French Brand Merci Handy’s Hand Sanitizers Kill Germs While Looking Pretty Killer
Louis Marty is busy listening.
In March, the co-founder of Paris-based Merci Handy, a brand that turned boring hand sanitizers into the cheery stuff of social media, moved to New York to learn about American shoppers and stores after inquiries from retailers and orders online from the U.S. convinced him to give it a go in the world’s largest consumer market. He’s out to avoid the mistakes of other brands that have traveled overseas only to discover the U.S. business is a mystery they can’t solve.
When international brands flop in the U.S., Marty says, it’s because “they think they know everything. That’s a problem. I take a white sheet of paper, and I walk the streets. I go to the stores. I’m always taking notes and talking with buyers and retailers, and even with brands that have failed, which is really important.”
The listening and learning tour has resulted in Merci Handy launching at four retailers stateside: Riley Rose, American Eagle Outfitters, Free People and C.O. Bigelow, where the brand hopes to make a big splash on beauty shelves in a small, but surging hand-sanitizer category. Although the U.S. retailers Merci Handy has landed are major, they aren’t the hugest chains in the country. Marty views them as the preliminary stage of what will be many to elevate the brand’s U.S. profile.
“This is a good first step. It doesn’t mean that the brand will be a success in the U.S. Now, it’s our job to make the brand successful in the stores,” says Marty, adding, “I want to test the brand with lifestyle retailers to understand the market, and our next target will be retailers like Sephora and Ulta. I want to be sure we have the right strategy and work with the right influencers to build a U.S. community. I’m here to be sure my products fit in the U.S. market.”
“This is a good first step. It doesn’t mean that the brand will be a success in the U.S. Now, it’s our job to make the brand successful in the stores.”
Marty is a fan of sampling to raise awareness. Merci Handy will sample in stores, and participate in subscription box services Ipsy and Birchbox over the summer. The brand will also collaborate with fitness studios and restaurants in addition to engaging influencers and editors to spread the word. Marty reveals Merci Handy initiates a digital interaction with its customers such as an email, Facebook comment or Instagram post every seven seconds.
“When you’re a small brand, it’s good to have social proof,” he says. “I don’t want to just come here and say, ‘We’re hot in Europe.’ I prefer to have Americans say, ‘We love your brand. We love your packaging and fragrances.’”
Merci Handy started as a component of a plan Marty and co-founder Roland Jais-Nielsen hatched to create a healthy finger food restaurant. The restaurant idea didn’t meet with a warm reception, but the hand sanitizer concept did. In 2014, Merci Handy premiered at Colette, the former Paris retail hotspot. More European retailers, notably Selfridges, Printemps, Galeries Lafayette, Marionnaud and Sephora, followed. The brand is currently sold at around 3,000 retail doors in 17 countries, and its revenues have been doubling annually.
Two years ago, Merci Handy raised a roughly $3 million round of funding led by venture capital firm Eutopia. The money allowed the brand to make a distribution push in several European countries rather tackling the continent nation by nation. It’s supporting Merci Handy’s American expansion as well. The brand has a team of three people in the U.S., but is hiring in marketing. It’s set up a warehouse in Orlando to handle logistics for direct-to-consumer and retail accounts. At the moment, DTC drives 20% of Merci Handy’s sales.
“When you’re a small brand, it’s good to have social proof. I don’t want to just come here and say, ‘We’re hot in Europe.’ I prefer to have Americans say, ‘We love your brand.'”
In new markets, Merci Handy relies heavily on its vibrant hand sanitizer range to distinguish its merchandise from competitors. It has nine hand sanitizer fragrances and colors priced at $3.95 each, including the bestselling pink Flower Power variety. While hand sanitizer is Merci Handy’s star product, its assortment stretches beyond it to a hand cream, blotting papers, deodorant, face mist and shower gel, a recent release that extends the brand’s reach in the bathroom. Some 70% of Merci Handy’s sales are from outside the hand-sanitization segment.
Marty emphasizes developing close relationships with its retail partners and adjusting to consumer demand have been keys to its growth so far. He mentions buyers from Sephora Europe met with Merci Handy three months ago to weigh in on the brand’s product pipeline for 2020 and 2021. “They don’t choose products, but they guide and advise us. We love to involve them,” says Marty, noting the brand earlier switched to vegan formulas in response to shifting consumer preferences.
In a hand-sanitization field that’s seeing startup activity from brands like Olika and Touchland, Marty suggests Merci Handy differentiates itself by being plugged into gen Z-fueled trends. “We are honest and transparent. We tell them what’s inside of our products, and we know how to talk to them on social media,” he says, elaborating, “Merci Handy is a way of thinking. We love to change how people use hygiene products by offering affordable products using clean ingredients and rainbow extracts.”