When en­tre­pre­neur Jo Hor­gan an­nounces she has had an epiphany about the fu­ture of re­tail, you stop and lis­ten. The founder of cosmetics em­pire Mecca – which is slated to open its 100th store this year and has recorded phe­nom­e­nal growth de­spite a tough re­tail land­scape – says this re­al­i­sa­tion fol­lowed her de­ci­sion to stage the beauty equiv­a­lent of a mu­sic fes­ti­val. Called Mec­ca­land, it was held over three days at a ware­house in suburban Mel­bourne in April and cost $50 to at­tend.

It was a sig­nif­i­cant risk for Hor­gan and her team not only put­ting on a mas­sive pub­lic event, which they had no ex­pe­ri­ence in do­ing, but also ex­pect­ing cus­tomers to es­sen­tially pay to shop. It was a ner­vous morn­ing when the 6000 tick­ets went on sale to the gen­eral pub­lic – but they need not have wor­ried. “They went on sale at 9am,” she says; “they were gone by 9.45am.” More­over, dur­ing the 15-minute lag as the last sales went through cus­tomers’ on­line bas­kets, there were an­other 80,000 peo­ple try­ing to buy tick­ets. “Eighty thou­sand tick­ets to a beauty fes­ti­val in Mel­bourne in Flem­ing­ton over three days. It to­tally blew our minds.”

Mec­ca­land brought to­gether key beauty brands from Hor­gan’s Mecca Max­ima and Mecca Cos­met­ica stores around Australia, top make-up artists from around the world and beauty video blog­gers – it even cre­ated lim­ited-edi­tion prod­ucts. Hun­dreds of Mecca employees were flown in from around the country to staff the fes­ti­val (they had to ap­ply for the roles, such was the in­ter­est in be­ing in­volved in the event). There were Q&A ses­sions, make-up tu­to­ri­als and what Hor­gan de­scribes as “re­ally In­sta­grammable mo­ments” for the very much on-tar­get younger crowd (think life-size glit­ter-cov­ered uni­corn and all-pink ball-pit).

“It was ba­si­cally riff­ing off the idea of a mu­sic fes­ti­val where you get like-minded peo­ple to­gether with one com­mon in­ter­est and you pro­vide dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences,” Hor­gan says of Mec­ca­land. “It was get­ting key brand part­ners to­gether and giv­ing them an in­cred­i­ble plat­form to tell their story and give a sense of who they are and why they are and what they are cel­e­brat­ing.” The Mecca team trans­formed the suburban ware­house into a multi-coloured beauty won­der­land that was cap­tured by all those at­tend­ing and shared thou­sands of times on so­cial me­dia with the #mec­ca­land hash­tag.

“There were so many joy­ful mo­ments,” she tells WISH. “One was see­ing cus­tomers speech­less as they came in. By about the third ses­sion [the tick­ets were sold in three-hour blocks], as peo­ple walked in after they had been queu­ing out­side, all the Mecca team mem­bers started clap­ping ev­ery­one into the space so the guests

felt like rock stars from the be­gin­ning. I even had peo­ple I know tell me their kids thought it was The Best Day Ever. It was just crazy.”

This is when Hor­gan re­alised Mec­ca­land was the fu­ture. In a re­tail en­vi­ron­ment con­stantly un­der at­tack from on­line stores as well as global gi­ants like LVMHbacked Sephora, a beauty fes­ti­val was the ex­pe­ri­ence that cus­tomers wanted. “There was an ab­so­lute pen­ny­drop mo­ment for me,” she says. “Here was the fu­ture of re­tail as en­ter­tain­ment – it is not in a store and we are not pro­vid­ing trans­ac­tional sales ex­pe­ri­ences. But this is what the cus­tomer wants in this day and age.”

And Hor­gan, 49, should know what the cus­tomer wants. She opened her first Mecca Cosmetics store in Mel­bourne while she was still in her 20s, led by her in­stinct that the beauty con­sumer wanted some­thing more. Born in Lon­don, Hor­gan spent the first 14 years of her life in Wim­ble­don be­fore her par­ents de­cided to pack the fam­ily up and go travelling. They set­tled in Perth and she did an arts de­gree at the Uni­ver­sity of Western Australia be­fore head­ing to Bos­ton to do a mas­ters in com­mu­ni­ca­tions. She had plans to be­come a jour­nal­ist in Lon­don, un­til she was in­tro­duced to a dif­fer­ent type of com­mu­ni­ca­tion: di­rect to con­sumer.

“I stum­bled into a mar­ket­ing course and was ab­so­lutely fas­ci­nated with mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions and mar­ket­ing and how you con­nect with broad swathes of peo­ple,” she says. “But I felt there was a dif­fer­ent way to com­mu­ni­cate with women about beauty. I was fas­ci­nated with the field but I felt there was an­other way.” What irked Hor­gan the most was the way the cosmetics in­dus­try talked down to cus­tomers. In ad­ver­tis­ing that meant a pho­to­graph of a woman, a prod­uct and some sci­en­tific-ish claims. That was backed up in depart­ment stores by a sales rep­re­sen­ta­tive telling you about that prod­uct and that brand, but noth­ing else.

“I felt it needed to be more of a di­a­logue rather than a di­dac­tic mono­logue of talk­ing at a cus­tomer – not even talk­ing to a cus­tomer, just stat­ing in a very static way: this is the beauty in­dus­try, this is what we are say­ing and this is what you need to do,” Hor­gan says. “I felt that power needed to go back into the hands of the con­sumers. It needed to be play­ful and fun and ex­per­i­men­tal and I didn’t think it could be play­ful, ex­per­i­men­tal and em­pow­er­ing if you didn’t have ac­cess to lots of dif­fer­ent brands [in one lo­ca­tion].”

Hor­gan joined cosmetics gi­ant L’Oréal as a brand man­ager in Lon­don; she was thrown in the deep end with high ex­pec­ta­tions, which she says helped kin­dle her en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit. She moved back to Australia with L’Oréal a few years later, this time set­tling in Mel­bourne. She im­me­di­ately no­ticed the dis­con­nect be­tween the “vi­brant, con­fi­dent, pro­gres­sive and ar­tic­u­late com­mu­nity” she was liv­ing in and what was go­ing on in the cosmetics re­tail sec­tor. She de­cided she had to act. “It was one of those needs-must mo­ments,” she says. “How do I cre­ate some­thing that I would like, my mother would like and ev­ery­one else around me would like? That is how it started.”

Just as Hor­gan was con­tem­plat­ing do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent, there was, as she de­scribes it, the “big­gest shift in the cosmetics land­scape” in decades. The in­dus­try had been dom­i­nated by a few big cor­po­ra­tions, but small in­de­pen­dent make-up brands were emerg­ing as they could ac­cess qual­ity man­u­fac­tur­ing for the first time (that had pre­vi­ously been done only in-house by the ma­jor play­ers). “There was more op­por­tu­nity to take your idea and have it cre­ated,” she says. “And so you had all these make-up artists who had a cred­i­ble out­let for their cre­ativ­ity and they were able to of­fer prod­uct and com­mu­ni­cate in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent way to con­sumers. This was snapped up by multi-brand con­cepts like Fred Se­gal in Santa Mon­ica and Bar­neys’ Apothe­cary in New York. When I walked in, I could just see there was a be­gin­ning of a move­ment. My luck was that the cosmetics in­dus­try in Australia was a green­field op­por­tu­nity.”

Hor­gan spent the next six months fly­ing to the US, Ja­pan, the UK and France to con­vince these new niche in­de­pen­dent brands to let them sell her prod­uct in

“Here was the fu­ture of re­tail as en­ter­tain­ment – this is what the cus­tomer wants in this day and age.”

Australia. It was a tough gig. “You look back on it now and you start laugh­ing about the lu­di­crous­ness of it all,” she says of her de­ter­mi­na­tion at the ripe old age of 27. “First of all I had to get in to see them. I just rang and rang and rang be­cause this was the days be­fore email. Two brands later told me they only agreed to see me be­cause they felt sorry for me and the other one said I was chew­ing through their an­swer­ing ma­chine at a rate of knots so it was just eas­ier to see me.”

Many of the emerg­ing cos­metic com­pa­nies were still tiny and did not have the re­sources to launch in Australia (some had only a hand­ful of stores and most were not even in Europe or Asia). This made Hor­gan change her orig­i­nal busi­ness model from fo­cus­ing on “cus­tomer-cen­tric end-point” to one where she would do ev­ery­thing for the brands; be the sales rep­re­sen­ta­tive, brand man­ager and dis­trib­u­tor. One by one they signed up and the Mecca Cos­met­ica model was born; staff would work across all in­ter­na­tional lux­ury/niche brands in one “high touch” bou­tique where cus­tomers could ex­per­i­ment with the prod­ucts and ex­pert staff would pro­vide makeovers and tu­to­ri­als.

Hor­gan opened her first store on Toorak Road in South Yarra on De­cem­ber 16, 1997. She was just 29 and had sold a tiny house she had bought after grad­u­at­ing from UWA to fund it. Mecca cel­e­brated its 20th an­niver­sary last year and is on track to open its 100th store in Australia and New Zealand by the end of this year. The beauty em­pire now has Mecca Cos­met­ica stores as well as Mecca Max­ima stores (aimed at a more main­stream mar­ket) and stores within Myer. The cus­tomer loy­alty pro­gram – called Mecca Beauty Loop – is hugely pop­u­lar among con­sumers and Mecca has gone into cosmetics man­u­fac­ture it­self, pro­duc­ing a num­ber of dif­fer­ent beauty and sk­in­care lines.

Hor­gan will not comment on how much the com­pany makes each year (as it is pri­vately held by her and her hus­band and co-CEO, Peter Weten­hall) but does say Mecca has recorded a 45 per cent av­er­age growth each year for the past five years. Mecca’s lat­est an­nual re­port lodged with ASIC shows the com­pany’s rev­enue was $287 mil­lion in 2016, up from $189m in 2015. Mean­while mar­ket re­search group IBISWorld puts Mecca as the sec­ond big­gest spe­cial­ity beauty player in Australia’s highly frag­mented $4.2 bil­lion cosmetics and sk­in­care in­dus­try (which doesn’t take into ac­count depart­ment stores or su­per­mar­kets), with 2.5 per cent mar­ket share. It is only be­hind Price­line, which holds the top spot at 7.5 per cent.

“I ab­so­lutely did not think I would be here,” Hor­gan says of Mecca’s suc­cess. “I didn’t think 20 years down the track at the start. I had a five-year busi­ness plan and I thought if I got to that, I would be very happy and cel­e­brat­ing just be­ing in busi­ness for five years. Peo­ple said you would be lucky to do one store in Mel­bourne and one store in Syd­ney, there is just not the de­mand for this sort of prod­uct in Australia. But I think peo­ple were un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the value of the ex­pe­ri­ence. The prod­uct is in­te­gral to Mecca’s of­fer but I think the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence when they go in and the sense of con­trol they get and the abil­ity to be­come an ex­pert im­me­di­ately is pretty im­por­tant.”

So what hap­pens post-Mec­ca­land? What does Hor­gan do with her epiphany about the fu­ture of re­tail as en­ter­tain­ment? First, she says, it is about giv­ing the Mec­ca­land ex­pe­ri­ence to all cus­tomers. The lim­it­ededi­tion prod­ucts will be avail­able in all the Max­ima stores as well as some of the forms of en­ter­tain­ment (like a disco night in each state to cel­e­brate the suc­cess of the beauty fes­ti­val). “One of the things we will also be do­ing is ac­tu­ally al­lo­cat­ing 30 per cent of our space now to ex­pe­ri­ences as op­posed to re­tail,” she says. “We think that is the right move.”

She also has a rather un­usual re­minder to keep push­ing Mec­ca­land – and Mecca – for­ward, and it looks at her ev­ery day. “There was a lit­er­ally life-size glit­tery uni­corn at Mec­ca­land and I said can we please have that for [head of­fice],” she says. “Be­cause life is not com­plete with­out one.”

“I rang and rang. Two brands later told me they only agreed to see me be­cause they felt sorry for me.”

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