After stretching from Denver to Atlanta last year, clean beauty retailer Aillea is amplifying its presence in the Southeast with two store openings by the spring.
The upcoming locations — a 1,100-square-foot unit in Raleigh’s Cameron Village and a 1,052-square-foot unit on Charleston’s historic King Street — join three current Aillea outposts. Aillea’s forward march continues as natural beauty shops are increasingly popping up in cities previously underpenetrated by upscale natural beauty offerings.
“I like the idea of opening stores in a region. I don’t want to spend my entire life on a plane traveling across the country. It’s easier to build a name within a region and much easier to manage,” says Kathryn Dickinson, founder of Aillea. “That’s how I have come to look at the Southeast area, and Charleston is near and dear to me. Growing up, my family had a place outside of Charleston, and I spent my holidays there. I’ve always loved it.”
The new stores are considerably roomier than their predecessors, which topped out at 750 square feet, and provide space for spa treatment rooms. The assortment in each location spans around 45 brands, including bestsellers Vintner’s Daughter, Indie Lee, Kosås, Kjaer Weis, May Lindstrom and Vapour Organic Beauty.
“There’s a desire for wellness among the women coming to our stores,” says Dickinson. “In none of the locations do we get customers looking for the fully contoured, heavy makeup look. I don’t think our customer wants to be overly made up. Everybody likes to look polished, fresh, awake and vibrant.”
Aillea employs 15 staff members at its three operating stores. They’re skilled at assisting the conversions from conventional to clean beauty many shoppers are making. “Our customers still come in wide-eyed about transitioning to clean beauty. They just don’t know how to get there. It’s not an easy to transition to make,” says Dickinson. “Most women have spent their entire lives choosing products for their makeup bags, bathroom counters and showers, and they are attached to what’s there. We aim to make the transition as painless and fun as possible.”
Aillea’s same-store sales have been rising 40% to 45% monthly, and online sales have surged more than 100% year-over-year. The retailer’s website accounts for about 20% of its business. Overall, Dickinson relays that sales are roughly split between color cosmetics and skincare. She notes the personal care category has been on the upswing with popularity of deodorants from Vapour and Agent Nateur climbing.
As Aillea expands, Dickinson is reviewing its selection to make sure its properly curated. “Up until now, I have run it like one giant store, but I will start to look at performance store by store and SKU by SKU. If something is not selling, it can make room for something else that might perform better,” she says. “I have to develop a different relationship with the brands and act like the retailer I want us to be. I will start to act like a larger retailer.”
Dickinson is considering taking a tougher stance on the mounting discounts she views as a corrosive trend in the clean beauty segment. “I don’t want to hinder someone’s growth, but, to the smaller brands that are starting out, I welcome contracts that say you can only have two sales a year. I will gladly compete on brand selection, support, consultation and education. It gets to be an ugly place when we are all competing on discounts,” she asserts. “I’m fine with Black Friday discounts — I do those as well — but if someone is doing discounts every single month and calling them special occasion, it starts to bristle me and the brands. It devalues the work that brands are doing.”
Aillea isn’t done spreading its stores. There’s another lease in the pipeline, and Dickinson is evaluating the steps Aillea should take to branch out further. She says additional funding will be required to keep multiplying the retailer’s stores. Dickinson raised slightly over $1 million in two rounds from friends and family to help finance Aillea’s development so far.
“In traditional private equity, they require $8 million in revenue for most of the businesses in their portfolios. They are rapidly trying to create vehicles for smaller investments, but, in the meantime, I have to hustle to get myself across the existing lines,” says Dickinson, adding, “I would definitely consider taking on a partner to help expand, not that I’m looking to sell today, but I think a larger retailer or private equity firm who specializes in retail could be a great asset.”
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