Paving the way: Seb James, Boots’ boss
Boots boss Seb James wants to help the women of the country rediscover the glamor factor after a year in lockdown Lycra, their faces half-hidden behind masks. He believes that the demand for makeup will rise as women go back to work and socialize.
There are early signs that he may be right. The No7 Beauty company has reported a 61 percent increase in lipstick sales in the second quarter of this year. Bold, bold colors apparently have an advantage. Overall, beauty product sales are up 85 percent in the third quarter of this year as life gradually returns to normal and women reach for their makeup bag again.
Boots introduces a plethora of new makeup brands, including cult labels like Drunk Elephant and Fenty, along with Korean skincare companies Dr Jart+ and Kylie Skin.
“We’re seeing a huge increase in beauty,” James says. whole range from expensive designer flimsy to budget brands.
‘For example, women are now shopping for cosmetics – they are happy with a £2 mascara and a real luxury’ ‘During the pandemic, people were really focused on skin care. Now we see cosmetics and fragrances take off when people go outside again.’
Boots, he points out, has the lipstick in stock. That’s why we are crowned Queen of Beauty in the media – not me personally, but the shops’, he laughs. As he acknowledges, the 55-year-old retailer doesn’t seem the most likely candidate for the national cosmetics king.
But when he arrived in 2018, having previously run Dixon’s Carphone, tasked with reviving one of the country’s most beloved retailers, he quickly became adept at the intricacies of beauty brands.
“When I came in, we were miles behind. Just over the lockdown, we launched 65 new brands, which is quite a bit to have done. Now we have renovated the stores considerably and we have a lot more to do.’
What grooming products for men does he like? “All of them, I need all the help I can get,” he says. It’s heartwarming to hear that Brits are grooming and brushing again as the world opens up. Shopping streets have been hit hard by the pandemic, which has caused store closures and thousands of job losses.
When I came in we were miles behind. Just over the lockdown we launched 65 new brands, which is quite a thing
Boots – founded in 1849 in Nottingham – is no exception. The chain made a loss of £258 million in the year to the end of August 2020, with sales falling 10.8 per cent to just under £6 billion. It received £36 million in leave pay and business rates, reducing the bill by £55 million. About 6,500 jobs have been lost through a mix of redundancies, voluntary redundancies and attrition.
The pingdemic, in which people are forced to isolate themselves, has compounded James’ problems, as so many of the 52,000 employees have been forced to stay at home. Absenteeism in its 2,330 stores rose by about 50 percent. In up to 20 percent of the stores, more than four out of ten employees are absent and in some cases as much as 70 percent are absent.
James has called for the rules to be changed so that those who have received two doses of vaccine and test negative can continue to work. But Boots’ woes aren’t entirely pandemic-related: Profits were already falling before Covid. The British chain is part of a $40 billion international pharmacy group, Walgreens Boots Alliance, which is listed on Wall Street.
Boots was founded in Nottingham in 1849. Pictured, an early Boots store
The empire is the creation of Stefano Pessina, an Italian billionaire, who took it over in 2006 through a private equity deal. James’ strategy was to create the three most important parts of the company: pharmacy and medicine, vitamins and wellness and beauty – working together better. In addition to expanding the cosmetics and skincare range, he has devoted himself to digital healthcare.
“I hope we haven’t wasted time in lockdown as the world slows down,” he says. “We think the relationship between people and their health has changed quite fundamentally as a result of Covid.
‘People are more interested in preventive care, it is highly valued. And they’re very comfortable with the idea of testing now, so we were able to test on a whole range of conditions. The NHS is under a lot of pressure on many levels. There is a huge backlog and we think we can help.
‘We want to help with blood tests and so on. People have started to interact digitally with healthcare professionals in a way that was absolutely not significant before. That’s a big change and opens up the opportunity for Boots and others to provide primary care and advice.”
Glamor factor: Boots introduced 65 new beauty brands in lockdown
Boots has a long tradition of over-the-counter medicines dating back more than a century and is now looking to move into the digital age. To that end, it is launching health hubs, where health advice is provided in stores and online.
The 100th service has just been launched on the hub, the Leva Clinic, which helps patients manage pain. And Boots’ online doctor can treat 45 conditions, giving you quick access to advice and prescriptions. Additional services include Covid testing, mole scanning and smoking cessation assistance.
‘In many cases you could only see the GP digitally during the pandemic. A lot of people are used to the idea,” says James. HE believes that pharmacists can relieve some of the pressure on GPs.
He says, ‘We want a totally symbiotic healthcare system that works end-to-end.’ What about the shopping street after the pandemic? In the past, he has called for corporate rate reform, saying that the “increasingly fragile ecosystem” of high street and city centers was threatened by online operators paying far less. Covid has accelerated the shift to online shopping and hurt traditional retailers more and more.
‘If the government wants lively shopping streets, it will have to do something about the costs of retail property,’ he says. ‘At the same time, we see an economy that has moved massively online. “It’s fitting that some of the cost of that is borne by online distribution, including our own.”
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