Pharmaca’s Prescription For A Thriving Beauty Business Involves An Integrated And Expert Approach

In a drugstore landscape dominated by enormous chains, 29-unit Pharmaca stands out for its longstanding integrative take on wellness. The Porchlight Equity Partners-owned company is dedicated to sustainable and good-for-you brands, and is serious about staffing with serious experts who are naturopaths, herbalists, nutritionists and aestheticians. A year-and-a-half ago, Pharmaca veteran Mary Catherine Horgan assumed management of the retailer’s health and beauty section to solidify its differentiated positioning while making sure the assortment stays relevant. “It’s such a rapidly changing category and, just because we’ve always done something one way, doesn’t mean we are always going to do it that way,” she says. “I’m always looking for innovation in natural beauty, and I’m keeping my eye on mass beauty to see how what’s happening there might work its way into natural beauty.” Beauty Independent prodded Horgan further on what it takes to crack Pharmaca’s beauty selection, trends she anticipates intensifying, spring and fall beauty bags, the importance of in-store events, and never underestimating the intelligence of a member of Pharmaca’s beauty team.

What was the state of beauty at Pharmaca when you became category manager?

Pharmaca has been around since 2000, and natural beauty has always been an integral part of what Pharmaca does. There is a lot of heritage there, and there are a number of brands that we have worked with for well over a decade like Dr. Hauschka, Sanitas and Jurlique. They are great partners to us, and customers love them.

How do you evolve the beauty section?

We are always looking to see what’s new out there. There are definitely more beautiful, clean brands than we could possibly move in. I get five, six, seven emails a day from brands interested in Pharmaca, and a lot of them are awesome. I’m looking for ones to fill a niche that we haven’t already filled. If we are heavy in lines that have rosehip oil in them, for example, I’m looking for ones that have something different in them.

Tell us about Pharmaca’s spring beauty bag giveaway program, which runs from May 19 to June 12 and includes 13 beauty products.

Our spring beauty bag is a huge initiative. We have been doing a spring beauty bag for a couple of years, but I tried to elevate it as far as reducing the number of products in it and bringing in high-value products. This time, there are four or five full-sized products in there, and everything else is a deluxe sample. I tried to curate it to be a premier offering that a real beauty aficionado would like.

Pharmaca’s spring beauty bag, which is valued at more than $160, is free with beauty purchases of $100 or more.

Pharmaca also does a fall beauty bag, right?

Last year was the first year we did a fall bag. Vendors love it because it allows us to present their product in a lovely way. When you are in a bag with other lovely brands, it reflects well on everyone. Our customers love it because it’s such a great value. We give it away free with any $100 purchase of beauty products, and someone who is a beauty fan is probably going to be spending $100 on beauty products. We usually sell out within the weekend. We try to change it up. The fall one is more makeup-focused, and the spring one is more skincare-focused.

How many beauty brands does Pharmaca carry?

We probably have close to 150 vendors that we work with. We do very well with Dr. Hauschka, which is a top brand for us, and Sanitas, which is a spa brand based in Boulder that’s a legacy brand for us. Juice Beauty is huge and continues to get bigger. These brands have a heritage in natural ingredients, and they are also effective. Juice Beauty’s and Dr. Hauschka’s color cosmetics are bold. They stay on the skin nicely, and they have good skincare ingredients. They are also great partners. They understand the importance of being in the store, and connecting with our team and customers.

Have you launched new brands recently?

This year, we brought in Sonäge. We launched Indie Lee on our e-comm site a couple of months ago, and we are planning to bring that into stores August or September. Vapour is another brand that we have launched in the past year, and we are doing a lot of testing on top of those.

Sonäge and Indie Lee are among the newer brands in Pharmaca’s beauty selection.

What constitutes testing?

There is a certain fixture I have in five stores that I can use if I want to test a line. Space is an issue when I want to test a line. I will bring it into those stores and see how well it does as far as sales and team response, and support from the vendor. Are they able to support events and sampling? I test lines for six months to a year.

How are beauty sales doing at Pharmaca?

Our website is growing very, very quickly, and the beauty part of it is growing very, very quickly as well. In e-comm, we are able to bring in more new brands. In stores, we are up year-over-year, but we are growing less quickly, and we are confined by space.

Are there beauty brands found online and not in stores?

Yes, there are. Oftentimes, it’s about me being interested in a brand and thinking it would be a good fit, but I just don’t have the space to bring it into stores. So, I will launch it online first. Occasionally, there are brands that don’t want to go into stores and, in that case, we have an opportunity to just sell them online.

Dr. Hauschka and Sanitas products are staples of Pharmaca’s beauty assortment.

Do the strong online performers differ from the strong in-store performers?

There are brands that resonate more online. One brand that we sell a lot of online that we don’t sell at all in the stores is Eminence. That’s their choice, not mine. We do a tremendous amount with NuFace online. We have them in stores, but they move much quicker online. Another brand that we sell primarily online is RMS Beauty, which I am testing in one store. Intelligent Nutrients is another brand that we do a lot of business with online, but it didn’t work as well in stores.

Is the online customer different from the store customer?

The online customer is pulling from a bigger geographic base. Our primary states of business for online are New York, Texas and California. We don’t have stores in New York or Texas. Then, there are a lot of people, myself included, who shop online and in the stores. We are seeing that more and more. People who shop in the stores replenish online, and people who shop online will come into the stores to learn from our practitioners and aestheticians.

Are there gaps in Pharmaca’s beauty selection that you are looking to fill?

There are trends I haven’t jumped into yet that I’m keeping my eye on. I am definitely looking at probiotics in skincare and doing research on that. That seems like something people are talking about, and it makes a lot of sense. I would love to have more space for makeup. I feel like there are so many great natural makeup brands out there with different twists. They could bring fun to the stores, but we don’t have room for everything we want.

Pharmacy’s beauty selection encompasses roughly 150 vendors.

What about beauty supplements?

We are seeing more people getting interested in the integration of supplements into beauty. It’s not new to Pharmaca. That’s what we have always been about, but the number of people making the connection between healthy insides and outsides is growing. We have had Vital Proteins and Neocell in our beauty bags. We have a separate supplements buyer, Don Summerfield, who brings 25 to 30 years of supplement buying experience. He manages the supplements that are being brought into beauty.

Are there beauty items that you believe will take off?

I feel beauty tools are becoming a bigger trend. People are getting more comfortable with the NuFace, dermarollers and LED lights. I think people want to do spa treatments at home. I expect that will become a bigger growth area, and I’m working on a couple of things right now in that area. The mask treatments that took off over the last year or so were the first step.

How should a brand interested in getting into Pharmaca reach out to you?

I love it when a brand starts with an email to me personally, not just “Dear Beauty Buyer.” The first things I’m going to look at are the ingredients, price list and story. You can communicate those all in one email. Then, once I have that information, I definitely don’t mind when people follow up. I don’t always get back to brands as quickly as I wish I could. However, if it’s a brand that’s not interesting to us, I will get right back and say no quickly. I know everyone is busy, and I want to be respectful. I have been impressed when brands show why they want to be in Pharmaca and how they envision their roles in our stores so it 100% feels like a partnership. We absolutely need the vendors to sell their brands.

Mary Catherine Horgan became Pharmaca’s category manager for beauty and health in January of last year.

Is there a specific time of year brands should contact you?

I’m fine any time they want to reach out. I do always like to tell people, though, that it can be slow. I’m not fast. It takes time doing all the evaluations. Sometimes I will tell them that I like their brand, but I’m just not evaluating new brands at this point in their category. They should reach out in six months, and I will be in a better position to look at them then. I’m always open to hearing about things even if it is not the right time for them. I like to have them on the radar, so, if a brand moves out of Pharmaca for some reason or sales start to slow for a brand, there are other brands I’m aware of to bring in.

What is key to a successful brand launch?

When a brand really wants to be in our stores, and they see us as a good partner for them, they are willing to go into each store, arrange trainings with team members, maybe provide them with gratis, do demos with customers and revisit the stores on a regular basis. As much as online is growing rapidly, in the stores, it’s really about old-fashioned selling. It’s about building relationships and trust. Once we have the relationship between the aestheticians and a brand going, that’s a good sign. I recognize that’s a huge investment on the part of a brand, but it’s the most successful way to launch a brand.

What should brands realize is distinct about Pharmaca’s beauty section from beauty sections elsewhere?

One thing that differentiates us from others who sell green beauty is that many of our sales people on the floor are licensed aestheticians. They have a pretty sophisticated knowledge of skincare. Many of them has practices outside of Pharmaca. So, when brands are sending people to train our teams, they have to be sophisticated in their knowledge. I frequently receive feedback that our team members ask high-level questions, and I usually tell vendors to send their A-teams to our stores to gain the trust of our team.

Beauty brands partner with Pharmaca to provide mini makeovers inside stores.

How does Pharmaca incorporate beauty services?

We don’t have treatment rooms, but we do have aestheticians on staff who are able to help people. If people want their makeup done, they can reach out to a store and schedule a time to do that. We also offer a number of events like our Spring Spa Day and Winter Spa Day. We ask vendors to come in for those to do mini facials and color matching. Sometimes we have vendors work with a store manager to do mini makeovers at a store. The store team will sign up people to come in for those. It’s one of the most powerful tools out there. They’re fantastic to give people the opportunity to try and truly understand the products.

What do you wish brands would do more of to help them thrive at Pharmaca?

Continued follow-up. A lot of times brands understand what it takes to get momentum, but they should make sure that, when we have our planning meeting every six months, we are looking at what we are going to do to stay fresh and keep the momentum going. In the beginning, everything is exciting, shiny and new, but we have to make sure we know what else is new even if the brand isn’t new anymore. We have to keep it top of mind with the team and customers.

What’s your approach to discounting in beauty?

We work with a vendor to cooperate with their approach to some degree. I do feel there’s a huge opportunity to bring in a new customer with a discount. It’s a reason to try. As a customer, if I’m looking at a couple of brands, I’m going to be more likely to try the one that is on sale because there’s a sense of urgency. However, if a brand has a strict MAP policy, as long as that’s across the board and we don’t see random online discounting, I will respect that. I do think it’s a missed opportunity, though. You don’t want to be on sale all the time, but a sale can be effective.

Beauty sales are up year-over-year at Pharmaca and increasing especially quickly online.

As you attempt to grow Pharmaca’s beauty business, what programs are you implementing?

We are looking to keep the in-store experience exciting. In the past 12 months, we have dramatically stepped up the amount of co-branded beauty events. Dr. Hauschka, Juice Beauty and Jurlique have done awesome events in our stores. We come up with a theme, do some advertising, and the brands bring in their experts and set up a spa-like experience in the store. People love that, and it’s very effective for introducing a brand and selling products.