L’Occitane Embraces The High-Tech Experience

When one thinks of French beauty brand L’Occitane en Province, high-tech is probably not the first adjective that springs to mind. Known for its shea and almond bath products, lavender scents and its tastefully muted color scheme, L’Occitane is very much about what its tag line says it is: natural beauty from the south of France. 

Historical profile aside, L’Occitane is looking to compete in a technology driven, digital and experiential retail environment, which means being naturally beautiful is not enough. Some technological augmentation is required.  

And, as it rolls out its Manhattan flagship store today (Aug. 22), it seems L’Occitane has decided to lean in all the way in an attempt to create those robust retail experiences. 

The Midtown store will offer an area dedicated to social media and a live feed of the company’s U.S. Instagram account — an area where L’Occitane has been working to establish a bigger footprint.  

Customers in the store, with the help of stationary bikes and augmented reality (AR) technology, will be able to take a bike ride through Provence, or a virtual reality (VR) powered hot air balloon ride through the South of France. That virtual ride comes with a hand massage using the beauty brands products.

The brand is also using their new store as a vehicle to expand the sustainability project it first undertook with international recycling company TerraCycle, offering customers a 10 percent discount on one full-size L’Occitane product if they hand over their used makeup bottles. Customers will also be able to engrave and customize Swell water bottles with their names and other personalized designs, in an effort to prevent disposable bottles from clogging landfills. Customers will also be able to customize other L’Occitane merchandise.

And, speaking of merchandise, the products themselves are prominently placed, of course, and set up for experimentation.

The new store is part of a broader effort to compete with other beauty specialists like like Ulta and Sephora, as well as department stores like Macy’s, and even bigger entrances from players like Target and Walmart. L’Occitane has responded to the increasing competition with bigger efforts at enticement in the U.S. market — last fall, it rolled out a  lavender-scented truck to entice shoppers back into sync with the brand as it reworks its American store fleet.

The New York flagship, said Paul Blackburn, vice president of concept design, construction and merchandising at L’Occitane North America, is its most visible effort at driving new-customer acquisition. After a week-long soft launch in Midtown, things are looking promising. The 1,870-square-foot shop has greeted over 2,400 prospective customers, making it most foot-trafficked store in America, according to Blackburn. To keep those consumer engaged, the store’s contents will continuously change — 60 percent of the store setups will be switched around about four times a year. Some things, like the social media area and the VR experience, were designed to be permanent features, while other elements may also remain unchanging, depending on what consumers end up liking best.

Stores are the more powerful driver of L’Occitane’s retail business, generating 75 percent of its sales. Loyal customers who have already bought into the brand tend to shop online for replenishment products, but stores have reliably been the brand’s best connection to generating new business.

And while its sales have been positive, and revenue has grown in recent quarters, the brand senses that it might need a bit of rebranding. The L’Occitane demographic is aged at 43, and is fairly affluent. It is happy to keep that demographic, and its enthusiastic spending habits, but it also wants its customer base to be a bit more inclusive. The goal, Blackburn noted, is to change the common perception of L’Occitane from serious and old-fashioned to “modern and fun.”

“We have an obligation as a brand to continue to push the envelope,” he said. “There needs to be a reason for a customer to come into stores now more than ever.”