Aesop: How to pick the right shop locations

Aesop’s general manager, Thomas Buisson, talks about how the cosmetics company has gone about building a retail estate that’s redefined how shampoo and moisturisers are sold and marketed.

COURIER: What’s your general approach to picking the right spot for a new store?

It’s a combination of science and gut. There’s a standard method most retailers use of taking information about people in an area: average incomes, education and things like where they go on holiday. But then, you just follow everybody else and it might not be right for you. We also use a lot of intuitive, gut feeling. Everyone from our retail, marketing and even the finance departments contribute to where we open stores. The guys at [fashion brand] Acne say ‘we open stores where we like to hang out’. That’s as logical and efficient as any of the scientific methods.

Aesop shops seem to be in interesting neighbourhoods but then also in Selfridges. You must be constantly torn between ‘brand fit’ and places that generate sales.

Clearly, where we are says a lot about who we are. To look for interesting places and be the first to commit to these areas is a big part of what we do. There’s a balance between being in emerging areas and more commercial ones. But you’ll be surprised that it’s not always the stores in the most obvious locations that make the most money.

Which stores have proved that?

Borough market has very different rent compared to, say, King Street on Covent Garden. Borough was always more of a statement thing than commercial for us, but it’s doing very well. Sales at Borough are pretty strong, but the rents are relatively low, so the profitability is excellent.

Aesop Covent Garden

How much do you use and rely on estate agents for finding spots?

It sometimes feels like there’s a mafia of agents and you have to work with them. But you have to have your eyes open. It’s just as important to talk to other retailers in an area. Agents are rarely the first to know what’s going on. You can learn so much about the peculiarities and unspoken realities of an area just by listening to what people who’ve been trading in the area say. You should breathe and feel your way into a new area.

Your store in Soho also appears to be far from where the footfall is at. What was the logic there?

We really struggled to find a location in Soho that worked for us. We were spending a lot of time during this search drinking coffee at Fernandez and Wells on Beak Street. It was a quiet haven away from the more commercial stuff in Soho. I found this halal chicken shop a couple of doors down from Fernandez and Wells and thought it would be ideal. It’s a tough location because it’s a tiny pavement with a lot of car traffic. It’s been classic Aesop. We don’t get many international customers but attract a lot of people who work nearby.

Thomas Buisson, Aesop’s general manager

You were on one of London’s most exclusive streets, Mount Street. Why did you close that one?

It was our first in London and our founder wanted to create this iconic British gem. The landlord, Grosvenor Estate, doubled the rent after we designed this beautiful store. We don’t have a single store that doesn’t make money, and the doubling of rent made it impossible for us. It’s the only store anywhere in the world we’ve closed. It was a shame.

When you opened on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch, it wasn’t exactly the street it is today. What was your thinking at the time?

Our UK office was on Chance Street in Shoreditch, and we were just enjoying the neighbourhood for a year or so. We saw this opportunity to take two neighbouring stores and the basement. I’m friends with the guys at APC and spoke to the founder about the location; subletting one of the shops to him and using the basement of both as our offices. We also spoke to Nick Brooke, the founder of Sunspel, he was at business school with our CEO. They were both incredulous about the idea of moving to Shoreditch when we first took them there. They were hesitating and maybe a bit intimidated but we convinced them. We also invited Square Mile Coffee to do a temporary coffee stand.

Aesop Berlin-Mitte

You’re expanding all over Europe now. Where’s been the toughest?

Berlin was our first in Germany. My expectation on going to Germany [prior to launching there] was the cliche: it would be very straightforward. We’ve looked at 120 locations already! There’s ferocious competition in places like Munich. Especially compared to the softer economies like France which we have been used to. You need to sell yourself to the vendor like I had not experienced before. Sometimes, even after you spend legal fees and everything, they [the vendor] can decide to go with someone else. Overall, there is rarely a straightforward situation, but Germany has been the most challenging experience yet.

How has your view of building a retail estate changed since you started finding shops for Aesop?

I sometimes admire people who have opened 30 stores in a year, I wonder how they do it! But retail is about patience. A lot of people who are building chains today want stores to work from day one. Retail takes time. Great retailers will tell you how long it takes to build a following. You can’t just turn it on and off.

This story originally appeared in Courier 04 Spring 2014.