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.