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Beauty is about self-expression, says The Body Shop CEO

In an interview, Shriti Malhotra talks about 15 years of the beauty brand, how the pandemic pushed the company to pivot and what today's beauty customer wants

Shriti Malhotra, CEO, The Body Shop India
Shriti Malhotra, CEO, The Body Shop India (Courtesy The Body Shop India)

"Beauty is no longer about few essential beauty items. Beauty is no longer a luxury for select few. Beauty is about self-expression," says Shriti Malhotra, the chief executive officer of The Body Shop India, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.

Malhotra, who credits the brand's loyal customers for the growth, says the pandemic has changed the way people look at beauty. Millennials and Gen Zers are the new drivers and exploring beauty as never before, she says.

We spoke to her about the brand's journey, how the pandemic pushed the company to pivot and what today's beauty customer wants. Edited excerpts:

Also read | How much food would you like in your skincare?

15 years... how does it feel?

It’s very exciting, to be honest... to witness this kind of growth. It is deep gratitude to all our customers for having put their faith in us for so many years.

What do you think has kept the brand growing so strong despite the increasing competition in the beauty sector?

I think it's the founding principle of business as a force for good and the commitment to be purpose-driven business. Every decision is taken from this lens. We follow three key elements: Fight, which is a reminder that all of us have to be activists and drive change. As our founder Anita Roddick famously said, “Activism is the rent we pay for living on the planet.” Fair, which is about our eye firmly on social justice, doing the right thing for people and actively supporting those less privileged. And Beautiful World, which reiterates our commitment to our environment.

On the business side, through the years, we have been able to gain deep insights into consumer needs. Our retail expansion, 200 highly visible and accessible stores as well as our online footprint has made our products highly reachable. A key reason for brand relevance is our affordable prices. Our product pricing starts from 200, some of our most popular products are priced below 500 for full size products and not minis or small size products. We also have our product and ingredient credibility firmly in place. We are and always have been cruelty-free as well as 100% vegetarian. Over 60% of our products are now 100% vegan, including all our new launches.

What was the pandemic’s impact on the brand?

While complete lockdowns naturally led to adverse effect on the businesses, there was a massive negative impact seen on the emotional wellbeing of customers. In 2020, during the lockdown, we were expecting to witness a V-shaped recovery, but that was not the case.

However, the resilient consumer sentiment during the festive period led to a 70-80% business recovery. We have again seen demand dipping in the wake of the second wave but we’re hopeful for a strong bounce back for the rest of the year.

The pandemic has taught to rewrite all rules, to be agile and nimble. We are setting up our upgraded digital store, with advance tech stack and customer interface. We’ve added 5,000-plus pin codes and now delivering products to a total 30,000-plus pin codes across India. Our digital and social media channels have served at the forefront of customer engagement with anytime, anywhere shopping service for customers, via social commerce, WhatsApp shopping, assisted sales, home delivery, going beyond express delivery to 2 hours’ delivery, expert chats, live video consultations and so on. We are enabling multiple support tools to help consumers make right decisions in absence of product touch and feel experience.

What does today’s beauty customer really want? Has the pandemic changed the customer in any way?

Social media, digital access and content has transformed beauty through heightened awareness of ingredients, trending products, beauty regimes, DIYs, new D2C brands, innovative products, digital shopping platforms, beauty tech, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and so on. Simply said, in the last few years, beauty industry has turned around on its head.

For younger consumers, we have always seen a momentum towards investing in brands which align to their values and beliefs. The pandemic has altered our lens as a society and for many of us, the experience of collective isolation and tragedy has sharpened our intent to give back in whatever way we can. Post pandemic, we are seeing the rapid rise of young ethically engaged consumers who are increasingly concerned about the environment, plastics pollution, comprehensive sustainability and raging social issues like gender and inclusivity. We have also seen change in beauty from a more cosmetic-based approach towards a wellness-based approach around self-care, skincare, body care, hygiene, protection and so on. We are seeing a big demand in our vitamin based skincare products like vitamins E and C ranges as well as our anti-bacterial ranges like tea tree range.

A lot of niche beauty brands have now come up offering customized solutions, even looking at minimal packaging to be more eco-friendly. Do you think the pandemic has made the market more competitive?

There has definitely been a lot of brand traction around environment, waste, packaging and sustainability. This is a welcome change driven by customers demanding transparency about ingredients, packaging and sustainability efforts. The beauty market in India has always been competitive and we are really seeing headwinds in the green and sustainable beauty movement now.

Our focus is on using fewer plastic materials where possible; using more plant-based and recycled plastic (rather than oil-based plastics) and helping people around the world to reuse, repurpose and recycle.

Today, our PET plastic product packaging contains on average 25% recycled material. By 2022, we aim to increase the amount of recycled plastic material to 75%. Currently, more than 68% of our packaging can be recycled. By 2025, all our bath and body and haircare products will be fully recyclable. Our longer-term aim is to develop a circular model for our packaging, which means reusing or repurposing 100% of our product packaging.

Many established brands are now focusing on being more environment-friendly. May I know about your initiatives?

We are proud to be pioneers of fair trade in beauty with Community Fair Trade (CFT) being at the core of our business since 1987. CFT is our bespoke fair trade programme. It helps our suppliers gain market access and invest in social and environmental projects that benefit their communities and helps us source ethical, high-quality ingredients and accessories from thousands of producers, farmers and artisans across the world. Our CFT programme is independently checked and verified by ECOCERT (organic certification organization, founded in France in 1991). Over 90% of our products contain at least one CFT ingredient.

While over 60% of our products are vegan today, The Body Shop will be 100% vegan by 2023 whereby all products will carry the 100% vegan trademark. Our commitment to be 100% vegan with a certification from a prestigious partner like The Vegan Society, UK, is to take our cause of environmental sustainability further in a credible manner. In India, we have also launched out Bring Back Our Bottles (BBOB) in-store recycling programme in 2019 and we encourage all our customers to bring back their plastic empties to their nearest The Body Shop store for recycling.

Do you believe retail stores will have any relevance in the post-pandemic world?

The pandemic has forced store closure and moved a large part of consumers online. There is no doubt that while online is here to stay, retail stores will be placed strongly be at the heart of consumer shopping experience for years to come. Post pandemic, the need for human connection has emerged stronger than ever and consumers are likely to throng at the stores to partake the sensorial experience, physical interaction, engagement, touch & feel the products, browse, try products, seek consultation. The truly experiential stores with services, assisted sales, events and community will be the beacons for the future. We are confident about the success of our retail stores and are on track to open 15 new stores in 2021.

Your biggest learning from the pandemic?

The pandemic has been a roller-coaster ride with severe challenges but it has also been a journey about survival and growth. Most of us have spent this year in varying degrees of isolation that underlined key revelations: our deep need for human connection, a keen awareness of our own privileges and the importance of helping the less privileged by giving back to local communities.

The pandemic also taught us to be aligned continuously with altering customer’s needs and reach them wherever they are. There have been many lessons in our journey with The Body Shop this year but the customer voice has been key, listening to their needs, hopes and fears as well as responding accordingly has been more vital than ever.

What’s your vision for the brand?

In these times of great social and environmental inequity, the world needs businesses with purpose that the ability to bring change. With more young customers coming into the fold, there is a lot of awareness about social good and environmental issues. However, there is a larger drive required to find ways to involve people beyond the store, create a movement and greater awareness. Over the next few years, working towards bringing activism around waste management, recycling, sustainability and communities will be a top priority in line with our purpose driven mission to fight for a fairer and more beautiful world.

The biggest challenge you have faced in these 15 years?

The last one year: Pandemic shut down, loss of near and dear ones and the health and safety of our teams was extremely challenging.

With businesses navigating many unforeseen factors, hurdles and challenges, I would rephrase them as learnings and experiences for us to adjust, adapt, embrace change and prepare for a new normal.

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