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Sandra Byrne | Lush Cosmetics

Welcome to the RETHINK Retail Podcast, your go-to weekly podcast where we team up with industry experts to discuss the news, trends, and big ideas that are redefining commerce.

In this episode guest host Shannon Ryan is joined by Sandra Byrne, senior manager for Lush Cosmetics, a bath, body, skin and hair care company devoted to creating fresh, low-waste and cruelty-free products.

Sandra has worked for Lush for nearly 18 years and is the store manager of the world’s largest Lush shop in Liverpool, UK. In this episode we hear Sandra’s journey of how she transformed her High Street location into a community hub where the brand’s story shines bright.

If you enjoyed this episode, please let us know by subscribing to our channel and giving us a 5 star rating us on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

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Hosted by Shannon Ryan
Produced by Gabriella Bock
Edited by Chase Atherton

Post Transcript

Shannon Ryan: Hello everyone. Today, we’re kicking off another episode of Rethink Retail podcast. I’m your host, Shannon Ryan. And today I’m joined by my guest, Sandra Byrne. Sandra is a senior manager for Lush Cosmetics, a bath, body, skin, and hair company devoted to creating fresh, low waste and cruelty free products. With over 900 stores worldwide, Lush is a globally recognized brand and a fan favorite among Millennial and Gen Z consumers. Sandra has worked for Lush for nearly 18 years and is the store manager of the world’s largest Lush shop in Liverpool, UK. An integral part of her community. Sandra is a passionate leader and was listed as one of the most 100 influential people across Merseyside in 2020. Shannon Ryan: Sandra, hello, good afternoon, good morning. Sandra Byrne: Hi Shannon. It’s super exciting to be here. Thank you for having me. Sandra Byrne: As you said, it started 18 years ago. I’d already been in retail for quite a few years then. I was working in Body Shop at the time, great company, enjoying my job was management in Body Shop, never was looking for another opportunity. Back then, 18 years ago, how you would advertise for a job vacancy would be in the local newspaper, not like nowadays. Yeah, my husband had actually seen it. I went for the job, and I opened the first Lush shop in Liverpool on the high street. Tiny little shop, honestly, it was so small. Sandra Byrne: I was just overwhelmed with how the city responded to it. For a new brand being right there and the people to just keep coming, I knew I had to do something to keep them excited as well. I almost wanted to give back and say thank you, thank you for coming in and buying our products and thank you for keep shopping with us. In this tiny little shop, I wanted to just be the most exciting on the high street. Sandra Byrne: You never knew whether you were going to come in on a Saturday to Narnia and you were going to be greeted by Mr. Thomas and have a hot chocolate, or was it going to be the Wizard of Oz? There was always something exciting going on, but then you could come on a Tuesday and the whole shop would be a spa. We would have these two wicker chaise lounges and we would do hand and arm massages and mini facials and offer fresh fruit platters. I mean, when I look back and think of it was highly amusing, but the customers, they loved it. Sandra Byrne: I remember just having an epiphany and thinking, I want to expand my career, I need to go bigger. I’m a firm believer in when you want something to really study for it, to work for it, then go for it. Instead of just go into the directors and saying, “Come on, Liverpool needs a bigger shop,” I decided I wanted to be a therapist. I went to school again, I trained to be a therapist, got lots of qualifications, and then I wanted to open a spa. We only had a couple of spas at the time. It was quite new to Lush, having a spa, so it wasn’t an easy transition to get everybody to agree, why Liverpool, but we did. I found a location in the city, we opened the spa. At the time, it was biggest Lush shop in the world. It’s by no means as big as what we’re in now, but it was the biggest LUSH shop then. It had a spa and quite a big shop floor. Sandra Byrne: We had some great times in there. Again, the spa expanded, we would do hen parties, the business was really thriving. Again, it got to that point in my career, I was like, “Okay, I’m going to look for another premises.” There was a really large retailer on Liverpool’s high street. It was still retailing at the time, nobody knew that this retailer was maybe in a bit of trouble, but I thought, “I’m going to get in there first. This is a prime location and I want it.” I went to my directors, told them about this location, and at first everyone’s like, “We’ve never done anything of that scale.” At this point, our flagship store, Oxford Street, had opened, and the Liverpool store I wanted was four and a half times bigger than that. What sense would it make to make a shop in Liverpool bigger in our capital city? Sandra Byrne: It took a while, we were only going to take part of the building at one point, but we didn’t. We took the whole building and now we have a cosmetic department store all owned by Lush, all of new experiences inside, and it just keeps growing. Yeah. Shannon Ryan: All right. So let’s dive into this then because I think Sandra, you really, you hit on some really interesting parts of the conversation that I think our listeners would really like to drill down on. And one of the ones that really interests me is this interaction or intersection of the physical world and the digital world; and that we seem to always over-correct one way or the other. Shannon Ryan: As a sort of steely-eyed veteran of the world of digital, I remember back in the late 90s, early 2000s, when brick and mortar were going to go away, and it was all digital. And then we spun back the other way, and it became physical presence was the thing that was going to make it different. Now we’re back to the metaverse, and it’s all… What’s the difference that you see between the interaction of the physical world and the digital world, and how that ties into your perspective of retail? Sandra Byrne: Oh, great question. It’s something, when we opened our doors, even after COVID when people were still frightened to come out, the staff could have even been a bit nervous being on the shop floor. We made it right from that moment, that we weren’t going to just be a wallflower, that we were going to come out with a bang. We were going to create the excitement on the High Streets. Sandra Byrne: What was always in our thoughts was, “What can we do that you cannot get on the internet? What can we do that you just can’t go onto even the Lush page, and get your bath bomb sent?” I know I needed to have people talking about me, and I had to have the best experience to bring people back to the High Street. So right away, we, as crazy as we are, we had a 34th marble run. Sandra Byrne: So it went two stories high. This is inside the shop. So as you walked into the shop, we have a mezzanine; it went from the first floor all the way down to the ground floor. So you would go up, you’d put a bath bomb down, and it would roll around right down this marble run, and end up in a vat as you were walking through. People would just walk past, and be like, “What is going on in there?” And it would bring the people in. And that was one of my directions right from the start was, “Let’s not survive. Let’s make sure we’re thriving.” So we started off- Shannon Ryan: Like the ultimate chocolate fountain at a wedding. That’s awesome. Sandra Byrne: Yeah, absolutely. You want people talking about you, that’s what you want. You need the public to be excited to want to come and visit. So that was one of the things we did. We then, we’ve got a top floor, we hosted, so Liverpool has one of the largest art installations that happens every two years. It’s called the Liverpool Biennial. And we hosted five of pieces of work on our top floor. So right away it was all about working with the community, having something where people wanted to come out for again, and also having an art installation inside retail, it’s so unusual at the same time. So all of these visitors that maybe wouldn’t normally shop in Lush, they got to know us as well. Shannon Ryan: It’s interesting because I think one of the things that I’ve witnessed in working with my clients in retail is this shift that’s happened. And Julia, you and I have talked about this before on the program where the physical store used to be essentially dedicated to the idea of inventory and transaction. It was literally a place where people would come to pick up the product. And as we started to evolve, we recognized that that retail space needs to do more than just be a place of fulfillment and transaction. It needs to be a place for community, for experience, to be able to, I would suggest bring the joy of shopping back into the equation, where it becomes a social thing that you do that you browse and you discover as opposed to just the place where you go to fulfill something that you already know. And I think a lot of the tactics and ideas that you brought to the table, really about trying to widen that audience back into to the floor plate in a way that is exciting and delighting. Sandra Byrne: Absolutely. It was all about creating that community hope. It wasn’t all about out what we could sell and how we could create sales. It was how we could put smiles on people’s faces. How can we create an environment where people just wanted to come and hang out for a couple of hours? What retail space does that? We wanted to create that. And even when I designed this shop, I designed it with lots of hubs, lots of sit down areas where you could come and grab a coffee, you could have a perfume consultation, which may take an hour. There’s two little cafes in here. You can just hang out and just enjoy being with people. So COVID for us was not all doom and gloom. In fact, it was a time where we had to bring our genius to the table and stop thinking about how can we get through this more than what can we do to elevate our business? Shannon Ryan: Yeah, no, it’s great. It’s fantastic. Sandra, were you able, or it might be too early yet, but has Lush been able to attract the new type of customer because of the way that you have approached the physical store? Sandra Byrne: Oh, absolutely. Definitely. If you looked at my store, it’s stunning. I will absolutely say it’s the most stunning, beautiful shop on the High Street and visitors have come from all over the world from companies just to come and see the store because there’s been nothing done like it. So the store itself has definitely attracted a new customer. But I think the day and age that we’re in now, we’ve evolved where customers want to buy into the brand for the ethics, for the sustainability, not just about how beautiful the store is. Shannon Ryan: Well, and obviously that sustainability part is a big part of the message of Lush and how it plays in. What specifically are you guys doing these days to highlight that sustainability part of the conversation? Sandra Byrne: Oh, it’s a constant conversation with all of the staff members on the shop floor. We’re so proud of our ethics that we want to talk about it all the time. I would go back 18 years ago, people weren’t really ready to listen to it. They just wanted a nice pink bath bomb. In Liverpool, it was all about the pink. They wanted a pink bath bomb to put in the bath and it smelled really nice. Now they’re really interested in where our ingredients come from, even the packaging we use. We have an amazing bring back your packaging scheme, where you bring your packaging back. It’s almost like it’s on a loan to you. You bring it back and you get money off your purchases. So that’s definitely one of our highs at the moment. Shannon Ryan: A question I’ve asked a few times in my role here in speaking through on some of the impacts of COVID on retail in particular is that obviously Lush offers a very high touch, engaging product set and obviously some of the changes and accommodations needed to be made during the COVID side of the equation. What do you see as any benefits or challenges in the way that you had to go to market during that time that might still continue as we move into whatever variation of new normal we’re going to live in? Sandra Byrne: Yes, it’s definitely changed. So what we’ve taken from that is the customer changed. The customer expected to come into Lush and it to be loud and energetic, and there’ll be lots of different demonstrations going on. Sandra Byrne: There’ll be lots of different demonstrations going on. We had to reread the customer. We had to slow down, listen and observe what the customer wanted. Now, over a week, you’re still going to get that store, that really high energy in the store, but in the week we’re definitely at a slower pace. Where at a slower pace because the customer wanted that. There’s longer conversations going on. The sit down consultations, there’s lots of information what the customer wants. Now, they want experts where beforehand they wanted a product, it smelt nice, they want to take it home and use it. Now they want to know what is that product going to do for them. The customer’s making you work harder. And so they should. And so they absolutely should. If someone’s buying into you and buying into your brand, you should be working your little socks off to make sure they’re happy. Shannon Ryan: Yeah. Absolutely. Sandra Byrne: I think we’ve gone to a higher level with our customer service because that’s what they expect. Shannon Ryan: What were some of the impacts on the acceleration, if you will, of maybe the two or three year roadmap that Lush had in terms of rolling forward, either with technology or with changes in terms of how you were going to evolve as a brand that you think got accelerated because we went through this period of intense change? Sandra Byrne: So as Lush as a brand or Lush Liverpool, I wouldn’t go ahead with a three year plan. I feel like everyone is evolving so much and we have got to study the customer. So we’ve put in a three year plan in place. The customer may not want that in three years time. That’s not what my city may want. So I’m very much about what we are doing now and how we can evolve that and how we can keep building on it. So my three year plans, I’m not into that far ahead. I do know the business here is doing great, but it needs to get to incredible. And I’m going to do that through service. Shannon Ryan: And the store itself, Sandra, in terms of you spoke already that there’s these wonderful pockets where people can get together and have a coffee or sit down or just enjoy being in the space. Is there and did you have to add in a layer of technology in terms of screens and things like that that maybe weren’t on the roadmap but got accelerated as we went through the process? Sandra Byrne: Oh yes, absolutely. So we’ve got screens on all of our floors, because we have so many different experiences as well to offer. So on the second floor, we’ve got our spa here. So if you were outside the spa on that floor, there’s a whole screen of all the different treatments to offer. And it’s an absolute haven on the High Street. You wouldn’t even know it was there. Absolutely beautiful. Then if you went down on the next floor, that is where all our parties are. So again, the screens, we’re using lot of QR codes now as well, which is really amazing. We’ve elevated from I remember back 15 years ago we’d have flyers and posters, now you just have a QR code and you’ve got all your information there. Sandra Byrne: So, again, our parties or a screen letting you know all of the information, showing you a party of what that looks like. And then if you go onto the ground floor, we’ve got one of the only in LUSH at the moment is a hair lab. So it wouldn’t be Lush if it wasn’t magical. It’s like an enchanted garden. It’s full of hanging pants from the ceiling when you actually get on your head and your lying flat, and the sink, there’s lots of steam coming out and it’s just pure magic. And then you go out with your hair looking fantastic. That’s just the bonus. And then we have a florist right at the front of the shop, all ethically sourced flowers. So it’s a complete department store. It’s so magical. And there’s so much to do and find out that you don’t want to leave. Shannon Ryan: But what’s really interesting there, Sandra, is, as you know, I’m not so sure anyone would want to put their money into a department store these days, because I think department stores are really struggling with their raison d’être, if you will, with their reason for being, because they’re losing out in many ways to boutiques and other ones. But I think what’s actually interesting about your concept that you’ve spoken of here is the intensification of the service side of your business and that you are more than just a products company, and this transition to experiences and services as a differentiator for you is actually really fascinating as it will evolve the brand in new ways. How conscious a decision was it to do that? Or was it more serendipitous? Sandra Byrne: Oh, no, absolutely not. It was right at the top of my list is services. I always knew that if you wanted a bath bomb and you ordered it online, you were always going to have that same bath bomb in the end. But to have a service, what we could offer, was always going to bring people coming into the High Street. And I feel like you can see that the High Street over years, the decline is just coming and coming. Sandra Byrne: I think the Internet’s a fantastic thing. I think it’s really amazing that I can order a book the night before and it’s at my doorstep the next day, fantastic, but I’m still so passionate about people coming out and enjoying experiences. So when I was part of project, managing the store, it was right on the top of my list that the experiences had to be phenomenal. And right now in our top 10, five of my top 10 is not products, it’s far experiences and parties, so you can see it’s [inaudible 00:24:58] what the customer wanted. What did my city want? They wanted the parties, they wanted the spa, and I needed to make sure that I was delivering something that was far beyond their wildest dreams that they could come in and think how and wow have you done this. Shannon Ryan: And have you seen the associated pull through to product purchase? Sandra Byrne: Yes. Definitely. Because, well, there’s not many stores that have got a spa anyway, but the ones that have got a spa, you wouldn’t really see those spa treatments that high up, so it’s really different to what the company is used to. When you look at Liverpool’s sales, it’s not usually in line with what rest of the country is doing. Our top sellers will be completely different. Liverpool’s quite a glamorous city and for some reason they really like to buy pink things. So at Christmas time we have a product called snow fairy. And it is that popular that we have a snow fairy floor, so the top floor at Christmas time is painted pink and it is dedicated to just snow fairy. So I feel like Liverpool is a whole country in itself. It can be very different. Shannon Ryan: But it’s interesting though, Sandra, I think you hit on something that people I think struggle with and certainly executives struggle with when they’re embarking upon a new concept like you did, which is the metrics needed to evaluate success or failure need to be different, that you can’t look at the retail metrics… Shannon Ryan: … that you can’t look at the retail metrics that historically dollars per square foot in different ways and all of that, that you need to create a separate set of metrics that are truly evaluating what the new concept is. Did you face resistance or do you still face resistance associated to making sure that the store gets evaluated in the proper context? Sandra Byrne: I definitely get hold accountable. But I think my colleagues know I work in a completely different way to most people. I’ll put experiences, I’ll put service, even when I’m developing my staff, I put soft skills right at the top of there, so I definitely have a new way of working. So, when it comes to measuring, I measure by how happy my customers are. I don’t look at how much profits I’ve got. I look at what the customers want, what the staff want, so I have a very different way of how Lush would measure things. Sandra Byrne: Just recently, I had a business review and it would be all about, what can we do to elevate our communities? What can we do to spread the kindness? Where I think in a normal business review, it might be, oh, here’s my predictions for the next three years. Shannon Ryan: Here’s what’s going on the end tab. Yes. Sandra Byrne: Yes. Shannon Ryan: Absolutely. Great. And let’s pull out the crystal ball for a few minutes, Sandra. What’s next? What should visitors to the high street in Liverpool expect to see at the store in the next 12 to 24 months? Without giving away too many trade secrets. Sandra Byrne: Well, they’re always going to expect to be surprised. Absolutely. So, if you came in the store for instance next Saturday, you might be greeted by drag queens holding a drag brunch. It’s a whole Alice In Wonderland theme, so we have a whole floor of Alice In Wonderland hosted by drag queens. I mean, what more can you want? Sandra Byrne: And then, going into Easter, we’ll turn that floor into just entertainment for children. You can come, you can make a bath bomb. You can go down the rabbit hole with the white rabbit, so lots of fun theater stuff. Sandra Byrne: This weekend, it’s a cinema. The whole top floor for three nights is a cinema. We’ve collaborated with our local cinema here, an independent cinema. And for three nights they will show independent movies. And there’ll be food and drink as well. Sandra Byrne: So, there’ll always be something fun going on in the shop. You can always guarantee that. I always want the customer to come in and think, wow, this is incredible. The service is amazing. The shop is beautiful. Then I want the high street, the people of the high street, the businesses to come in and say, how have you done this? How have you got the service that good? How do you just keep that interaction with the community? And then I want to be able to support and show people how to do it and keep our high streets alive. Shannon Ryan: I need to ask a follow up question because it’s very analogous to the idea of you’re running a theater. And every few weeks you rotate through a new show in the theater. And you’ve got front of house and back of house. And you need to make sure that they both work in perfect orchestration. One of the challenges there though is your people. How do you ensure you have the staff that is able to be flexible enough to be able to respond well to the different scenarios that the team is planning? Sandra Byrne: Oh, Shannon, we have the most fantastic team and they’re used to me, which is the really good thing. They know that they may walk into a theater, they may walk into, let’s just give great customer service and talk about skincare today. It’s how you hire, you hire great people, and then you treat them well. Sandra Byrne: I’m a believer that you put the team, your people in the front, in the center of everything. Then they treat your customers how you want them to be treated. So I don’t put the customer right in the center. It’s all about the people. So we’ll look at their development, making sure that they’re on the right track. Even making sure, if it’s a few days before payday, have we got a nice, hot lunch for them. And getting to know them, knowing what their skills are, knowing what their talents are. Sandra Byrne: I’ve built this business, and I say I’ve built this business, well, I haven’t, that’s an absolute lie, I’ve built a team around me and we keep building a business together. And we’re all happy to be here. And that’s why it’s such a great environment to work in. Shannon Ryan: I think that your staff should be very grateful to have you as a leader in that equation. Sandra Byrne: Thank you. Shannon Ryan: The kindness and the empathy and the consideration that you show, even in this short interaction, towards your staff and what you’re doing, I think speaks volume to the type of leader you are. So congratulations on that. Sandra Byrne: Well, thank you, Shannon. That means a lot. Shannon Ryan: Sandra, it was a real pleasure speaking to you. Thank you so much for being here. Sandra Byrne: Thank you for having me, Shannon. It was a wonderful experience.