By William Connor
Upscale Australian skin care brand Aesop is set to continue its rapid expansion in North America by opening stores in Canada later this year. Sources have told us that Aesop will open a store in Vancouver’s trendy Gastown area this summer, with stores to also open in Montreal and Toronto. Aesop is currently advertising sales and management positions for all three Canadian locations.
Aesop was founded in 1987 in Melbourne by hairdresser Dennis Paphitis. Since then, it has grown to be commercialized in more than 11 countries throughout Oceana, Asia, Europe and North America. It operates through a combination of dedicated ‘signature stores’ (concept stores), high-end department stores, including Holt Renfrew and Barneys New York, and selected stockists. Canadian stocklists include multiple WANT Apothecary and gravitypope locations, as well as a handful of smaller independents.
In December of 2012, Aesop announced that the Latin-America cosmetic giant Natura Cosméticos S.A. had acquired a 65% controlling stake in the company for AUD $68 million. Natura is based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with an enterprise value of $6.49 billion and was ranked by Forbes in 2013 as number 10 in a list of the most innovative companies. At the time the acquisition was announced, Natura indicated that its investment in Aesop would accelerate the growth of the brand internationally. Aesop continues to operate independently from its Melbourne headquarters.
Aesop has crafted a unique brand that can be differentiated from an otherwise overcrowded skin care market. Its product packaging is impeccably simple, yet stylized, creating an immediately recognizable uniform aesthetic. Aesop places significant emphasis on design, which can be seen across all levels of the brand. Its newsletter does not advertise its products; rather, it explores areas such as architecture, travel, books and movies. Its signature stores are remarkably distinct retail spaces that are often designed by local design studios. The contrasting affect between the uniform product packaging and the distinctive retail space creates a unique customer experience that sets itself apart from the ubiquitousness often associated with other skin care brands.
According to luxury retail expert Farla Efros, COO of HRC Advisory, Aesop's opening free-standing Canadian locations is of no surprise. She notes that luxury brands continue to seek out Canadian real estate to open new store locations. Furthermore, she notes that Canadian consumers are often compared to Australians, who are generally known for their sophistication as well as their desire for health and wellness. As Canadians become more open, naturals and organics have seen double-digit growth over the past few years. Ms. Efros notes that partly due to strict government regulations, Canadians have had limited access to some cosmetics brands, having to seek certain lines outside of the country.
Differentiation by design
Aesop is yet another example of a retailer resisting the urge to create uniform retail spaces. Its founder Dennis Paphitis is quoted as saying that he was horrified at the thought of Aesop evolving into a soulless chain and as such, sought to ensure the brand didn't "prostitute" its identity to expand. The Aesop store design seeks to reference the local customer, such that it does not take a one-size-fits-all approach; rather it respectfully considers each space individually.
It is a trend that has been witnessed across a broad spectrum of brands: Aesop v. L’Occitane en Provence; Whole Foods v. Safeway; Lululemon v. Foot Locker; Starbucks v. Tim Hortons; Aritzia v. Banana Republic. In each of these examples, the first brand has sought to avoid homogeneity by creating a unique customer experience, while still retaining an element of commonality that allows customers to identify the store that they are in. This movement indicates that brands are increasingly finding value in appealing to a different consumer sentiment, one that values authenticity over plasticity.
It has been said that an architect’s task is to render vivid to us who we might ideally be. The same could be said of retailers. Creating unusual and authentic spaces signals to shoppers that their individuality is valued and celebrated. It also serves to align the perceived values of the brand with the identity of the customer. We are excited to see how Aesop adapts to its new Canadian home in this the next chapter of its expansion.