Mario Badescu’s Distribution Epitomizes The Blurred Lines Between Prestige And Mass Beauty Retail
In 1998, Mario Badescu launched at the Henri Bendel store on Fifth Avenue in New York to make a statement that it was ready to build its wholesale business. “They were trendsetters, and all of the retailers would go there,” remembers president Joseph Cabasso. “Nordstrom found us by going into Henri Bendel, and that’s how we grew.”
A quarter of a century later, Mario Badescu has grown tremendously—it’s in 6,200 doors throughout the United States—and the retail landscape it operates in has changed dramatically. When the brand decided to join Space NK’s BeautySpaceNK assortment inside Walmart, which landed at 250 stores last year and has stretched the brand to 1,200 stores at the megachain, a department store dropped it, and Cabasso was unfazed. Today, masstige distribution is Mario Badescu’s retail wheelhouse, and masstige players are trendsetters, not generally department stores.
“It’s great to be in a department store. I think we needed as brand to show strength there, but, at the same time, the traffic is so little, and it’s not where it’s at,” says Cabasso. “It used to be like that. It used to be busy, but where it’s at now is Ulta, Sephora, Target, Walmart and Kohl’s. That’s where we see that the business is at, and that’s where we are doing the most business.”
Known for its $17 Drying Lotion and $7 Facial Spray With Aloe, Herbs And Rosewater, Mario Badescu is the top skincare brand in Space NK’s Walmart shop-in-shop and among the top five skincare brands at Ulta Beauty’s setups at Target. Still, the brand retains a substantial prestige retail position at concepts such as Bluemercury, Anthropologie, Harvey Nichols, Galeries Lafayette, Douglas, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Mecca, giving it a high-low presence that reflects how many shoppers, including Cabasso, shop.
“I own Mario Badescu, but, when I need some things, I go to Walmart. We felt there’s no reason why, especially with our price point, that a Walmart customer shouldn’t have a prestige brand like us,” he says. “We want to reach more customers. Why keep it to prestige retailers only? We want to cater to everybody. Our price point does cater to everybody. When Ulta entered Target, we were like thrilled. We were like, ‘Wow, this is a dream come true!’ The same thing with Sephora entering Kohl’s.”
For prestige brands considering the mass market, a major concern is that their brand equity will be eroded, but Mario Badescu has assets helping it sustain brand equity as its retail scope expands. The brand’s history is rooted in skincare authority—a chemist and pharmacist, Romanian immigrant Mario Badesco started the brand in 1967 with handmade products tailored to his facial clients before Cabasso’s father Morise acquired it in the 1980s—and it maintains a 36-room spa on East 52nd Street in New York City to reinforce its skincare authority. Some 150 facials a day are performed at the spa.
“Where it’s at now is Ulta, Sephora, Target, Walmart and Kohl’s. That’s where we see that the business is.”
Mario Badesco hasn’t shifted its prices as it’s spread to the mass market. The brand’s in-house manufacturing in Edison, N.J., is advantageous in enabling it to have visibility into inputs and stick to low prices. In the beauty industry, a minority of brands with widescale distribution rely on in-house manufacturing rather than contract manufacturing.
“We are doing everything from start to finish. The stuff we manufacture, sometimes it goes out the same week. We don’t store products for six months or a year. Whatever retailer it is in is, the products were probably made that month or two months ago,” says Cabasso. “I get notices weekly about shipping or raw materials going up 50% to 80%. It’s definitely taking away from the profit, but we don’t want to raise our prices. We’re not going to do that to the customer. We just say, ‘OK, we will sell more.’”
At off-price retailers, long a staple of Mario Badescu’s retail network, the brand has maintained its pricing. It’s available at Saks Off Fifth and Nordstrom Rack, another retailer at which the brand leads the pack. “Everything is full price because we want to be fair to our other retailers,” says Cabasso. About a decade ago, he continues, Mario Badescu was one of the few beauty brands at Nordstrom Rack. He says, “It was us and Kiehl’s, but everybody is catching on that beauty is a must. You’ve got to have it to survive in the retail industry right now. It’s a huge factor, so they’re bringing in so many brands.”
Mario Badescu’s brand equity is also buoyed by organic celebrity mentions. Martha Stewart has been a patron of Mario Badescu’s New York location for 40 years, and her love for the brand is frequently chronicled in the press. An InStyle piece from last month spotlights Mario Badescu’s Super Collagen Mask as a favorite product of hers.
In a TikTok video posted in February that’s received 185.5 million views and 21.6 million likes, Selena Gomez incorporated Facial Spray With Aloe, Herbs And Rosewater, Mario Badescu in an early morning routine. Cabasso reports the brand never sent Gomez a product nor compensated her for publicizing Facial Spray With Aloe, Herbs And Rosewater. “We are not paying top celebrities and influencers, putting this crazy money behind it,” he says. “People are just picking it up, falling in love with it and posting about it.”
This year, Cabasso hopes Mario Badesco’s sales will increase 20%. Its masstige retail placements will contribute to heightened sales, particularly as economic uncertainty forces consumers to have a tight grip on their wallets. Currently at 350 Target stores, Ulta’s shop-in-shop is slated to be in 800 Target stores in the future. Last year, sales from the Ulta selections at Target multiplied 4X.
“We are not paying top celebrities and influencers, putting this crazy money behind it. People are just picking it up, falling in love with it and posting about it.”
Already responsible for about half of its sales, according to Cabasso, who says Mario Badescu is sold in 72 countries, international retail is rising as a sales factor for the brand. The brand recently arrived at Sephora France and is traveling to airports, ideal venues for its products that are instant pick-me-ups or impulse buys.
Speaking of impulse buys, at Sephora in the U.S., Mario Badescu has extended across the chain in Beauty on the Fly sections with Drying Lotion and Facial Spray With Aloe, Herbs And Rosewater, two products that have accounted for 70% of its sales at Sephora. It’s exited gondolas it was in at 80 Sephora locations. “We had an opportunity to go in every single door in Beauty on the Fly. It’s a better opportunity for us because of our price point. We typically would need to sell double an average brand,” says Cabasso. “So, we jumped on that opportunity.”
While Drying Lotion and Facial Spray With Aloe, Herbs And Rosewater are certainly bestsellers at Mario Badescu, Cabasso suggests the products Vitamin C Serum, Vitamin C Cream and Enzyme Cleansing Gel are important business drivers as well. In total, the brand has around 150 stockkeeping units, but its retailers tend to carry 30 to 40. Mario Badescu has dabbled in candles with an Aloe, Herbs And Rosewater Candle in a Mist & Glow set featuring Facial Spray With Aloe, Herbs And Rosewater, and Cabasso thinks it can make a greater push into candles and the home category broadly.
In the future, he’s considering additional Mario Badescu spa locations in the U.S. and abroad. Drugstore distribution could be on the table if drugstores up their beauty game. “I enjoy walking through Walgreens. Are we in Walgreens? No,” says Cabasso. “If they had a nice space—and I can’t see them not picking up on that—I think it would be great for everybody. I don’t think they’ve got it yet.”
Since it became a Cabasso family enterprise, Mario Badescu hasn’t had any outside funding. “We did have bigger companies—I don’t want to say names—approach us to buy us, but we are not ready yet,” says Cabasso. “We haven’t reached where we want to be before we can even entertain a sale of the company.”