Features, The Business of Beauty

Amazon’s Luxury Beauty Play: Are They In It To Win It?

In an “if a tree falls in the forest” way, is an announcement of a business alliance between two companies really an announcement if neither side publicly cops to it?

I’m referring to the report (rumor? wishful thinking?) that surfaced in late July of this year about a potential partnership between Amazon and Violet Grey, a Los Angeles-based luxury beauty content and commerce site we introduced to The Robin Report readers in a Summer 2016 feature entitled “Rise of the Expert E-Aggregators.”

A refresher course on Violet Grey: Founded in 2013 by Cassandra Grey, wife of late Paramount chief Brad Grey, it’s known for producing some of the lushest, most extravagant beauty content on the internet via its “Violet Files” digital magazine. On the leadership and pure commerce sides of the equation, it installed long-time Estée Lauder veteran Maureen Case as its first president in 2105, and opened a retail outpost on Melrose Avenue the following year. Forming the whole backbone of the operation is the 100-plus carefully curated brands it sells. Each has passed a rigorous litmus test called “The Violet Code,” conducted by a panel of red carpet beauty experts and influencers to separate the bright, shiny skincare, hair potions and makeup wheat from the chaff.

Though Violet Grey stocks a few Old Guard department store brands like Chanel and Bobbi Brown, that isn’t its raison d’être–not by a long shot. Rather, its strength lies within its super-niche, cult-y lineup of products, many of which are exclusives. And in addition to its stellar content, Violet Grey merchandises its assortment in a wholly editorial fashion. Want to shop by vibe and power-ingredient rather than beauty concern (although you can do that too)? Prowl through sections like “French Pharmacy” and “Maternity,” or punch-in “Peptides” or “Rose.”

It’s All About the Edit & the Environment

Why am I waxing on about Violet Grey and its approach to packaging beauty for today’s extraordinarily demanding, dialed-in consumer? Because it couldn’t stand in starker contrast to Amazon.

I, like millions—perhaps billions—of other humans, spend a lot of time on Amazon. As a Prime member, I’m shopping on the site almost every week. And in my work as a beauty journalist and blogger, I also use the site for research.

In short, I know Amazon. Or at least I thought I did. Only through doing reconnaissance for this piece did I learn—elsewhere, not on Amazon—that the digital behemoth had a Luxury Beauty site-within-a-site. And guess when that Luxury Beauty site launched? Four years ago, in late 2013.

I can think of at least two good reasons why I might have missed that news. One, I’m not really a “civilian” when it comes to luxury beauty; happily, because of what I do for a living, plenty of high-end merch gets sent to me gratis for review. Two, if I want to research luxury beauty for anything I’m writing, Amazon isn’t even in the Top 10 of my most-viewed sites.

In my digital hunting and gathering, I’m all about environment and content. I want to see design excellence partnered with many, many meaningful words. And in the realm of luxury beauty, I get neither of those with Amazon right now.

If prices on luxury beauty aren’t any better on Amazon—and they currently aren’t—what true incentive is there to shop on the site for this category? For the convenience of tossing Oribe’s $68 Côte d’Azur Restorative Body Crème into the cart alongside more pedestrian fare like Tide Pods and Listerine Cool Mint? Historically, that isn’t the way the luxury shopper has shopped.

“Like most other aspects of Amazon, the beauty pages are functional, easy to use—everything on a click,” says industry-watcher Liebmann, CEO, WSL Strategic Retail. “But that doesn’t deliver with beauty. That’s not enough, except if a shopper is using the site for either price or replenishment. And with the prices on the luxury beauty brands, no one is saving lots of money.”

In this era of “content is king,” Amazon’s lack of POV, excitement and editorial game plan are also drawbacks, notes Liebmann. “Over time, if Amazon wants to truly engage with the high-end beauty and fashion shopper, it will have to do a much better job of creating experiences,” she says. “Look at Sephora. That’s the benchmark. Without that, it will not get the true luxury brands.”

The Kinda Sorta Commitment

(AKA, how to be on Amazon without really being on Amazon)

Although Amazon’s Luxury Beauty section now boasts 200 brands, the absence of rarified superstars like Vintner’s Daughter, May Lindstrom and Rodin is undoubtedly the reason for aligning with Violet Grey.

But presumably Violet Grey’s brands will have the option of migrating to Amazon. If they want to take the Birkenstock path, and categorically refuse to be sold on the site à la luxe-hippie footwear brand, that’s their prerogative.

Interestingly, some luxury brands have a strong presence on Amazon without officially partaking. Take Tata Harper, for example. When I spotted the super-popular green skincare brand in Amazon’s promotional partnership with O magazine (they’re selling every item in the September issue’s Fall 2017 Beauty O-Wards), I clicked on its prize-fetching Clarifying Mask. I learned then that the$68 treatment wasn’t eligible for Prime delivery, and that it ships from, and is sold by, Tata Harper.

Once I clicked on Tata Harper, I was re-routed to a very elaborate “Tata Harper Storefront,” where I learned that the brand has a 91 percent positive rating culled from 77 reviews. Want to know how many SKUs the brand sells on Amazon? Forty-four.

But guess where I won’t find any of those 44 Tata Harper SKUs? In Amazon Luxury Beauty. In fact, when I follow the search bread crumbs to Luxury Beauty: Skin Care: Face, I find budget stuff like $5 NYX Cosmetics Makeup Setting Spray and $11 Olay Total Effects Revitalizing Foaming Face Cleanser mixed in with pricier fare like $79 StriVectin Advanced Tightening Neck Cream and $67.50 Perricone MD Face Finishing Moisturizer. No Tata Harper, but lots of other options at assorted prize ranges.

It’s confusing. And to Liebmann’s earlier point, it definitely feels like more like a replenishment play than a discovery play.

In May of this year, Amazon named Silvia He head of vendor management for beauty, including Luxury. An insider, she’d already been with the company
for five years, as head of mass beauty merchandising.

From what I can glean, He’s chief role over the past half-decade was to bring brands into the fold. Mission accomplished; whether they’re sold directly or via a Tata Harper-esque “storefront,” hundreds of thousands of beauty products are currently sold on Amazon. Punch a single product category like “blush” into the search bar, for instance, and 7,223 options come pinging back at you within seconds.

A head-splitting array of choices with very little to go on except price and reader reviews isn’t high-end. Let’s hope He has “developing rock-solid, engaging content” and “building a luxury-worthy environment” at the top of her To Do list. And that if Violet Grey is coming into the Amazon fold, let’s also hope He will tap its considerable world-building expertise.

Although all of this remains to be seen, it could happen. And for her part, Vintner’s Daughter founder April Gargiulo is keeping an open mind. “I wish I had more information about the Violet Grey and Amazon deal, but I don’t know anything more than what I’ve read,” she notes. “If Violet Grey does create a space within Amazon, I am sure it will be beautiful, well-edited and covetable.” Fingers crossed.

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