What’s in the box: the business of beauty advent calendars

unpacking the business of beauty advent calendars

On October 25th, 300 people queued around the block of Liberty’s department store before 8.30am. Not for a new i-gadget, or a half price techy telly, or even a celebrity collaboration. No, they queued for make-up. Or more specifically, for the privilege of buying a £175 box of beauty products, albeit worth over £500.

Welcome to the frenzied, hype-commerce world of beauty advent calendars. A business that’s been booming for the last couple of years and is still growing (according to Google trends). The Liberty calendar (above), beautifully packaged in specially designed Liberty print, contained 25 individual products; many of them full size, which took a year for the buyers to curate. Known as a destination for niche but brilliant beauty discoveries, this year’s Liberty advent calendar included a Dr Sebagh serum, a NARS blush and a Diptyque candle.

On that October morning, half the stock had already sold online before the doors had opened. In fact, Liberty’s advent calendar is known in the industry as a key marketing event, with social media and online forums abuzz from the moment the on-sale date is announced.

Liberty is far from the only one, although it may be the most newsworthy. This year has seen similar exclusive beauty advent calendars from Selfridges, Harrods, Fenwick (below), John Lewis and Marks & Spencer. ASOS has two; a women’s one and a men’s one. M&S is the everywoman option. It costs £35 if you spend £35 and contains £250 worth of beauty, including a Nuxe Prodigieux shower oil and a 10ml bottle of the delicious Blood Oranges EDP by Shay & Blue. (Alas it’s sold out online, but there are stocks available in store.)

the business of beauty advent calendars

So what’s the deal with beauty advent calendars? Are beauty-holics needlessly carried away by the fanfare, or are they a legitimately good buy? Well, there’s plenty of method in this madness. Firstly, there’s the surprise factor, the serotonin buzz on opening a new window every day to discover a treat that’s exciting yet (hopefully) truly desirable. Advent calendars are a fun way to enter the festive spirit in the run up to the season, but for beauty fans they’re a whole other level of thrill.

Then there’s a perceived genuine usefulness. The product mix inevitably combines cult favourites with lesser-known products. This lets you try out new brands without investing excessive funds before you know if they’re any good. There will often be a mix of full size and miniature sample size items. Minis are cute and Instagrammable, but that aside, they also make brilliant travel companions. And the full size products are an out and out bargain.

That said, the secret ingredient is the embodiment of today’s hype-commerce culture – limited quantity. Advent calendars by their very nature have a finite window of availability. They’re deliberately marketed as limited edition, and unveiled very early in the season to create a frenzied ‘need it now’ drive to purchase. For example, last December there was already a 100-person waiting list for this year’s Jo Malone London calendar (below) after 2016’s calendar sold out in one day. Many of this year’s calendars went on sale in October and are already sold out.

Jo Malone London advent calendar

The packaging of the calendar is another key attraction. The best beauty advent calendars are feats of creative artistry, often with nostalgic, fairytale-like illustrations. And having got the customer hooked, there’s an opportunity each successive year to wow them with a new design. Naturally, Instagram and Snapchat come into play here. The ‘unboxing’ of these photogenic items on social media gives customers an ‘I was there first’ credibility, while serving as free advertising for the brands. It’s a clear win-win.

Once a brand has established itself as a major player in the business of beauty advent calendars, it can offer more than one version at a time. This year L’Occitane has two on offer. The Classic (below, containing 24 products including shower gel and hand soap) costs £49 but is worth £97, and the Luxury (containing its fragrance and Divine Cream) is £89, worth £129. For diehard fans of a single brand, these are enticing offers.

But is it meant to be a gift, or a gift-to-self?

LOccitane Classic Advent Calendar

THE ULTIMATE GIFT Advent calendars are traditionally meant to be opened on 1st December and for 24 days up until Christmas day. So if they’re a gift, they’re really a pre-Christmas gift. Although Liberty reported most of its queue-er-uppers were men buying for their loved ones, there’s also a tradition of self-gifting with these beauty calendars. Certainly if you read the M&S reviews , there’s a common theme of self-treating, but equally, if you’re stumped for a gift idea for a beauty enthusiast, the advent is a no-brainer, yet somehow gives the impression that you’ve put thought and effort into it.

I see beauty advent calendar hype as an extension of two recent phenomena. The mainstream ‘fashionisation’ of beauty (thanks vloggers!) and the emergence of ‘beauty boxes’. Starting with the likes of Birchbox and Glossybox at the beginning of the decade, monthly subscription box services started to proliferate. Over the years, we’ve seen niche services come along, flooding the market to saturation point. While Birchbox had its ups and downs, this year finally saw it turn a profit.

Beauty subscription boxes work by asking subscribers to complete a profile questionnaire on their beauty preferences. Each month, a personalised box of selected beauty samples is then sent to them for a set amount – usually around £10-£15. The beauty box companies supplement their boxes with educational content, an important factor in marketing the brands –‘try, learn, buy’ as Birchbox calls it. They then sell full sized versions of the items on their e-commerce sites.

Birchbox beauty box

As with calendars, there are multiple reasons for the appeal of beauty boxes; the cuteness factor of miniatures, the discovery element, the serotonin hit of opening a ‘present’. This gels with the constant novelty needs of micro-attention-span millennials, while also helping them navigate the minefield of products out there. As @RMachinFilms says on Twitter, “I love trying new beauty bits. 99% of the time it feels like great value. Even stuff I don’t love gets used just as an experiment.”

The latest development of beauty boxes? Curated collections by trusted influencers, experts and make-up artists. I enjoyed the Glossybox X Wendy Rowe collab last year, which featured the Burberry artistic consultant’s favourite products, while British Beauty Blogger’s collaboration with Clinique saw all 2000 boxes sell out in less than ten hours. Cult Beauty’s boxes with blogger Caroline Hirons have been equally popular, as was a recent box from the Facebook group Mrs Gloss and the Goss.

Trusted opinion and a personal connection with their audiences are the winning formula for a successful beauty box collab. Unlike creating a make-up product or a collection, it’s a relatively easy project to manage, plus the fact that there’s a varied selection of product means there’s a good chance there will be something for everyone in there.

Magazine brands and retailers have been quick to join the fray, with Harper’s Bazaar, Porter and Net-a-Porter creating their own versions as a way to reclaim their beauty authority from the new wave of self-taught beauty gurus. Last year also saw the launch of Powder, a beauty box service from Time Inc, publisher of Marie Claire, Look and InStyle.

Harper's Bazaar beauty box

But how long til we reach peak beauty box? What happens when the initial novelty of the unboxing wears off? This year has also seen a wave of anti-haul sentiment as consumers realise there’s a limit to how much product they can really use. Just what do you do with all those beauty box or advent calendar minis that weren’t your colour or didn’t perform? Regift? Resell on eBay? “No,” says @RuthwritesPR, “they kind of just sit in a drawer in my bathroom.”

This is the side of the beauty box and advent obsession that’s not so pretty, so we’d rather just not discuss it. Although, one M&S calendar reviewer offers this creative solution. “I took out all of the cosmetics to add to Secret Santa parcels. Then I re-filled the boxes with sweet treats for my grandchildren to enjoy as their advent calendar. It looks lovely.”

WORDS: Disneyrollergirl/Navaz Batliwalla

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