

A well structured business will respond to these changes. If you don’t respond, then somebody else will. It’s essential to be at the forefront of innovation and change.