Preet Bain: Our physical stores are the embodiment of Aesop’s philosophy, providing distinctive environments in which customers can not only experience our product, but also receive sincere, well-informed, hospitable service.
In terms of design, we seek sincere and authentic solutions, stripping away everything that feels to us too obvious or literal. It is our aim to stimulate all the senses and keep a healthy balance between mind and body. Each of our spaces is unique, but we consistently strive to retain original features where possible, and to add something of value to the local community.
Our in-store experience focuses on hosting the customer. Everyone who enters an Aesop space is welcomed as a guest in our home and offered tea, conversation, and unobtrusive personal service. We aim to provide calm, human environments that nurture the senses, and that feel and smell as good as they look. Our spaces are also designed to be comfortable, with seating and reading material provided where space allows.
We create memorable journeys wherever we go. When a customer enters any Aesop door around the world, they encounter the familiar: the products on our shelves and the knowledge, gracious hospitality and service extended by our consultants. But they also encounter the unique, through an aesthetic anchored not only to our sensibility but also to local culture, traditions, and materials.
One of Aesop’s key focuses for the next few years will be to explore how we can make our in-store fragrance offerings more experiential. One such example is Aesop Neubaugasse in Vienna. The space has a playful aesthetic and takes great influence from the Austrian capital’s history – the human mind, the fantasy, and the dream were strong sources of inspiration.
The store is composed of a trio of enclaves, which evoke thoughts, fantasies, and dreams, respectively. Aesop’s first Fragrance Library in Europe is revealed by a large portal, more than a metre deep, hewn from natural stone, which transitions the customer between the first and second room. This small alcove features hidden testing hooks where a customer may place their coat or scarf and have it imbued with a fragrance.
Another example is Aesop Parnas Mall. With serenity and domesticity in mind, it fits the Aesop aesthetic of “monochromatic, multi-textural”, with warm brass and copper, and is elegantly divided into two areas. One is for ‘express’ shoppers who may already know which products they would like, with a signature Aesop basin in the centre; and the other for shoppers who wish to experience a more in-depth consultation, complete with a lounge area and further sinks. Aesop’s first-ever Fragrance Cabinet can also be found in the Parnas store.
IRW: Aesop has also launched a few new, interesting physical experiences, from the Sensorium to the Queer Library. Please describe those experiences and the thinking behind them.
PB: For Aesop to meet our growth ambitions and continue to inspire customers, we must not only create innovative products, but also offer unique and unforgettable customer experiences that translate to enhanced brand loyalty. We draw constant inspiration from the arts and the senses, which we channel to inspire and connect with our customers.
This has led to innovations in new retail experiences around the world, including the Sensorium and the Queer Library.
As a local step to support our global fragrance expansion, we introduced the Sensorium in our Aesop Sydney signature store. Our overall aim is to quadruple our fragrance sales by 2025 and position Aesop as a global leader in niche fragrances. We now have seven eau de parfums in our fragrance category, following the launch earlier this year of Othertopias, a trio of fragrances created in partnership with French perfumer Barnabé Fillion. The Sensorium has been designed to showcase the growing depth and enduring quality of our fragrance range, with new fragrances to come in 2022 and 2023.
Aesop Sydney Sensorium offers a unique way to experience fragrances, supporting the growth of this category. A highlight is the Fragrance Armoire, a cabinet in which customers can navigate through our eau de parfums while their coat or scarf is imbued with their chosen scent in an infusion chamber. The journey continues at a marble orientation table, showcasing interviews with perfumer Barnabé Fillion and digital artworks inspired by the range.
Aesop stores have always been conceived as immersive, sensorial environments, and the Sensorium is the latest and most exalted expression of this philosophy. A sincere interest in intelligent design, curious conversations and uplifting encounters extends to every aspect of Aesop’s workings, of which The Sensorium is a powerful embodiment.
As a bricks-and-mortar olfactive experience, The Sensorium is a key component of our phygital (physical and digital) strategy to create a seamless experience between discovering our products in-store and continuing to engage and purchase with us online.
The Queer Library
The Queer Library came to fruition through us reflecting upon how we could create meaningful awareness of Pride through the power of literature to uplift Queer voices around the world.
Aesop has always found inspiration in literature and sought opportunities to promote the written word, through its partnership with The Paris Review and the establishment of the Aesop Foundation, a philanthropic platform to help underrepresented communities tell their stories.
The Aesop Queer Library continues this tradition by clearing shelves of product to showcase volumes by LGBTQIA+ authors and allies in a gesture raised to create a greater sense of empathy. The intention of such initiatives is creating spaces to amplify voices and share the enriching power of storytelling with our customers.
Most recently, in February 2022, we hosted the Queer Library in Aesop Fitzroy and Aesop Paddington, with a particular emphasis on the varied experiences of the Queer community in Australia.
IRW: Why is bricks-and-mortar still worth the investment despite the rise of e-commerce? Please also discuss the new store format at the South Yarra Refill that’s just opened and its different features.
PB: In an increasingly fragmented and isolated world, we believe people still desire spaces of serenity, face-to-face connection, high-touch customer experiences and a sense of discovery. Bricks-and-mortar stores can offer this in a way that cannot yet be replicated online and, therefore, physical spaces have never been more relevant. Those who tout ‘the death of retail’, are really referring to the demise of bad retail. From the Roman agora to Marylebone high street, places of connection and commerce are a thread of our society. E-commerce does have a powerful role within the retail landscape and enhances our ability to deliver a personalised experience and provide different fulfilment options. By focusing on both physical and online spaces, we can tailor a customer’s journey based on their interests and needs.
As an omnichannel business, we are committed to ongoing innovation, including continuing to invest and evolve our approach to design by incorporating circular and sustainable solutions in-store. An example of this is our new in-store refill experience at our Aesop South Yarra store in Melbourne. This was launched in November 2021 as a trial to understand the customer desirability and to work through the operational requirements of such an initiative, to ultimately lead to launching across additional stores globally.
Customers are invited to partake by purchasing a selection of favoured formulations in reusable glass bottles: Resurrection Aromatique Hand Wash, Geranium Leaf Body Cleanser and Parsley Seed Facial Cleanser. Once these products have been enjoyed, the depleted vessels can be returned to the store and exchanged with a refilled replacement. Glass has been selected for our vessels, as it can withstand the cleaning, sanitising and refilling process due to its robust qualities.
This purchase and reuse of sustainable packaging allows for a significant reduction in plastic use and helps lessen an individual’s carbon footprint over time. It also celebrates the durable nature of our signature amber glass, without compromising any efficacy of the products housed within. Alongside the environmental and design benefits, Aesop customers will also pay a reduced cost overall, after the initial investment in their reusable glass bottle.
We are aiming to have the refill dispensary as a permanent fixture in the Aesop South Yarra store, and the offering will continue to be available for customers. This new format and machine will allow Aesop to offer a more sustainable and differentiated service for our customers.
IRW: How has the Aesop customer evolved in the past couple of years since Covid-19 hit?
PB: We, as humans, had lived in the bathroom in a state of brevity. Ablutions were rushed, and rituals were undervalued. The pandemic served as a pause, and the bathroom is now a place of great sanctuary and consideration. A greater need for self-care and investment into skin care, body care and home products has arisen as we have navigated the pandemic.
Further, while we have always encouraged our customers to use each product with a sense of purpose, that purpose now has a greater focus on nurturing the spirit as well as the body.
IRW: Many retailers invested in their digital and e-commerce initiatives when Covid hit. Can you tell me about what Aesop has done in that space?
PB: We have always strived to deliver exceptional service to our customers, and while the events of the last two years have challenged our approach to hosting, they have also created opportunities for us to connect with our customers through new avenues. During this time, we began to offer live assistance and virtual consultations via our website, as well as click-and-collect and call-and-collect services, as a safer way for our customers to experience our retail locations, while maintaining our commitment to impeccable service.
This offering will only expand in the future, allowing our customers to engage with us in whichever way is most convenient and agreeable to them, ultimately strengthening our bond.
IRW: Sustainability is a big focal point for all retailers these days. What does Aesop’s journey look like in that regard right now?
PB: While Aesop has always sought to tread lightly on the environment – for example, eschewing outer packaging of individual products, where not legally required – we are now on a more deliberate journey towards having a positive effect on the environment by working towards net-zero emissions by 2030. As the business grows, our approach to design continues to evolve, along with our ethical and sustainable sourcing of materials, and our adoption of circular principles.
We have ambitions to lead in the space of circular design through our packaging, retail design and formulations. Trialling new customer experiences such as the South Yarra Refill continues our functional, minimal, and responsible approach to our products and packaging in-store.
The learnings we gather from this trial will help us make the decision on which stores may be appropriate. Our objective is to see this roll out into all markets over time, with our key focus on new stores; however, retrofitting existing stores is certainly not out of the question. This circular initiative is an important stride towards our goal of making all of our packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025 and delivering a refill or closed-loop solution for 50 per cent of our packaging range by 2030.
IRW: How would you describe the luxury beauty and skincare space and what are some of the challenges in that sector?
PB: Luxury consumers are spending more on beauty and skin care each year; however, they are also becoming more discerning. We have seen trends of ‘skinvestment’ and ‘zoom boom’ in premium beauty, and there has also been an increased democratisation of performance products and proliferation of brands at entry price points.
Ultimately, however, customers are looking to brands that not only produce innovative and efficacious products, but also contribute to the community and reduce their environmental impact. At Aesop, we combine science with efficacious botanicals, to provide products that stand the test of time, and we do so with a view to contributing back to our communities through the Aesop Foundation and searching for ways to lighten our environmental impact.
IRW: Given Aesop is an iconic skincare brand, how has it evolved to remain relevant in a crowded landscape while staying true to its roots?
PB: For more than 30 years, Aesop has built a reputation for high-quality products, distinctive service, outstanding retail design and a quietly non-conformist sensibility. Our purpose is to nourish through intelligent interactions, with our products, stores, and people, and in the wider community at large.
We advocate an uncomplicated approach to skin care, focused on the health of the skin. We recommend the daily use of our formulations as part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle that includes a nutritious diet, daily exercise, and intellectual stimulation.
Each addition to the Aesop range is crafted with a steadfast commitment to unhurried innovation, superlative knowledge of the skin’s physiology, and rigorous scientific research.
We ignore market trends and industry conventions that prey on customers’ insecurities, instead striving to formulate quality, worthy products with a clearly identified purpose.
IRW: The relentless discounting cycle is one of the biggest challenges for retailers, yet Aesop rarely goes on sale. Why is that the case and what is the benefit for the business?
PB: Consistent pricing is in line with our commitment to customer trust and transparency. Discounting cycles have never been part of the fabric at Aesop. We seek to promote our brand integrity at all times, while providing exceptional products through engaging customer service.
While Aesop does not discount, we do reward our customers with spontaneous acts of generosity. We may gift them a quality loaf of bread on Valentine’s Day in lieu of chocolates, serve cheese and red wine in store on a winter’s evening or present them with a flower as a modest token of thanks in springtime.
Our gestures are heartfelt, genuine and warranted, as well as spontaneous and relevant to customers’ needs. There is no ulterior motive but a view to bringing an unexpected moment of joy.
IRW: What are your plans for Aesop in the APAC region in 2022?
PB: In 2022, we are enhancing our connection with the local customer by meeting them wherever they shop – in store or online – through immersive and innovative experiences spanning skin care and fragrance. Our omnichannel approach will continue, with stores in new suburban catchments and ongoing investment in digital.
As a business, we will continue to drive our sustainability and social agenda, by building stronger relationships in the areas in which we operate. We recognise the importance of making a positive contribution to the communities in which we establish ourselves, and we are committed to influencing positive social and environmental change.
We also look forward to reconnecting as a community in person, to foster those most nourishing relationships within our teams and celebrate our successes together again.