Advent calendars are imbued with nostalgia for many adults in the UK. Thought to have originated with 19th-century European Protestants to count down the days until Christmas, today you can find versions dispensing all manner of chocolates, as well as newer varieties offering spicy chillies, gin, even protein supplements. But none of these recent concepts have rivalled the success of the beauty Advent calendar.
Introduced by Selfridges in 2010, this year alone more than 20 nail polish, fragrance, skincare, and bath and body brands have released calendars packed with beauty samples, as have multiple retailers.
“You have to do it in the UK to be part of the conversation,” says Margaret Mitchell, Space NK’s global buying director.
A UK phenomenon
Liberty’s Beauty Advent Calendar is the most sought-after in the UK. Despite costing £195, 400 people queued the morning it went on sale, and half the stock sold out online in advance. The department store sold out of all 20,000 units in a week, making it the most successful product in its history.
Jo Malone has increased production from a few hundred in 2014 to 10,000. Selfridges now offers 10 different beauty calendars, increasing its stock by 24 per cent this season. “We see searches on calendars starting as early as August,” Emily Saunders, Selfridges’s beauty buyer, writes by email. Space NK, Debenhams, Fortnum & Mason and Net-a-Porter all launched Beauty Advent Calendars for the first time this year.
The US is catching on. This is the first year Liberty offered international shipping for the calendar, and the US was the store’s second largest market. Space NK’s calendar sold out there in about three weeks.
How brands benefit
Ultimately, calendars provide an ultra-concentrated opportunity for getting 25 product samples into the hands of beauty consumers. “Every brand knows that samples turn into sales,” says Sonia Summers, founder of Beauty Barrage, a California-based consultancy. Summers’s clients have seen as much as a 15 per cent to 20 per cent sales uplift after participating in an Advent calendar. This year, Le Labo’s Thé Noir fragrance saw a 90 per cent sales increase at Liberty, which beauty buyer Emily Soulsby attributes in part to its participation in the 2017 calendar.
Calendars make for easy marketing content over the holidays. Retailers will use social media to “unbox” along with their customers, highlighting included brands.
“It’s a pretty easy conversation to have with the brands,” says Space NK’s Mitchell. Drunk Elephant, a buzzy US-based indie skincare range that just made its UK debut, has a product included this year. “We say, ‘This is how you’re going to get in front of our customer and acquire them.’”
Retailers tout the value of their calendars. Space NK’s retails for £250, and Mitchell claims it’s worth £600. It contains all full-sized or travel-sized products, which means it’s easier to quantify retail worth because customers can buy them in-store. Eighteen out of 25 products in Liberty’s calendar were full-sized, and the retailer worked with Sam McKnight’s haircare brand to produce a mini version of its much-loved Cool Girl Hair Spray especially for the calendar.
However, many calendars contain deluxe sample sizes that wouldn’t normally be sold, so it’s trickier to quantify relative worth to customers. They could probably get those samples by just asking, but it would be labour intensive. And the cost to a brand is not insignificant. “The price [to produce deluxe samples] is almost the same as a full-sized product,” says Summers.
For retailers, the economics are even more brilliant: most don’t pay brands for samples.
The design of the calendar, however, can often be costly. Space NK’s in-house creative team had to design each individual box within the calendar bespoke to the size of the product. “When you add all the costs, it is hardly a moneymaker for us,” says Mitchell. “But we’ve had tons of press coverage of [the calendar], so that is the ROI.”
Jo Malone’s is also labour intensive and expensive. The team assembles, wraps products and packs the calendars by hand. “It’s about excitement and brand-building, which is why we keep the distribution limited, because we want to create that buzz,” says Chris Wyatt, Jo Malone’s global educator. And of course, all the intangible benefits, like spreading brand awareness, are impossible to quantify.
Will growth continue?
Summers thinks that we may see Advent calendar-like products popping up at other times of the year since they’re so popular. “Whenever you can create some excitement and at the same time introduce a customer to new products, it’s genius,” she says. “It could be a ‘countdown to love’ in February. Or ‘21 ways to cherish Mum’ on Mother’s Day.”
While Advent calendars performed well this year, once they become more ubiquitous, retailers might see interest wane.
Calendars still have appeal for Wyatt, though. “I definitely want the gin advent calendar!” — Cheryl Wischhover
Reprinted from Conde Nast International Newsletter Perspective.