Lemon Laine’s Formula For Growing Its Clean Beauty and Wellness Concept: Community, Customization And Caches Of Testers

When Laura Lemon opened clean beauty shop Lemon Laine in Nashville two years ago, she followed in the footsteps of her great-grandparents who owned a general store in Oklahoma. Raised in Tulsa and married to Alabaman Evan Lenoir, vice president of operations and finance at the retailer, Lemon spent nearly a dozen years gaining experience in the beauty industry, mostly on the West Coast, prior to Lemon Laine. After getting her start buying natural beauty products for 2,000 Walmart stores, she handled sales and marketing at the mass-market brand Yes To, and helped develop Juice Beauty’s collaboration with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop brand. She even studied holistic nutrition in Berkeley, Calif.

Retail is in Lemon’s blood and her wheelhouse. She’s gathered some 600 items from more than 120 brands in Lemon Laine’s 700-square-foot pastel-tinted shop nestled in a tree-lined East Nashville neighborhood dotted with quaint clapboard houses that feels like the South’s version of Brooklyn. It’s across the Cumberland River about four miles east of the Music City’s downtown district, away from the hopping honky-tonks, beer bike-pedaling bachelorettes and novelty cars that resemble souped-up Hot Wheels. The store is also just a mile from Lemon’s home, making commuting easy, which will be especially welcome after she gives birth to her first child later this year.

Lemon expanded Lemon Laine to Houston last November, stepping into a bigger retail footprint measuring 1,000 square feet. She’s also bottled a special blend of its hydrating face oil to sell for $65 apiece at Keep Shop, the Nashville lifestyle boutique that extols products unique to Tennessee. On a recent Saturday afternoon, as youngsters played hide-and-seek between the bushes in front of her store, the entrepreneur sat down with Beauty Independent to talk about the next big trends in clean skincare and wellness, the importance of events and tips for new brands that want to sell in Lemon Laine (hint: you can never send too many testers and samples).

What was the reaction when you opened Lemone Laine in Nashville?

It was one of the busiest days that we’ve ever had—the first day. We had over 100 customers that day. You have to keep in mind, I knew one person when I moved here. That just shows you how supportive people are. They want you to be successful. They care that you are local, that you are woman-owned.

How did you get the word out?

Instagram was still precious then. It’s not anymore. That helped out a lot and just appetite. Eighty percent of what I was carrying in the store wasn’t available within the whole state. So, you have these people moving in from other parts of the country that were used to having access to these products or had seen them online, but they wanted to go in physically and talk to someone in the flesh about these products. It just hit at the right time and place. People were just ready for it. I didn’t know that. It was a leap of faith. I was only here for six months. I wasn’t quite sure what the market demand was, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Even with Houston, too, the fourth largest market in the country, was very underserved in terms of access to these products.

Why did you expand to Houston?

On paper, it had a huge opportunity. I had the same feeling that I did when I got to Nashville when I visited Houston. That was very unexpected because, growing up in Oklahoma, you always heard of Houston as a big concrete jungle that lacked cohesiveness. But, when I actually went there multiple times doing the real estate tour, that’s not at all what it was. It’s very cosmopolitan. People know each other. It has that true hospitality that a Southern town should have.

Caroline Sharpnack
Lemon Laine launched in Nashville two years ago and added a location in Houston in November.

Does Lemon Laine have the same format and buying strategy in Houston as in Nashville?

Of course. We’re very focused on providing the best physical shopping experience around. For us, the oil bar is the heart and soul of that. You always hear experiential retail. That’s what’s happening here. But, more than that, we’re getting to know our customers. We’re offering them a service, a consultation on other products in the store, and also making them this unbelievable customized oil, which I feel is the future of beauty in terms of how everyone’s skin is so different and unique. Why not make a product that suits them? I see continued customized products that we can offer later down the road.

How often do you have events?

We host on average one a week. This morning, we had one for Mental Health Awareness Month, which is May, having a therapist come in and talk about demystifying and making it less of a stigma. We have everything from that to natural beauty makeup classes to hormones 101 taught by a nurse practitioner to brand founders coming in and sharing their story. We’ve had Sarah [Villafranco] from Osmia Organics come in from Colorado in Houston, and she has an M.D. background, so [was] sharing from a scientific point of view why clean beauty is really healthy for you and what toxins to avoid. If you [asked] me, “What does Lemon Laine do?” We empower customers and share information. That’s my goal. We just so happen to sell some amazing products, too.

How many people showed up this morning for the therapist’s talk?

We had 30 people. We’re usually averaging 20 to 40 people. That’s been a surprise. That’s not something I had planned on going down the path of opening this retail store. It was a response to the community because they’re asking questions. I’m like, OK, let’s bring in some experts because there are things that I wanted to know, too. If anything, I wanted our team to learn more. It’s a constant discovery process. It just kind of took off. It’s really part of our DNA that I couldn’t ever imagine not having.

Obviously, there’s the music industry in Nashville, but you also have a very low-key and stylish celebrity population.

It’s like a mini L.A.

Lemon LaineJustin March
Customers can make personalized oil’s at Lemon Laine’s oil bar. The oil bar component of the retailer’s business is doubling in sales this year.

Does that influence your buys or the consumer purchases?

That’s a really good question. No, I mean, not really. If anything, I think we’re somewhat on the map. People are coming to Nashville because they’ve seen “Very Cavallari” or they know Nicole Kidman. It kind of has a buzz right now. We’re on that circuit, so they’re coming to Lemon Laine. We’re continuing to see a high proportion of new customers every single day that are in from out of town. So, that drives a lot of the business, but I wouldn’t say our mix changes because of that.

How would you describe the demand for clean beauty in Nashville and Houston?

It’s just growing. The whole industry is just exploding right now. I don’t think there’s any stopping in sight. I think it’s going to become the norm. People are waking up and asking questions, just as they have with their food products. In terms of access, it maybe felt like it was happening slower in this area of the country, but now that there’s more retailers and more brands getting involved, it’s accelerating even faster.

Sometimes people feel that clean beauty is expensive. Are people OK with the prices?

That’s the perception. I think, with education, you learn that so much is quality. You may be buying a serum that is $20, $30 or more, but you’re actually using less of it because there are no fillers. What I really pride myself on with this store is I want all price points. I’m not trying to be luxury just to be luxury. If someone comes in here with $10, there’s something they can buy. If they want to indulge themselves with a $185 facial oil, we have that, too.

Lemon Laine sells only in its stores. Did you know from the beginning that you didn’t want to sell online?

There’s a lot of sexiness to saying that you’re online, but there is so much competition. It doesn’t inspire me. I think there are other people that are doing it really well like Amazon. I’m focused on customer service and the person, the experience you feel when you walk in our door, the community we have through our events and getting to touch, feel and experience products. I don’t think that’s going anywhere. Being a small company, I can only do so much. For me, online is not a priority.

Lemon LaineJustin March
Lemon Laine offers some 600 items from more than 120 brands, including Golde, Kjaer Weis, Coola, Ere Perez, Aether Beauty, Kosas, Vapour Organic Beauty, Lily Lolo, Saint Jane Beauty and Kari Gran.

What’s with all the CBD products made in Tennessee?

It’s the Wild Wild West right now. I try to really focus on who’s behind the brand, who’s making this, what’s their story, why are they doing it. It’s a gold rush. People are jumping into the industry. I wouldn’t say all the products are created equal by any means. So, we found some really great ones, everything from here in Tennessee to New York to Oregon to California. We launched CBD in February 2018 and we’re kind of the first ones to do it in Nashville. I don’t think it’s going anywhere because it’s actually helping people. It’s one of those products where the repurchase cycle is indicative of how well it’s working.

You have a good mix of ingestible products and traditional beauty items. Why was it important to have that?

There is a fundamental belief here that what’s happening on the inside is reflective on the outside with your skin. If you have certain skin goals, we have the creams and potions and things to help with that. But we’re also taking a step further in wanting to know: Do you have healthy fats in your diet? Is your gut system intact? Are you sleeping enough? Do you have energy? Because, if you’re not feeling good, you’re not going to look good. We’ve all been there. It’s plain and simple. We try to bring that as part of the conversation to be really authentic and not tout miracle creams.

Do you test everything?

I want to try it first or I want someone on my team to try it, or someone I trust. So often you hear from customers, “Well, what do you use? What do you like?” I never want anyone to lie. Be real. People can see through that immediately if you’re not giving them an honest answer.

A lot of brands want to get into your store. Do you have tips for how they can do that?

It’s part art and science. I tell brands, “Don’t give up.” We’re all very busy. If you don’t hear a response, that doesn’t mean I don’t see it. I love connecting with brands. I love discovering them and helping them along their journey. For me, it’s understanding your differentiator factor and being able to communicate that. Again, there’s so many people. I see 20 new products a week on average that are submitted or sent to me. I would prefer people email me before they send me products. If it’s not something I’m interested in, I always give it to my team. Understand what we do differently and why you want to be in Lemon Laine. Where do you fit amongst the other products on our shelf? Know why you would be a better fit. Be able to articulate that.

Lemon LaineCaroline Sharpnack
Lemon Laine has a busy event schedule and puts on an event a week on average.

What’s something you’ve been using recently that you really like?

I am pregnant. So, I pulled back a lot of my routine on beauty because my skin has been really irritated through all the changes with hormones. I went back to just the basics of doing a Lumion serum, which is a woman-owned business, and they have a proprietary ingredient that you don’t see very often called hypochlorous acid. It’s just very calming for the skin. I love the Pai rosehip oil. It’s like a natural retinol. It’s my go-to. And, then, on the wellness side, [a concern is] just keeping my energy up. Ora Organic, they have something called Renewable Energy which has electrolytes and adaptogens in it. So, it’s really great to take in the afternoon for a pick-me-up. [With] collagen, you just can’t go wrong.

What are products that didn’t do well and you had to phase out? What do you think didn’t work?

I don’t want to put it on the brands, but it is a sense of duty that they’re following up and continuing training and checking in. Because we have so many, sometimes the ones that fall through the cracks aren’t the ones that are providing regular check-ins. It’s not rocket science. What typically sells is what our employees have top of mind and have used and love. It’s sometimes that simple. If they continue to be in touch with our team, send even samples or testers for them to try, that really helps.

Do you have a lot of testers?

That’s something that we really focus on. We want people to try it before they buy. If they’re even on the fence, we’ll send them home with a sample. That’s why everything is displayed like a bathroom medicine cabinet. It’s all testers, and you can try them on the spot or we can even make you a little jar so you can take home. On the wellness side, it’s a little trickier, but a lot of the brands are really good about creating sachet packs so they can have a one-time use. Those are great, especially if someone’s like, “I’m new to CBD.” Well, we have a CBD chocolate. Or [if they say,] “I’m not sure about the probiotic,” we can give them a couple of capsules and a sachet pack.

So, it probably behooves a brand to send you extra jars and bottles.

Exactly. Usually, the really on-top-of-it brands send that in every order. They’re like, “Here’s 10 more samples for your customers.” They understand that trial is usually the path to sales.

Caroline Sharpnack
Founder Laura Lemon at Lemon Laine’s Houston store

As clean beauty grows in popularity, investors are diving into the sgement. Have you talked to investors?

We’ve had interested parties. As the industry is growing and there’s more money, customers are spending more money. You’re obviously going to have investors who support that.

Do you have investors now?

No, it’s all self-funded, and I hope to continue that as long as I can. This is what I really want to do when I grow up.

In terms of sales, are you happy with Lemon Laine’s growth?

Yeah, for sure. Just for our oil bar alone, we’re doubling our revenue this year. That’s based on the number of appointments. That’s been really exciting to see. The rising tide lifts all boats. As the industry grows, you want to be at the right time and place, so that you’re growing as well.

What wellness trends do you see picking up?

Gut health is where you have to start. We’re learning stuff every day [about] how the gut is connected to the skin, connected to the brain, connected to your mood. I feel that is a whole new frontier that we barely know about at this point. Of course, CBD. That pretty much sums up the wellness.

Lemon Laine
Lemon Laine isn’t funded by outside investors, and founder Laura Lemon would like to keep it self-funded.

Are there any skincare trends that you like?

Plant extracts. I love hydrosols. They are a part of the essential oil distillation process that didn’t get much love. It’s actually the water left over from the distillation process that holds so many minerals and vitamins in it. Now, you’re starting to see it incorporated. Instead of water into a product, they’re using hydrosols. It’s difficult to do It’s not stable. It’s not easy to source. But the people that are doing it are really committed to high-quality products.

What about natural fragrances? Do you carry them?

We carry some [like DedCool, Smoke Perfume and Riddle Oil]. With everything in the natural world, there’s [a] scale. You can have something like a peppermint oil that is extracted from the peppermint plant, as natural as you can be. And you have some that kind of drift away from that, but they’re still botanical-based. They might use an extraction process that involves chemicals. We try to take the approach of offering the best that we can with the understanding that we don’t live in a bubble. Nothing’s perfect, but at least as we’re heading in the right direction trying to source sustainably.

Is there anything you would not want Lemon Laine to go into?

As a founder, I’m constantly wanting to make sure that we continue on the path of our mission, and we don’t lose sight of that even with growth. I just would never want to become a big chain box that just has products up on the shelf, and churns and burns with pushy sales people. That’s what I truly don’t want to become.