Is there a market for niche brands?

Another week, another batch of emails extolling the virtues of yet more new niche brands. Most are skincare lines with some kind of natural/organic/sustainable story. I wonder whether the retail market can take many more, and if they do, how many will be around in six months time.

I was discussing this dilemma with beauty industry consultant, Helen Miller, one-time commercial director with Boots. She knows a thing or two about launching a brand {the hugely successful Boots No7 Protect & Perfect brand was her baby}.

All too often niche brand owners present a finished product and marketing plan to a retailer without understanding what the retailer wants. The resulting mismatch of expectations can lead to disappointment, expensive reworking and failure to get a listing.

Helen has experienced at first hand how high street retail space is a very precious and expensive commodity. The major brands have big marketing budgets and highly developed launch and development skills, which is why they get noticed.

Helen told me: “Retailers need their space to work hard, stocking brands that customers want and which sell in sufficient volume to produce a profitable return. A niche brand can struggle to deliver the levels of business required, so can end up on the wrong end of sale or return agreements. Or they are unable to sell in new ideas and fresh stock because the shelves are clogged by the initial sell-in stock.”

It’s not surprising that retailers have become so choosy on who they take on.

Getting listed is certainly not the end of the story. Over-distribution is a far more common problem than many realise, resulting in capital tied up in very slow moving stock.

But for all the failures, there are many that have made it and that’s what niche brands need to keep their eye on. Bobbi Brown, MAC, Liz Earle, to name but a few, all started small –now look at them.

So what can niche brands do to get noticed? And what should retailers be looking for?Helen has worked with brand owners and retailers to achieve the best fit. Here are her top tips:

Brand owners:

  • Understand and retain some vital customer cues in the packaging whilst incorporating a disruptive element to catch the customer’s eye.

  • What looks great as a design on your desk can just disappear in store where it competes against the noise of other brands.

  • Products often get lost in a retail environment. The packaging needs to help the customer find the product once in store.

  • Make your designs into DIY packs – Blue Peter-style if you have to. Take them to a store where you want to be stocked and see how they look against the competition. DON’T design the product name at the bottom of the pack face where it will be hidden by the edge of the shelf and price tickets!

  • Out of store communication: PR, social media, well put-together website are important for creating customer awareness.


  • Remember that niche players don’t have the cash flows of the multinationals.

  • It is in your interest to build successful new brands too.

  • If you nurture supplier talent they are more likely to reward you with more good, new products in future.

But remember, retail is not the be-all and end-all these days. There are plenty of opportunities to test products with online beauty retailers, such as Feelunique and Escentual. Who knows, they may be nurturing the next must-have beauty brand.  

Helen can be contacted at:

Twitter: Helen_MillerLtd