Rowena Roberts had zero experience in retail when she propositioned Estée Lauder to allow her to open a MAC Cosmetics store in New Zealand. Now, over 18 years later through her business Red Honey Cosmetics, she has sold luxury brands Jo Malone London, Bobbi Brown and MAC in New Zealand successfully. The cosmetics mogul talks to us on the most important aspects of running her businesses, and why no one should ever be afraid to do the literal dirty work.
Roberts had her start working in public relations for UK fashion house Mary Quant cosmetic's brand. Upon moving to halfway around the world to New Zealand with three children, she decided with zero background in running a retail store, that she herself would open a retail store.
“I was surprised when Estée Lauder allowed me to open a MAC in the first instances," she said. "But that is the beauty of being in New Zealand, you wouldn’t be able to do that in London or Paris, because MAC traditionally run their own stores. But MAC was very small here when I first opened, and they were keen to expand into New Zealand, so it was a good partnership. I was able to run a new store and they were able to open in New Zealand probably a few years before they had planned to.
New Zealand is a long way from anywhere, so it’s a great market to test and trial within.”
MAC Cosmetic’s parent company is Estée Lauder, and despite her experience being largely PR and fashion focused, it granted Roberts the first stand-alone MAC store in New Zealand.
“To be fair when I started, I knew absolutely nothing. I went into this with zero retail experience. It was just something I thought would be great to do… I had absolutely no idea about opening a store. I remember three weeks before I was meant to open someone asked me if I had sorted my eftpos, I just said 'no?'.”
Yet despite zero experience in store management, Roberts quickly gained momentum. And after the success of her MAC store she went on to include luxury brands Jo Malone, which dominates the luxury perfume sector, and Bobbi Brown, which supplied high street make up products.
Jo Malone, Britomart
“I’m very lucky to work in an industry where the product is beautiful,” she says. “It’s not hard to sell beautiful products. But in some ways, I think having no experience was quite good, if I had known all the things I had to do when opening a store, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I would have really thought that I wasn’t able to do all that was required.”
Her venture quickly saw success, partway due to her focus on creating an instore experience and also the importance she placed on customer service. Back in 2008, Jo Malone won both the Health & Beauty and Innovation Excellence awards in the Retail NZ Top Shop Awards.
“Those awards showed us that we were doing things right, and it was so nice for my staff to see that… Customer service is something I work really hard on. Take for example Jo Malone, it’s an experience from entry to exit. The whole idea is to make it something special, between the discovery area, tasting bar and complimentary elements, it’s about that whole experience and sticking in the mind of those consumers even when they leave.”
“Customer service is such a big thing; I really notice it when I go into a store. When you go in and the staff don’t really care, they don't acknowledge you or they’re chatting away or on their phones, that’s actually very frustrating. These days your customer service has to be top notch, because there is so much competition, that’s the only thing that’s going to make people come back.”
Roberts places a lot of importance on not just customer service, but the experience offered in the store. Which, to any visitor of her locations, is a feature that is immediately recognised.
“With the stores' operations we’re always taking in the demographics for each, where the location is and who is the target audience. For instance, we’ve noticed in our Britomart stores an increase in Asian consumers, so it’s important to us to offer a Mandarin and Cantonese speaker on hand in the store, because customers will gravitate towards them. This also includes making sure we have diverse staff that know how to cater to all different skin tones; it’s good to offer artists that are able to help everyone.”
The cosmetics industry in New Zealand is under a shake up, with Mecca Maxima rapidly expanding its footprint, and Sephora due to open a three-story location this year – right around the corner from Roberts' Britomart locations.
“These big international cosmetic players coming in will be great for New Zealand. Obviously, it’s not going to be great for me, they’re going to open a huge store just around the corner from MAC Britomart.”
She says the services provided in her own stores will help her stay ahead, yet expresses that New Zealand has been alone so far for the lack of international competition.
“We must realise that we’ve been lucky. I’ve had years of running my business with no competition at all. Not like London or New York where you’ve got free standing beauty stores and all the large brands on every corner. The services we provide will really help us stay against the competition. Bigger international stores are more about selling products, which will help us differentiate and stay professional.”
Roberts says being “thrown in the deep end” of starting a business helped her success, as well some of the mentors and friends she has gained from Estée Lauder and being involved with Global Women.
Alongside customer service and creating an instore experience which is unbeatable, Roberts says an important part of her model is proving that she is never afraid to put in the hard yards.
“I do everything; I’ve unblocked sinks, I’ve gone to the supermarket when we need paper towels, I clean the back of the stores, I’ve sorted out floods, taken rubbish out when it needs doing and the girls are busy. I don’t just sit in a fancy office all day.”
“I would never expect my staff to do something that I wouldn’t do,” says Roberts. “If you’re reluctant to get involved your staff will be too. It’s important for them to know you’re happy to do all of that hard work. It’s my business and I want things to run as smoothly as they can. Honestly there isn’t anything that I wouldn’t do.”
Roberts’ experience has seen her become one of the strongest players in our cosmetics industry. Over her years involved with Mary Quant, and then retail, she brings in the example that importance played on services enhances the experience of your store.
Through her own business Red Honey Cosmetics, named for the passion of the colour red and her maiden name, Roberts has further planned for her stores even as international competition starts to creep in further.
“Luckily with the cosmetics industry, nothing beats going in and getting that experience. Being sat down and getting your face made up and being shown how to do it, all those services contribute to it, nothing can change that.”