Mak­ing space

A SIN­GLE store in LON­DON grew into Britain’s BIG­GEST beauty chain. Their se­cret? PICKY buy­ers and a GLOBAL per­spec­tive.


No one could have pre­dicted the im­mense suc­cess of Space NK, the beauty gi­ant adored by make-up lovers and in­flu­encers across con­ti­nents. For a brand that now has more than 60 stores across the UK and Ire­land and 32 in Amer­ica, it’s hard to be­lieve that just over 25 years ago its name was at­tached only to a stand­alone shop in Lon­don’s Covent Gar­den – and that it was largely a fash­ion and ac­ces­sories bou­tique.

But for the re­tailer’s buy­ing di­rec­tor Mar­garet Mitchell, Space NK has been the ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion for beauty shop­pers since its launch. “It’s the whole com­bi­na­tion of what our brand stands for: a cu­rated as­sort­ment of what we be­lieve to be the best in global beauty, de­liv­ered in a re­laxed shop­ping en­vi­ron­ment with a be­spoke cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence,” she says firmly. “That is re­ally what we have al­ways stood for, and what we will con­tinue to stand for.”

The term ‘be­spoke’ is sig­nif­i­cant. Even at the be­gin­ning, the store was stocked with hand­picked items rather than full ranges. It was a strat­egy that was unique at the time, though now, the trend for cu­rated beauty is wide­spread. One mag­a­zine even likened the brand’s Chelsea, Lon­don store to a mu­seum.

It is HUGELY im­por­tant to make sure I’m STAY­ING on top of what the CUS­TOMER is re­ally look­ing for from us.

“We re­ally do have to fo­cus on the cu­ra­tion as­pect,” Mar­garet muses. “We are con­stantly re­view­ing and try­ing new prod­ucts and brands, but have to re­main quite picky about what we de­cide to bring on board so our cus­tomer doesn’t be­come over­whelmed.”

And from a prac­ti­cal per­spec­tive, lux­ury min­i­mal­ist stores can’t be stacked full-to-burst­ing with prod­uct. “We have to have the space to re­ally tell the story of the brand and the prod­ucts,” she adds.

Grow­ing up in Wash­ing­ton, DC, it would have seemed like a dream for a young Mar­garet to imag­ine she’d go on to be buy­ing di­rec­tor of one of the UK’s big­gest beauty re­tail­ers. “I ma­jored in his­tory – con­cen­trat­ing on me­dieval stud­ies – and His­panic stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia,” she says. “That might seem to­tally ir­rel­e­vant to what I do to­day, but in the US there’s a strong view that a foun­da­tion in lib­eral arts will set you up for any ca­reer, and I gen­uinely be­lieve that to be the case with what I stud­ied.”

Her first job was as an as­so­ciate at global firm Bos­ton Con­sult­ing Group (BCG), a role she found suited her af­ter sev­eral in­tern­ships. “Hav­ing grown up in DC, I had orig­i­nally con­sid­ered go­ing into govern­ment or pub­lic sec­tor work, but BCG al­lowed me to ex­plore dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries and func­tions across the world,” she says. “That’s how I ul­ti­mately landed in re­tail. I learnt quickly that if you want to re­ally know what is go­ing on with the cus­tomer, you have to get out into the field.” >

At Space NK, that trans­lates to spend­ing time in their stores. “With so many daily de­mands – from emails to meet­ings to trav­el­ling – it can be hard to carve out the time,” she says. “But it is hugely im­por­tant to make sure I’m stay­ing on top of what the cus­tomer is re­ally look­ing for from us.”

Af­ter spend­ing more than six years at BCG, Mar­garet made her first move into beauty – se­cur­ing the role of head of brands and buy­ing at Aus­tralian cos­met­ics gi­ant Mecca, af­ter meet­ing the founders, Jo Hor­gan and Pete Wet­ten­hall, through a mu­tual friend.

For some, the big move to Aus­tralia may have seemed daunt­ing, but for Mar­garet it was a dream come true. “I have al­ways wanted to travel in­ter­na­tion­ally for work. This, more than any com­mit­ment to an in­dus­try or spe­cific area, was al­ways my num­ber one ca­reer goal,” she ad­mits.

For an in­ter­na­tional buy­ing di­rec­tor, it cer­tainly pays to have global ex­pe­ri­ence. “Hav­ing an in­ter­na­tional per­spec­tive, more than any­thing, has helped me to un­der­stand that beauty ideals in dif­fer­ent parts of the world vary widely,” she says. “As an in­creas­ingly global busi­ness we can­not gen­er­alise or as­sume a one-siz­e­fits-all ap­proach – whether that is in make-up trends, skin­care con­cerns or fra­grance pref­er­ences.”

Of her mam­moth job de­scrip­tion, she is de­cid­edly hum­ble. “It’s a very dif­fi­cult area to de­scribe – as most buy­ers will say,” she laughs. “We de­cide what brands are com­ing in and man­age the flow of new prod­ucts into the busi­ness, as well as the day-to-day com­mer­cial over­sight of our brands and re­la­tion­ships.”

The com­pany’s stores fea­ture a whole range of things from cult favourites to niche of­fer­ings, and she ap­proaches her role with equal mea­sures of pas­sion and pre­ci­sion. “I am def­i­nitely an ‘ask for­give­ness, not per­mis­sion’ type of per­son,” she says. “I be­lieve in try­ing as many things as we can and see­ing what sticks. But if there’s a tough de­ci­sion in front of me, I think it’s re­ally im­por­tant to be data driven, and not just rely on my as­sump­tions.”

Ul­ti­mately, and un­sur­pris­ingly, the cus­tomer is most im­por­tant to Mar­garet – and when quizzed on what the fu­ture holds for the beauty in­dus­try, she is sure that the chang­ing dig­i­tal land­scape will have the big­gest im­pact. “There is no ques­tion that where so­cial me­dia goes, so beauty will fol­low, so any in­no­va­tion in how we com­mu­ni­cate with each other will change things,” she says. “But to me, what will al­ways be im­por­tant is fit­ting beauty into the cus­tomer’s life, rather than ask­ing them to change their life­style or per­son­al­ity to meet a beauty ideal.”

I am DEF­I­NITELY an ‘ask FOR­GIVE­NESS, not PER­MIS­SION’ type of per­son.


Mar­garet Mitchell

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