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Comment: The Body Shop's woes hit just as it should be at its most relevant

Lauretta Roberts
28 February 2024

Cruelty-free, vegan, refillable, quirky brand name... pretty much every new beauty brand aiming to break through into the increasingly crowded market today is built on these values. And yet, the OG brand that was decades ahead of its time – The Body Shop, founded in 1976 by entrepreneur and activist Anita Roddick – is failing in a market in which it should be at its most relevant. It's a cruel irony.

The Body Shop's troubles are, however, not recent. It hasn't been in great shape for many years and now that the market has come round to its way of thinking, it is simply in no position to capitalise.

It's tempting, as some are, to blame "evil private equity" for its demise but in the grand scheme of things, its latest owner Aurelius has only owned the business for a blink of an eye in its long history. The investment house acquired The Body Shop from Brazilian group Natura & Co at the end of last year and now, weeks later, 200 stores are under threat and it has collapsed into administration with FRP Advisory appointed to manage the process.

Private equity houses can, and have, stripped value out of businesses in the past, but it usually takes more than a few weeks to do it. One can only assume the business that Aurelius took one was already in such a fragile state that a lacklustre performance over Christmas has been enough to tip it over the edge.

Gone, it seems, are the days when you couldn't move in a branch of The Body Shop in December for people queuing up to create gift baskets of White Musk and Dewberry soaps, bath pearls, fragrance and more to offer to their nearest and dearest. But when did that stop being a thing? When did The Body Shop stop being a brand of choice, not just for Christmas, but throughout the year? I can't quite put my finger on it, but it was a very long time ago and those claiming to be in tears (yes, I've read a few Instagram posts to that effect in the past couple of days) over its demise, would probably be hard pressed to tell you last time they set foot in a branch.

The Body Shop

The Body Shop first opened in a little green-painted shop in Brighton

As a socially aware, fashion and beauty obsessed kid in the 80s, I adored The Body Shop – in the way that tweens and teens now adore Sol de Janeiro and Drunk Elephant (actually rather like those myself too). I spent what little spare cash I had on all things White Musk along with Passion Fruit Face Cleanser, Peppermint Foot Cream and, did I invent a Carrot Face Oil? Because I feel pretty sure I had that too. I would dutifully wash out my bottles and return them to the shop for refilling, and entering a store felt like taking part in a social movement rather than just going shopping.

Into the early 90s it was a cool place to shop and then it wasn't. I can't remember why, but I stopped going and when, in the late 90s, a colleague of mine told me his wife had cried at his "crap" Christmas present (a Body Shop gift basket), I told him I didn't blame her.

Reading an excellent commentary on The Body Shop in the Sunday Times by Lush founder Mark Constantine – who'd known, worked with and admired the late Dame Anita Roddick and her husband Gordon – it made sense why the brand's cachet had fallen off a cliff by the late 90s. The trailblazing Roddicks had floated The Body Shop in 1984 (they later admitted they had regretted the move) and, as Constantine pointed out, listed companies at the time tended to have a shelf-life of about 15 years and, it was over that same period, that I went from being a superfan to a sympathiser for a woman who'd got a gift basket for Christmas.

In 2002 the Roddicks stepped back from running the business but remained as shareholders and then in 2006 the business, which by that point had 305 stores, was sold for £652.3m to the French cosmetics giant L'Oréal, who had big plans to take it global. This move was not uncontroversial since L'Oréal's ethics, particularly when it came to animal testing at the time, were not in step those of The Body Shop and many saw it as a sell-out.

However in January 2007 Dame Anita revealed she had been suffering from Hepatitis C, which had been diagnosed in 2004. Tragically in September of that year, she passed away from a brain haemorrhage at the untimely age of 64. She had been a true visionary and the business suffered from the lack of her vision, leadership and activism.

Under L'Oréal, the brand plodded along but didn't thrive particularly and decisions, such as off-shoring manufacturing, made the whole thing seem less home-grown and less worthy of support among British consumers, in particular. Also, what did it stand for anymore really? What made it different in a market that was beginning to boom with exiting new brands launching every month and social media starting to dominate decision making? The answer was, not much really.

In 2017 L'Oréal offloaded the business for around £870 million to Brazil's Natura & Co. That's not small change but in more than 10 years of ownership, to add only £155 million to its value, wasn't a stunning performance, particularly when viewed in inflationary terms. Still that was a vast improvement on the return that Natura & Co got when they sold the business to private equity house Aurelius in November 2023 for £207 million. And what will Aurelius get back on its investment? At this stage, who knows?

A new Lush store in Glasgow with experience at its heart

What seems likely is there will be a large number of store closures and some remedial action taken to save the brand, which will be painful and my heart goes out to all the affected staff and suppliers - this is a horrible time for them. But can it be saved and should it be saved? Do we actually need The Body Shop? Mark Constantine of Lush, who worked with the Roddicks and admired them greatly, has shown us how it's done, along with his wife Mo and daughter Claire. The family-led Lush brand is built on similar ethics to those of The Body Shop and has not veered from its activist roots and its own unique way of doing business – remember when it decided it just couldn't be bothered with Instagram? For some brands that would like suicide, but Lush keeps on trucking, opening stores, adding spas, innovating with its product... It's been able to export its vision globally and it's frankly brilliant.

Our high street is now also home to imported chains, such as Rituals from The Netherlands, which is expanding at a rate of knots and opening stores across the UK on a weekly basis. Plus Boots has upped its beauty game with sector specific formats, Sephora is back and that's before we get on to all the excitement online in beauty.

The market is a very different one from the one that The Body Shop launched into and the one that it dominated into the 90s. For it to find its rightful place, it's going to take hard work, vision and it's going to need to re-engage with the socially conscious consumers of the past and the new, socially conscious consumers of today. But, the good news is, the market is there. There's a young consumer (and not just Gen Z but Gen Alpha behind them) who could be excited by a revitalised version of The Body Shop. And then there's the likes of me who have fond memories of it from the past. Would I go back? I think so, yes. And if someone could save it, I promise not to be upset if I receive a gift basket for Christmas.

The Body Shop

Dame Anita Roddick, Founder of The Body Shop

Key Milestones in The Body Shop story

1976: Trailblazing entrepreneur and activist Anita Roddick and husband Gordon opens the first branch of The Body Shop in Brighton

1984: The Body Shop is floated on the London Stock Exchange

2002: The Roddicks step back from running the business, but remain in non-executive roles and retain shares

2006: The Body Shop, which at this point has 305 stores, is sold to the French cosmetics giant L'Oréal for £652.3m

2017: L'Oréal sells The Body Shop to Brazil's Natura & Co for approximately £870m

November 2023: Natura & Co sells The Body Shop to private equity house Aurelius for £207m

February 2024: Aurelius appoints FRP Advisory as administrators putting 200 stores at risk

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